Spring 2012 Agape Meal
Lecture 3 – Tradition and Communal Identity
by Ken Myers
This is the last of three lectures that I hope will serve to introduce some important questions about music and liturgy. They have been written in some haste, but I hope to spend time in the Fall, with Fr. Glenn’s blessing, to develop these ideas more fully, and to do more in the way of liturgical and musical education, to encourage a richer participation by all in our shared musical life. But I felt that it was necessary to offer some framework for pursuing that understanding. I am not here just sharing my personal hobby with you, any more than Fr. Glenn’s sermons are sharing his “theology hobby” with us. What I think my job is as music director is to engage in a kind of discipleship, a form of training in musical understanding that will not only enrich our worship, but will also enrich our lives as God’s creatures living wisely and well in his creation.
I believe that our culture is deeply confused about the kind of thing music is, and Christian people are not immune to that confusion. Since I only had three weeks to introduce these issues, I’ve tried to focus on two of the biggest sources of confusion: the idea that beauty is entirely subjective, and the idea that musical traditions are irrelevant and cumbersome baggage that churches and individual Christians should leave behind them. I had hoped to get beyond these two themes and into a survey of the way music is specifically employed in our eucharistic liturgy, but I think that’s going to have to wait until the autumn.
Several years ago, I had given a lecture here in town and a young man came up to introduce himself. He was the husband of a woman I had met earlier. I asked him what he did and he responded enthusiastically that he was a musician. I asked what instrument he played and he said he was a singer/songwriter, and that he played in the worship band at a church here in Charlottesville. Almost without pause he announced, “Yeah, we’re taking all these old hymns and getting rid of the music, but keeping the words, and writing new music.” He was obviously proud of this project and apparently thought I would find it admirable. What I wanted to say in response was, “What in the world makes you think that’s a good thing to do?” Instead, I nodded pleasantly and smiled, if weakly.
Last week, I talked about one way in which the Church has, for centuries, cultivated its musical inheritance: by preserving melodies that had become rich with theological and spiritual association and placing them in new settings. For the Church to be a people—as we are described in the New Testament—is to be in possession of a set of practices, things we do that identify us. Prayers that we say, bodily gestures that express our devotion, rituals that frame our affirmation, and songs that we sing. If the Church were simply an institution with a message, getting rid of the tunes wouldn’t matter. But if the Church is a people with a way of life, with a historical rootedness, with a set of practices that bind us together and that bind us to our spiritual ancestors, then the tunes shouldn’t be as casually dismissed. The restless and rootless insistence on novelty which is characteristic of our age is not a cultural habit that the Church should endorse or encourage. It’s not that all new things are bad things, or that old things are always good things. But an entrenched and arrogant suspicion about old things is a bad thing. It is destructive for persons and it is destructive of communities.
Christianity is a historical faith. It is rooted in the history of God’s interaction with human history, a history that is still in process. Christianity is not just a set of abstract and timeless ideas, though it does rely on knowledge of certain timeless realities. What we believe has been mediated in history, because it is about history. It is about God’s making of the world, about Man’s unmaking of the world, and God’s re-making of the world. You cannot be a thoughtful Christian and be indifferent to history. You cannot be an obedient Christian and be suspicious of or indifferent to everything that has happened until just now. And one way in which that historical sense is sustained is through our practice of traditions, including our musical forms.
There are some students of literature here who are probably familiar with T. S. Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” written in the early 1920s, which challenged a popular assumption that awareness of or concern about sustaining a literary tradition was an “archeological” mentality, not one of vibrant creativity. (I have heard clergy say the same thing about the Church’s traditions, insisting that we’re not curators of some dusty collection. Well, I hope we’re not curators. The cultural inheritance that we receive is not a dead thing that we dutifully preserve but a living thing in which we have our life. It’s odd to encounter clergy who honestly believe that there is a richer medium for sustaining the life of a community of faith in the musical output of Nashville and Hollywood than in the two millennia of the Church’s musical explorations.)
Back to Eliot, who insisted that tradition properly understood wasn’t just the vain repetition of what the previous generation had done, but that tradition involved living with what he called a “historical sense.” He argued that the historical sense was “nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.”
The so-called worship wars of the past 30 year or so have left us with many churches that treat liturgical style like a consumer commodity, with a niche-market service for “traditional” worship and one for “contemporary worship.” This suggests that one must choose between being traditional or being contemporary, or that some people have a personal preference for “the contemporary” or for “the traditional.” But if Eliot is right, the only way for a poet to be fully contemporary, the only way to be fully expressive in one’s own time, is to have a perspective on the distinctiveness of one’s own time, a perspective that is enabled because the poet has been informed or shaped by inhabiting a tradition that transcends this particular moment. Similarly, I would argue that uncritical immersion in the spirit of the age is not a wise way to worship, and it’s not even a good way to be relevant. In a time that is culturally and spiritually confused, no one is assisted if the Church simply mimics the conventional confusion. One of the signals of our own cultural confusion is insistence on a kind of cultural affirmative action, which proclaims that no one has the right to make the judgment that some cultural forms of expression are more adequate or more fitting or more enduring or more beautiful than others.
We should not allow the honoring of tradition to be reduced to a mere “preference.” The honoring of tradition in forms of cultural expression is a necessary posture of human flourishing and a necessary component of the survival of communities. Moral philosopher Oliver O’Donovan who currently teaches at Edinburgh University makes that argument in a remarkable passage in his book on community, Common Objects of Love, O’Donovan correlates the fifth commandment, the duty to honor one’s parents, with the sustaining of communal traditions.
The paradigm command of tradition is, “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.” It appears to our eyes to be concerned with the duties of children, but this is a mistake. The duties of children are purely responsive to the duty of parents to be to their children what their parents were to them. This is a command addressed to adults, whose existence in the world is not self-posited but the fruit of an act of cultural transmission, which they have a duty to sustain. The act of transmission puts us all in the place of receiver and communicator at once. The household is envisaged as the primary unit of cultural transmission, the “father and the mother” as representing every existing social practice which it is important to carry on. Only so can community sustain itself within its environment, “the land which the Lord your God gives you.” No social survival in any land can be imagined without a stable cultural environment across generations. By tradition society identifies itself from one historical moment to the next, and so continues to act as itself.
In the warp and woof of God’s creation, a society—or a community or a people—is like an ecosystem. Just as in the life of individuals or of gardens there are certain conditions according to which health and prospering are encouraged, so it is that communities require certain conditions to survive and to thrive. The Ten Commandments in particular and much of biblical law in general are given to us not as arbitrary rules but as revealed indicators of the required order of human life well lived. Now there are no laws about music or aesthetics as such. But there is an indication that communal health is not served by an unbalanced pursuit of cultural novelty. that pursuit of novelty is characteristic of modern culture; modern culture is the first culture in human history to define itself in terms of its position in time, the first culture to deliberately repudiate the past. This is not healthy for human beings, let alone for the Church, so when churches are guided by this mentality, they’re not really doing the loving thing for their neighbors.
Wendell Berry, in an essay called “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” argues that much of modern Christianity has echoed the Gnostic heresy of regarding the material world as evil or unclean. And one way Christians behave like Gnostics is by ignoring their cultural heritage. Modern Christianity, Berry writes, is “uninterested in the arts by which humankind connects itself to nature. It manifests no awareness of the specifically Christian cultural lineages that connect us to our past. There is, for example, a splendid heritage of Christian poetry in English that most church members live and die without reading or hearing or hearing about. Most sermons are preached without any awareness at all that the making of sermons is an art that has at times been magnificent. Most modern churches look like they were built by robots without reference to the heritage of church architecture or respect for the place; they embody no awareness that work can be worship. Most religious music now attests to the general assumption that religion is no more than a vaguely pious (and vaguely romantic) emotion.”
I want to share with you a longer passage from a 1974 essay by Wendell Berry called “The Specialization of Poetry.” It includes some wise remarks about the preoccupation with being fashionable or up-to-date that characterizes, in Berry’s view, many modern poets. Berry laments the fact that “literary talk now seems remarkable for its lack of interest in tradition. The poets in the interviews [in literary magazines] are preoccupied with the new, with the modern world and modern times. They speak of very few poets who began to publish before World War II, almost none who lived before this century. Some of these poets seem to dismiss the past simply by lack of interest. Others show a sort of vindictiveness against it, typically expressed in generalized condemnations of traditional forms.”
It should be obvious that this ignorance or indifference toward cultural achievements of the past is not confined to poets. The cultural lives of most Americans have very few expressions of literature, music, or even film that’s older than a few decades. Most people go through life listening to and being aesthetically shaped by the music that was popular when they were teenagers. When schools and churches took their role as cultural authorities more seriously, there was a greater possibility that great artistic works created by people now dead, some of them long dead, would animate the imaginations of lay people. But today that is less likely.
Berry says in this essay that in many interviews with poets that he reads, there seems to be an effort to sound compulsively fashionable, to be up-to-date, a symptom of what he calls the “modern cult of originality. That this eagerness to replace the old with the new justifies itself by the alleged uniqueness of the strains and demands of the modern world does not necessarily ennoble it: the modern world is after all largely the product of merchandisers, whose argument has been essentially the same.”
Contemporaneity, in the sense of being ‘up with the times,’ is of no value. Wakefulness to experience—as well as to instruction and example—is another matter. What we call the modern world is not necessarily, and not often, the real world, and there is no virtue in being up to date in it. It is a false world, based upon economies and values and desires that are fantastical—a world in which millions of people have lost any idea of the materials, the disciplines, the restraints, and the work necessary to support human life, and have thus become dangerous to their own lives and to the possibility of life. The job now is to get back to that perennial and substantial world in which we really do live, in which the foundations of our life will be visible to us, and in which we can accept our responsibilities again within the conditions of necessity and mystery. In that world all wakeful and responsible people, dead, living, and unborn, are contemporaries. And that is the only contemporaneity worth having.
What is needed is work of durable value; the time or age of it matters only after the value has been established. That a good poet is our contemporary reassures us of the continuing liveliness of certain possibilities; the contemporaneity of a worthless poet is a depressant. But there is much that we need that we cannot get from our contemporaries—even assuming that the work we have from them is the best that is possible: they cannot give us the sense of the longevity of human experience, the sense of the practicable, of proven possibility, that we get from older writing. Our past is not merely something to depart from; it is to commune with, to speak with: ‘Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge.’ Remove this sense of continuity, and we are left with the thoughtless present tense of machines. If we fail to see that we live in the same world that Homer lived in, then we not only misunderstand Homer; we misunderstand ourselves. The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.
If, as I believe, one of the functions of tradition is to convey a sense of our perennial nature and of the necessities and values that are the foundation of our life, then it follows that, without a live tradition, we are necessarily the prey of fashion: we have no choice but to emulate the arts of the ‘practical men’ of commerce and industry whose mode of life is distraction of spirit and whose livelihood is the outdating of fads.”
Why is it necessary for poets to believe, like salesmen, that the new inevitably must replace or destroy the old? Why cannot poetry renew itself and advance into new circumstances by adding the new to the old? Why cannot the critical faculty, in poets and critics alike, undertake to see that the best of the new is grafted to the best of the old?”
Last week, I offered some examples in the Church’s musical traditions of adding the new to the old. Specifically, I explained how melodies from seventh or eighth or ninth century plainchant were altered in the sixteenth century and became chorale melodies, used in Lutheran hymns, and later in baroque cantatas. On Sunday, we sang an anthem based on one of those plainchant/chorale tunes, a tune associated for centuries with Easter. I know that some of you wondered if this practice is still going on. Are those historical tunes still informing the work of composers of sacred music?
Well, yes, in fact, just last night (how up-to-the-minute can I get?), a singer/composer sent me an e-mail with some attachments, and a message:
I’m enclosing the PDF score and an MP3 soundfile for my just composed 3-part (SSA) “Psallite Domino” (the communion antiphon and psalm verses for Ascension). The Gregorian setting of the Antiphon appears as the mezzo-soprano part, knit together with the soprano and alto parts in a moving harmonic tapestry. The Psalm verses are set to the usual Gregorian mode I Psalm tone, with an added second lower part.
So my friend has taken a Gregorian chant melody, and a text long associated with the Feast of the Ascension. and written a new harmonization for them. He completed the work last Friday. The text is from Psalm 67, and for centuries it has been sung for Communion on Ascension day. “Psallite Domino, qui ascendit super coelos coelorum ad orientem. Alleluia.” “Sing ye to God, who mounteth above the heaven of heavens, to the east. Alleluia.”
I can’t ask the choir to sing this brand new work for you, since I just received it last night. But I can share two other examples of less recent echoings of ancient tunes. The first takes the tune we listened to and which you sang with us last week, the Easter plainchant, “Victimae Paschali laudes”.
We showed last week how this tune was transformed into a chorale melody, “Christ lag in Todesbanden.” Here’s a hymn version of that tune.
On Sunday our choir sang a five-part setting of this chorale tune by Michael Praetorius. Here’s another seventeenth-century setting of that tune by Johann Pachelbel.
In 1950, American composer Paul Creston wrote his 3rd Symphony, subtitled “Three Mysteries.” All three movements use plainchant melodies, and the third movement, “Resurrection,” uses Victimae Paschali laudes; the tune is heard about 2:00 into this performance.
Of course, this was not a composition for worship, which makes it even more interesting that Creston would employ a venerable and rich bit of the Church’s tradition in a work to be performed in a concert hall.
Another example of a modern choral work based on plainchant: this one by Maurice Duruflé, 1902-1986. Many of his choral works are based on plainchant. His anthem, “Ubi caritas et amor,” which our choir has sung, is based on a plainchant melody that dates to anywhere from the 4th to the 10th century. So it’s at least 1000 years old, and maybe a lot more. It sounds like this. . . .
The text begins “Where charity and love are, God is there. Christ’s love has gathered us into one. Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him. Let us fear, and let us love the living God. And may we love each other with a sincere heart.”
In 1960, Maurice Duruflé published four arrangements of plainchant tunes with their original texts, including “Ubi Caritas.”
The choir will be singing another one of these settings a week from Sunday, Duruflé’s setting of the communion hymn, “Tantum Ergo.”
In 1999, the American composer Morton Lauridsen wrote a more elaborate setting of this text and tune; he twists the tune around a bit more, but it’s still there at the heart of the piece.
More in the Fall! Stay tuned . . .