Friday, May 28, 2010


The New Liturgical Movement provides an interesting link (introduced by Jeffrey Tucker) to a brief talk by Jeff Ostrowski, 'What is dignified music?'. Ostrowski has written well elsewhere on style in Church music and has done a great service with his article 'The composer's Modus Operandi of Gregorian modal accompaniment'    (see here). The latter is a very good place to start if your find yourself having to accompany chant for the first time. The former gives an insight into what even the best and gentlest of musicians have to do on a 'day to day' basis to maintain the peace and keep good will.

The question of style in ecclesiastical music is something that has vexed commentators for a long time. In modern times we get the beginnings of an attempt to codify what is good style at the beginning of the 20th century however the question was far from new. Most first year music students could recount the tale (probably a legend rather than a myth) of the origins of Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli. So it goes the style of the polyphony had become too complicated, the meaning of the words were being obscured by 'too many notes'. Not the first, nor the last, time that accusation has been levelled against a work of genius. It would seem that a reforming party wanted the restore to general use the simple lines of the chant as it was received at the time. Palestrina saved the day by proving that polyphony could enshrine the sacred text and make it clear at the same time. Whilst this might have been the spin put on the controversy there's little real evidence in the score itself.

Ostrowski's talk, illustrated with musical examples, probably emphasises the extremes of the problem however he does, almost by accident, illustrate how something quite trite can be clad in a harmonic clothing that seems more appropriate to the liturgy rather than some burlesque. It wouldn't be the first time that something secular made an entry into the choir loft clad in respectable modality. And here is the point of reflection for me.  We seem to sense intuitively what is appropriate yet to put this into words is very difficult. Should there be a set of guidelines to musical style that can be applied across the board or are we living in a Church that is so universal that to make a general rule would be meaningless in some cultures?

My suspicion is that the starting point is the call to take inspiration from the sacred musical gestures we have inherited within our culture. In the Occident this certainly must mean a serious examination of modal composition and because of this the repertoire of Gregorian Chant must be a starting point. At the same time we would be foolish to ignore the fact that others have already looked back in this way and added to the sacred treasury in many different ways.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Filling the holes

Suprisingly I now realise that my USA seminary training was slightly deficient as far as Catholic social teaching goes. It was my own fault. I didn't register for the right options within the course structure or something like that. Strange considering that for most of my adult life, before traditional worship had dragged me back, I'd reduced the Catholic faith to nothing but social teaching, or more specifically, social action. I'd taken the cafeteria approach to the faith hook, line and sinker. I'm still catching up as you can probably tell. For traditionalists it is an issue as it touches on a least one aspect of the important discussions going on between SSPX and the Vatican at the moment.

A 'doff of the hood' to Fr Tim Finegan (see here) who has brought to wider attention what seems to be a very good blog on Catholic Social Teaching, Paul Mallinder's The Catholic Whistle.  A thread has opened on the connection between liturgy and the social teaching of the Church (see here). I've added it to the blog list at the right of this page.

Now I'm a 'low Mass' man. I don't have the skills to manage the more complex forms of our liturgical heritage. I admire those that can do it but I don't want to get caught up in much that seems to go with it. At times I wonder if we traditionalists have to take a reality check and invest more resources in the practical application of our beliefs, to spend a bit more time on blogs of this sort rather than trawling for the latest tatty sensation or salacious bit of churchy gossip.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

What's 30, 000 liturgists at the bottom of the sea....?

Let's get some definitions straight first; There's are world of difference between a liturgist and a liturgiologist. The exchange of the two terms might be a bit loose these days and, admittedly, liturgist is a much older word in English usage. It would seem that liturgiologist was coined in the 1860s to describe somebody involved in a systematic and objective study of liturgical material as distinct from somebody involved in the interpretation and application of the rubrics. In a sense the liturgist is a practitioner, the liturgiologist the theorist. One may have done a course at an urban day care centre masquerading as a centre for theological studies. The other is likely to be less obvious plodding away in the reading room of some repository. They've likely to have spent many years at this before publishing their findings which will not set the world on fire but will contribute the the body of knowledge that we need to know. It's not a matter of degrees gained and, of course, there is some cross over often with some very unhappy results.

If I was adding to my imaginary forthcoming volume Liturgical Birds and their Plumage there would probably be three entries under the genus Liturgica.

(i) Common Garden (Liturgica ferialis) The basic variety of the genus which just gets on with the job and 'says the black does the red' whatever it's accustomed usus. By far the most common in numbers but, unfortunately, the least influential.
(ii) Rainbow Plume (Liturgica phantasmata) Some authorities add synchrotistica to the sub genus name due to it's ability, when nesting, to beg borrow or steal from a wide variety of suprisingly innapropriate sources. Probably evolving in response largely to the external stimuli of it's unstable environment it is, surprisingly the most numerous. In a strange twist the female of the species seems to dominate in general day to day life.
(iii) Liveried Long Beak (Liturgica Machiavelliensis) Curious development of the species almost totally domesticated. It prefers to dwell indoors favouring long corridors. Not highly intelligent their diet over the years has departed from the common fodder of it's cousins with a distinct taste for sherry and rich food. It is, however, very pugnacious and any perceived threat or deviation from the 'norm' will be dealt with summarily by the pack. Because of this flaw in character it's unlikely to propogate itself beyond the current generation.

There is a danger that 'liturgy' may become an end in itself and we lose the Christocentric activity that it surely should be. When it becomes purely a careerist past time for the otherwise unemployable, when it becomes the field of battle for various ecclesiastics to settle scores and gain points against each other, we have a serious problem.  It's not a modern 'thing' but a tension that has always been there. A reading of  the first chapters of Christopher Page's excellent The Christian West and it's Singers gives plenty of food for thought. Self interest groups can become industries in their own right. Industries seem to amplify all the worst things human beings are capable of. This is the point where you can insert your own favourite 'liturgist' joke. The riddle in the title of this entry was formerly applied to lawyers.

Now, appealing as it may seem,  I'm not advocating a 'final solution' for all liturgists - nor am I suggesting that they should be all confined on some sort of island ghetto. The latter has some appeal but in all fairness give them 20 years and there wouldn't be a soul left alive and there would still be at least two chapels. What I am suggesting is that there needs to be a little more balance. Those who shout loudest are not always right. What we do need is people guiding us who are known and proven in their piety and learning rather than their ability to feather their own nests whilst greasing the slippery corridors of power.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

By Jordan's Bank

I've just deputised for an organist friend at the Sunday afternoon feeding frenzy otherwise known as Parish Baptisms. Now these events are considerably less feral than they once were. My first baptisms were 13, in the one go, the day after I was ordained a deacon. I know that at some stage in the intervening years I've had to bark orders to extinguish all cigarettes. Congregational behaviour has somewhat improved over the years. You can't blame them really. It is an awkward rite in it's new form. Large groups of people, frequently unfamiliar with the inside of a church, are expected to wander between baptistery and altar making responses that are strange. Add to this that today the celebrant managed to get himself, in cope, stuck at the top of a ladder lighting candles from the paschal candle. He hadn't quite calculated on how to get down again with a handful of flaming tapers.

I guess the general banality of the music must be some comfort. We started this afternoon with 'Amazing Grace'. Fair enough, the theology is not that bad and many other popular tunes have been sanitised through hallowed use. Next came 'Morning has broken'. Well I can see some vague connection there to the sacred mystery being celebrated but I suspect that wasn't what Eleanor Farjeon had in mind (nor Cat Stevens for that matter). Finally we had 'Give me oil in my lamp'. The sooner that gets put on a revived Index the better. We'd started out before hand with two movements of a Bach Trio Sonata to try and calm down the masses. By the end of everything my secret past as a theatre organist just had to come to the fore; a nice transcription of Au fond du temple saint from Bizet's Pearlfishers seemed very appropriate - well just as appropriate of what else had been on offer!

Me culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Call me old fashioned, but.......

At the end of Mass this morning, as is the custom, we said the extra prayers appointed. The Prayer to St Michael the Archangel seemed to leap from the page.
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.
Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in praelio. Contra nequitiam et insidias diaboli esto praesidium. Imperet illi Deus, supplices deprecamur. Tuque princeps militiae caelestis, Satanam aliosque spiritus malignos, qui ad perditionem animarum pervagantur in mundo divina virtute in infernum detrude. Amen.
The Lord speaks to us in strange ways at times and I'm just wondering exactly what we're in for now. Perhaps I'm just a little sensitive to things at the moment having had a glorious week of non stop Gregorian Chant in one of the most beautiful places in Scotland. Coming back to earth with a thud could be an explanation. More likely it was a conversation I had by chance with a respected parishioner in the street. It was quite obvious that despite a sound catechesis many years ago they had actually sold out to the 'cafeteria' approach to Catholicism a long time ago. It was the subtlety of the arguments that disturbed me. 'Has God really said?' was the underlying theme. It reminded me of something slithering around a tree in a garden soon after God had completed creation.

What does strike me is the subtle way that Satan's work continues in the world. His greatest success in the campaign against our salvation is to make us doubt that he (or she) even exists. The fact that this prayer is now rarely 'lisped by little ones' let alone known by my own 'Generation X' catholics makes me quite sure that we have been lulled into a sense of false security.

What is probably less well known is the 'long' version of the prayer composed by Pope Leo XIII after he had a vision of evil spirits released from Hell to attack the world.

“O Glorious Prince of the heavenly host, St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle and in the terrible warfare that we are waging against the principalities and powers, against the rulers of this world of darkness, against the evil spirits. Come to the aid of man, whom Almighty God created immortal, made in His own image and likeness, and redeemed at a great price from the tyranny of Satan.
“Fight this day the battle of the Lord, together with the holy angels, as already thou hast fought the leader of the proud angels, Lucifer, and his apostate host, who were powerless to resist thee, nor was there place for them any longer in Heaven. That cruel, ancient serpent, who is called the devil or Satan who seduces the whole world, was cast into the abyss with his angels. Behold, this primeval enemy and slayer of men has taken courage. Transformed into an angel of light, he wanders about with all the multitude of wicked spirits, invading the earth in order to blot out the name of God and of His Christ, to seize upon, slay and cast into eternal perdition souls destined for the crown of eternal glory. This wicked dragon pours out, as a most impure flood, the venom of his malice on men of depraved mind and corrupt heart, the spirit of lying, of impiety, of blasphemy, and the pestilent breath of impurity, and of every vice and iniquity.
“These most crafty enemies have filled and inebriated with gall and bitterness the Church, the spouse of the immaculate Lamb, and have laid impious hands on her most sacred possessions. In the Holy Place itself, where the See of Holy Peter and the Chair of Truth has been set up as the light of the world, they have raised the throne of their abominable impiety, with the iniquitous design that when the Pastor has been struck, the sheep may be.
“Arise then, O invincible Prince, bring help against the attacks of the lost spirits to the people of God, and give them the victory. They venerate thee as their protector and patron; in thee holy Church glories as her defense against the malicious power of hell; to thee has God entrusted the souls of men to be established in heavenly beatitude. Oh, pray to the God of peace that He may put Satan under our feet, so far conquered that he may no longer be able to hold men in captivity and harm the Church. Offer our prayers in the sight of the Most High, so that they may quickly find mercy in the sight of the Lord; and vanquishing the dragon, the ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, do thou again make him captive in the abyss, that he may no longer seduce the nations. Amen.
St Michael, pray for us!

Monday, May 3, 2010

Those were the days.... (ii)

Now crawling round the blogs of the traditional world you occasionally come across reports of horrendous liturgical abuses that have been the 'straw that broke the neo-con's back' and sent them hurtling into the twilight zone of the traddie. Tales of abuses from the other end of the liturgical pendulum, certainly on liberal blogs, are as rare as a black tabernacle veil- or at least I thought so until I came across this anecdote from a contributor on the  Benedictine Fr Anthony Ruff's blog Pray Tell.

..... but I remember a now-senior priest friend telling a rather unflattering story of the monsignor/pastor of his first cure. At High Mass, it seems that when the good monsignor had finished reciting the Gloria at the altar and returned to the sedilia, he’d pull out his nail-clipper and start his weekly trim while the choir went to work. “He’d get the left hand done before the Collect, and then finish up the right hand during the Credo.

Now it would be obtuse not to recognise that abuses did occur, even in the good old days, and it was these abuses that partially contributed to that aspect of the liturgical reform that actually wanted to clarify and make quite clear what was quite acceptable. To the anecdote above  I could add the account of a priest who admitted that he used to leave out all the 'unnecessary' bits before the changes of the 1960s. I didn't dare question him any further- the way he celebrated the new rites seemed to continue his earlier principles. The great Adrian Fortescue was not really that interested in the Roman Rite and his own celebration of low Mass, was by some accounts....  shall we say charitably, could be slightly confused. In more recent times I remember one Anglo-Papalist friend waxing eloquently that the servers at her church ('San Marco') always affected rather worn running shoes in imitation of what went on in the local Catholic Church ('Tutti Santi').

Now there is a difference between the abuses of the past and those of the present. It is certainly far more difficult in the traditional rites to commit an abuse intentionally. I suspect also that the abuses of the 'good old days', whilst opening the question of licitness, rarely opened the problem of actual validity. The danger was recognised however and the main dangers were actually included in the Missal as sort of a warning.

Back to the 'good old days'. It would be ridiculous to think that the traditional rites are not subject to varying interpretations certainly as to the question of rubrics. All involved need to take a reality check and accept that local custom did apply in the 'good old days'. What was perfectly normal in one place, for example the places where bells were rung, was just unheard of in other places. 'Dialogue Mass', apparently almost the norm in some places, didn't exist in other places. All of this within the one Catholic Church using the Latin Rites. We have to be very careful, as Mrs Malaprop might have said, before casting asperges.

There is however the danger that an attitude in some corners of Catholicism that an old problem may prevail- actually this applies to all ends of the spectrum. There is a 'fear of excellence' in many quarters. The old chestnut 'If a things worth doing it's worth doing badly' should not be the automatic fall back position for all things liturgical. How many quite acceptable altars are defaced by the presence of the ubiquitous, and often thirsty, 'spider' plant? How many quite acceptable buildings are cheapened by what can be best described as 'transitory' art work in the form of posters advertising whatever happens to be the theme of the day? It seems that some sort of 'guilt complex' towards balance and beauty continues to undermine clear judgement.