Composer Peter Togni said the change in musical settings for the Mass still needs work in our parishes. Photo by Michael Swan

New musical Mass settings remain a work in progress

By 
  • September 8, 2012

Sept. 25, 2011 marked the launch of the newly minted musical settings that followed the complete liturgical overhaul of the Roman missal.

In parishes around the archdiocese of Toronto, congregants were greeted with the small, floppy Celebrate in Song hymnal — a book that contains three freshly commissioned musical settings of the Mass. Much like the often overlapping of the spoken “and with your spirit” with the erstwhile “and also with you,” the musical settings presented congregants with a fresh challenge — adapting responses that had been previously learned en rote to a completely different, and sometimes complex, vocal line.

“I think that for people, change is death. Change is a metaphor for death. Nobody likes change,” said Peter Togni.

Togni is one of Canada’s most noted composers, and his choral works are heard in parishes across the world. Having set the Mass to music before, Togni provides an interesting view on the musical tradition that some congregants are still adapting to.

“I think the language that they’re using, in many cases, is more elegant and more directly translated from the original Latin, which goes back to what Paul VI really wanted,” said Togni.

“But, I understand the paradox, because in some ways there’s kind of a wooden link to Latin for some people — the sacrilization of Latin, almost, just for its own sake and I understand that this gets in the way of ecumenism for some people. But, from an artistic standpoint, setting the text to those words is in some ways easier and prettier, you know? ‘Lord, God of Hosts’ is easier than ‘Lord, God of Power and Might.’ I like that from a purely artistic standpoint.”

However, the adaptation, despite what may seem a more poetic version, hasn’t necessarily lent itself in all cases to the accompanying musical line. Thus, there lies an imperfect synthesis of text and music which is crucial to the participation of the congregants.

“One of them that I’ve heard, I find very awkward,” said Togni. “In the congregation that I go to now, the congregation doesn’t sing very much with one of the Mass parts because there’s so much for them to do that I find it’s overwhelming for them, and frankly, most people don’t sing.

“I think it’s the integration with the music and that text,” Togni said of what may be the inherent problem with the adjustment to the changes.

“I think different composers might have done different things with that text. Not that the text is perfect… you can get in sort of a dualistic all or nothing thinking — this is totally right, that’s totally wrong. I don’t think you can do that.”

Togni does note that the textual changes certainly serve to unite the Church across the country.

“You’re talking about universality, right? The beautiful thing about the new text, if we’re asked, is, for the French they always say ‘avec votre esprit.’ We now say, ‘and with your spirit,’ but the French have been saying it for years. So, it links us up with them,” said Togni.

Looking forward, Togni suggests that perhaps the music will adopt a more Gregorian tradition and create a solid chant-like structure that would accommodate and highlight the textual changes.

“Even if you read the Vatican documents, the chant is supposed to have lots of room. We had an opportunity to write an English setting that I think could have been more people friendly and more chant-like,” said Togni.

“No matter what you do to ‘people of goodwill,’ it’s hard to set. But, then, English is cumbersome anyway,” he laughs. “I get the sense that there’s something sort of artificial with what they ended up with.”

It’s not entirely unsuccessful, though. In particular, the Angeles “Agnus Dei” has been particularly well received by congregations that Togni’s witnessed, and musically well executed.

Despite that, perhaps the root of any musical problem in the liturgy lies with what could be described as a lagging musical culture in the Catholic tradition.

“Church choir attendance is getting smaller and smaller and smaller, in some places,” said Togni.

“In our culture, we’re not a singing people. We’re just not… I think we need to find a Mass setting that’s more people friendly, melodically; simpler rhythmically. Let’s face it — not many people sing any more.”

Another factor of the tradition that could be remedied is a less performance-like aspect to the melodic line, which would allow the cantor to interact more thoroughly with the congregants, some of whom may be averse to singing entirely, he said.

“In the Gloria, for example, I don’t know why there isn’t more refrain for the people and then the cantor or the choir can do the rest of it,” said Togni.

“It’s just so much easier. If you’re going to have the entire text, then you better make it singer friendly, and it’s not,” said Togni, who notes that some of the song selections in Celebrate in Song lend themselves well to congregant participation.

Hopefully, the new settings will entrench themselves in the musical tradition. That, or adapt to what the congregants need.

“What is that Latin phrase? ‘Lex orandi, Lex credendi’:  the law of prayer is the law of belief — what we say in prayer expresses what we believe. That’s really the crux of it,” said Togni.

“It doesn’t sound like an entirely successful experiment, artistically, so far. Not yet.”

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