Friday, September 3, 2010

FW: A Case for the Voice Alone

An interesting Roman perspective…


Feed: The Chant Café
Posted on: Wednesday, September 01, 2010 9:21 AM
Author: Jeffrey Tucker
Subject: A Case for the Voice Alone


Quite often people send me queries about what instruments are permitted and what instruments are forbidden at Mass. This is the way the message begins but then there is often a followup, usually concerning a specific (sad) situation that has come up in a parish or seminary setting. The organ is neglected as the piano is brought front and center. Or a new guitar player is permitted to do his thing during Mass.

These are often cries of desperation, stemming from an intuition that something is going wrong and surely there must be some rules governing this situation, something to cite to say no. It is not always about trying to push music in a more traditional direction. In one case this past year, a leader of a praise team found herself annoyed that a bongoist insisted on joining the group but she didn't want him. She hoped for some legislation that would disallow bongos but permit extended soloing on praise music with piano accompaniment. I could cite no such legislation.

The situation just isn't that simple. It isn't just a matter of placing all instruments in the category of "permitted" or "forbidden." Church legislation is pretty clear that the organ is favored, occupying an exalted place among liturgical instruments. But current legislation does not ban other instruments. Most anything is permitted as a technical matter, but the problem with this focus is that it hones in on the letter rather than the spirit.

I won't comment on the possibilities for the bongos - I seriously doubt that there are any - but I can imagine situations in which the guitar would actually be an improvement on the piano. Now, to be sure, I'm devoted to the piano as a solo instrument. But it is a percussion instrument, with hammers that hit keys, and this sound alone cuts against the style of sacred music which is always toward a constant upward elevation, as modeled by the style of plainsong. Our cultural associations with the piano range from dramatic symphonic settings to lounge environments; liturgy is not really part of that association. While the guitar might have an improved sound over the piano, it too has cultural associations that do not make it a natural partner with the liturgical sound.

There is a strong case for the organ but my own preference is to use it as a solo instrument. This is when its voice is most beautiful and expressive. It is a waste of a great instrument, and a competent musician's talents, to turn the organ into nothing but a instrument to accompany voices, whether the chant or congregational singing. I'm completely unconvinced by the cliche that the organ helps people in the pews sing better; I've experienced the opposite too many times.

Here is what I do not understand about all of these discussions: why is it that people so rarely consider that the human voice alone is the proper and ideal liturgical instrument? I really think that people have a fear of singing without instruments. They believe that it cannot be done without some external thing to give them the notes, rhythm, and groove. This is the first and greatest mistake that takes place within all these discussions of what instruments are permitted at Mass.

One thousand years of Christian song took place without instruments, so far as anyone can tell, and the organ itself had to earn for itself the right and opportunity to be heard alongside that primary instrument of the human voice. We need more of that: voices alone. Only the human voice can bring together those two necessary things at once: the text and the notes. Too often it is not even considered an option.

View article...