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Friday, January 24, 2014

The art of liturgical song

I received a lot of compliments and "thank you"s last Sunday for a setting of Psalm 40 that I wrote
over forty years ago, "Here I Am". People I don't know sent me emails or posted on my Facebook page or sent me messages about their experience singing and praying with that song at Mass. I played it myself five times, twice accompanying my wife, Terry Donohoo, as she sang it in the early morning hours of the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time. I taught the refrain in four parts to my small-but-mighty youth choir last night before mass, and to Olivia, a high school student just barely older than my eldest granddaughter, who cantored it with grace and some lately discovered confidence. Some of the notes I got made me think that for some, the song was a new experience, whereas for me, I play it with memories of having written it (at least) two lifetimes ago.

As I was driving home that night it made me think again about what makes a liturgical song a good liturgical song. We talk in our business about some different "judgments" we make when writing, evaluating, and choosing songs for worship. There are very helpful guidelines in Sing to The Lord and its predecessor documents. We're instructed to make a judgment about suitability based upon three criteria: whether the song is musically "good", whether it meets the needs and suits the structure of the liturgy, and whether, if suitable musically and liturgically, it's right for a particular assembly. Those judgments are referred to as "musical, liturgical, and pastoral" judgments, and with them, says the USCCB document Sing to The Lord, we make a single evaluation about the inclusion of a piece of music into our repertoire.

Sing to the Lord, like its predecessors Music in Catholic Worship and Liturgical Music Today, is careful to distinguish between artistic worthiness and style, and is explicit about saying that the church welcomes many different styles of good music into its repertoire. A concerto and a folk song can be authentically beautiful, and the style of a song, aside from its suitability to a particular assembly, is not a judgment that makes or breaks a song's entry into the music of a parish.

Whenever we have the opportunity to do a concert, one of us, often it's Gary, takes the time to make the point that the art of liturgical music isn't really the lyric or the music. It's not the creativity of the composer or the technique of the singer or the virtuosity of the instrumentalists, though all of those things, in the wonder they arose in us, can be a window into God's goodness and bounty.
Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, Steve Warner, and Jaime Cortez
at the Composers' Forum a few years ago.
Ultimately, it's not even whether people at the concert can sing our songs well, which we encourage and try to enable them to do. The art of liturgical music is a song's ability to lead a group of people who have come to pray the church's prayer to a place that the Spirit of God has already prepared for them. It is a place of the discovery of our own identity, the place where we awaken to the people God has made us to be. I would suggest it is both familiar and a surprise, like most art, because we have a sense of who we might be, but we're never really at that place, and as much as we want to go there, there are plenty of other spirits competing for our time and attention, and who want to tell us we belong to something or someone else. We might be thinking of the presence of God as a sense of arrival, of home, of comfort, of victory, and then discover instead that presence to be a sense of departure, of journey, of change, and of compassion: suffering-with. In any case, it is the actual singing of the liturgy when the song discovers its true self, much as bread and wine in the liturgy, suffused with the Spirit of God and full of divine presence, finally become their true selves, and can feed and gladden the whole human person, body and soul. The song, in the liturgy, may become the song of the Spirit, by which God reveals Godself to the world in Christ as servant, healer, exorcist, friend, and companion.

Liturgical music becomes itself when it is finally sung at liturgy. It really isn't liturgical until then: it might be a good guess, but that's it. I know, over and over again, my best guess about this is rarely right. Sometimes you realize that trying to introduce a new piece of liturgical music is trying fit a square peg in a round hole. Sometimes the song you thought was just another attempt at filling out an album turns out to be the right thing at the right time: that happened to be with Marty Haugen's Mass of Creation. On paper and recording, it did nothing for me. But when I heard it sung in a parish in St. Louis one year when I was traveling and doing a concert, my mind was immediately changed. The music lived, it had God's life in it, when God's people were singing it, and there was no substitute (for me, at least) to being part of that singing assembly in order to discover that.

All these things might be in my mind because I'm off next week to the annual gathering of a few dozen Catholic songwriters/composers for a week of networking, study, and prayer that has been going on for a couple of decades now each January. There's plenty of goofing off, too. I suppose I shouldn't mislead you about that. I'm looking forward to it: this year, the great Walter Brueggeman is giving us some presentations, and we're doing our first "benefit concert" at the end of the week.

That's enough for today, I think. I'm grateful, again, that my "Psalm 40: Here I Am" that NALR published over 20 years ago, when it was already 20 years old, still seems to touch people of many ages and backgrounds. We songwriters write when the Spirit says "write," we Christians sing when the Spirit says "sing," and sometimes, blessed be God, the Spirit says to sing one of our songs.

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