Saturday, May 06, 2006

Examining Perfection
Crisis magazine publishes a primer on reading chant notation. Needless to say, a perfectly good musical treatise has been mucked up with propaganda of the wishful thinking variety. Authors Arlene Oost-Zinner and Jeffrey Tucker love chant. I have no doubt they and their choirs do a bang-up job in reading chant notation, and their vocal blending and articulation is impeccable. Singing chant requires an intellectual adjustment. Singers typically approach music with a critical eye, trying to determine if they like the piece or not. We naturally want music to impress us, and we dismiss it if it doesn't. The chant is different: it is a perfect musical expression of perfect prayer. The challenge it presents to a musician is part of its universal appeal. Thus you can approach chant with the foreknowledge that it's beautiful, provides flawless integration between text and music, and offers aesthetic illumination unlike any music you'll ever encounter. A few things: - It's clear that the authors are greatly impressed with chant. I share that impression. But it's plainly clear they dismiss a great quantity of music that doesn't impress them. It's hard to see how they are different from other musicians. - I'm not sure about the quality of "perfection" in prayer. I would tend to think that the Son offers the perfect prayer to his Father. Any other human prayer, by the very definition of our creaturehood, is not perfect. To the extent that we offer ourselves to the Father and try to align ourselves to the Father's will, that we pray through the agency of Christ our Lord, and that we are open to the indwelling Spirit when two or more are gathered, we participate in the "perfect prayer" of the Trinity. But can we really say that such perfection is dependent on a single human musical form? - The authors themselves tout Pange Lingua, Jesu Dulcis, Adoro Te Devote, and Ave Maria as ideal starting points for learning chant hymnody. One problem here with perfection. It might be one thing to say that the traditional quote from Luke 1:28, as part of the inspired Word of God, is perfect prayer. (Others might argue it's just an angel talking to a young woman.) But it strikes me that even the authorship of the esteemed Thomas Aquinas (examples 1 and 3) brings us a tad short of perfection. His texts are great expressions of prayer. They convince me of his mystical side and worthiness as a Doctor of the Church. But perfection? Really? And some people insinuate I'm a Pelagian! - Oost-Zinner and Tucker tell you that chant makes for a slam-dunk on quality. Heck, I can go to my local symphony for that. Or enjoy the musical offerings of local colleges or chamber music series. I can also appreciate what less-skilled musicians bring to their interpretation of music. But if you think that putting chant hymns and service music into your liturgy is an automatic upgrade from any non-chant repertoire, I think you've stuffed your head with cotton candy. Music well done always trumps music poorly done. For just about every English-speaking parish, "On Eagles Wings" done well will be an improvement on Jesu Dulcis done a cappella by a group of people who drag the tempo and drop the pitch. We sang Jesu Dulcis three times in Omaha earlier this week. We sang a good bit of chant in the Office. It was okay. We slowed down and pitch-slouched a lot. But not all of us were musicians, and not all of us were in critique-mode over it. We prayed. I don't know if it was spiritually perfect, but it was prayer. Likewise with just about any musical selection in your parish or mine this weekend. Is there a better piece of music out there? Yes. Better than everything else on the hymn board? With maybe a maximum exception of one item, yes. How can I live with myself as a music planner knowing that everything I program is far from the best? Because St Paul tells us: (The Lord) said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor 12:9-10) The obvious caution is that we don't settle for less as part of a passive approach to life. But we also temper our efforts with a dose of reality. It doesn't all depend on any one of us, or any one musical expression. Liturgy is not like basketball or insurance: on the human side, there are no slam-dunks and no guarantees.

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