My latest composition, Justorum Animae, was used as a meditation for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament during solemn vespers. The text is meant as the offertory antiphon for the feast of All Saints – but you will find it familiar – as it is often used as the first reading for funerals.
Justorum animae in manu Dei sunt,
et non tanget illos tormentum mortis.
Visi sunt oculis insipientium mori,
illi autem sunt in pace.
The souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and the torment of death shall not touch them.
In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die;
but they are in peace.
We pray for our dead in the month of November, and so it was particularly moving to conduct this at Vespers on November 22nd for the feast of Christ the King – which also happens to be the feast of St. Cecilia – the patroness of the St. Cecilia Consort, the ensemble that performed this.
“How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face — tears that did me good.” (St. Augustine, Confessions 9:6, 14)
No doubt, music has a unique ability to stir our emotions. But we need to be careful that liturgical music does not become entertainment – or mood-music. Its purpose and function is obviously much deeper, and, if implemented properly, helps to reveal truths we desire to know.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1157 states that “Song and music fulfill their function as signs in a manner all the more significant when they are “more closely connected . . . with the liturgical action,” Through the beauty of expressive prayer, participation of the assembly at the designated moments, and the solemn character of the mass, “actively participate” is realized through the meaning of the liturgical words and actions which give all glory to God and sanctifies the faithful.
In order to help achieve this, careful attention must be given to the style of music used in the liturgy. It must be set apart from the associations of popular culture – the confines of our daily lives, and transport us into the solemnity of the mass, outside of our daily space and time, and to the Eternal. In essence, we assume a countercultural mentality to fully participate in the sacred liturgy.
John Paul II issued a pastoral letter in 1998, directed especially toward the United States, in which he said: “Active participation” does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness, and listening: Indeed, it demands it. Worshipers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be countercultural.”
So, you may ask, “Why are we hearing psalms and antiphons during communion at mass from time to time?” It’s a small first step, and but one example, to propel our worship to that more fully active participation, to turn our hearts upward to the Eternal, and leave the distractions of the day outside for a mere hour on a Sunday.
In my service to the church, I take seriously the responsibility to ensure we always seek a deeper, profound understanding of our faith through the music we experience at mass. To help achieve this, we must ensure that sacred music is better integrated into the ritual (just as the readings and prayers are directly integrated into the mass), and set-apart from the distractions of our everyday lives. The various church documents, specifically the General Instructions of the Roman Missal (GIRM), exist to aid in this endeavor, and direct our worship to unity with the universal church throughout the world. We have an obligation to commune with the whole universal church, and to realize, in humility, that we are worshipping with our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
There is, and always will be much more beauty to be discovered in our worship. With open hearts and minds, we can enrich our worship through our participation, and come to better understand our relationship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the sacred mysteries.
Instructions on how to assemble a piece of furniture are most useful to me if they are in English. I need to be able to fully understand and comprehend them in order to assemble said piece of furniture. Liturgy, on the other hand, is not an instruction manual to help us “assemble” the sacred mysteries into something we can comprehend. The paschal mystery is an unsolvable puzzle! It is, by design, mysterious. In this regard, the mass is the most important tool we have to help us ponder the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and nurture our relationship with Christ and each other.
Music has a unique ability to shed light on the very things that elude us and can help us consider the Paschal Mystery, and the scriptures. When we sing something in Latin or Greek, we may not fully understand the text – but consider the fact that we might not fully understand the text even if it were in English. Instead of struggling with understanding, let the music heighten your prayer and consider the connection to our ancestors in the faith – who also pondered the Paschal Mystery, and had the same questions and lack of answers – just in a different language. If you listen to the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requeim, I can assure you that you will be moved to tears and hear God speak – and you won’t understand a word of it.
A Language Learned
How do children learn language? It is the aural learning that provides the elemental basis for language skills. We do not first learn what the sounds look like – we learn first by hearing. The visual is learned by connecting the knowledge gained through aural perception to the symbols that represent the sounds. Only when there is a firm understanding of the aural language do we learn to read the language – to decipher the symbols.
Music, as a language, is exactly the same. We learn it by listening. It is the fundamental basis for internalizing, and understanding this highly complex and beautiful language. Symbols are only a mere representation of music – they allow us to communicate basic ideas – they do not communicate feeling, passion, soul, or musicality in any real sense. Music on the page can be decoded, and understood within given parameters, but it cannot be felt, or internalized without having a strong aural background to fully realize what all those dots and symbols truly mean. Music is an expressive art form – it exists only in performance (or remembered as such), while the written page is merely a storage device that preserves the music and allows for analysis and preservation beyond the performance. Even analysis of the page is moot without listening to a performance or having the analysis direct the performance. Here, the page is used as a tool, a means to an end, if you will. In and of itself, the page does not live in the metaphysical ether, that timelessness of performance which engages the musical ear – the ear that has been taught to listen and the soul that feels the music. Language works the same way. Even while reading a book, there is that inner voice that is speaking the words we read. The symbols of any language are just an aural connection to the elemental perception of letters, words, and, by extension, musical notation.
Teach Our Children Well
How do we teach our children spoken language? Do we immediately introduce them to the letters and words, and then hope that they make the connection? Do we put a pencil in an infants hand and show him how to write? The short of it: no. Babies need to hear their parents speak the language – they model what they hear – even if they don’t understand it for some time. Why then should music be treated any differently? The music education standards in this country seem to preclude the aural learning that is so essential to music education. We expect young children to learn music through the written form of music, rather than the natural experience of hearing. As it relates to language, the letters and words take some time to become phrases, sentences and thoughts – a true written language that is a representation of human thought. Music education, and the prescribed ‘standards’ expect children to make the connection to the written page too early.
An Aural Syntax
How do children understand that they are being asked a question? We don’t hold up a picture of a question mark – we change the inflection of our voice, perhaps raise our eyebrows, and use a syntax that implies the question – it is purely auditory. By extension, how then, do children innately understand musical phrase? Children can understand that a half-cadence, or a phrase that does not resolve to Do (or Home Tone, if you prefer) is incomplete – it demands an answer. The musical answer provides a completion to the question phrase. Children can tell when a complete musical thought has occurred. Just as the aural syntax of spoken language is innately understood by children, the musical equivalent can be understood just the same – provided we put enough emphasis on teaching musical concepts from an aural position.
The Current Model
I have fallen victim to the knee-jerk reaction to throw music in front of a young child while I was teaching piano lessons. I started to realize that some of the first experiences of my students involved visual examples of music. To be clear, there are certainly helpful visuals such as examples of posture and hand position – but it became readily apparent to me that my students were missing something – the very basic element of music education: exploration. I was inadvertently limiting my students’ inventory of music by taking the easy road and trusting the teaching sequence to a book. Most of my private students were beginners – roughly grade 3 or 4 – in good school systems. I began to change my approach – building on what they were learning in general music at their school – using Solfedge, songs they were singing, etc. However, it became clear that they were already ‘hooked’ on the visuals of music – the ear was not being developed. The reading seemed excellent, but it was a shallow reading. This was evident in many of my students when they did not realize that they were playing mistakes – very obvious note mistakes. There was a disconnect between the eye and ear – they were not hearing what they were seeing – and why should they at this age? Then there were the exceptions.
The few that had an uncanny raw talent for music were able to hear the mistakes, and these ‘exceptional’ students, seemed for the most part, to have a richer experience with music and art in the home. The CD collections in the house were wildly diverse and the parents took the children to the library, to music events, etc. The children’s ears, and minds, were being engaged by the community arts (which are readily accessible in Fairfield County, CT) . The parents took a keen interest in the experiences of their children. These ‘exceptional’ children, turned out to really be ‘cultured’ children. Their minds seemed more receptive to the abstract. So, I tried simply playing songs, chords, patterns – and having them talk about it, then play some of their own. We were experimenting with sound – purely from their own minds – and it was surprising to hear how many of the musical ideas had some basic musical concepts at the core – like rhythmic breath, resolution, range, etc. I started incorporating exploration into the lessons, and sure enough, the students’ ears began to hear mistakes immediately, and musicality improved – dynamics, articulation, etc. It was such a simple task to explain staccato after doing some exploration on the piano playing ‘hot notes’ – emphasizing quick release of the notes. All I had to do was point out that those little dots simply meant to do the same thing we were doing during our experimenting. This sequence seems to make much more sense – use aural examples of the musical language as the basic of understanding a specific term, then, when the time is right, introduce the visual symbol. So, when is the right time? This is a crucial moment in music education.
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Chant as a Medium for Catholicity
: a transformative change of heart; especially : a spiritual conversion
I have recently come to embrace a broadening spiritual awareness and appreciation for the rich musical heritage of the Catholic Church- namely, sacred chant. The impetus of this awakening was the realization that my knowledge of ‘classical’ music history does not honestly consider any music prior to the late 17th century. This invariably led to an even more unsettling revelation that, even after twenty years in ministry, I had but a miniscule understanding of sacred liturgical music.
Having been involved with church music since I was a child, many of my formative years were immersed in the folk mass of the 80′s, and I continually developed my talents and grasp of the liturgy through to the modern worship music of today. Then there was college and graduate school, where I majored in piano performance, and embraced “serious” music. I grew tremendously as a well-rounded musician and, consequently, became a more effective church musician. I was exposed to, and performed, a vast amount of repertoire that encompassed a wide range of genres. But, I have recently come to terms with a now obvious fact that you can’t possibly learn everything in school.
Specifically, I was never really exposed to the rich tradition of sacred music. As an ongoing student of music, it seems that my recent experiences with ancient chant, particularly on this past feast of Pentecost, resulted in a musical and spiritual metanoia. As a music director and organist, I now realize that the opportunity to fill the aforementioned musical void has been present for quite some time- I just didn’t see it. By exploring some of our rich musical tradition from the earliest days of the church, I have a found a means to expand my musical person and, at the same time, bring a sense of historical perspective and unity to the liturgy. While this has to be done carefully, being mindful that most people might not understand why they are suddenly being exposed to this “old stuff,” there is a prescribed responsibility to connect with our rich past.
Considering the stagnant state of music in many parishes, I have to believe that I am not the only music director that has, more often than not, failed to think beyond the scant selection of hymnal resources made available by an equally limited assortment of publishers. We are given planners and hymn suggestions that point to a very narrow repertoire of music, the majority of which was written within the last 30-40 years. Even though a careful reading of the scriptures for the Sunday mass is the best means for finding a theme to prescrbe to the music, the relevant musical offerings are severely lacking in variety, style and depth. For instance, the music of the 70’s and 80’s is now widely considered traditional. On one level, I agree with that delineation since this music comprises my early spiritual and musical formation as a child. It is the basis of my catholic tradition. While some of the modern worship music is excellent, truly helps convey the spirit of the liturgy, and communicate what cannot be expressed in words alone, we need to explore why this is the case. I suggest we can better appreciate and understand contemporary music, and achieve that fully conscious, and active participation in the liturgy, if we incorporate what came before. In order to fulfill this mission, the current state of liturgical music needs to be lifted beyond predictable norms and out of stagnation. Richard Rice explains in his foreword to The Parish Book of Chant, Expanded Second Edition (2012), that we should “…realize that the Church’s liturgy, like her faith, comes from somewhere far beyond any one language, culture, or personality.” (PBC, xv). I propose that the American-Catholic culture has predominantly lost the connection to the profound and rich tradition of our ancestors in the faith; our Catholicity. America is the melting pot that infused the heritage and traditions of people from the world over. Why, then, should our musical tradition in the American catholic church be so limited as to not embrace the musical treasure of our universal church?
The ancient chants, not much a part of my own past, seem fresh and have a certain transcendent authenticity to them. “Veni Creator Spiritus,” this Pentecost, struck me as rather poignant since most in the congregation were likely unaware that the music was written over a thousand years ago. By the same token, though, most instantly recognized it and felt compelled to join in singing. This newfound appreciation for the “ancient” has been brewing for some time. A good friend’s invitation to sing the Office of Compline started this awakening last year, and every time we repeat it, I find something new (actually, quite old) that inspires my musical and spiritual being. The centerpiece of this retrieval for me, however, has been my now-annual experience at Lourdes. I witnessed a genuine manifestation of the liturgy as a truly living entity in the underground basilica of St. Pius X. About 20,000 People from all over the world participated in their own language, and miraculously, the liturgy made complete sense. This made me appreciate the uniqueness and diversity of humanity on a much deeper level. In a matter of speaking, it was a real Pentecost. But, the most fascinating moments occurred when some of the ancient Latin chants were sung. It proved to be a truly unifying element in the liturgy- as if the auditory of the liturgy was tangibly brought into crystal-clear focus. Most people knew the Latin which made the music just as familiar and comfortable as the structure of the mass itself. I had to ask myself in that moment: “How have I neglected the importance of this tradition for so long?”
This all strikes me anew, but Vatican II was there first:
The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy. (Sacrosanctum Concilium 112)
All this time, I’ve been focused on the music of the American Church and have unwittingly neglected the universal Church. Similarly, the recent changes to the Roman Missal corrected some of the same shortcomings of our connection to Her rich liturgical tradition. To embrace the changes is a chance to connect with the faithful from the earliest days of the church. This is, in and of itself, a modern idea. The notion of appreciating ‘that which has preceded, has shaped the present,’ should be embraced as enriching and rewarding.
While the chant and early music of the church can aid in communing with our ancestors in the faith, then by extension we should carefully consider the liturgy itself as the most unifying element of our faith. This brings me back to Lourdes. How else could so many people from such a rich diversity of heritage feel completely at home during a mass? The simple answer is tradition. The mass is the same no matter where in the world you may be. The responses, which were mostly sung in Latin, were the unifying element that afforded the congregation a chance to commune together in one common language, to come together with others in the present and the past. It is apparent that this connection to our past extends beyond the musical realm, but to the liturgy itself. If we can, therefore, embrace the traditions and sacredness of the music in that context, the liturgy can truly become a vehicle for a living and vibrant faith. John F. Baldovin, S.J. touched on this idea in his recent article in America Magazine entitled “An Active Presence: The liturgical vision of Vatican II 50 years later.”
Catholics need to be helped to understand more deeply and more explicitly the connections between their lives and what they celebrate in church. As the great contemporary liturgical historian, Robert Taft, S.J., has said: “The liturgy is the Christian life in a nutshell.” Nothing more—but nothing less. Our liturgies themselves, albeit in a ritualized fashion, play out the way we are called to live. They are the summit of Christian living as well as its source. As that reality enters more deeply into the Catholic consciousness, we will achieve by God’s grace the full, conscious and active participation the council called for, and we will be on our way to celebrating more fully the baptismal priesthood we are called to live.
I’d add that our “Catholic consciousness” could be more fully realized through exploring our musical traditions. It’s easy to become complacent, and accept the status quo of liturgical music, but musicians need to give some contextual consideration to our place in history to achieve, “in a nutshell,” a truly living faith as expressed through liturgy. The mission is twofold: connect the liturgy with our daily lives, and experience that present-day worship as an extension of our heritage.
We should embrace the liturgical reforms, along with the natural progression of music as it relates to our culture. New music has much to offer, but particularly when it recalls the sacredness of our musical tradition. After all, Gregorian Chant was considered new music at one point, but it included within its form, the promulgation of the sacred and was born from the musical tradition that preceded it. The fact that this music was so intricately woven into the liturgy helped establish its timelessness, and is the reason why it can still feel so relevant and fresh today. I’m not proposing that we return to a fully Latin mass all the time (although, I’d love to try it someday), but that we include, from time to time, some of the chants, like the Kyrie, Gloria, Agnus Dei, the sequences, or even singing the Divine Offices. It may seem a small pittance to give back to our tradition, but it is something tangible and meaningful. We need to hear this music as a worshipping community in order to witness a deeply divine manifestation of the sacredness of scripture and music. My mandate as a music director is not solely to bring people together in communal praise, but to foster prayer, reflection and peace. As a composer, as well, I hope that looking back will pave the way forward to creating new music that feels as fresh as Veni Creator Spiritus felt on Pentecost; as unifying as the music in Lourdes; and as an inspiration for a true Catholicity in our communities. As a music director, a minister of the church, this has to become a guiding principle: In with the old and the new. I look forward to exploring the former which will in turn give me a more focused perspective on the latter. Veni Creator Spiritus – You’re my only hope.
*update: I am forming a Schola Cantorum and a Junior Schola so that we can truly explore chant and offer it to the parish when the time is “rite.” Stay tuned.
Michael A. Cooney is an adjunct professor of music at Fairfield University and the Music Director at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Fairfield, CT.
Baldovin, John F. S.J., “An Active Presence: The liturgical vision of Vatican II 50 years later.” www.americamagazine.org. America Magazine. 27 May 2013