Cleansing Fire

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The Glorious Modern

September 9th, 2010, Promulgated by Gen

Sometimes you’ll see comments on this and other sites, like Fr. Z’s, the Crescat, etc. . . which fall into the “you only like old stuff” category. We’re not fresh. We’re stale in our liturgical preferences. We’re just being reactionary because of a few radicals.

That’s not quite accurate.

What is accurate? We, and the majority of you, don’t date the aspects of the liturgy – we appreciate the quality, not the “copyright date.” The Mass is the instrument through which God Himself descends to dwell among His creatures. How could there not be an infinite source of grace in that? This perpetual surging forth of beauty from God, who Himself is the pinnacle of all beauty, doesn’t stop just because mere men pervert the form of worship. On the contrary – it is when the liturgy is besieged by forces of modern trends and selfish fads that true liturgical beauty can shine forth, “more radiant than the noonday light.” We place such an emphasis on liturgical beauty because through it we come to see God. And I mean this literally – we see Him descend humbly, meekly, at the words of the priest, into his hands. There will always be people who grasp this sacramental reality, and it is these people who produce sacred art, music, and architecture which raises the soul from off the dungheap of liberalism. The Mass does not change. It may look different. It may be illicit. It may be swaddled in rainbow banners. But it is still the most sacred thing this side of Heaven. It ought to be the most beautiful, too.

The first example of a contemporary artist “getting it right” is found in the video below. This is the Ave Maria, written by Franz Biebl in 1964. What you will hear and see is what is called “organic development” of the liturgy. It is distinctly modern, and yet, tremendously self-aware of its basis in Renaissance polyphony, Gregorian Chant, and the liturgical Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. The harmonies are definitely different from those you hear in 19th Century musicians (Beethoven, Schubert), but doesn’t break from the tradition of choral excellence. It evolves.

We now turn from this example, and consider this piece written by John Rutter in 1985. While most of Rutter’s works are sacred but not liturgical, this piece stands out as being the following:

  1. He has a clear understanding for the theological implications of the piece. For instance, the most musically-involved portion of the piece, the loudest, most out-standing portion, deals with the words, “te decet hymnus Deus in Sion. Exaudi orationem meam.” The piece clearly is calling to God – “Hear my prayers.” Then, when the piece starts the “Kyrie,” the “Lord have mercy” portion of the Mass, the elaborate pomp of the piece dies away to a simple melody. The composer is not showing off – he is, through his writing, bending his knee to the glory of God, not his own musical abilities.
  2. The piece is not operatic. It’s certainly quite lyrical and demanding, but it could certainly be sung from the choir loft, without any sense of praising the choir’s ability. Some pieces, like Verdi’s Requiem, are absolutely stunning and sacred, but not appropriate for liturgical use. Music at the Mass must compliment the Mass, not detract anything, but only augmenting.
  3. The piece is in Latin. Note that this was written in 1985, before the real resurrection of the Traditional Latin Mass, the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, was revived. The composer was, undoubtedly, following the protocol of written Requiem Masses established by Mozart and his contemporaries. However, many other of Rutter’s contemporaries wrote pieces which are either in Latin, but horrendous and not sacred, or are in English . . . but horrendous and not sacred. Rutter succeeds in writing a Requiem which encapsulates almost every “mood” of the Requiem Mass. Sorrow, humility, hope, love. And he did it in the language of the Church. A beautiful setting of the Requiem Mass, and within the past 25 years . . . something truly glorious and modern.

Here is the video:

What really baffles me is that some people are so entrenched in their love for the 1962 Missal, the Extraordinary Form, etc. that they become bitter and hostile to genuine organic growth. There is good contemporary liturgical music, but some people refuse to see what its role is in the Church. The documents of Vatican II state that the Mass should be based, primarily, in Gregorian Chant. After that comes Renaissance Polyphony, which evolved from Gregorian Chant. And then, after these two things, comes music in the orchestral tradition. The Holy Spirit is still stirring the hearts of men and women all over the world to create beautiful works of art, and it’s a shame, a true shame, that some people refuse to acknowledge His work. We can’t become so entrenched in the “Old Ways” that we can’t see the genuine beauty of some new things.

By the way, one “new thing” which isn’t that beautiful is Dan Schutte’s “Mass of Christ the Savior.” When I first started listening to it, I thought it was pretty decent, especially coming from the man who gave us such wretched things as “Here I Am, Lord.” However, when I skipped ahead to the “Lamb of God” and heard the “Tree of Life” phrase being used I gagged. Aging hippies can’t even follow the new corrected translation without inserting their warped theology into it. Are we beginning to see the glory of Gregorian Chant, that unchanging anthology of musical perfection? I should hope so.

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2 Responses to “The Glorious Modern”

  1. avatar Dave in Dallas says:

    Thanks for posting this. Viewing the Ave Maria lead my searches online to buy the MP3’s of Mount St. Mary’s Schola Vesper that has a version of Biebl’s Ave Maria on it. This cd was real joy to find!


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