Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Chant and folk music

A friend in the States sent me a link to this article from Jeffrey Tucker at Crisis Magazine - "Is Chant like Folk Music?"  I thought it had an interesting take on the singing of chant as the "true music of the Catholic people".  I've reproduced quite a bit of it below but do read the longer article which has some examples to listen to as well.  

We have been incorporating as much chant as we can manage at Mass here for some time now, from the Mass setting, which everyone can join in with, to the Introit, Offertory and Communion chants of the Missal - though for these you do need the talents of those willing and able to assist for this (providentially - and I use that term in its proper sense -  this is available to us here in this little parish).  It really does help to set the "tone" of the liturgy as one of solemnity and grandeur. Not that it is necessarily terribly "high-brow" - one or two parents try each week to restrain their little ones from joining in with quite so much gusto!  The point is - we are doing it.  I recall in another parish the bishop on visitation attending a weekday Mass and commenting afterwards that the twenty (mostly elderly) folk attending Mass and singing the Mass parts ( it would have been Mass XVIII and the Pater noster) were not actually very good at creating an harmonious and beautiful sound. The implication was, I think, that we shouldn't bother - and yet I've heard plenty of "modern" (1970!) music sung in church that is not carried out with much musical skill but that never seems to be a criticism.  The point is to sing the true music of the catholic Church.  One result was that those parishioners were delighted when they watched Pope John Paul's funeral on TV or some other great occasion from Rome - they recognised the music (and some told me joined in from their sitting rooms!)

Anyway, here is the piece:

"Somehow we have this impression that Gregorian chant is part of a high Church ethos. It’s for conservatives and traditionalists who favor their liturgy buttoned up, obedient, and strict. On the other hand, this line of thinking goes, people who want authentic human expression of spontaneous religious experience should embrace popular music and a looser liturgical ethos.

I’ve always been puzzled by this caricature. And it is more than puzzling. It is poisonous to the liturgical debate because it reduces the whole issue to questions of taste, style, and education. It results in a strange class war that has nothing to do with what the liturgy is in its essentials and is asking from us.

If you look back at the roots of chant, and even just take time to understand what it means from a musical and historical point of view, you quickly find that it has nothing to do with music conservatories, stuffy performance venues, and rule-bound authoritarians. And, moreover, it has nothing to do with social class, taste, and educational level. The issue of the chanted Mass is really about whether the liturgy is going to be permitted to be what it is or whether we are going to replace its authentic voice with something else.

Maybe people forget that Gregorian chant is premodern in its origin. It was not somehow invented in the age of winged collars, top hats, and mutton chops. It arose from the world of the first millennium—before there were universities, conservatories, cathedrals, or individually owned books. Chant arose among people poorer than is even imaginable to us today. The singers were from the lowest class. The composers too were monks drawn from every strata of society. They did not write their music down because no one had figured out how to write music. That only began to happen in a coherent way about the 11th century. The work of the chant composers continued for many centuries and the results have been handed on to us today.

This is why chant is what it is today. And if you look closely, you can discover that first-millennium sense about it. The more you sing it, the more you discover its humane qualities—written and sung by people just like us.

At the same time, it is a window into a world we do not know. The sensibility of chant is spontaneous. It tells stories in the folk vein. It emerged out of a culture of sharing. It wasn’t about musical theory and technique. In those days, people couldn’t write music. Mostly, the people who heard it couldn’t read either. There was no point because books were exceptionally rare and only available to a tiny group. Chant came about within this world to be the most compelling way to express the faith in a worship context.

You know how folk music from the 1960s expresses stories of this lived experience of people, a means to carry on ideas and lessons that provide an authentic expression of truth? In many ways, chant does the same thing.

Readers who were around in the sixties might remember that this was precisely the attractive element behind the “folk Mass” of the period—the paradigm-shattering approach that defined the liturgical experience of a generation and led to the current sad situation in Catholic parish music programs. Chant shares some or many of those qualities that led the “hippies” to imagine that they were breaking with tradition.

Here is Ken Canedo’s recent description of this music and the “free culture” ethos that surrounded it:
The folk song, like the Bible, grew from an oral tradition, pre-dating radio and recording technology. A singer observed a slice of life, turned the observation into a song and, with guitar or banjo, presented it to anyone who would hear, perhaps on a front porch, at the town square, or down in the mine. If people liked it they would sing along and bring the new song home to share with a new audience…. Sometimes the lyrics would change, sometimes the tune was modified, and no thought was ever given to composer credits or copyright protection. A song was a song, something free and sweet for the entire world to sing. And a good song was very sweet indeed.
What strikes me about that description is that if you leave out the banjo part and perhaps the town square venue, you have a pretty good description of the origin of the music behind Gregorian chant. Chant too was passed through an oral tradition, not through one or two generations but through many centuries and over many lands...

... There are thousands of chants that constitute the corpus labeled as Gregorian. They are hugely diverse. They have many moods and many purposes—as many as there are moods and purposes behind the texts they set. After all, that is the primary purpose of chant: to provide a certain elevation of the text, to make it come alive and live in our presence in a special way.

Folk music swept the Catholic Church in the 1960s because that generation had some sense that it represented a more authentic and human story of faith than the old music did. They were wrong about this, and understandably so. The world of chant in the preconciliar world had indeed become stuffy and cartelized, ruled mostly with an elite who pushed it as the fulfillment of rubrical obligation.

Today matters are different. An elite is dictating the music in your parish but it is a new elite that emerged in the wake of the pseudo-folk trend. Today that group represents the establishment and its existence is dependent on copyright and control. You can’t sing their music without paying them a fee.

But a new generation of chanters is also being raised up, attracted by the sheer authenticity and organic quality that the true music of the Roman Rite represents. Like the folk music of the 1960s, all the chants are free to use, share, and sing. And this stands in stark contrast to the copyright/industrial cartel that distributes music in many parishes today.

It’s a beautiful thing to see history turn like this. But in order to complete the task, the chanting singers of today need to let go of their own high-art attachments and embrace the chant for what it is at its root: the true music of the Catholic people, born of an age before universal literacy in which music itself was a tool of evangelism, communication, and the most authentic form of the worship of God."

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