tisdag 30 augusti 2016

Should we sing hymns at a Catholic Mass?

Why do we sing hymns at Mass? The practice has become almost universal during the past 50 years, following the introduction of the vernacular in the liturgy.

There is, in reality, no necessity for them in a Catholic Mass, since the parts that are meant for the people to sing are the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, which together make up what is known as the Ordinary of the Mass. Add in the Pater Noster and responses and we have enough singing for any congregation.

In English speaking countries, there were at first no musical settings for the text of the Ordinary, which was recited in a normal speech tone. In order to provide some music, hymns were inserted as replacements for the Introit, Offertory and Communion antiphons (that part of the Mass known as the Proper), plus a Recessional hymn. Thus evolved the notorious "Hymn Sandwich".

Here in Sweden the situation was better as there was a long tradition of Gregorian Chant in the vernacular. It was a natural and obvious choice to adopt this music and build on the tradition when the vernacular was introduced in the Catholic liturgy. Thus the standard of music in the contemporary Catholic church in Sweden is exceptionally high and retains a continuity with the ancient Latin tradition.

However, the liturgy unfortunately also suffers from hymns. There is no excuse. The Entrance, Alleluia, and Communion verses are given in Cecilia, pages 1157 to 1244 (the second group of pages in the book, edged in grey) and mostly lend themselves to setting to Gregorian psalm tones. So why are these texts, which form part of the reading and should not be omitted, normally replaced by hymns? The General Instruction of the Roman Missal puts congregational hymns at the bottom of the list of preferred options.

There follow two practical problems. The first is that there are over 500 hymns in Cecilia. Most people only know a few of them, so they tend not to sing, leaving the organist playing solo, apart from a few scattered voices.

The second is that non-participation in singing is also promoted because people are sitting at the Offertory and Communion. Sitting never makes for good singing. At the Offertory the congretation are looking for their change to put in the collection, whilst at Communion, they are waiting to receive communion and do not have their books with them. If the communion hymn is sung afterwards, it prolongs the Mass unduly and disturbs people's meditation.

The use of  hymns from the Protestant tradition gives rise to further issues of an artistic and theological nature. The overall sound of the Ordinary in Sweden is traditionally Catholic, irrespective of whether it is sung in Latin or the vernacular. The music is melismatic, modal, and non-metrical, with precedence being given to the text.

Protestant hymns, on the other hand, are syllabic, metrical, and in a major or minor key. Thus there are two distinct musical genres in use. The two forms sit uncomfortably together. The result is like putting together food on a plate in a bad combination. Plato had unflattering things to say about both the contemporary major and minor key modes. The major key corresponds to the ancient Ionian mode, which, he claimed, promoted sloth and drunkenness and could lead to the collapse of society. In the context of liturgical music, it is interesting also that Plato praised the Dorian and Phrygian modes, which correspond to modes 1, 2, 3 and 4 in Gregorian chant.

The use of Protestant music in the Mass has theological and spiritual ramifications. Composers such as Crüger, Luther, and Neander wrote fine music, but it is polemically anti-Catholic. Their music carries within it the very spirit of German Lutheranism - so much so that if one enters a Catholic Mass when this music is being sung, it is barely recognisable as Catholic. The same applies to music from other Protestant traditions, for example English Anglicanism and Methodism. Anglican hymns from the first half of the twentieth century, such as "Tell out my soul", by Greatorex, are puffed up with the spirit of British imperialism. It is good music and we like to sing it, but it is out of place in a Catholic Mass.

  • We ought to wean ourselves off the use of hymns during Mass. The Entrance, Offertory and Communion verses should be read or chanted. The recessional should be restricted to one of the seasonal Latin or vernacular Marian hymns.
  • We need to produce Gregorian settings for the translated texts for the Entrance, Offertory and Communion verses.
  • There may be a need for some kind of  "Hymns of Praise" service on the lines of "Songs of Praise" where people who want to sing these hymns, presumably because they were brought up with them can continue to do so. They do not belong in a Catholic Mass. Such services might be held on a weekday or Saturday and be billed as a ecumenical events.

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