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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Not Quite Worthy of St. Cecilia

When the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments released the revised Ordinary of the Mass to the English-speaking bishops conferences, it admonished composers to respect the sacredness of these words when setting them to music.  Composers like Scotsman James MacMillan took this wise counsel to heart when he set the text to music.  ICEL certainly upped the ante by including a chant setting for the revised Ordinary in the Third Typical Edition of the Roman Missal.

Lamentably, however, the CDWDS’s words were lost on the two largest liturgical publishing houses, GIA and Oregon Catholic Press (OCP). In the case of OCP, the publishing house’s much hyped “Misa Santa Cecilia”, which the company promotes as a vibrant bilingual setting with the correct words and approved by the USCCB, the setting, in my opinion, fails to live up to the directive from the CDWDS.

The setting seems to be faithful to the text.  This is certainly good, given OCP’s previous track record of taking liberties with both the English and Spanish texts of the Ordinary of the Mass. However, when it comes to the musicality, something seems to be amiss.

Here is what Sacramentum Caritatis urges musicians to do when composing music for liturgical use:

Certainly as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another. Generic improvisation or the introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided. As an element of the liturgy, song should be well integrated into the overall celebration (128). Consequently everything -- texts, music, execution -- ought to correspond to the meaning of the mystery being celebrated, the structure of the rite and the liturgical seasons (129).
OCP implies that this bilingual setting celebrates Hispanic culture, calling the piece vibrant.  In fact, when reading through the description, I failed to find any usage of the word sacred.  OCP spent more time focusing on the culture that it failed to take into account the sacred nature of the text, completely ignoring Sacramentum Caritatis 42.

When I listened to the setting, all I could think about was Latin night on Dancing with the Stars.  At any moment, I was expecting Mark Ballas and Cheryl Burke to come out and do a Bolero dance during the Penitential setting and the Agnus Dei, or a Salsa number to the Gloria and the Sanctus. The settings for the Memorial Acclamation could either be a Paso Doble or a Rumba. 

Now, in fairness, I have also heard the setting in three different real-world experiences during Mass.  OCP tends to over-stylize its presentations using instruments that one would not normally encounter during Mass (drums, electric guitars, bass guitars and the like).  In my actual experience with the piece, I heard it on three separate occasions wherein the piano and the guitar were used and then with the organ.  I tried to be objective; however, even if the organist from St. Peter’s Basilica were playing the pieces, it would not change a thing: the composition is just bad.

Even the way the setting treats the wording is somewhat suspect.  When Pope St. Pius X wrote his Motu Propio on Sacred Music, Tra le Sollecitudini, he noted that:

(S)ince modern music has risen mainly to serve profane uses, greater care must be taken with regard to it, in order that the musical compositions of modern style which are admitted in the Church may contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theaters, and be not fashioned even in their external forms after the manner of profane pieces.
6. Among the different kinds of modern music, that which appears less suitable for accompanying the functions of public worship is the theatrical style, which was in the greatest vogue, especially in Italy, during the last century. This of its very nature is diametrically opposed to Gregorian Chant and classic polyphony, and therefore to the most important law of all good sacred music. Besides the intrinsic structure, the rhythm and what is known as the conventionalism of this style adapt themselves but badly to the requirements of true liturgical music.
Inasmuch as some may argue that Pope St. Pius X wrote this admonition back in 1903, the problems that plagued the music used in the Church’s liturgy 110 years ago persist today.  Even Blessed John Paul II recognized this issue in 2003, when he wrote his Chirograph on Sacred Music:
12. With regard to compositions of liturgical music, I make my own the "general rule" that St Pius X formulated in these words:  "The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savour the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple"[33]. It is not, of course, a question of imitating Gregorian chant but rather of ensuring that new compositions are imbued with the same spirit that inspired and little by little came to shape it. Only an artist who is profoundly steeped in the sensus Ecclesiae can attempt to perceive and express in melody the truth of the Mystery that is celebrated in the Liturgy[34].
OCP devotes so much time to promoting cultural diversity that it forgets the one aspect that sets liturgical music apart from the rest:  it is to be used in the service of the liturgy and not the other way around.  We are not here to celebrate one particular culture, or a mish-mash of cultures, as the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus passionately lamented when going over the substandard musical selections that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was subjected to during the Mass at Nationals Stadium in April 2008.  Before we are anything else, we identify ourselves as Catholic.  Catholic means universal.  We do not splinter off into some cultural Tower of Babel when it comes to our liturgies.  We are supposed to be united as one in prayer. 
This is why bilingual Mass settings ultimately fail.  There is no unity when we split up the Ordinary of the Mass into two different languages.  In fact, Liturgicam Authenticam takes that point into strong consideration:
88. In the case of the Order of Mass and those parts of the Sacred Liturgy that call for the direct participation of the people, a single translation should exist in a given language,67 unless a different provision is made in individual cases.
What is the point, then, of having bilingual settings?  Why not promote the language that unifies all of us as children of the Church: Latin?  Yet, OCP has never offered anything new in Latin.  The publishing house is so busy promoting culture that it fails to realize that Latin is our liturgical heritage.
Then there is the issue of the responsorial Gloria.  This is a recent phenomenon, one that I have not even seen in Latin.  The problems with this type of a setting are that the piece chops up the Gloria, interrupting the flow of the prayer and it also unduly prolongs the introductory rite, turning the music into a performance.  Misa Santa Cecilia is also uses the same repetitive mechanism for the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei.  The latter seems to go into infinity.  It’s a double whammy of a bad piece that never seems to end.
If Spanish language congregations are in need of a setting of the Ordinary that fulfills Sacramentum Caritatis 42 and the prescriptions set forth by Pope St. Pius X, Blessed John Paul II and Liturgicam Authenticam, one need only look at the magnificent composition set forth by Fr. Matthew Spencer.  Fr. Spencer set the Spanish language Ordinary of the Mass using Jubilate Deo, the simple Latin Mass setting promulgated by Pope Paul VI.  One can find it here:
OCP had the chance to promote the sacred and the majestic with its Misa Santa Cecilia.  Unfortunately, it does neither and fails to live up to the dignity of its namesake.

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