Repetitio est mater studiorum.
“Fish and visitors stink after three days.” —Benjamin Franklin
BSERVE any young toddler who has made the wonderful discovery of the straw. He spends an hour in concentrated rapture touching it, chewing it, poking it, blowing and sucking through it, bending it, waving it and throwing it—simply taking time to know it. If the observer happens to be one of the child’s newly minted parents, he praises God above for the gift of a moment to catch his breath in the middle of the exhaustion of parenthood—and he naively believes the straw will work again and again and again. But as surely as the sun rises each day in the fiery heavens, the straw will loose much of its allure the second time around, usually when mom or dad needs it to work its magic the most. Such is the story of life. A child spends the first half of his life trying to leave home and the second half of his life trying to get back. We desire the familiar, yet pine for the new and exciting, and music is no exception.
Two of the greatest complaints pastors hear about music in their parishes (perhaps after its generally abysmal state) are Why do we sing the same things over and over? and Why do we always sing songs that nobody knows? At first glance these complaints seem contradictory, but at their heart I believe lies the simple fact of human nature and man’s need for both the familiar and the new. We desire the Infinite, after all!
God, in His wisdom, created the same sun to rule over each successive day and the moon over each ensuing night. At the same time, spring turns into summer and fall into winter. Things grow and things decay. Things are born and things die. God Himself is “ever ancient, ever new” and it is natural that we will experience the same desires in regard to His creation, the very “traces” of God. If we hope to be successful music directors, we will have to take this same approach, one which is entirely liturgical. Year after year we celebrate the same sacred mysteries of our Faith; the Incarnation, the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ, yet we have times of preparation and times of celebration, times of fasting and times of feasting. Even though we rejoice each Sunday in a little Easter, each one focuses on a different aspect of the same Lord, Who is inexhaustible. The question then arises, how do we live this reality in the realm of music?
The Second Vatican Council rightly calls music the greatest of the Church’s arts because of its intimate link with the actual texts of the sacred liturgy, many of which we hear day after day, week after week, or in some cases only once a year, but nevertheless, year after year. Such repetition allows the words to become an intimate part of the Christian’s spiritual life and in the Church’s wisdom these text remain the same year after year.
I remember several years ago being privileged to watch Barry Rose lead the Men and Boys of St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue, during a rehearsal of a psalm prior to Choral Evensong. I don’t remember which psalm specifically, but like many, it spoke of the twilight of life and man’s desire for God. In a beautifully candid moment, Mr. Rose, then about 80, stopped the choir in the middle of the chant and spoke directly to the boys, reminding them that one day each one would peer through the window of eternity, and it would be the words of the psalms that each one had committed to memory during his time in the choir school that would then be a comfort. The tunes and ditties of the radio and music hall would be meaningless in the magnitude of one’s final moments—only the words of the psalms could bear the weight of the moment.
Music, of course, helps us to memorize these incredible texts that otherwise might never be committed to memory and the more familiar the tune, the easier it will be to internalize and memorize the words. We need the repetition, but the question then arises whether we can become too familiar with the words. In the same vein, we might ask ourselves if we can we become too familiar with the music that carries the words and no longer be moved by them.
If there is any one music able to bear the weight and glory of the texts of the Roman Rite, it is undoubtedly Gregorian chant. Neither its language nor its melodies or rhythms belong to any one peoples, place or time, but to all, and we have to ask ourselves why this music continues to appeal to so many. In one sense, this music is utterly simple and “familiar.” Rhythmically it moves in groups of twos and threes, nothing more, yet these groupings can be put together in an infinite variety of ways, always familiar, but always new and surprising.
Melodically, chant takes a relatively small number of neumes and arranges them in any number of ways into a tune. Even the various types of chants generally follow similar patterns in their construction—Introits, Graduals, etc. Yet the Introit for Christmas Mass at Midnight is so different for the Introit we hear the very next morning in the Mass for Christmas Day. Perhaps this is why it is so hard to tire of hearing the same Propers at Mass year after year (as long as they are musically and beautifully rendered). Because this music can withstand yearly repetition…
Much of what can be said of Gregorian chant might be said of sacred polyphony from its golden age. Renaissance composers weren’t tied to purely major and minor modes, and their rhythms could be very fluid. They traveled widely throughout Christendom, or were at least familiar with various styles, which provided for a universal quality and appeal in their music. More than that, their music was deeply imbued with a Faith fully alive that still speaks powerfully to modern man. Perhaps the criteria for the greatness of a musical work lies in its ability to keep its freshness in the face of repetition.
What lessons may we draw from this?
I find the greatest lesson we can draw from human experience is to begin with the greatest of texts and the greatest of music, because only these can bear the weight of constant repetition. The Church, in Her wisdom, has done just this. Our job is to start there by singing the Mass and using the music of the Roman Rite. Even when we employ styles other than Gregorian chant, or texts not specifically from the liturgical books, make sure they are of the highest quality. This still begs the question, how many congregational Mass Ordinaries should the average parish employ, how many hymns can parishioners learn, how many motets can a choir effectively keep in its repertoire? In my experience, there isn’t a magic number, but rather a strategy, and this is the correct amount of repetition.
If your parish is tackling a new Mass Ordinary, whether in Latin or English, you should plan to use it until the congregation is almost becoming sick of it before backing off (then give it a healthy rest). If you have a stable parish community, it will then have become a permanent part of your parish’s repertoire and can be used as needed in the future. The choir director needs to determine how many new motets his choir can tackle in a semester, maybe two, or perhaps four.