A Musical Birth, In Season and Out
One of the chapters in my forthcoming book on music and the Catholic faith (Ignatius Press, Fall 2019), as yet untitled, deals with everything practical needed to correctly implement music at Mass in accordance with Church teaching. I won’t go into the sources of that teaching here in detail, but they include two documents from Vatican II, Musicam Sacram and Sacrosanctum Concillium, and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. In short, these documents give strong emphasis to the use of music befitting the dignity of the Mass, the use of Latin, of chant, and of the organ as the primary instrument to be used. But these are just rubrics, not legalisms or an end in themselves. The documents really speak of music, along with architecture, art, and statuary, not as popular entertainment to draw a crowd but as ways to create a sacred environment for souls to prepare themselves spiritually to receive Christ in the Eucharist. How many Catholics in parishes have ever heard that there were such guidelines available to draw upon? How can we actually go about reclaiming this sublime purpose in our worship?
By “practical,” above, I mean actually putting the Church’s teaching into practice in real, everyday parishes, some with a rather modest pool of musical talent. For example, as a former church choir director, I am acutely aware that much of the most beautiful and reverent music for choir and organ that would be desirable to use is simply too hard for the average volunteer adult choir. Either the ranges go higher than those volunteers can sing, or the individual parts are too hard to master, at least in the amount of rehearsal time that such groups usually have to learn their music. Perhaps many of us have suffered through the experience of hearing a well-meaning choir straining to sing higher than they should, with results something like someone strangling a cat, back in the choir loft. The Church actually does explicitly call in its documents for parishes to identify and make use of only those persons who are truly skilled at singing, and not just anyone who volunteers, and for them to rehearse diligently to produce excellent results. Singers should have to audition to be in the choir and should be willing to put in the needed rehearsal time. Even so, the documents specify that the music still needs to be written at a level commensurate with their abilities.
So, my chapter rather brazenly snaps its fingers and calls for “all you composers out there” to get busy writing classical-style or reverent Latin settings of the Mass that average choirs can more easily learn and sing! I say brazenly because, while singing them may be easy, writing them is not! Composers who possess both the desire and the serious classical training to fulfill this need with truly beautiful, excellent music are scarce. On the other hand, it would only take a few of them working, over time (or overtime), to supply the Church with a decent body of choral Latin Mass settings that local parish choirs would find gratifying rather than frustrating to learn, and which would make them actually sound good.
For some months, I confess I had latent feelings of guilt over issuing such a call, though the book is not even yet published. This is because my own main occupation is as a professional, classically trained composer. Yet, I have never even tried to write a Latin Mass setting myself. I realized that I needed to put my money where my mouth was, so to speak. It so happens that my wife teaches at a Catholic school affiliated with a parish that has one Mass on Sundays with a traditional adult choir that sings with organ. I approached the director and asked him if he would be willing to consider having his choir sing a new Mass setting by me, in a style somewhere between the eras of composers Gabriel Faure and Ralph Vaughan-Williams (which loosely describes my style), and he graciously agreed to look it over, once written. My only condition was anonymity. No announcement either verbally or printed in the bulletin must be made about the source of this music, or mention of my name made or attention brought to me. Of course, this quickly became the worst-kept secret of all time, but at least no public or printed announcement was made about it.
So, for a few weeks I set aside the concert-hall music I was composing and put my best efforts into writing a Mass, not just for the philosophical mandate described above, but from the heart. It would not be a matter of writing a tune and then just tacking the words of the Mass on to it. Rather, the deep meaning of the words themselves had to be what generated the melody in my imagination. For example, when the Agnus Dei had the line “miserere nobis” (have mercy on us), the music needed to sound like someone sincerely asking for mercy, as you would compose it in an opera or song with a believable character sincerely expressing that thought. The Sanctus had to sound both hushed and “holy” and then grow more glorious toward the “Hosanna in excelsis.” I took some time to meditate, perhaps more deeply than I ever had, on the wonderful liturgical texts of the holy sacrifice of the Mass and was truly blessed by doing so.
Even so, while composing, the impulse would often come to me to take the music in a more difficult direction; for example, to go for those high notes in the soprano part that I knew would sound disastrous for some choirs. I slapped my own wrist mentally and kept the key and ranges of the parts very practical for any adult choir, and I sang out loud every individual part myself without the aid of an instrument to prove to myself that it was easy to sing. While the melodies and lines were all singable, I relied on interesting chord changes and dramatic volume changes for the music’s technical sophistication and reverent, classical style. Likewise, I was tempted to make some of the pieces longer, but this had to be a Mass with short enough pieces to be sung in the time frame of a typical celebration of the Mass in real parishes, not a Mass for the concert hall. So, I called it “Missa Brevis,” brief or short Mass. Even the organ part had to be easy enough for an amateur organist.
I eventually sent off the sheet music files to the choir director by e-mail, and he wrote back that he liked it on paper and would print it out and try it with his choir at the next rehearsal. Later I got the feedback that they had indeed been easily able to learn the music and that they indeed found it gratifying to sing, because it indeed made them sound good. My wife and I went to Mass there on the designated Sunday and heard for ourselves that this was so. The choir really sounded great, and the response from members of the congregation was a great blessing. People who do not know much at all about music can recognize something reverent and beautiful when they hear it, and their enthusiasm and gratitude were far beyond what I imagined. It was not praise toward me personally that they expressed but comments to the effect that the music had led them into a profound disposition to receive the Eucharist. Bingo, that’s what you want. This choir has now sung my Mass several times and will use it on a regular basis.
Because I work as a professor of music composition at a major university with a great vocal and choral department, with a great organ and organist, and with great recording equipment and great sound engineers all at my disposal, I was again blessed to be able to make a professional recording of this same Mass with the university’s top choir. I am, for a limited time, sharing it here online: www.michaelkurek.com/missa-brevis. When you hear it, you will think that the music is harder to sing than it is, because these are all trained vocal majors who sound professional and classical, but in fact, the volunteer church choir mentioned above could have also made a very credible recording. I’m eager now to share the music with other church choirs that would like to try using it at Mass. Anyone interested, should contact me through the e-mail address given at the above link. I am also eager, over time, to write more Latin Mass settings for “real” choirs. I would also love to participate in an edition of fine, original, reverent new Latin Mass settings that ordinary choirs could easily learn and sing, if enough settings can be found, and make this available to parishes through a music publisher.
But as my book opines in another chapter, we need to be training more young composers at our Catholic colleges to assume this role, into the future. Renewal in the sacred arts has happened before, and it can happen again, if we work to make it happen, by God’s grace. Renewal may be a tricky word, though. Sometimes it has been used to justify innovation and novelty, as it was when the so-called guitar Masses were first introduced. Perhaps a more accurate word would be restoration – in this case restoration of timeless norms using “new” (literally newly written) music that would, nonetheless, have also spoken to the needs of souls in the past as well as those of today, or at any point in time. Right now, such a restoration may feel almost impossible, like swimming upstream, or “out of season” even to try. However, the reaction I have experienced to my own attempt at it encourages me to imagine it can be “in season” again, by faith and obedience and vision. Perhaps the lesson we have learned through the recent generation’s musical experimentation in the liturgy is that our goal should not be to change the Church to “keep up with the times,” as some are advocating. Our goal, in the arts and all liturgical and doctrinal matters, should rather be to keep up with the timeless.