Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Importance of Beautiful Music

This started out as a rant and became an essay. It is quite obvious that music is my first love. I am leaving the ranting part in mostly because I am having a hard time trying to rewrite it into essay form. It does make sense, I think. I will explain my outrage at cantors, though.

This post was inspired by the Mass I went to Sunday. There was no cantor. There was no choir. Until the offertory, there was no organist. This was an improvement. Normally, at this Mass, there is a cantor. A female cantor who can sing loudly, very loudly. I feel bad saying it, but she doesn't sing well at all. In fact, I have heard conversations between parishioners who have said that her singing is distracting it's so bad. Sometimes, she harmonizes during the responsorial psalm. It just sounds awful. They seem to think it is beautiful. Sometimes, the choir tries to perform polyphonic pieces, but because of the size of the choir (about 6 or 7 maybe) and the ability of the choir, it does not sound good either. I'm not sure if it's the cantor or the choir, but for some reason, most of the people in the pews do not sing. This Sunday, however, when all we had was the organ, the congregation sang. And sang well. I also noticed that it is not because they don't know the music that they don't sing. They sang the music that they knew, not the music that was written in the hymnal. (The hymn was “Hail Redeemer King Divine.” The hymnal producers had changed some of the music due to copy right laws.) I also think that besides being unnecessary for the most part, cantors tend to think of the Mass as their performance, not as a prayer.

SO, enjoy!

I don't know whether it's more the arms waving or the vibrato booming over the sound system, but you, my dear cantor, are intimidating. And, for the most part, unneeded. There is only one time that I can think of during the entire Mass (if English is the only language being used) that you are doing something useful; and, unfortunately (for you, that is, anyway), even then, there is a way around you.

You see, there is this novel idea of a choir: a group of people, who have some musical talent, who sing (from the back of the church, preferably), so that the congregation can follow. (*Please note that there is in an "in most cases" application of this argument; sometimes, the congregation should not be lead in singing, but the singing of the choir should lead them to pray silently. The Mass is the prayer of Church; hymns are prayers; when the congregation does sing them, they are praying; when the choir is singing a sixteenth century polyphonic [translated literally as "many sounds;" usually soprano, alto, tenor, and bass- every voice sings a different part and through the laws of harmony and dissonance, an awesome {in the most literal sense of the word} piece of music is created] piece, and the congregation listens, they are still praying. However, not every choir is able to pull such polyphony off. Though it is not as difficult as one would think, it does require time; and since most parish choir members are volunteers, it difficult to even get one hour of practice a week. It also requires musical ability [read: people who can sing decently, not even the ability to read music]. I can personally attest to the fact that polyphonic music can be done by amatures [look at me] and children. Children? Yes. Ordinary children with no knowledge of music. But, as I said, the volunteer status of the average parish choir is quite an obstacle for this type of music.)

No embellishment is better than too much embellishment. Too much embellishment looks foolish; none looks practical. No embellishment is not synonymous with "ugly". Something can be plain and beautiful at the same time. In fact, the very first music of the Church was simple. But beautiful. Some of it is still used today; partly, because it is beautiful; partly, because it is simple.

This doesn't mean embellishment is bad. It simply means that when embellishing, one should use discretion. It would be silly for a woman to embroider a perfectly lovely wedding gown using colored yarn because she has no embroidery thread . Likewise, it would be silly for her to spend hours upon hours embroidering a cloth that is going to be used as a grease rag.

Just because a choir can sing polyphony well, does not meant that they should sing polyphony for everything. Sometimes only simple things are needed or fitting. Sometimes, no embellishment is a reminder of what is happening in the Liturgy. And just because because polyphonic music would be proper or preferable for certain parts of the Mass, a choir should not use it if it is beyond their capabilities. There are other ways to create a lovely sound that, while not as magnificent, is just as fitting. There is really only one aesthetic requirement that music at Mass must meet: that it be beautiful. This is because, as Pope Benedict XVI says, beauty “enables us to experience the presence of God.”

Here one may say "but beauty is subjective." I answer: not quite. Beauty is defined as by Webster's dictionary as "the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit." Yet again one might say, “what exalts individual minds or spirits is subjective.” I answer: not true.

That which is the highest Good is God. The ultimate goal of every man is (or should be) to reach the greatest Good. Man cannot reach Good without goodness; man's spirit cannot be lifted to the highest Good by something that is not good. Because of the nature of “good” something cannot be good and not lift man's spirit to God, even if man does not realize that his spirit is being lifted. This is why beauty is not subjective. But, because of sin, beauty can be perverted but still seem beautiful. A prime example of this is human sexuality. I am not saying that human sexuality is beauty perverted. Human sexuality is wondrously beautiful when it is not used in a perverted fashion. It fulfills the requirement of lifting the soul to God. But when a man (or a woman) uses his sexuality in any way other than that which was intended, it no longer lifts his soul; in fact, it drags his soul away from God, yet, it still can be mistakenly perceived as good.

The same is true of music. St. Augustine said, “Music, that is the science or the sense of proper modulation, is likewise given by God's generosity to mortals having rational souls in order to lead them to higher things." Beautiful music lifts the soul to God. Here I could go on for pages about how some music is not beautiful and does not lift man's soul. In fact, I have done so before (in a paper for Dr. Urbanczyk) but it is not immediately pertinent to this, so I will resist the temptation. You have been spared.

Since the Mass is the highest form of worship, should an effort not be made by musicians (whether they have been trained or not) to provide the most beautiful music they can? And since beauty is not entirely subjective, should they not make an effort to train themselves (and others) to be able to determine whether music is beautiful or not?

Music at Mass should not be haphazardly put together. Music at Mass should not be chosen on the basis of “I like this” but on the basis of how beautiful it is. This analysis is not based solely on the composition of the music, but also on the lyrics, the composition and the lyrics combined (a song of exultation should not sound like a dirge), and the presentation. While musicians should most certainly not think of the Mass as their performance, they should be aware of the sound of their music and able to judge whether or not it is beautiful. A choir should not present music that is not as beautiful as they can make it. Or music that they cannot make beautifully. Beautifully does not mean perfectly. But it does mean that careful attention has to be paid so that it does not sound ugly.

Music that is not beautiful detracts from the grandeur of the Mass. If music is detracting from the grandeur of the Mass then it is ineffective, and sometimes, deleterious to the soul.

Monday, June 04, 2007

'The Time Has Come', The Walrus Said, 'to Talk of Many Things; of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax, of Cabbages and Kings, of why the Sea is Boiling Hot and Whether Pigs Have Wings'

I'm going to warn you all right now: there are no segues in this post. It's a bunch of random stories that I would tell you if I could followed by my random thoughts. I did spend about ten minutes trying to think of some segues but I couldn't. And you know if I can't, then are most certainly not any.

The other day, Dominic, 4, came to me and said "I need to tell you my dream but you have to promise not to tell anyone" (He has since released me from this). Poor little fellow. He had a dream that he was being chased by the devil. But then all of a sudden, the Waltons came out of nowhere with real, working life savers (light sabers) and chased the devil away. Funny the things little kids think of when they are asleep.

The other day at WalMart, (which, our new one looks exactly like the one in Dawsonville. I go there and I don't feel like I'm in Alabama anymore. I always expect to run into people from school and instead, run into people from my childhood. Most of the time, I am extremely disappointed.) Anyway, I was really thirsty, so Carolynne and I went to go get some waters. I wanted at least three because there were five of us. I was plannning on getting five but... The (cheapest) machine that I wanted to use didn't take dollars and that was all I had, so I put my money into one machine to get the change. After I got the change, I put 50 cents in and pressed the button.Nothing happened. All of the buttons, succesively, still nothing. I pressed the coin return button. Nothing. So I banged the side of it. Way harder than I thought I had. Just as the WalMart greeter lady was walking by. Recived evil looks from her. I was so thirsty, though, that I was by now, willing to pay 65 cents more for the same amount of water. So I bought two and put the third dollar in. SOLD OUT flashed across the little screen. I hit the coin return button and heard clink clink clink clink but saw nothing. What would you do at this point? I knelt down and looked in the slot, saw my money, stuck my finger in to let it loose and out came six or seven dollars worth of quaters. SO i took it the greeter and held up both of my hands (one full of quaters, the other with four in it) and said "the machine gave me way too much change"
"oh, ok, how much too much?"
"this much"
OH, well let me take it to the service desk
well there's still more in the machine
oh, really?
yes, see? (by this time, we had walked to the machine and I had knelt down and unloosed about five more dollars worth)
well, thank you, I'll let the service desk know about this. did you loose your money in the Sam's machine?
well, yes
how much?
fifty cents
you should go see the service desk
oh, no, it's not that big of a deal
no, you really should, they give you your money back
but by this time, I had spent at least five minutes at the drink machines, more time than I had spent in the store, and there were people waiting in the car for us. The lady, while trying to convince us to go to the service desk, had leaned her hand gently on the Sam's machine and as we started to walk away we heard BALUMP clink clink. The Sam's machine spit out my water. AND my change. I felt like I was in an Aesop's Fable.

The other day, someone knocked on our door, using the knocker. RC is the only person in the history of our living here who has ever used that. We were expecting him, so when the knocker knocked, my younger two sisters yelled "YOU CAN NEVER COME HERE AGAIN!" and "GO AWAY< WE DON'T WANT YOU HERE!" while they opened the door. There stood an aunt we hadn't seen in oh, five years and my grandmother. Boy were they surprised.

My dad is now in Nebraska. I think he likes it. I talked to the financial aid people. You know, I think the word "aid" should be removed from their title. Financial Status people would be more fitting.