Thursday, September 13, 2007

Singing the Mass

~from Sandro Magister:
It was a different tune in Vienna – literally. With the Mass celebrated in the cathedral of Saint Stephen on Sunday, September 9, Benedict XVI revived a musical and liturgical tradition that had been interrupted for decades.

Within living memory, in fact, the last papal celebration accompanied by the complete performance – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei – of a great polyphonic Mass dates back to 1985, with Mozart's "Krönungsmesse" conducted by Herbert von Karajan, in Saint Peter's. And the one before that goes all the way back to 1963. That Mass was also celebrated in Saint Peter's, and the composer selected was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the dean of Roman polyphony in the sixteenth century.

This time, the Mass was celebrated in Vienna, and the composer was, rightly, Austria's Franz Joseph Haydn and his stupendous "Mariazeller Messe" of 1782, for chorus, soloists, and orchestra.

Gregorian chant also made an important return appearance in the papal Mass on September 9. During communion, the choir repeatedly sang the antiphon "Vovete," from the propers for that Sunday in the missal of the ancient rite, in alternation with verses from Psalm 76, also sung in Latin: "Make and keep vows to the Lord your God. May all present bring gifts to this awesome God, who checks the pride of princes, inspires awe among the kings of earth."

A musical critic would have given his highest praise to the splendid performance, conducted by Markus Landerer, the choirmaster at the cathedral of Vienna. But this was a Mass, and not a concert. And Benedict XVI imparted a clear lesson in this regard, on two successive occasions that Sunday.

At the Angelus, a few minutes after the end of the Mass, he began this way:

"It was a particularly beautiful experience this morning to celebrate the Lord’s Day with all of you in such a dignified and solemn manner, in the magnificent cathedral of Saint Stephen. The celebration of the Eucharist, carried out with due dignity, helps us to realize the immense grandeur of God’s gift to us in the Holy Mass, and fills us with deep joy. It is precisely in this way that we draw near to each other as well, and experience the joy of God. So I thank all those who, by their active contribution to the preparation of the liturgy or by their recollected participation in the sacred mysteries, created an atmosphere in which we truly felt God’s presence.

And that afternoon, in the monastery of Heiligenkreutz, where each day 80 Cistercian monks celebrate the divine office in pure Gregorian chant and entirely in Latin, he said:

"In the beauty of the liturgy, [...] wherever we join in singing, praising, exalting and worshipping God, a little bit of heaven will become present on earth. Truly it would not be presumptuous to say that, in a liturgy completely centred on God, we can see, in its rituals and chant, an image of eternity. [...] In all our efforts on behalf of the liturgy, the determining factor must always be our looking to God. We stand before God – he speaks to us and we speak to him. Whenever in our thinking we are only concerned about making the liturgy attractive, interesting and beautiful, the battle is already lost. Either it is Opus Dei, with God as its specific subject, or it is not. In the light of this, I ask you to celebrate the sacred liturgy with your gaze fixed on God within the communion of saints, the living Church of every time and place, so that it will truly be an expression of the sublime beauty of the God who has called men and women to be his friends."

Benedict XVI also told the monks of Heiligenkreutz: "A liturgy which no longer looks to God is already in its death throes." Haydn, a Catholic with a deep spirituality, was not far from this view of beauty in the Christian liturgy when he wrote at the end of each of his musical compositions, "Laus Deo," praise to God.

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