Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Liturgical Music and the Mass

Monday night I went to a party and during the course of the evening, one of the discussions I had was with a liturgical musician, a cantor, from another parish. We were talking about music and its place at Mass, specifically as pertains to hymns.

In her parish, the hymns are used as "traveling music". It covers the action of the Mass. Verses to hymns are only sung for as long as it takes Father to get from the back of the Church to the front and to get into place. That's how her Pastor prefers it. In my parish, we sing all the verses to the hymns, as we consider a hymn to be a complete prayer and, as such, it should not be truncated. Recently, my friend had an experience at her parish that brings into sharp focus the issue with Music for the Liturgy as opposed to Music at the Liturgy.

A younger organist was playing for Mass and insisted that they do all the verses of all the hymns; to the point that he actually kept playing when Father was ready to begin Mass. This action not only brought attention to himself as a musician, but also made all the people in attendance uncomfortable (especially the cantor, who was stuck between a rock and a hard place).

I understand the organist's dilemma: I feel uncomfortable not finishing a hymn to the Holy Trinity having only sung the two verses talking about the Father and the Son (the heck with the Holy Spirit, I guess...). But, the fact of the matter is, as a Liturgical Musician, you must do what Father asks you to do as long as it is not morally reprehensible and I don't think not finishing the hymn falls into that category. Annoying and uninformed (in my humble opinion), but not a sin, by any stretch.

Her retelling of this story opened the discussion about what the place of music in the Liturgy is.

Music for the Mass is supposed to expand the Mass; to bring it to a new level; to enrich the prayer of the people gathered in the church. It is not supposed to draw attention to itself (for its own sake) but, instead, to turn your thoughts and heart toward God and what he has done and is doing for us. It is a physical manifestation of your interior prayer life.

"He who sings, prays twice"is a quote by St. Augustine and I believe this is true. When one sings, one is not only using the words of prayer, but also the "inexpressible groaning of the spirit". There is no way to express some things but by music. Setting these prayers to music and then singing them speaks to the trinitarian nature of our being: Body, Mind and Spirit. This is a way to more fully reflect the mystery of the Trinity in our worship. Our goal as liturgical musicians is to assist the faithful in their prayers. The job of the liturgical musician, then, is to place a premium on the music being well-done and the hymns being well-chosen to consort with the prayers of the Mass and the Readings.

So this now brings me back to Music for the Mass as opposed to Music at the Mass. It is my belief that if a composer took the time to write 6 verses, he had a thought in mind for where he wanted the prayer to go. To cut off verses, simply because Father has reached the altar or he sat down or whatever, defeats the purpose of the hymn. The hymn itself is a prayer, and when prayed with heart and mind and voice, it assists in the prayerful attitude of the Mass as a whole. It involves our whole being in the worship of God. That is what I mean by Music for the Mass. Typically, each verse of a hymn is about 30-45 seconds long. If you are cutting off 4 verses, you are only saving yourself about two minutes.

By using Music as a "traveling music" or "incidental music" it becomes ancillary to the Mass; a cover for movement; a convenience. It does not serve to extend the prayer to the mind, soul and body through active particiaption. It merely gives the congregation "something to do" while they wait. That is Music at Mass. And that is not the job of the Liturgical Musician. That's what Theatre Organists do.

Are you going to go to hell if you don't do all 7 verses of "Hail, Holy Queen Enthroned Above"? Nope. Will your Mass be a richer experience if you do? I think so.

If Jesus hung on the cross for 3 hours for your sins, the least you can do is give him two more minutes of sustained prayer that involves your whole being. This is Music for the Mass.

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