Sacred Treasure: Understanding Catholic Liturgical Music, by Joseph P. Swain
xvi+384pp, Pueblo (Liturgical Press), ISBN 978-0-8146-6255-7, $59.95
This substantial, well-produced paperback volume has been authored by a scholar well known in musicological circles. Joseph Swain is associate professor of music at Colgate University. The fields covered by his published work range widely, from Broadway musicals to Gregorian Chant, and he is himself a viola player and organist.
In the Preface, Swain outlines a principal purpose of the book as attempting to redress the balance between liturgical thought and musical thought. He says “primarily this book is a critique of liturgical and musical principles. Of these, the liturgical principles have had by far the greater say in the conversation since the council. The liturgical sources easily outnumber the musical in the bibliography at the end of the book. Music theorists, critics and historians have contributed little, and their counsel has not been very much sought.” This is why he has written, not a handbook of Catholic church music, but a book which takes as its starting point the very nature of music itself.
At the same time, he has attempted to write at a level accessible to the average generally interested reader, which has necessitated him explaining and spelling out some things in considerable detail. He claims that “no advanced musical training or theory is required to follow the arguments,” but I feel that occasionally the interested reader may be left behind.
The book is in three sections. Part I reviews the sources of liturgical reform regarding music, and what actually happened (in his opinion). Part II treats what he calls the “four principal traditions for Catholic liturgical music through history”. These are enumerated as plainchant, classical polyphony, the operatic or symphonic Mass, and popular styles. Part III looks at the main issues underlying the controversies of the last four decades, and provide Swain’s rationale for future development.
Chapter 1, Liturgical Music Theory, begins with a long introduction in which Swain balances what he sees as the good things and the bad things to come out of the Council. He follows this with a plea for a new theory of liturgical music, but already we are confused on p.8 where three principles for the opening song at Mass seem to be wrongly allocated (the liturgist and organist are seemingly reversed). Swain wants to draw his data from the Church’s history and historical traditions, but without reference to the fact that the kind of liturgical context we are operating in today is very different from the one that obtained for some 1500 years and has more in common with the first few centuries of the Church’s life. Swain is very taken with Thomas Day’s eccentric and ill-researched book Why Catholics Can’t Sing (also quoted at length in a later chapter), but also with Anthony Ruff’s magisterial Treasures and Transformations. A glance through the bibliography, though, shows that it is more weighted towards the traditional than the progressive. Swain seems never to have read Joseph Gelineau’s seminal and indispensable work Voices and Instruments in Christian Worship, nor his Liturgical Assembly, Liturgical Song. Not only that, but Universa Laus Document I, Music in Christian Celebration, and the Milwaukee Symposium Report are not on his radar either. If you are going to use existing sources to form a new theory, it would seem important to make use of sources where a lot of the required reflection has already taken place.
In discussing principles that would underpin a theory, Swain talks about technical musical analysis, but he never includes the sort of anthropological discussion that could have been hoped for: what is music in the liturgy for ?
Chapter 2 sets out to portray what the Second Vatican Council said about liturgy and music, before stating what actually happened. It is fair to say that Swain is ambivalent about full, conscious and active participation, and about the role of the people. Thus he is able to massage the intent of SC by saying “The congregation has an essential role in the sacred liturgy that music should accommodate, but it is one role among several and not necessarily the predominant one” in one place, and later on, “When [the council fathers] affirmed the laity’s right to active participation, it was plainchant that they wanted congregations to sing.” Hm. SC would seem to imply something rather different. In the “unintended consequences” section he decries the decline of plainchant, while not apparently recognizing that it was by no means universally used even before the Council. Indeed, a page later, he himself says “Before the council, local parishioners almost never heard plainchant at Mass. It was rare even in most cathedrals.” Unfortunately it seems that Swain has allowed his emotions to confuse him in this chapter, and he appears unable to discuss in depth the meaning and implications of the phrase “other things being equal” in SC 116. This failing also arises later in Chapter 19.
In Chapter 3, Aftermath of the Council: Rushing to Fill the Void, we find further confusion. Swain tells us that “there had been various experiments in congregational singing scattered throughout the world, but no consistent practice that anyone could call a tradition of Catholic congregational singing analogous to, say, the great tradition of Lutheran congregational hymns.” Really? What about the Singmesse (mentioned in passing on p. 157 but never defined or analyzed) and later the Betsingmesse in German-speaking countries? Swain then launches into an in-depth review of Bob Dufford’s Be Not Afraid, analyzing it under the headings of melody, harmonic movement and phrase construction. In general this is accurately done, but one wonders whether Swain would have bothered had he known that this and other St Louis Jesuit pieces from the 1970s were never originally intended for congregational use at all but for solo and group performance in a concert setting. The intent is to prove that folk revival music is mediocre and poor in quality. Not content with shredding this piece, Swain then puts the Celtic Alleluia through the wringer as well, even though the genre is completely different and the work comes from the second wave not the first.
Not only does Swain not discuss the origins of the folk movement in the new catechetical movement (he could have done this in Chapter 4, too), he does not discuss any other forms of congregational music from the 1970s and 1980s. You’d be forgiven for thinking that folk music was all there was. In those terms, then, Chapter 3 is an unfortunate combination of analysis and rant.
Swain’s Chapter 4, Aftermath of the Council: Democratization of the Liturgy, is rather closer to the mark, though he still takes another caricaturing sideswipe at folk music, not to mention self-regarding liturgical ministers. We could have done with a proper discussion of solemnity v. informality, but instead the surface is barely skated over. In the midst of yet another rant about the music that young people enjoy, I found myself wondering (p. 71) why the music of Taizé had not been mentioned (and indeed is mentioned nowhere in the book as far as I can see, apart from a brief footnote reference on p. 175).
Chapter 5 depicts the enormous diversity of Catholic liturgical music today. Swain seems frightened by this, to the extent of calling into question the “Catholicity” of what is being done. He has not yet espoused the principle that says we are united in what we believe but not necessarily in the way in which we express that belief (Joseph Gelineau). This needs to be set against the lex orandi, lex credendi banner which Swain uses as a way of saying that we are not in fact united in belief at all. By the end of this chapter, I was yearning for a real discussion of what kind of liturgy different forms of music are designed for.
Chapter 6 attempts to summarize where we are now. Swain paints a picture of a wasteland where the powers-that-be sustain a lowest common denominator in liturgical standards. He attributes this to three factors: (1) too rapid a push after the Council; (2) the espousal of folk music as the norm (I say again, I do not believe this to be true), and (3) low compositional standards. But by the time you are on the final page of the chapter you find this: “There should be no doubt that many aspects of the current state of the art in Catholic liturgical music are good” and “On balance, then, the situation is still essentially good ― sad at the moment, far short of its ideal, but far from hopeless.” You’d never have guessed that from the previous 86 pages! Once again, I think the author has become confused in his desire to strike a balance.
I have devoted a lot of space to the first part of the book because it is here that one finds many interesting comments but also many lacunae and even misinterpretations. Part II is much more rewarding, and Swain is on surer ground, as you would expect from a musicologist. He begins with plainchant, and presents a good discussion of why it sounds the way it does. He is less convincing on “why plainchant is essentially sacred”, but has a good analysis of the obstacles to using the chant today, is rather uneven in discussing harmonizing plainchant, but returns to form with a page and a half on “the value of strangeness”.
Next up is classical polyphony. Here there is much to admire in the way Swain attempts to distill the essence of classical polyphony. The only noun I was expecting to see which never materialized was “smoothness”, although it does eventually appear much later in the book. Surprisingly he ends this chapter by portraying polyphony as “very difficult to perform well”, and adds that “it is not a music that tolerates much imperfection in performance” and that it “require[es] sustained effort and professional direction”. Swain also finds polyphony as “generally not liturgically efficient”, by which he means that it often holds up the liturgical action by its length. In general he would keep it for solemn occasions, although he roundly contradicts this position in Chapter 18.
Chapter 9, Operatic and Symphonic Liturgical Music, is all about idiom. Music that sounds well in the theatre or concert hall does not come off well in church. Although Swain does not put it in quite these terms, the composer has moved from being a servant of the church to writing music which feeds his own personal devotion. He contrasts the way in which much of this repertoire is now only performable in the concert hall with the way in which Bach’s music, theatrical in its own way, is now commonly heard in church contexts by means of a “semantic shift”.
Finally in this section, Chapter 10 looks at popular traditions in liturgical music. Here Swain is concerned with the hymn form, originating in Lutheran Protestantism. He finds hymnody unsuitable on the grounds that it eclipses the use of the psalter, that it feels as if it “interrupts” the liturgical action, the fact that it is too varied in mood (what he probably means is that hymns can be too boisterous as well as contemplative), and finally, and incomprehensibly, that it is too Western. In the third of these he describes the concept of “rousing Gregorian chant” as “just sound[ing] silly” ― clearly he has never heard the Laudes Regiae in the Worcester Antiphoner version: a rousing example par excellence of processional chant, typical of the mediaeval period. Despite his apparent antipathy to hymnody, he appears to espouse it more than somewhat later on in the book.
This brings us to Part III, “Building Traditions of Liturgical Music”. In Swain’s eyes this is the great summing-up. Parts I and II were about where we are now and where have been in the past. Now he wants to show us where we should go in the future.
After trying to explain the concept of tradition and ritual, we move to a comparison of tradition and traditions which comes across as a renewed demand for uniformity in the face of a plurality of practice. Swain wants to show us “how a sacred semantic of music can operate”. First of all, though, we must recognize the “Three Eternal Conflicts”: between musical creativity and tradition itself, between “little traditions” and Tradition, and between the professional musician and the congregation. We will meet these in more detail later on. With that under our belts, we move forward into an essay on the semantics of sacred music. What Swain means by this is whether music sounds sacred or not. His attempts to define this occupy the rest of Chapter 12. He thinks that we have endured forty years of desacralization due to what he describes as “the relevance theory”, by which he means participatio actuosa. This latter term is like the red rag to the proverbial bull for Swain. Throughout the book he contends, inaccurately in my opinion, that it is has generally been translated to mean “congregational singing”, although once or twice he does admit that this is an extreme interpretation. Later, in Chapters 18 and 19, he shows that he is not familiar with its origins in Pius X’s partecipazione attiva and the implications of that Italian adjective. Swain appears unaware of the differences between religious music, sacred music, church music, liturgical music and ritual music ― it would have been good to incorporate this into a proper definition of what “sacred” might actually sound like. Discussions of semantic range, semantic association and semantic distinction are succeeded by the demands of appropriate setting for different types of words and the search for transcendence. Swain finds the gray areas difficult ― the Passion Chorale’s origins in an erotic love song, or Bach’s “secular” instrumental music being transformed (by Bach) for use in church. His conclusion admits that there is no kind of music which is intrinsically sacred, but he can’t live with that conclusion, and so he falls back upon the dimension of sacredness being acquired by experience in a cultural context.
Next follow three chapters with the general heading “Understanding Musical Symbols”. They cover a lot of ground, ranging from a discussion of beauty and true art, through a chapter on music as symbol of liturgical season, to questions of liturgical language.
Swain fails to define what he means by true art, except through examples. His heroes are Palestrina, Bach, Handel and Beethoven. His enemies are Edward Foley and what he dismisses as “postmodern relativism”. Likewise, he talks much about beauty but never manages to produce a definition (he is not alone in this, of course). One would have thought that he might have dwelt a little on St Augustine, who was also preoccupied by beauty. When reading that “Mozart’s music has been treasured as true art by every culture, every nation throughout the world that has come to know it”, I wish Swain could have heard my piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music in London railing against what he termed the “pick-nosed courtly elegance of much of the young prodigy’s early output”. Swain tries to define art by appealing to the liturgical context, and the phenomenon of “classics” but falls into the pits he has dug for himself. By his definition, On Eagle’s Wings and Mass of Creation would both qualify as classics, but I am quite sure that neither would ever be included in Swain’s canon.
In dealing with liturgical seasons, Swain waxes lyrical about the Advent Rorate as a symbol of the 4th Sunday of Advent but never mentions the ambiguity caused by the opening phrase being a clone of all the Gaudeamus antiphons, in particular that of All Saints, heard just a matter of weeks previously. He also does not seem to have encountered the arguments for using “O Come, Emmanuel” on the 2nd and 3rd Sundays of Advent (as opposed to when you might use it in the Office and on weekdays after December 16).
The chapter on liturgical language is thankfully free of any discussion on the subject of inclusive language. Instead, Swain focuses on the psalms and other biblical texts. He is rightly concerned that these should have pride of place in the repertoire, but fails to recognize the great resurgence in the use of biblical texts by composers after an initial period of blandness immediately following the Council. Swain is not fond of contemporary Catholic text-writers. Indeed, he is not fond of the vernacular, except of the archaic, highly-stylized variety. His ideal is Latin, with the purpose of emphasizing “the essential unity of the Roman Rite throughout the world”, not realizing that scholars have long since demonstrated that there is in fact no such thing.
Next we come to the in-depth treatment of three eternal conflicts. Swain juxtaposes creativity and tradition, and is quite sound on the distinction between an art composer and a composer for the liturgy, also stressing the need for compositional technique if today’s composers are to make a valued contribution to the still-developing repertoire.
He is less sound on the whole question of inculturation, and holds up for us an African-American “Gospel Mass” in which the choir sings virtually everything as an exemplar. He reminds us that inculturation requires the Double Movement whereby the culture influences the Roman liturgy but the Roman liturgy also influences the culture. In summary, Swain thinks that inculturation is a temporary phase, a necessary evil, on the way to all cultures being subsumed into the Roman Rite. But there is no discussion of how this might (or might not) happen. I would love to know what Swain thinks of the music of the Abbey of Keur Moussa, which shows a fascinating synthesis between Solesmes plainchant and vocal tone and the indigenous languages, melodies, instruments and rhythms of the part of Senegal where the monastery is located. Or the music of the Abbey at Abu Gosh (Emmaus, near Jerusalem) where the Olivetan monks and nuns sing in four-part harmony and where the non-Taizé music of Jacques Berthier rubs shoulders with singing in tongues.
His final major conflict is between participatio actuosa and congregational singing. Swain appears to think that the majority of people espouse an extreme interpretation whereby the people sing absolutely everything. But that is not what participatio actuosa means and is not what in fact happens in most places. This chapter, then, is something of a rant against a perceived evil that does not actually exist. Swain thinks that all congregational music has to be simple, because of technical limitations ― he needs to travel more widely! And because of that simplicity, it is difficult for it to be beautiful as he understands the word. So his answer is in fact what happens in many places: the people sing some things and a choir or cantor or schola sing other things. No one would have a problem with that. He spends a lot of time presenting a Sunday liturgy from St Mark’s, Venice, which in fact replicates the kind of thing that happens in many American and British cathedrals and larger churches. (At St Mark’s, though, they still breach liturgical law by giving the Sanctus to a Latin polyphonic choir and denying the people the opportunity to take part in the Communion psalm.) However he never gets to discussing what might happen in small or medium-sized churches, or in our many rural communities with little in the way of resources.
We are now at Chapter 19, the final chapter entitled Foundations, and Swain devotes a large part of this to an in-depth analysis of Chapter VI of Sacrosanctum Concilium. One wonders why he did not begin the book with this when discussing his view of what happened after the Council. While one may certainly agree with some of his interpretations, others are biased by his prejudices, which are by now well known.
Swain ends this final chapter with a section on “Three Principles of True Art” and “Liturgical Virtues”. The first of these are (a) sacred music should sound sacred, (b) absolute musical beauty, which for Swain means music from the tradition of former years, and (c) participatio actuosa, about which he is still uncomfortable, especially as regards SC 30. The average reader may be misled on page 340 into thinking that participatio actuosa only died out in the 17th and 18th centuries, rather than 1500 years ago. This paragraph needs clarifying. The “virtues” are, of course, love, hope and faith (in that order), viewed through the lens of liturgical music.
So, what to make of this lengthy book? I find myself interested that a musicologist has made a serious attempt to raise some of the questions that need to be properly debated, that he is genuine in his desire for an improvement in standards, and that he has tried (but failed) to be balanced in his presentation of the areas for disagreement. I find myself disappointed with the absence of real discussion of some of the neuralgic issues where serious work still needs to be done, with the continual disparagement of positions or idioms with which the author does not agree rather than attempting to debate them, with the circular arguments where the same points are made over and over again at various points in the book, and principally with the mortal sin of confusing musical idiom with value which the author commits throughout the book.
Sacred Treasure contains too much in the way of annoying repetition. In part this is due to the original publication of some chapters in different journals, but in any case a competent desk editor ought to have been able to eliminate most of it. The same editor should also have dealt with more than the usual number of typos for a book this size. The book is well-designed and pleasant to look at; it lies open well in the hand, and the laminated cover is almost sensual to the touch. On balance, however, I cannot think that the hefty selling price is justified by the standard of the contents. If you want to read it, borrow it from a library.