Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What musical legacy would we leave to those after us?

An interesting thought came up during a workshop entitled "Do It Yourself Theology: Hymns." Just in case you're wondering what that is about, here is the course description:
The aim of this series of adult classes will be to make the process both somewhat clearer and somewhat less individual; engaging in joint, do-it-ourselves, theology may help to enhance and deepen the place of hymns in our lives as Christians. During each of the four sessions several hymns will be looked at, primarily, as sources for theological reflection. At the same time, we shall try to remember that hymns are instruments of worship, and to that end we’ll consider the role of the tunes to which they are set – not by musical analysis but by singing through them ourselves. No musical ability is required or even expected.
I attended the third of four classes last night, and we explored some very interesting themes. What caught my attention was a comment made while we were discussing "Now, my tongue, the mystery telling" set to the hymntune Pange Lingua, as found at #329 in the Hymnal 1982.

The person who made the comment appears to be in his mid- to late-60s. (I will admit that I am not always the best judge of ages, but I don't believe he is any younger than 60s.) He expressed fear that the plainsong hymns like #329 might not make it in any future revisions of The Hymnal. On the other hand, a young, early 20-ish college student said that amongst his peers, there is a resurging interest in anything chant, plainsong, polyphony, etc., and that he is not worried at all about such pieces surviving amongst people of his generation.

I think they ended up agreeing to disagree on this point. However, from my experience, I can say honestly that I agree with the young college student. It has been my experience that it's the younger people who are happy to hear chant, and even to learn chant, and that the older people are those who express the most reservation, even disdain for music they consider "dead."

Sung Compline at Chapel of the Cross is a perfect example of the young man's assertion. I remember when I first joined the compline choir back in ... I want to say 2002 or 2003. We'd be lucky if we had at least 20 people turn up for the service in a church that seats at least 400-450 people. As the years have gone by, the choir has gained in membership whilst attendance at these services has grown, steadily. Most of those who attend the Compline service are young, college-age students. Not surprisingly, most are students at UNC Chapel Hill.

As for the choir itself - most of the choir members are undergraduate or graduate students and post-docs. I don't believe there are any choir members who are older than 50. And if you ask the young people present, they gush on about how wonderful this music is, and how completely fitting it is to hear it in church.

I discussed this after the class with the facilitator, who is a History professor at UNC and also an ordained Episcopal priest. He agreed with my assessment, and stated that the sung Compline service was a vision by the director, Dr. Van Quinn, and that he was happy that Van's faith in establishing this service has been rewarded. And it is quite obvious that the Compline service is one of Chapel of the Cross' most attended services of the day.

I was also discussing this with my young 20-something year old co-contributor, the erstwhile computer guy/organist fission, who is a happy member of the Church Music Association of America (CMAA), and he pretty much echoed the observations he's made with mine.

So how is this related to the idea of "legacy"? Well it's more the discussion that followed the one related to plainsong and chant. As far as future hymnals are concerned: what sort of hymns would be included in them? Would we still see more plainchant in the hymnals? Would we still see some of the more traditional hymns? Or would we see more of the "contemporary" songs such as what one would see in most Roman Catholic "hymnals" and Episcopal supplements such as Wonder, Love, and Praise and Lift Every Voice and Sing II?

Discussion, comments, etc. are welcomed in the combox, but flames will be sent to /dev/null.


Brian Michael Page said...

"Do It Yourself Theology" - sounds like something the Catholics already came up with. That explains "Gather Us In", "All Are Welcome", "Table of Plenty", and "Song of the Body of Christ", priests ad libbing the daylights out of Mass, hand-grabbing during the Lord's Prayer, etc.

At least in the Episcopal setting you describe people want to keep chants in the hymnal.

I'll try to post something on CV-the B tonight (provided I'm home an a more reasonable hour from work). :)

Jason Pennington said...

Indeed yes. I agree wholeheartedly that among the faithful from teens to twenties and into their 30's even that chant and polyphony are very well favored. From my experience with young lovers of true Roman Catholic music, and having read many articles on the topic and spoken with colleagues through the years, they yearn for something solid and lasting, something time-honored, something connected, something that is not a fad. Opposition generally comes from those aged 45 and older -- including oddly many "traditional" priests 40 somethings who are still hung up on the "participation" misunderstanding. Several months ago, I met the young new music director from our local university's Catholic parish at a chant conference, who was already using simple polyphony, looking for an organ builder to restore the church instrument and planning to start using chant.

It's really a matter of waiting for the baby boomer priests to start dying off. Chant has the mortality of the hippies on it's side, really (to be blunt). The ones who are heading the movement of restoration among tge fauthful are indeed the high schoolers and the college students. We can not really rely upon the Neo-Trad priests to give any indication -- we have a bevy of those here in Lagayette who parade in their fiddle backs and pretend to be traditional, but they are show queens, no historical connection, flashes in the pan because they think they look good in brocade and lace: fake piety. No, the true indication is the turn-out of so many lay youth at chant and polyphony events. We need to pray for the vocation of more priests who are not "in it for the show", who understand both the history of the church and the important role music plays in the church's liturgy. The neo-trads (in Lafayette they call themselves the "John Paul II priests -- what an insult to the papal memory) are the ecclesial noise machine at the moment. As soon as we start seeing the now teens and early 20 somethings ordained, we will see very quick reform of the reform.

On the grass roots level too I saw it: I'm choir, the younger members and those old enough to have remembered the old liturgy knew the value of chant and loved learning it, while the only complainer was a baby boomer -- she was always "concerned" that "the people wouldn't understand". And she was a teacher, ironically. I always countered her by saying "as a teacher you know what clears up an inability to understand...teaching".


Jason Pennington said...

Please excuse the typos above. I'm on my phone and predictive text was never hooked on phonics.


Charles said...

Let me give this some thought, dear Lyn.
Nice to see ya, JP and BMP.
In Christ,
Aging hippy!
PS I'm teaching convicts in a state prison plainsong, many of whom have no notion of what "chant" is as a verb or a noun.
I'm also doing that at my K-8 parochial school, as well as at our Sunday Masses, duh.
You sure you want us all to vacate the planet ASAP?