Friday 31 July 2009

Musical Disguises and Latent Melodies

A few weeks ago I was at a mass at which was sung the Coventry Gloria- so-called, if I am not mistaken, because it was composed for the mass celebrated on Whitsunday 1982 by Pope John Paul II at Coventry airport. I should know because I was there. It did not make a terrific impression on me at the time but on subsequent hearings/singings in various places it seemed not bad. Or, to put it another way, it seemed a pretty fair and, indeed, lively setting. Then, on this recent occasion I was powerfully struck with by what I think was an insight.

I don't want to knock the composer because I think he made a genuine effort to produce something worthy and, musically speaking, I judge it to be far superior to much ghastly stuff we have been given over the last three decades or so. The idea, however, that struck me was that the composer appeared to have worked hard to provide a lively and interesting musical setting of the text. In doing so he had reserved most of the text to the choir or cantor while the congregation had responses drawn from it, some of which were repeated and others which were not. This complexity, while it contributed to the musical interest of the piece turned the congregation into a section of the choir. We had to watch out for our entries and make sure we were coming in with the right "response". In short, we were contributing to a performance. Our focus was, necessarily, upon getting it right, rather than articulating the prayer embodied in the text.

The implication that arose for me from this " lively and interesting setting of the text" was that the text itself was viewed as lacking something and, therefore needing somehow to be made interesting. In short it had appeared to have needed a disguise!

My thoughts immediately ran on from this particular piece to many others I had encountered in the last four decades. In most cases the composers appeared to have set out with the aim of engaging the interest of the congregation by clothing the text in melody while being at the same time constrained by an awareness of the congregation's basic dimness in all things musical. As if they said,
"Now, children, we are going to sing a very exciting piece and, if you are good, you can join in here, here and here."

Patronising? Perhaps. The average organist is a musically highly educated practitioner of his or her craft- at least in comparison with the vast majority of a congregation. But might not this knowledge be, in some ways, somewhat superfluous or distracting? Distracting from the real business which is -the raising of the heart and mind to God- prayer?

The context of this insight, if such it is, was of recalling a passage I read four years ago in "Gregorian Chant- a guide" by Dom Daniel Saulnier. He says,

The languages of the Mediterranean basin generally have a singing quality, and they are endowed with accents that are somewhat melodic. Such was also the case with the old Latin, according even to Cicero's testimony, which recognized in words a cantus obscurior, that is, a latent or hidden song.

In short it is suggested that the melodies of Gregorian chant grow naturally, as it were, out of the music implicit in the text. In other words, the liturgical text is just musically amplified. This seems to me to articulate a radically different approach to "setting a text to music" or "clothing the text in melody".

Dom Daniel Saulnier refers specifically to the languages of the Mediterranean basin and Latin in particular as having this "singing quality" or "latent music" but English also has singing qualities.
A powerful memory from my boyhood in the early 1960s is of the class recitation of the multiplication tables with which for some time our maths lessons began. As the class spoke together first a common rhythm emerged and then a melody of sorts arose. There was no attempt to sing. It simply happened and was musical. Throughout the recitation the focus was on what was being said. Nevertheless I believe that the "tune" that emerged played a significant part in enabling us to commit the words to memory and recall them when needed.

With such thoughts it will come as no surprise that I have been eager to learn all that Puella Paschalis and Leutgeb of Bara Brith have to say regarding their couse at Solesmes. Dom Daniel's emphasis upon the primacy of the text seems to me to be timely.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Monday 27 July 2009

Noble Simplicity

Seen here is the new high altar of Chartres cathedral where it is situated under the crossing. The base is largely covered in white gold and supports a mensa which appears to be of a polished green marble. Like many modern altars it is relatively small and on a square plan- a feature doubtless preferred for concelebrations. Despite the small scale I think this one of the finest modern altars in existence- not least because of the powerful scriptural resonances evoked. The liturgy on earth is, or should be, a reflection of the heavenly liturgy and the gold altar base clearly draws upon the description of the altar in Heaven which, as we learn in the Apocalypse (8:4), is of gold. Three columns on each of the four sides of the altar- twelve in all- recall the altar erected by Moses (Exodus 24,4) at the foot of Mount Sinai with its twelve standing stones signifying the twelve tribes of Israel and, thus, the sacrifices of the old law which prefigured Christ's sacrifice of the "new and everlasting covenant" shown forth in the Mass. At the same time the form of column and capital are a subtle "echo" of the stone columns from which the arches and vault of this building spring.

Sunday 26 July 2009

"Rock and Roll"

Not all the sanctuary reorderings I saw in France last year were as felicitous, in my opinion, as those of Chartres and Tournus. Here we see the modern high altar of the cathedral of Tours. Now, no one can fairly claim that this is a mere picnic table and despite its...lack of(shall we say?) aesthetic merit... (I am trying to avoid the obvious term "ugliness") I think there is a clear enough attempt to evoke the stone rolled away from the door of the Tomb- and thus assert the link between the Lord's death and Resurrection and the Mass. One could, perhaps, argue that a traditional notion has been impressively articulated in a modern idiom. Interestingly, descriptions of altars in the Old Testament refer to "un-dressed stones"- which might well have seemed to chime in nicely with a modern aesthetic of the kind described by E.H. Gombrich in "The Taste for the Primitive". Indeed this is far from kitsch- but, perhaps a little too far. Its uncompromisingly rugged grandeur is a million miles away from the trite "coffee table" altars with which so many of our churches have been provided.

Incidentally, perhaps following the example of St Martin who gave half of his cloak to a beggar, a more recent bishop appears to have parted with half of his candlesticks! The asymmetric placing of candlesticks is a widespread peculiarity in France where, as often as not I have found mass celebrated with just one candle.

Friday 24 July 2009

St Philibert, Tournus

Another of my favourite churches, also visited last year, was that of St. Philibert at Tournus in Burgundy. A beautiful Romanesque church, it has a remarkably light-filled interior. The sanctuary has been sensitively re-reordered in recent years by the same artist responsible for the new sanctuary at Chartres. The Church posesses a fine Baroque organ which is capable of some very- to English ears- un-churchly noises which can be, nevertheless, quite invigorating!

Thursday 23 July 2009

Chartres- last year

A snap I managed to get after venerating Our Lady's relic in the Cathedral of Chartres on the feast of the Assumption last year.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Relics of St Mary Magdalen

On the feast of St Mary Magdalen I recall my visit to her relics at Vezelay last year. As if that wasn't quite good enough, I subsequently arrived in Chartres on the feast of the Assumption and was privileged to venerate Our Lady's relic there.
Above is the photo I took of the reliquary in the crypt of the basilica at Vezelay.

Friday 17 July 2009

Wonderfully Wet

Drenched !

God, it is said, makes His rain to fall on just and unjust alike. It is true. Pope Benedict has broken his wrist. Mrs Blair has swine flu. We have had a proper soaking today. I saw it coming when,on Wednesday, St Swithun's day I walked out of Tesco's into a sudden shower. Well, three down. Thirty-seven to go!

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Hymns and hearse

To be fair, the bride who wanted "Fight the good fight with all thy might" was not a Catholic. Nor was the one who chose "I vow to thee, my Country". The latter was among the sillier things I have been asked to sing at a wedding- chosen, I believe, in imitation of her royal highness the Princess of Wales. On the other hand, the lady who selected "This is the image of our Queen" was. Why she chose it for us to sing at the end of Sunday Mass in February with its reference to "this thine own sweet month of May" is not known. What each example does suggest, however, is that a vernacular text is no guarantee of comprehension. Lest it be thought I mock the simple-minded I will point out that I myself have problems with understanding vernacular texts as in some hymns (Shine, Jesus, Shine) or, frequently, in Bidding Prayers.

Friday 10 July 2009


The Mulier Fortis has started a discussion about hymns inviting some humorous variants which many readers were only too eager to supply. I was struck by the fact that they were almost without exception the very hymns I should be most happy to see consigned to the dustbin. Almost all date from the 1970s - which is the kind of fact which might lay one open to the accusation of bias on grounds of personal taste.
Well it is true that many of them have tunes which grate. Others have texts which are poorly related to the rhythm of the tune. What most concerns me, however, is the quality of the texts which frequently betray a poverty of reflection on the part of the author - a failure to engage consistently with the subject matter in any depth or to take any trouble over the selection of words. Sincerity alone does not make the artist- as is seen in the example of
William McGonagall for while, in my personal prayer, I may use any words I wish safe in the knowledge that God knows my meaning, the provision of words for the wider community demands far greater care over their selection. Consideration needs to be given not least to questions of association and resonance.

Among such thoughts it has occured to me that there is a need for something along the lines of Father Z's "What does the prayer really mean?" and specifically dealing with hymns since they have become ubiquitous. We are, after all, dealing with prayer, the raising of the heart and mind to God, in another form. In that context I might ask, as I have elsewhere, what does the refrain of "Shine, Jesus, shine" really mean? Is it right to demand such things?

I must warn that this is something of a hobby-horse of mine. In nearly half a century I have encountered a fair few hymns in a variety of contexts- like that of the bride who wanted "Fight the good fight" in her wedding Order of Service- not a brilliant start to a marriage- or the young man who chose "Go, the mass is ended" for his father's funeral.

Wednesday 8 July 2009

Now even I am beginning to wonder...

...why there has not been more of a reaction to Bishop O'Donaghue's remarks at Ars. That a few Triddies might take umbrage at his reference to "liturgism" is one thing and doesn't really bother me. What is really alarming, however, is the suggestion of a "wall of silence" from the other English and Welsh bishops against his "Fit for Mission" texts and of positive opposition to the Holy Father on the part of some of them.

Never having moved in exalted circles I am not one for clerical gossip but at times I remark something out of the corner of my eye, as it were, and wonder "Did I really see that?" Such an instance was when I read of our bishops having a "joint meeting" with the Anglican bishops some time ago. Or when the (former) archbishop of Westminster invites Tony Blair to give a lecture in his cathedral. And when so many bishops cave in over the perverts adoption regulations I find myself asking if we are seeing a re-run of the 1530's when all but one of the bishops rolled over to Henry VIII's demands. In the light of some of the sacrifices that I know catholic laity working in the health service make that last one looks, I am sorry to say, very shabby.

Deo Gratias

I was very pleased to see that the assisted suicide legislation was rejected in Parliament. Much as I'm opposed to such scary stuff, I often wonder why the suicide merchants, instead of promoting their diabolic ideas, don't just prove they believe in it by topping themselves right away. Uncharitable thought unworthy of a Christian, I know, but I sometimes feel like the neighbours in Chesterton's poem ready to shout "Go on!".

Perhaps another wag knew the reason: "They'd none of them be missed!"
Well, I've got them on my list!

Tuesday 7 July 2009

A pop singer

I had no idea that Michael Jackson was as marvellous an individual as we are now being told that he was. Not that any evidence in support of such claims appears to be offered. Perhaps that is what sola fide means. You just have to believe it because you are predestined to - or not, as in my case. Certainly there appears to be some confusion of fame with virtue. I am old enough to remember the excitement caused in the United States of America by John Lennon's remark about The Beatles being" more famous than Jesus". It still strikes me as an interesting idea and, at the time, possibly true. The reaction of American Fundamentalists was extremely strange and seemed more like a response to a claim that The Beatles were somehow better than the incarnate Lord. Well, they certainly were not. That achievement appears, rather, to have fallen to Michael Jackson.

And what a credit was he to the medical profession! Yet it was surely folly on his part to have a live-in doctor. Indeed imagine what it must be like, as a doctor, to have just one patient. The Devil, it is said, finds work for idle hands.

Saturday 4 July 2009