The Heavenly Minds are spoken of as moving (1) in a circular manner, when they are united to the beginningless and endless illuminations of the Beautiful and Good; (2) straight forward, when they advance to the providential guidance of those beneath them and unerringly accomplish their designs; and (3) with spiral [helical] motion, because, even while providentially guiding their inferiors, they remain immutably in their self-identity, turning unceasingly around the Beautiful and Good whence all identity is sprung.
Dionysius the Areopagite, 1 The Divine Names, Ch 4, no. 9
[words in brackets my own translation]
HIS quote comes from a patristic theological work treating the biblical names of God, and came to mind when I began thinking on the question, “How often should you repeat a piece of music?”
When we repeat something, its meaning can be altered by deeper understanding. We can look to the prescribed liturgical texts as to how often to repeat music: the Divine Office repeats texts and chants constantly. There is repetition at the 3-year mark with the cycle of Sunday Gospels (one year cycle in the Extraordinary Form). There is repetition at the yearly mark with the Liturgical Year itself (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, then “green time”). There is repetition each week with special chants or psalms for each day. Repetition every day with Marian Antiphons, certain hymns of the office—and even repetition every hour with the “Deus, in adjutorium”!
So as music directors, as cantors, as organists and musicians, the question is—how much should I recycle music? The choir has worked several days/ weeks / months on this music, why not do it again next week? Or, this piece was so well-loved last year on Easter Sunday, if we sing it again, if I play it again, then I would be letting some people down by not doing it again. Why not just return to the same repertoire every year, just like the Church does in her own Liturgy? To compound things further: we can repeat the same texts with different music…and repeat the same music with different texts…the possibilities are endless!
Here’s the problem—there should be a reason to repeat something. When we repeat something, its meaning can be altered by deeper understanding. But some things only lend themselves to be repeated once a year, or even less. In the Liturgical Calendar new Saints (and new texts) are added every year. In a way, each new age of the world introduces its own stamp onto the Tradition of the Church. And the Church simultaneously holds onto Traditional forms of expression, all the while encouraging each new generation to add its own set of variations and commentary to the one Gospel. Thus, there is new music being composed, and new music setting traditional texts (from Scripture or long-standing tradition) and new texts being written in an authentic Catholic spirit.
As church musicians, we have an incredible responsibility and influence: through our musical decisions, we color people’s impressions of different feast days throughout the year. We can all imagine a song we heard as a child that brings back the impression of that event. For me, Pachelbel’s Canon in D will always be associated with the Stations of the Cross. My grade school did living stations once a week during Lent with the Canon as a soundtrack all nine years I attended. Repetition of a song each year for a certain feast day can indelibly influence those who attend and color their experience of that mystery of the faith. That can be good, or bad.
I believe there are good reasons to repeat texts, which is why our choirs at the parish I work at have learned 9 different settings of Ave Maria 2 and 7 different settings of Ave Verum Corpus. 3 (And why we’ll probably learn more through the years.) But I also believe that there is an important distinction between the ritualistic music and the devotional/ choral/ congregational music of the Church.
Much of Gregorian Chant is ritual music, and this is one layer of the Liturgy. No music director in their right mind would change the “Amen” response of the people to the various collects (at least, I haven’t met one yet). (If you have, leave a comment!) Ritual music is heavily “circular”—it centers us in the liturgy and around contemplation of the Infinite Beautiful and Good. That circular music settles us with the familiar.
However, there are many places in the Roman Liturgy (in both rites) to pick music that is not strictly chant-like. Devotional music is music that guides us to a specific “ethos” or affect—this type of music includes the choral music and hymns that music directors have to pick each Sunday. Music of this kind tends to be more “straight forward” and “linear”, not adapting itself well to being repeated too often. This can apply to instrumental music that accompanies the liturgy and to the music we sing—both as choir or congregation. To me, at least, I believe that purely instrumental music lends itself to be more linear, more of the here and now, more speaking from one viewpoint.
Is there a kind of music that incorporates both kinds of motion? When I was still a seminarian with the Norbertines, I once challenged myself to play the same piece of organ music for an entire day at all the hours of the office and at Mass (I can’t recall what piece). My idea was to vary the registration, tempo and interpretation so much that without great scrutiny, no one would be the wiser. At the end of the day, I got a few raised eye-brows (and that from the trained musicians in the community) but no complaints…(Which in a community of any size, runneth freely). In this, I believe I hit upon the last kind of motion mentioned in the quote I started with: what Dionysius the Areopagite* calls spiral or helical motion.
This kind of motion incorporates both linear and circular—it repeats, but we move forward towards new, deeper understanding. We are very familiar with this kind of repetition as Catholics—in the rosary and in the responses of the Mass. In fact, as musicians, we constantly repeat ourselves in the practice room or in rehearsal in order to perfect our craft. We also repeat music for the congregation to learn, especially when introducing new music. In this fashion, when we repeat something, its meaning can be altered by deeper understanding, coming to learn the music better and becoming more acquainted with it. What we have to stave off is repetition that is monotonous (which literally means “one sounded”), or repetition that is lazy or superficial.
In our planning of music in the liturgy, we take special care to determine what music is linear—to be used occasionally to evoke a passing moment; what music is circular—to be used every turn of the cycle, to focus and draw our attention in recollection or come back to a standard; and what music is spiral or helical—used frequently or a few times in a row to deepen our understanding of the liturgical mysteries set before us. Whatever our decisions, either based on a few good hymns, or mining the rich heritage of musical tradition, our church music should emulate the cycle of the year, the week, each day. Reserving certain pieces for times of the year or certain holy days gives the piece new meaning and elevates our understanding of that day. Having a solid body of music that the congregation can expect to hear increases their participation and attention. Finally, adding in new music (either newly composed or new to the program) sparks interest. Just remember to leave open that, when we repeat something, its meaning can be altered by deeper understanding. In the end, isn’t deeper understanding the striving of our Faith?
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 For those who noticed: Many scholars make sure that we know that the author of The Divine Names (among other works) was assuredly not the first century Dionysius the Areopagite by assigning him the title “Pseudo-Dionysius.” However, I prefer to use the original appellation, since the real author intended us to understand his insights within the contexts of the Apostolic Era of the faith as if coming from the pen of the Areopagite while himself remaining anonymous. We ourselves do this very same thing all the time when we quote characters from books or movies. Some (probably many) would roll their eyes if I wrote: “’Run, you fools!’—Pseudo-Gandalf the Grey.” We know full well who actually said it—but if I insist on making it obvious that the quote is really from an early 20th century Oxford professor of language, the urgency intended in the literary situation loses its value.
2 Ave Maria: Chant version, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Vierne, Palestrina, Saint-Saens, Molinari, Arcadelt and Arlen Clarke—for those wondering.
3 Ave Verum Corpus: Chant version, Mozart, Saint-Saens, Desprez, Guilmant, Byrd, Perosi—again, for those wondering.