Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Fr. Samuel Weber’s “The Proper of the Mass": An Interview with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski

This is an edited version of the interview portion of an article of mine that was published on February 2, 2016 in Homiletic and Pastoral Review.  A version of this interview was also published on February 2, 2016 at New Liturgical Movement under the title, "Fr. Samuel Weber’s “Propers of the Mass”: An Interview with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski by Roseanne Sullivan.


The topic of this interview is a collection of English chant settings titled: The Proper of the Mass for Sundays and Solemnities: Chants for the Roman Missal in English that was composed by Father Samuel Weber, O.S.B, and published by Ignatius Press. According to Jeffrey Tucker at The Chant Café[1], “Fr. Weber is truly one of the greatest, and most inspired, Catholic music scholars, composers, and practitioners of chant in the English-speaking world.”
Father Samuel Weber at work

I interviewed Dr. Peter Kwasniewski[2] after he was referred to me by Fr. Weber as a trusted liturgical expert and friend who could knowledgeably answer some questions I had originally submitted to Fr. Weber for an email interview.

You might be wondering, “What’s a Proper?,” "What's an antiphon?," or perhaps,"Who cares?" Only a small percentage of Catholics have any idea of why chant settings of Mass texts in English are important, so I have written an accompanying article titled, Propers of the Mass Versus the Four-Hymn Sandwich to provide definitions of terms. It also provides some background about how the singing of the Proper parts of the Mass has fallen into disuse as an unintended consequence of the introduction of Masses in the vernacular--to make it possible for non-experts to understand why resources like Fr. Weber's are needed to restore the Proper chants to their proper place in the Mass.

Question 1: Please tell us first: Why do you think this resource is needed?

Dr. Kwasniewski: Ever since the introduction of the English liturgy, Fr. Weber has been among those asked to provide resources for singing the Mass in English. He had been answering requests from individuals, parishes, and religious communities for many years. This new book takes care of all requests, as far as the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion antiphons go, as well as a number of other important chants for Holy Week. For this particular project of the Benedict XVI Institute, he provided the following for each of the antiphons:
  • Four levels of settings, so that one cantor, or a highly trained choir, would have options they could manage, depending on available talent, and
  • Appropriate psalm verses for the antiphons for those who would want them (and they are very helpful, since the same action in the liturgy can take a short time, or a long time, depending on many factors).
I know that Fr. Weber is also working on organ accompaniments in different keys, as well as SATB[3] settings of verses.

The need for this resource is simple to grasp. The propers (as you no doubt explain in your article) are part of the basic structure of the Roman Rite of the Mass. They are ancient—we find them in the earliest manuscripts we have of the Mass, and they were handed down for centuries. They are part of our inheritance from the apostles, first bishops, and first Christian communities, who were steeped in Jewish worship, and for whom the psalms occupied a central place.

The Psalms came to be the very backbone of the Western liturgical tradition, in the Mass, as in the Divine Office, because they are the very prayers Jesus inspired, and then carried on his own sacred lips, sang in the synagogues, and offered to the Father on the gibbet of Calvary. There is simply no way to avoid the fact that these Proper chants are not a mere add-on, or marginal feature, but stand at the very center of our liturgical heritage.

In the days before the Council, when the Low Mass tended to predominate, after permission was given for hymns to be sung during the parts of the Mass where the priest prayed silently, the Propers were still always retained, albeit only recited. The Council asked for a High or Sung Mass to become the norm—the Sung Mass as it then existed, where the Propers and the Ordinary would be chanted. But after the Council, chaos broke out, and the Propers, like many other treasures, were abandoned and forgotten.

I see a real parallel between what happened to the Propers, and what happened to the man en route to Jericho who was attacked and left by the side of the road to die. The priest and the Levite passed him by, but the Samaritan stopped, took him up, and cared for him, and made sure the man would be restored to full vigor. Jesus identified himself with the Samaritan and asks us to do the same. We are now in a position to be Good Samaritans, take the Propers up again, care for them, and restore them to their fitting role in the Mass.

In short, if we would honor Our Lord, and the traditions he himself inspired in our Church, the Propers need to be restored to their place of honor in the Mass. This collection of chants makes it truly possible and practical to do so in the context of celebrations in English.

Question 3: I’ve found several reviewers of this book claiming that it is the best of the many attempts to set the Propers in English. You yourself wrote in an Amazon review: “Fr. Weber’s magnum opus does the job better, overall, than has ever been done before.” Music director, Andrew R. Moytka, wrote a review at Corpus Christi Watershed in which he said that the publication of this book “sets an extremely high bar for those of us interested in the musical proper of the Mass… He is undoubtedly one of the modern masters of setting English chant.”[4] Given that there are already similar collections available, including: Adam Bartlett’s Simple English Propers, Arlene Oost-Zinner’s Parish Book of Psalms, Corpus Christi Watershed’s Lalemant Propers, Fr. Guy Nicholls’ Graduale Parvum, and the Simple Choral Gradual of Richard Rice, what makes The Proper of the Mass different from the others?

Dr. Kwasniewski: The distinguishing mark of the book is twofold: (1) for all the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion antiphons, it contains full chant settings in the style and spirit, and often the very melodies, of the Latin originals in the Graduale Romanum; (2) for the same texts, it gives a pair of psalm-tone settings, so that a cantor or choir can easily “shift gears” from more melodic or melismatic settings, to straightforward psalm tone settings. In this way, the book is versatile. For example, I could see using different levels of settings for different Masses, because, as we know, at most parishes, one of the Masses is more of a “high” Mass, while others might be plainer and shorter—but all of them can and should benefit from chanted Propers.

Question 1: What a labor of love! Jeffrey Ostrowski at Corpus Christi Watershed, and others have mentioned that Fr. Weber has been writing the settings for these antiphons for years, one antiphon at a time, and has published different versions for each chant over the years, testing and refining them.[5] Do you know how long it took him to compose and set the chants in this nearly 1,000-page book?

Dr. Kwasniewski: For sure, it’s been a long-term project. The most intensive period has been the past four years, but he’s been fielding requests to set this or that proper antiphon for decades. Seminaries, parishes, cathedrals, monasteries, colleges, chapels, have used these chants successfully, and given him feedback on what works best. The melodies have been refined through experience, just as it happened with the original Latin chants. And the task is still going on, as Father writes the organ accompaniments, and SATB psalm verses. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” as the saying goes.

Question 4: Who will sing the chants? If the congregation will be singing them, how will they learn them? I ran across an interview that you conducted with Fr. Weber at the New Liturgical Movement website about another book, the Hymnal for the Hours[6]. In that interview, Fr. Weber described an approach where the chant settings are made available to the congregation in booklets; he said that, with the lead of a “strong and confident cantor,” the congregation is always able to sing alternately, with little or no practice. Is this the method recommended for these chant settings? Do you expect this to be a pew book that everyone can use?

Dr. Kwasniewski: Oh, no, the Proper of the Mass is not for the congregation; it is for cantors and choir. As Vatican II stated, there is a special and important role for the choir—not everything is meant to be sung by everybody. This flies in the face of a certain narrow interpretation of “active participation,” where the lowest common denominator prevails. In reality, Vatican II taught that there are actions and roles appropriate to various individuals, and each person should do those things, but only those things, that pertain to his role. The layman does not say the words of consecration; the celebrant does not say “And with your spirit.” The congregation is supposed to sing the many responses, the chants of the Ordinary, and, when appropriate, simple antiphons (although on special feasts, a polyphonic Mass, and motets, might be sung to mark the occasion).

But for Sundays and Holy Days, a cantor or choir should be there to sing the Propers, while the people actively participate by listening meditatively, allowing themselves to be moved by the melodies and texts, and offering them to God as their own prayers. Indeed, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI taught that such prayerful listening is an important mode of participation, all the more so because modern Western man is too much given to a superficial activism that seldom penetrates into the depths.

However, Ignatius Press has also brought out the Ignatius Pew Missal, which has been very successful, and is growing in popularity. This is an annual publication whose fine classic hymns, and simple chant settings, make it a worthy alternative to the other annual paperbacks on the market. In this book, all the music is chosen or written so that it can be sung by the congregation. I would think that having the Ignatius Pew Missal in the aisles and The Proper of the Mass in the choir loft would be an excellent combination for most parishes.

Question 5: Chant composers differ about the right way to adapt Latin chants into English. Jeffrey Ostrowski at Corpus Christi Watershed has written about a “sing as you speak” approach that claims the natural rhythm of spoken language should determine how chants are composed. The opposite approach, which Ostrowski prefers, is called cantillation. Ostrowski wrote that the problem with “sing as you speak,” is that “music is not speech. Music is music.” Should chant be written as speech or as music? Can you define cantillation and share your thoughts on this topic?

Dr. Kwasniewski: Cantillation is “heightened speech.” The sacred melodic patterns come to us from the Temple and Synagogue. These patterns served the Word of God in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. The task is not to “adapt Latin chants”—the task is to tailor the patterns of cantillation to suit the target language. An apt comparison: when you buy a suit, the fashion or “mode” is common to all. But each suit must be tailored to fit the individual, not the other way around. When I go to buy a suit, the tailor does not trim my arms and legs to fit the one-size-fits-all suit… It is the other way around.

Jeffrey Ostrowski is certainly right to this extent: there should be, as much as possible, the beauty of a true melody in chanted antiphons, as we see in the Graduale Romanum and the Divine Office antiphons. Psalm tones come in handy for longer texts or simpler ceremonies, but one would not wish to subsist on a diet of them—it would be like fasting on bread and water, rather than having a piece of broiled fish, as Jesus did after the Resurrection.

Question 6: What would be the main differences between English and Latin that one needs to take into consideration when setting English texts to chant? When one adapts melodies from an existing Gregorian chant setting of the Latin, what kinds of changes to the chants does one need to make to accommodate the differences between English and Latin?

Dr. Kwasniewski: Fr. Weber’s approach, for the first two settings of each antiphon, has been to take his inspiration from a Gregorian exemplar, whenever available, while tailoring the traditional melodic patterns to suit the needs of the English words. This produces a feeling of “oh, that’s the famous chant for Christmas!” but without the awkwardness of the Palmer-Burgess method of forcing the English into an unchanged melody originally designed for a different language altogether.

English is a challenging language to set to music because it has a lot of diphthongs, its sentences tend to end on “masculine” cadences (strong beats with no left-over syllables, such as, “Lord,” “God,” “him,” “praise,” and so forth), and there are consonant combinations that are hard to enunciate clearly. Plus, Americans sing with a bit of a twang, so we don’t have the “polished” sound of English choirboys. But these challenges can be overcome by taking great care in setting the words to melodies, and by preparing the chants well in choir practice.

Question 7: Lots of discussions have gone around in sacred music circles about the fact that the wording of the Propers differs between the Graduale Romanum, whose antiphons are appointed to be sung, and the Roman Missal, which frequently contains different Entrance and Communion antiphons that were chosen for ease in being spoken at Mass. I’ve seen some criticism of The Proper of the Mass because it uses the wording for the Entrance and Communion antiphons from the Roman Missal. I’ve also seen that in the United States version of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal[6] dioceses have been given permission to use either the version of these antiphons from the Roman Missal, or from the Graduale Romanum. In his foreword, Archbishop Cordileone wrote that the book is a valuable resource for the English-speaking world, but some object that neither the Irish nor United Kingdom versions of the GIRM allow this option. What are your thoughts about these issues?

Dr. Kwasniewski: The project had as its goal the setting of the texts of the Roman Missal, with the United States primarily in view, but without excluding other countries (as I will explain in a moment). This much seems true to me: as a matter of liturgical law, in which I am far from expert, we are in a state of some confusion as regards what texts ought to be sung at Mass. We cannot go wrong by taking our texts either from the Graduale Romanum (as has been done in this book for the Offertory antiphons, since they do not exist in the Roman Missal) or from the Roman Missal itself, either because it is permitted to do so, or under the generous umbrella of alius cantus aptus (other appropriate song). There are other approaches that could work, too. The only thing that is non-negotiable is keeping the music and texts truly in line with the rubrics, laws, and “genius” of the Roman Rite.

Perhaps, many years from now, this confusion will all be sorted out, with one standard set of antiphons which will be created for all circumstances, and the singing or reciting of them will be made obligatory. (It is quite bizarre, when you come to think about it, that this supremely obvious step was not taken long ago.) But we are, I think, still far away from that official resolution of our difficulties, and meanwhile, generations of Catholics are growing up without the faintest clue about the kind of music and texts that are historically authentic, and liturgically appropriate to the Mass. We need to do something now; indeed, we needed to do something yesterday, but at least now we have the resources. They will serve admirably for the years ahead, as the Church gradually continues to assimilate the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI on the hermeneutic of continuity, and his own personal example of friendliness to tradition, which has been so influential among young Catholics who are zealous for the Faith.

Question 8: In looking back on the history of Gregorian chant, we see that growth of chant as an intrinsic part of the Mass was organic, and its composers were anonymous. Different versions of the chanted liturgy came into being in different parts of the Catholic world, until various popes, in effect, canonized a single official collection of chants that made up the music of the liturgy of the Roman rite. Then, a rupture happened, and after the introduction of the vernacular Mass, chant almost disappeared. Fr. Weber’s work is part of an increasing movement to bring chant back into the Mass where it belongs, but so much has changed in the Church that it is hard for me to imagine how the movement can succeed. Chants are now composed by individuals whose names and reputations are known, and collections are made available for sale by publishers. The average Catholic pastor and music director seem to ignore directives from the Vatican, and from the bishops, who make the rules. And even when a pastor educates himself about the Church’s will for liturgical music, and tries patiently to reintroduce the missing parts of the Mass, the outrage from parishioners who feel entitled to their favorite hymns has been known to drive the pastor from his parish. Do you see any ray of hope here?

Dr. Kwasniewski: We have to take a long, long view on all this. Our times may well be the most confused period in the Church’s history, liturgically speaking, but there have been many times over the course of the centuries when liturgical practice was at a low ebb, and when renewal was desperately needed. Many improbable victories have been won across the great arc of Church history. We just need to do the right thing, all of us who know what the Church is asking for, and what her liturgy demands, and leave the rest to Divine Providence. The progressive ways of the 1960s and 1970s, although they still have their defenders, are really showing their age, and are not attracting new converts. The rediscovery of tradition is the place where it’s at today.

I don’t think it matters that today we know the names of the composers, whereas we don’t know who the anonymous monks were who wrote the original chants. Let’s not forget that by the Middle Ages, the poets who wrote the great sequences, and Marian antiphons, are known to us by name, that our ancestors used to attribute a great deal of chant to St. Gregory and St. Ambrose, and that we know the names of all the great composers of the Renaissance—Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis, Victoria, Guerrero, Morales, and so many others—whose music is held up by the Church as the most fitting sacred music after chant. As with St. John the Baptist, we’re not worthy to unfasten their sandal straps, but by placing ourselves in the school of Gregorian chant, and patiently taking up this work, their spirit will rub off on us. We, too, must strive to produce music that is worthy of the sacred liturgy, and of its musical heritage.

It is also not entirely true to think of the chant of the past as a single monolithic entity. There were various kinds and traditions of chants in the Western and Eastern churches, and while certain forms eventually predominated, a certain healthy pluralism tended to prevail—healthy because it was essentially built upon a deep consensus about the nature and structure of the liturgy, its multitudinous musical requirements, and the fitting manner of meeting its artistic needs. Thus, for us today to have several English chant books to choose from is a sign of vitality, not a sign of anarchy, even though I firmly believe that, over time, artistic judgment will shape market forces, and some of the current options will quietly pass away. Of course, I have no crystal ball (as it were), but I predict that Fr. Weber’s The Proper of the Mass will become established as the definitive book of its kind.

The ignorance of Church documents is a huge problem, and I can only hope and pray that younger clergy will take pains to educate themselves by wide reading, and careful thinking. There is certainly no lack of germane reading material out there, like William Mahrt’s The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, Jeffrey Tucker’s Sing Like a Catholic, or my own Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis.

As for priests getting in trouble, we all need to remember that an incremental approach is going to work better 99% of the time. Don’t just get rid of hymns. Introduce Propers alongside hymns—something that is easy to do, if, for example, you sing a couple of verses from a hymn to cover the procession, and then chant the Introit as the priest incenses the altar. The same thing can be done at Offertory and Communion. Slowly bring in a selection of better hymns, and phase out the worst of the repertoire. Pick one of the Sunday Masses, and ramp up the sacred music for that one, so that it can be the “flagship,” but people who are not ready for it still have other options. It’s going to require strategy and patience; it won’t be an overnight fix. On the other hand, we should be grateful for the many communities that have availed themselves of the provisions of Summorum Pontificum, because the strict rubrics of the 1962 Missal facilitate “ready-made” good liturgy, and, for many, it’s somehow less of a problem to see the introduction of a different form of the Roman Rite (hey, we’re all about diversity these days!) than to see unexpected changes to the vernacular Mass they’re accustomed to.

Still, the worst thing is doing nothing, and being stuck in the rut of conformism—just going along with whatever happens to be the status quo. The liturgy is our most precious possession as Catholics, and we need to treat it with the greatest love, wonder, and reverence. To do so, we must restore the treasury of sacred music that Vatican II itself praised and called for.

[1] The Chant Café is an interactive blog at www.chantcafe.com, a project of the Church Music Association of America that is described as a place that "Catholic musicians gather to blog about about liturgy and life."
[2] Dr. Kwasniewski is Professor of Theology and Choirmaster at Wyoming Catholic College. Dr. Kwasniewski’s book, Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church, was published by Angelico Press, and he is currently finishing work on his latest book, Ecstasy and Rapture in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas.
[3] SATB stands for soprano, alto, tenor, bass singers in a choir or schola.
[4] “Proper Of The Mass” (Ignatius Press) • Part 1 of 7. April 15, 2015 by Andrew R. Motyka. Retrieved August 19, 2015.
[5] “Proper Of The Mass” (Ignatius Press) • Part 7 of 7. April 22, 2015 by Jeff Ostrowski. Retrieved August 19, 2015.
[6] “Celebrating the Liturgy ‘Worthily, Attentively and Devoutly’: Interview with Fr. Samuel F. Weber, O.S.B." July 16, 2014 by Peter Kwasniewski. Retrieved August 19, 2015.
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