måndag 20 februari 2012

Music in the liturgy

The Latin Rite Catholic church is the Orthodox Church in Western Europe. Over the past 1500 years, its music has evolved, following its codification by St Gregory. The image shows the Holy Spirit whispering the chant into his ear as he writes it down, which is a bit fanciful. A substantial body of the music is thought to have come from the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, who must have got it from somewhere else, possibly the ancient Egyptians.

Nobody knows what it sounded like because they left no recordings. In fact, what notation there was gave no indication of pitch, so this cannot be deduced from ancient manuscripts which show only cantillation marks - little curved lines and dots - on top of the texts. The question mark is a survival from this system of notation.

A system of pitch notation was invented by Guido d'Arrezo, who is also credited with having invented the tonic sol-fa system. (Doh, Re, Me, etc) This uses four lines, with the notes being indicated by squares and diamonds, arranged in groups known as neumes. What is not known is how these were actually sung, and there are grounds for believing, first, that cantors added their own ornamentation, including extra notes at quarter-note intervals, second, that choirs added a drone, possibly one of the resonant notes of the building in which the music was being performed, and third, that singers divided themselves into groups singing the same music at an interval apart, possibly a third or a fifth. This latter practice could have been the origin of the polyphonic singing which culminated in the compositions of Victoria and Palestrina in the sixteenth centry.

The Protestant churches adopted more simplified musical forms, amongst the most accomplished being by composers such as Hassler, Wesley, Watts, and many nineteenth century figures. The Anglican church took an intermediate position, exemplified by seventeenth century composers such as Thomkins, Gibbons and Purcell, and the development of the style of psalmody known as Anglican chant.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with the encouragement of Pope Pius X, Gregorian chant enjoyed a revival, guided by research and the study of ancient documents by the monks of Solemnes. Whether this is an authentic reconstruction is another question, but the fruits of their work are the characteristic Roman Catholic sound of the period immediately before the Second Vatican Council.

Post Vatican II, the liturgy was drastically simplified, with new music being composed for the new vernacular liturgies. That reform has run its course, and the current movement is for reform of the reform. Where does that mean for the music of the liturgy?

It seems to me that, throughout the whole of this history, the music that has been used in the liturgy is both a reflection and a product of the theology that informs the liturgy. It is also a powerful means by which the theology is propagated. This is not a matter of asserting a set of verbal propositions, but of presenting the entire spirituality which lies beneath the theology. If this is the case, then music written for the protestant churches, however beautiful, has no rightful place in the Catholic liturgy, which must confine itself to music that has arisen from its own tradition.

This is very different from arguing that the Church should attempt to reconstruct the music of the distant past. It is, in principle, the same question as to whether the practices of the early Church should be revived 2000 years later. In both instances, it is important to acknowledge that the Church is an evolving organism.

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