Jeffrey Tucker Interview, Part 2

 by J.J. Wright

I recently had the opportunity to interview Jeffrey Tucker, who runs the Chant Cafe and New Liturgical Movement blogs, and also has a close affiliation with the Church Music Association of America. Part one of the interview was published a couple of weeks ago, here is part two:

JJ: We see what happened immediately after the council, but do you see the changes that you talked about above helping the church in its overall mission in the long run?

JT: I think that there was a real wisdom to what the council thought to do. For one thing, it was absolutely necessary because the dominant form of the Mass that prevailed in the 50s was the low Mass in which people would show up, say the rosary, go to communion, and then go home, and otherwise experience none of the Mass for themselves. So Vatican II comes along and says:  “we’ve been working for 100 years with this liturgical movement to try to get people engaged in liturgy and it’s not working, we need something profound to happen. We’re going to get rid of this idea of the low Mass and we want a world in which people are actively engaged at every part of the Mass because it’s beautiful and because it’s spiritually important for them. We need structural changes to give the Mass to the people in a way that they haven’t experienced it before.” This is part of what the mandate for Gregorian chant to take the primary place in Mass was about. The talk about full, active, and conscious participation is about listening, hearing, and singing, its about just being part of what’s going on, all of this is essential.

In terms of the use of the vernacular languages, it’s pretty clear that the main part of the liturgy that the Fathers aimed to target were the readings. Latin is a holy tongue, and you never want it to go away, but while proclaiming the text in a language that the people don’t understand has a lot of spiritual merit, pastorally speaking, it’s a difficult proposition. In a strange sense, I think the liturgical reforms of Vatican II came too late because there was so much resentment and it was so long overdue that something be done. That being said, I don’t think that the result of the liturgical reform of 1969-70 was entirely consistent with what he council was calling for. There was no reason to reshuffle the church calendar; that was devastating and it continues to be devastating. We have a third of the year that is blocked off as Ordinary Time and it’s just not a very compelling model. There are all kinds of words that were part of the Catholic Life: rogation days, quadrigesima, quadridisima, the ranking of the classes of the feasts. I think it disturbed and destabilized the Catholic life in a terrible way because it messed with people’s rituals at a fundamental level. At the same time, something had to give, and I think they kind of made a mess of it, but it’s probably easier to see now than it was at the time.

I really approve of the Benedict approach: there are lot of problems with the liturgy in average parish life and the most striking problem is that most people just find it boring because it’s been robbed of mystery. So much of the apparatus of the liturgy as it’s given to us in the typical parish environment is inconsistent with the message of the text itself and people don’t know how to achieve that integration of text and liturgy. Benedict gave us an agenda: we have lost a lot of things, and if we’re looking to reform we should be looking to recapture, renew, and restore so we can achieve a greater integration of the past (which is where we’ll find the most robust and workable traditions) and the future, and I think he’s absolutely correct about that.

JJ: So do you see your work of trying to make new resources available as a pretty long-term approach?

JT: Yes, and it’s slow, but I’m enormously optimistic. There’s one book in particular that we have put out and the effect that it has had has been absolutely incredible. You can go to almost any town and find two or three parishes that are now using the Simple English Propers.

One of the things that was not understood, was that the primary thing that needs to be sung at Mass is not hymns, but the actually texts of the liturgy itself, which are the propers. Anything that you do instead of that is basically an override of the texts specifically written for the Mass. Let me tell you the story of how this book came to be: I was speaking at an event in Atlanta and I had about 200 church musicians there. I gave an hour long, impassioned lecture in favor of mass propers. At the end of the talk a hand went up and said: “my singers can’t sing Latin, I can’t make heads or tails of it, and even if we could I think this would alienate the congregation, so what should we do?” And I said: “that’s no problem, just sing them in English.” So then, I took the next question: “well if we’re going to sing them English, what’s the resource we should use?” Now up until that point in history, I was cutting and pasting things: I was using a little bit from the Anglican use gradual, there was some book published in 1965 that has some introits, and I found some scrappy little pieces here and there for communion. I was able to piece it together with a great deal of trouble and effort. Suddenly though, I found myself in the position of saying something along the lines of what I just said to you, to a group of 200 musicians, most of whom are volunteers, and I couldn’t just rattle off a bunch of internet links. Suddenly I felt discredited, I felt like everything I had said for the last hour had no action item at all. I stood there with my mouth open, staring at this person in silence for what seemed like ten minutes (it was probably 15 seconds). I turned white, and I said to the person: “you know, I’m going to get to work on that.”

I left the room and I immediately called up my friend Adam Bartlett with whom I had been feuding with for two years over some idiotic, irrelevant problem concerning the rhythm of chant or something like that. I said Adam: “you and I have been at each others throats over this idiotic issue that, turns out, nobody cares about, why don’t we work together and finally do a book of English propers”, and he was happy to bury the hatchet and get to work on it. That was October and by March the book was in print. He was burning the midnight oil getting the book done and I was absolutely cruel to him because I could hardly pay him at all. We would talk on the phone every day and look at templates; he developed a wonderful system that conformed to my model of preserving the text, preserving the mode and notating it with neumes. He also designed some simple formulaic chants so congregations would not have to learn new music every week. I don’t think it’s the final answer to everything, but it blew the Catholic world away because for the first time modern Catholics in their own parish environment had a way to actually sing the Mass. Soon after this, ICEL got involved in putting out the English chants for the liturgy and then Arlene Oost-Zinner produced the first version of Gregorian psalms for the Mass. In a period of 6-8 months, after having waited 50 years, we had a full suite of music that was capable of accomplishing the musical side of the liturgy in the vernacular that conforms exactly to Pius X’s strictures concerning sacred music: it’s beautiful, it’s holy, it’s universal.

Universality is extremely important because we don’t want music segmented by demographics if we can avoid it: there shouldn’t be one kind of music for the youth, one for the old people, and one for the boomers. Whatever kind of music that goes on at Mass, it should be obvious to everybody that it is holy and beautiful. And my hope is that once people start singing this kind of music [chant] they will understand that there is a structural and stylistic integrity to it. This will also lead them into a richer experience with the Latin, but that will only come in time. Once you break that language barrier, then this whole world opens up to you and you have put together the whole Catholic musical universe.

I agree with you that it’s a long-term project, but on the other hand we are making great progress on it now. We’ve probably made 500 YouTube videos of this stuff and sold many thousand copies of these books. There are new resources coming online and in print everyday that break the paradigm.

One of the funny effects of Vatican II is that after the upheaval in 1969-70, there are no buttons to push to cause change to happen anymore. Nobody wants to go through that kind of change ever again! There is a weird kind of conservatism that’s pervasive in parish life today. People are afraid of change because they just naturally from experience assume that change is probably going to make everything worse (laughs). That’s why in parishes the way some of these changes usually begin is in the Masses where people are a little more adaptable. Ironically those end up being Life Teen Masses, youth Masses, and college ministries. That’s where the musical reforms are taking place, in places you wouldn’t expect, but that’s where people are kind of groovy to change; they’re ready for something more meaningful.

I want to mention one more thing before I close: I think it’s really urgent that we stop thinking about the problems of the music in the Mass as a war between styles. It’s not that styles don’t matter, but if that’s all you’re thinking about you’re really missing the point. To my mind, if you’re able to accomplish the propers of the Mass with a guitar then that’s a gigantic improvement. Even if it’s using pop styles, it’s a huge improvement. I don’t think that we’re on the right track if all we’re doing is arguing about why type of music needs to be played in Mass. What we need to be talking about is the texts and that’s where it has to begin.

Another common mistake are the great hymn wars. People say: “I like that hymn”, and then somebody else says, “God I hate that hymn”. This is a totally pointless debate because they’re not talking about anything that really matters. There will be no resolving this debate as long as it’s taking place on these terms. It just ends up dividing people when the whole point of music is not to create factions and tribes that just bludgeon each other forever. That’s what’s been going on for the past 50 years and it’s gotten us absolutely nowhere. So those are the two things that we absolutely must avoid. And insofar as it’s possible, we need to be ensure that we are not demonizing the other side.

3 thoughts on “Jeffrey Tucker Interview, Part 2

  1. Thank you for your efforts to produce and publish an accessible set of English propers for the newer Roman Rite. I am delighted to hear that numerous parishes have begun to use them.

    The choir off men and boys in my Anglo-Catholic parish has for many years chanted the propers from the English Gradual at the principal Mass on Sundays and Holydays. We miss them during the summer, when the choir does not sing on a regular basis at Sunday Masses. At least their absence makes us look forward to their return in September!

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