A Music Set Apart

The offertory antiphon for the Sunday before the last Sunday of the liturgical year is the famous text “De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine; Domine, exaudi vocem meam.”

From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice.

It’s not a text heard in parish praxis much anymore. It doesn’t fit the decades-old clamor for upbeat, put-a-smile-on-your-face pop songs that are favored by publishers and pew sitters alike. And yet the message resonates deeply with the human experience. We shouldn’t deny life’s down points, tragedies, and disappointments. Instead we should see them as an opportunity to cling to what is true.

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Generations past have done so.

The text itself has inspired poems, novels, songs, plays, ballets, and films. One thinks, of course, of the tragic and difficult letter of Oscar Wilde from prison, in which he was working through his nascent Catholicism and coming to understand Christ’s ministry in his own way, years before finally embracing the faith from which he had been running his entire life. It was written during a dark part of his life, when he had fallen from the heights to the lowest level of the social order, and gradually climbed his way out, not back to society but to God. The Lord heard his voice.

To cry to God from the depths is an unavoidable part of the human experience, and this Psalm seems to capture that experience. So too has the text inspired the fundamental music of the Roman Rite, and in a way that is as robust and heart-wrenching as any of the other art to which the text has given rise. The chant begins precisely where it should, at the lowest point of the scale. And the cry itself is long and pleading, ending with a melismatic phrase on one syllable that is fully 35 notes long.

This is a humble plea of a broken spirit. One gets the sense when listening that one is part of a private conversation, an intimate communication between one soul and that soul’s maker. The experience is evocative to the text to the point of novelist perfection.

As much as I love English chant and polyphonic music, there is something about the Latin original that seems like the ultimate thing itself, the core music, the perfect expression of emotion and truth, all wrapped up in a form that is most suitable for liturgy. It is ordered and ritual spontaneity, a form of prayer given to us so that we can aspire to a higher form of expression than we ourselves are personally capable.

In many ways, we can say that any Mass that does not include this form of musical expression is deficient in some way. We are missing out. There is nothing wrong with seeking other ways to express the same thought, putting the idea in other languages and other forms. But to neglect or even forget the chanted original is to miss out on something extremely important. To hear this chant makes me grateful to all those who worked so hard to revive the chant during the late 19th century, and makes me sad that so many Catholics today have no way of experiencing this in the course of their liturgical lives.

Why haven’t we been hearing this kind of music? There are superficial explanations that have a element of truth about them. People can’t read the music well. People don’t know how to sing well anymore without instruments, without microphones. Latin is scary to people. A long melisma like this is hard for modern musicians who are used to didactic verbal expression. It all seems like it is from another time and place, and there is something about modern man that is both attracted and repelled by that time and place.

Also, the singing of this piece seems to violate every rule of thumb that people have invented for what constitutes successful liturgical music. The people do not sing it. Only the best singers do. Everyone else listens. The results are not cognitively communicative in a normal sense. The Latin is remote. You can’t swing and sway to it. The melody does not immediately stick in your mind. It doesn’t have a bright and uplifting message that puts a smile on our face. It has nothing in common with any music called popular today. It is free of the prison of rhythm and meter. It is sung in unison. It lifts us up to warmth of eternity rather than causing us to tap our toes on the cold floor.

That this music does not pass the routine tests that people put their musical selections through really should raise questions, not about Gregorian chant but about the conventions themselves. We need to come to understand that Gregorian chant really is a music set apart, something absolutely sacred. Sacred is remote and mysterious. It has qualities that are out of reach from what is common and accessible in the normal sense. It resists being evaluated by the same standards we use to evaluate everything else. In fact, the reverse is true: what is truly holy stands apart in judgment of what we are, what we do, and what we want.

It is the failure to comprehend the sound of what is holy that I believe is at the root of the resistance to Gregorian chant. Otherwise, people would be inspired to overcome their inability to sing it and appreciate it. It’s true that the music is hard to sing and requires experience and training but it is not out of reach. It just takes effort. Why are we so unwilling to make that effort? Why are we so quick to grab and sing what is easy and available rather than work toward something that is higher, better, and more appropriate to the task?

What this generation of Catholic singers really lacks is inspiration to work harder toward a more noble goal. People imagine that nobility is not attractive on its own terms, that we need to “do something” to music to make it appealing. We have to let our personalities shine through and present music that reaches people in the same way that popular culture does.

But what if this is completely untrue? What if what is holy is not only more pure and appropriate but also more effective in drawing people to the faith and keeping people interested in liturgical life?

Benedict XVI seems to understand that holy music is both true and practical; there is no contradiction between these two principles. In speaking to the St. Cecilia Association in Italy lately, he said:

[W]e need not have recourse to illustrious persons to think of how many people have been touched in their depths of their soul listening to sacred music; and of how many more have felt themselves newly drawn to God by the beauty of liturgical music…  And, here dear friends, you have an important role: work to improve the quality of liturgical song without being afraid to recover and value the great musical tradition of the Church, which has in Gregorian Chant and polyphony its highest expressions, as Vatican II itself states (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 116). And I would like to stress that the active participation of the whole people of God in the liturgy does not consist only in speaking, but in listening, in welcoming the Word with the senses and the spirit, and this holds also for sacred music. You, who have the gift of song, can make the heart of many people sing in liturgical celebrations.

He is offering this generation a challenge to take on the hard task, to take seriously the musical responsibility, to avoid the easy and rationalistic path and embrace the difficult and holier path. Truly this generation needs to develop the humility to cry out from the depths and aspire to new heights.


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