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Saturday, November 29, 2014

OCP's Grail Fail

When OCP touted composer Bob Hurd's new settings for the Grail Psalter, I met the news with some guarded optimism.  I was hopeful that perhaps OCP and Hurd had both turned a page and that something sacred would finally come forth from the publishing house and its composer.

The actual Grail Psalter is a beautifully translated text that is far superior to what we have in our present lectionaries.  The language is sacred and unambiguous.  Surely, such a sacred text deserves to be clothed in proper music.  The music should be the light that highlights the beauty of the text and the salt that gives it taste.

Unfortunately, Grail Psalms for Sunday Worship does neither.  The light it is supposed to shine towards the text winds up blinding it while too much salt kills the composition.  In his introduction to the compilation, Hurd paraphrases from the Introduction to the Lectionary, writing that "the primary focus of the assembly during the Liturgy of the Word" is "meditation".  He writes that "the responsorial psalm is key to this mediation, or 'chewing the cud' of the Word."  He later explains the method he employed for his compositions:
"Given this distinctive role of the responsorial psalm, it seemed to me that its musical form could be distinctive, too: leaner than the usual song form, more proportionate to the unfolding readings, and most especially, more conducive to a meditative posture of chewing the cud of the Word.  To accomplish this, I have blended chant and meter in these settings.  The refrains are in a contemporary, metered style.  The verses begin with chant tones and then turn back into metered music part way through in order to segue smoothly into the metered refrain."
While Hurd may have meant well, the compositions he created accomplish neither.  Music is supposed to be the handmaid of the sacred liturgy, not the other way around.  What Hurd wound up doing is to make the music matter more than the words that it is supposed to accentuate.

His setting for Psalm 16, "Lord, You Will Show Us the Path of Life" repeats the refrain for the sake of the music, rather than letting the text speak for itself.  The verses start off well, but, wind up turning into something that is more fit for a pop song than for the liturgy.  The setting for Psalm 19: "Your Words, Lord, Are Spirit and Life" also falls into the same trap.  There is no need to have the refrain repeated twice.  The verses can be salvaged if the same chant tone for the first half can be carried into the second half.  Psalm 90, "Fill Us with Your Love, O Lord and  We Will Sing for Joy" carries with it an unnecessary repetition of the second half of the refrain.  Hurd forces the text into his music instead of the other way around.  He makes his musical setting more important than the words themselves.  Psalm 63, "My Soul Is Thirsting for You, O Lord, My God" could have worked, however, the second half of the verse has too much of a contemporary feel and the musical interludes between the repeated refrain do not give it the character of a proper responsorial psalm.  Psalm 40, "Here Am I Lord, I Come to Do Your Will" unnecessarily repeats the refrain. Rather than compose a clean and pure setting, Hurd adds too much salt to the composition, failing to give the text its proper seasoning.  Psalm 34, "Taste and See the Goodness of the Lord" suffers from the same fate;  its repetitive refrain does not really work.  If the refrain is sung once between verses, then it could certainly work.  Psalm 103, "The Lord is Kind and Merciful" (different from the one reviewed below) also carries the same double refrain that does not really help.  The music is the same the setting reviewed below, however, the repetitive refrain would be a strike against it.  Here, as in the other compositions, Hurd makes the music more important.  It would have been better to compose a different setting instead of recycling one that he previously used.  With the exception of those reviewed in the next paragraph, the rest of the Grail Psalm settings suffer from the same fate.

There are some small glimmers of hope. Hurd's version of Psalm 23, "The Lord is My Shepherd" is perhaps one of  the most passable of the group.  He was able to keep some of the integrity of what the responsorial psalm is supposed to be like.  However, even here, the over-use of instrumentation drowns out the beauty of the text.  The verses are not as overloaded with music as is the setting for Psalm 23.   Psalm 98, "The Lord Comes to Rule the Earth with Justice" is another one that seems hopeful; however, the verses would have to be tweaked as there is that over-emphasis on the music that leaves the words in the dust.  Psalm 19, "Lord, You Have the Words of Everlasting Life" is perhaps the most hopeful.  He does not repeat the text and he manages to preserve some semblance to what a responsporial psalm is supposed to sound like.  With some tweaking of the second half of the verse, this could work.  Psalm 103, "The Lord is Kind and Merciful, Slow to Anger and Rich in Compassion" is another one that is hopeful.  With some minor tweaking of the second half of the verses, it could also work.

Hurd would have been better off using the settings by Joseph Gelineau SJ for the Grail Psalter.  Gelineau's settings are beautiful and quite in tune with the sacred character of the liturgy.  They highlight the text, but do not overwhelm it.  Even Owen Aslett would have been better suited for the task.

I wish I could have found more psalms from Hurd's collection that would have been useful, but, after listening to the 27 compositions in their entirety, it was difficult as I could not chew the cud properly due to over seasoning.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Real Pharisees

These past two weeks or so, the Gospel readings centered around Jesus' dealings with the Pharisees.  In one form or another, the Pharisees try to trap Jesus, accusing Him of infractions with the law.  The irony in this is that the Pharisees assail the Giver of the Law, Himself, without taking into account their own abuses.

During the Babylonian Exile, there was a group of pious Jews which understood that the reason for their banishment was because Ancient Israel had repeatedly violated God's Law through its infidelity. This group became the Perushim, the separated, because they wanted to ensure a way to protect the Law so that Ancient Israel would not violate it.  What the Perushim did was to build a hedge around the Law, devising minor ordinances to protect the precept that the Lord had given.

Unfortunately, the Perushim (who evolved into the Pharisees) built such an elaborate hedge around the Law that they made these minor ordinances more important than what God had ordained.  In other words, they added to the Law and valued their additions more than what came directly from the Lord, Himself.  This is what Jesus railed against whenever he upbraided the Pharisees.  The same group that was trying to protect the Law wound up violating it by additions they made on their own authority, not God's.

In this day and age, we have our own Pharisees, but the identity of these folks is rather surprising.

In a previous post, I wrote about the notion that not a few people have that those of us who care about liturgical integrity act like Pharisees.  I have been accused of that a few times.  The irony in all of this is that the very folks who level this charge against me (and others) are the same people who will defend usage of their liturgical innovations over the Church's norms.  Just as the Pharisees were so meticulous in following their own idiosyncratic additions to the Law, these individuals firmly hold fast to their own liturgical creations and will not cede any ground, even when these practices run contrary to the Church's liturgical law.

This is especially true in children's liturgies.  Those who are in charge of planning these Masses tend to spend significant time rehearsing how the youngsters will gather around the altar and perform some sort of mime interpretation to the Pater Noster or how they will process up to the altar bearing globes and other objects for the offertory.  Yet, the organizers tend to see little importance in having the students learn the sung Ordinary of the Mass or proper conduct during the liturgy itself.    Liturgies for youth and some ecclesial movements fare no better.   The latter tend to place more emphasis on the innovations that they have created as opposed to doing what the Church asks.

We need to remember that the Mass is not our own personal property.  We cannot do with it as we please. It is the Church's supreme act of worship with its very foundations going back to the time of Ancient Israel when the Lord dictated to Moses how He was to be worshipped.  He strictly enjoined Ancient Israel not to deviate from these sacred practices.  Lamentably, every time Ancient Israel committed an infraction against the Law, things went very badly for her.

The Pharisees thought that they could improve on the Law and protect it by adding "sub laws" to it.  They thought that their own innovations were helping things. Jesus gave them the short answer: "No."   What they did was make their "improvements" more important than what God, Himself, had set forth.

The new Pharisees seem to follow the same modus operandi.  They seem to think that by adding their own personal stamp to the Mass, they have made it better.  However, once again, the answer is a resounding "no".   As Redemptionis Sacramentum reminds us:

[7.]  Not infrequently, abuses are rooted in a false understanding of liberty. Yet God has not granted us in Christ an illusory liberty by which we may do what we wish, but a liberty by which we may do that which is fitting and right.18 This is true not only of precepts coming directly from God, but also of laws promulgated by the Church, with appropriate regard for the nature of each norm. For this reason, all should conform to the ordinances set forth by legitimate ecclesiastical authority. 
[8.]  It is therefore to be noted with great sadness that "ecumenical initiatives which are well-intentioned, nevertheless indulge at times in Eucharistic practices contrary to the discipline by which the Church expresses her faith". Yet the Eucharist "is too great a gift to tolerate ambiguity or depreciation". It is therefore necessary that some things be corrected or more clearly delineated so that in this respect as well "the Eucharist will continue to shine forth in all its radiant mystery".19 
[9.]  Finally, abuses are often based on ignorance, in that they involve a rejection of those elements whose deeper meaning is not understood and whose antiquity is not recognized. For "the liturgical prayers, orations and songs are pervaded by the inspiration and impulse" of the Sacred Scriptures themselves, "and it is from these that the actions and signs receive their meaning".20 As for the visible signs "which the Sacred Liturgy uses in order to signify the invisible divine realities, they have been chosen by Christ or by the Church".21 Finally, the structures and forms of the sacred celebrations according to each of the Rites of both East and West are in harmony with the practice of the universal Church also as regards practices received universally from apostolic and unbroken tradition,22 which it is the Church's task to transmit faithfully and carefully to future generations. All these things are wisely safeguarded and protected by the liturgical norms. 
[10.]  The Church herself has no power over those things which were established by Christ Himself and which constitute an unchangeable part of the Liturgy.23 Indeed, if the bond were to be broken which the Sacraments have with Christ Himself who instituted them, and with the events of the Church's founding,24 it would not be beneficial to the faithful but rather would do them grave harm. For the Sacred Liturgy is quite intimately connected with principles of doctrine,25 so that the use of unapproved texts and rites necessarily leads either to the attenuation or to the disappearance of that necessary link between the lex orandi and the lex credendi.26 
[11.]  The Mystery of the Eucharist "is too great for anyone to permit himself to treat it according to his own whim, so that its sacredness and its universal ordering would be obscured".27 On the contrary, anyone who acts thus by giving free rein to his own inclinations, even if he is a Priest, injures the substantial unity of the Roman Rite, which ought to be vigorously preserved,28 and becomes responsible for actions that are in no way consistent with the hunger and thirst for the living God that is experienced by the people today. Nor do such actions serve authentic pastoral care or proper liturgical renewal; instead, they deprive Christ's faithful of their patrimony and their heritage. For arbitrary actions are not conducive to true renewal,29 but are detrimental to the right of Christ's faithful to a liturgical celebration that is an expression of the Church's life in accordance with her tradition and discipline. In the end, they introduce elements of distortion and disharmony into the very celebration of the Eucharist, which is oriented in its own lofty way and by its very nature to signifying and wondrously bringing about the communion of divine life and the unity of the People of God.30 The result is uncertainty in matters of doctrine, perplexity and scandal on the part of the People of God, and, almost as a necessary consequence, vigorous opposition, all of which greatly confuse and sadden many of Christ's faithful in this age of ours when Christian life is often particularly difficult on account of the inroads of "secularization" as well.31

Just as the Pharisees in Jesus' time caused confusion with their additions to the Law, so, too, do their liturgical descendants, with their creative innovations, contribute to the uncertainty and perplexity that Redemptionis Sacramentum warned against.