by William Mahrt

[This article appears in Sacred Music, Volume 134, Number 3, Fall 2007]

At last the motu proprio is out. The release of Summorum Pontificum and the accompanying letter of Pope Benedict XVI will provoke much comment from all ranges of the spectrum; these discussions will be followed with great interest. The document could have an impact upon the celebration of the sacred liturgy for many years to come. Among its points that will please some, for example, is the allowing of clerics to use the old breviary; among the points that may cause difficulty is the provision that “priests of the communities adhering to the former usage cannot, as a matter of principle, exclude celebrating according to the new books.” These and many other issues will be the subject of ongoing discussion; a few may require further clarification. Hopefully, the discussion will proceed with charity and mutual respect.

Much of the commentary that has begun to appear, in the journalism and on the internet, has dealt with purely liturgical matters and not with music; in fact, neither the document itself nor the accompanying letter even mention music; the ramifications for music, however, are many and important. Music, perhaps more than any other element of the liturgy, contributes to that sense of sacrality that Pope Benedict mentions in his letter. So my point here is the relation of the motu proprio to the principal aims of Sacred Music and our association—that through music the liturgy be made more sacred and more beautiful.

The Pope’s message, at its most basic, stems from his view of continuity with tradition—he frequently mentions the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” as an undesirable position taken by some after the council. This is why he emphasizes that there is but one Roman Rite with two uses, the ordinary (the Missal of Paul VI), and the extraordinary (the Missal of John XXIII, the last version of the Mass before the council, the so-called Tridentine Mass). He specifically mentions his hope that the celebration of the old use, will illuminate its continuity with the new use and the potential sacrality of the new use. In this view, it is important that the celebration in Latin of both uses be maintained and cultivated, even side-by-side. From the point of view of both liturgy and music, then, the more frequent celebration of the old use will be a mirror up to the new, pointing out potential ways of celebrating the new use in continuity with tradition, and even perhaps suggesting that some of the ways it is celebrated may not be so desirable. Likewise, then, the frequent celebration of the new use in Latin can be a fruitful point of comparison for its celebration in English, suggesting a more formal and sacral performance there as well. I shall address three specific issues relating to music: the sacrality of the liturgy, the singing of the Mass, and the propers of the Mass.

1) The sacred character of the liturgy. The ceremonies of the old use are fixed and very specific and ensure that the sacred character of the actions is maintained. No interpolated commentary or improvisation is possible, and a hieratic attitude prevails. In the vernacular, the temptation is to become chatty and conversational, and this mitigates the sacred character. The tendency toward arbitrary variation in the new use does the same.

The old use is customarily said facing the altar, while the new usually faces the people. Negative commentaries on this practice uniformly describe the priest as turning his back upon the people; this is a caricature, however, for the point is not to neglect the people, but together with the people to face God, and the traditional direction for facing God is the East; even when the church itself does not face East, the direction is described as liturgical East; this is the meaning of the word orientation, facing the orient. Interestingly, this stance of the priest is not prescribed by either use: the Tridentine Mass was always celebrated in St. Peter’s in Rome facing the people, since immediately in front of that altar is the Confession of St. Peter, the entrance to the crypt where the first pope is buried; moreover, as a Roman basilica, St. Peter’s faces West; the celebrant of the Mass faces East by facing the people. On the other hand, the Missal of Paul VI, including the recent edition of 2002, at several points in the Mass, for example just before communion, prescribes that the priest turn toward the people to address them directly, which presumes he is otherwise facing East. A renewed experience of celebrating Mass ad orientem may suggest to us that sometimes the stance facing the people may have created more of a dialogue between priest and people, and less of a direct address by both parties toward God; this more direct address to God is a stance that emphasizes the sacrality of the action. Perhaps it may even suggest a more frequent use of the ad orientem stance in the new use.

Pope Benedict expresses the hope that “the celebration of the Mass according to the Missal of Paul VI will be able to demonstrate, more powerfully than has been the case hitherto, the sacrality which attracts many people to the former usage.” It was his celebration of the Masses surrounding the death of Pope John Paul II that so impressed the world with the same sense of the sacred action he describes here; I suspect that it was even a factor in his election.

2) The singing of the Mass. In the old use, there is a hard and fast distinction between the low Mass and the high Mass. Either everything is spoken or everything to be said aloud is sung, including the lessons. This is still the ideal in the new use, articulated by Musicam Sacram, though it is not often practiced. Most often one hears a “middle Mass,” a mixture of spoken and sung elements, where the most striking difference between parts of the Mass is whether they are spoken or sung. When everything is sung, on the other hand, then the striking differences between the elements are those which represent liturgical differences, such as between Old Testament and New Testament lessons, and between lessons and responsorial chants between the lessons. Moreover, music becomes the medium of the celebration, and not just an occasional phenomenon, thereby enhancing the sacrality of the whole.

3) The propers of the Mass. The old use, whether low Mass or high, always includes all the propers of the Mass: introit, gradual, alleluia or tract, offertory, and communion. Except for the chants between the readings, these have mostly been forgotten in the celebration of the new use, though they can be found in the Graduale Romanum of 1974 and the Gregorian Missal of 1990, published for the new use. Even the chants between the readings have been transformed beyond recognition. Unfortunately, before the Council, the high Mass all too often replaced the proper Gregorian melodies with a setting of the text of the Mass propers to psalm tones, often called “Rossini propers” for the editor of the edition commonly in use then. If the celebration of the high Mass in the old form uses the proper Gregorian melodies, this will set an example for what should also be done for the new use. Even if the Rossini propers are used and co-opted for the new rite, this might just be a step in the right direction, if it does not stop there. At least the proper texts will be sung again. (Musicians should be reminded that for sung propers, the texts of the Graduale Romanum should be used and not those of the Missale Romanum which were provided for spoken recitation only.) In fact, for the celebration of either use in Latin, the old books of Rossini propers would contain most of the requisite Mass chants. Still, those who use psalm-tone propers should be reminded that, while they provide a setting of the text, they are far from adequate musically, being a kind of utility music against which Cardinal Ratzinger warned that utility music is useless. Still, a beginning with psalm-tone propers would be a base upon which gradually to incorporate a practice of genuine Gregorian melodies. One could begin with communion antiphons, including psalm verses alternated with the Gregorian antiphon, as recently presented in a publication of our association.

A problem with this program is that the currently available missalettes do not provide any of the texts of the Mass propers from the Graduale Romanum. For the Mass for which my choir sings, we provide a leaflet every week congaining all the propers with translations and all the music to be sung by the congregation, but this requires considerable effort. Publishers of missalettes might be persuaded to include both options. Another problem may be that not every pastor will want to see the Gregorian propers take the role they should. The pastor may argue against the use of Latin; he may argue against letting the choir sing them, contending that these pieces belong to the congregation; he may argue that they take too long. In such a situation, a gradual approach may be the only possibility—begin with the communion, when the communion is well accepted, add the introit, even if it means beginning it a couple of minutes early. The offertory should be possible, though the priest may have to be reminded that the offertory prayers may be said sotto voce when music is sung at the offertory. If there is an offertory procession, there is more time for the chant. Likewise, if incense is used at the introit and the offertory, there will be time for these chants. In unusual circumstances, melismatic offertory verses can be used, or a polyphonic motet sung after the offertory chant. Experience will show what kind of time is allowed at each place.

It is important that when the old use is celebrated as a high Mass, the music be done well. It will have to serve as a paradigm. One such Mass in a large city with properly prepared and performed music could be a leaven for the musical practice of the whole city’s churches. There will be those who will attend this Mass regularly and faithfully; they will come to experience the orderliness and serenity they may have missed at their parish Masses; if the music is excellent, they may find a quality they have missed in their parishes as well. There will be those who will attend this Mass occasionally; they will return to their parishes with new expectations, and may have an influence on how things are done there. There will be the curious and the skeptical, who may attend this Mass once; if it does not radiate beauty and holiness, they will go away confirmed in their belief that it was right to discard it. This poses for musicians a challenge and a high expectation; why should it not, though, for its purpose is the highest a human being can seek.
William Mahrt teaches music at Stanford University and serves as President of the Church Music Association of America. This article appears in the Fall 2007 issue of Sacred Music.