William Peter Mahrt, through the CMAA, has published a new book, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy. It is available through Amazon. I have to say that it is a magnificent work of scholarship, but is a minor disappointment. Why do I say that?
First, and foremost, it is an almost entirely unredacted reprint of articles the professor has published before, mostly in the journal Sacred Music. That means that there are little irritations like references to "this journal" and to other articles published in the same issue of SM. But, more to the point, it means that there is no overarching plan to the book.
That is reflected in the Table of Contents. the book is organized into "The Paradigm," "Chants," "Polyphony" and "Commentary." Some of the articles are pretty esoteric. If a parish music director with no degree in liturgical music (which describes most Catholic parishes) picked it up, he/she would probably not be able to understand most of the early articles. Some of the work dates back to the 1970's, and has not been brought up to date. The Commentary section is the most readable, and is also--on average--the most recently written. I believe that the book is worth purchasing even if one only skips to the Commentary.
One last little gripe. The book is about the "musical shapes of the Mass," since only one chapter is devoted to the Antiphonale and its possible impact on the celebration of the Divine Office.
Professor Mahrt, whom I greatly respect and admire for his scholarship and his conducting of a traditional choir through the past two generations in my old parish, St. Ann's, Palo Alto, has written a very good book. But it is not the book that will bring most parishes into the "renewal of the renewal." That book has yet to be written.
I was very excited to read this book, and while I'm only about 1/3rd of the way through I can say that the material in this book is first rate.
I think the only disappointment about this book (and the reason why I only gave it 4 stars) is because the entire book is nothing more than a series of articles reprinted from the CMAA's journal 'Sacred Music'. That's not to say that the articles aren't excellent, though at times a bit esoteric. The breadth and depth of the material is extraordinary, and anyone wishing to delve deeply into the heart and mind of Gregorian Chant will be richly rewarded.
This is a moderately scholarly work, and while anyone who loves and sings chant will glean much useful information from this book, I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book to the casual person. For those looking to expand their understanding of chant and the nature of sacred music in general this book is a definite recommend.
Dr. Mahrt has raised the bar for music in Catholic worship. Effectively, he is challenging music directors in Catholic churches to take a step back and rethink some of what they have been doing and why since the 1960's. He makes a compelling case for restoring Gregorian chant at Mass in parishes or places where it has fallen into disuse since Vatican II. He spells out in detail why this should be done, and does so, for the most part, with well-reasoned and convincing arguments.
His knowledge of chant, its history, different styles, e.g., syllabic versus melismatic, and why each of these styles fits particular liturgical acts of the Mass is truly formidable. In addition to being a music and liturgy director and organist, he is also president of the Church Music Association of America (CMAA), and a professor at Stanford.
Some interesting points he makes are:
1. There are two forms of the Mass - ordinary and extraordinary. The ordinary form is celebrated in English with music in the vernacular and/or Latin. The extraordinary form (the Tridentine Mass) is celebrated in Latin with the dialogues, ordinary, propers, readings, and preface all sung in Gregorian - except at low Masses, which are simply recited. There is a place for both, although the ordinary form is far and away the more commonplace.
2. The ideal Mass, rarely and not easily achieved in its ordinary form, is one in which the parts that are said aloud are all sung, with priest, deacon, congregation, choir (or schola) all having specific roles to play. Singing the Mass means something entirely different and a lot more than just singing at Mass.
3. Once the ideal is recognized, it is a goal we can begin working towards.Read more ›
This book is essential for anyone who desires to learn in-depth about the unbelievably rich (and seemingly little-known or understood) western musical heritage and how integral this music is to the liturgy of the Roman Rite. For anyone seriously interested in liturgical music or music history this is a must-read book. For me personally, this book has filled in a lot of gaps in my understanding of the Catholic liturgy and the development of music in the western world.
With that said roughly the first three-quarters of the book reads like a serious course in the historical development of chant in Western civilization beginning with the chanting of psalms in the Jewish temple/synagogue and ending with the masses of Vivaldi (although the Romantic-era composers are mentioned as well). This is not merely a list of names, dates and events but a thorough explanation (complete with diagrams and examples) of what is sung in the mass and when, why it is sung, where it came from, who should sing it and why and how it has developed over time. For me learning about this has given me a much deeper appreciation of Mass.
The remaining quarter or so of the book is commentary (more recently written than most of the first part of the book) which covers a variety of topics relating more or less to application of authentic Catholic music in the post-conciliar period and its development.
In my opinion I think that any serious church musician would benefit greatly by reading this book, especially younger musicians like myself who have lived their entire lives in the post-conciliar era and thus have little or no experience with liturgical chant or who are a convert to Roman Catholicism. I also think that seminarians could benefit as well. If you are interested in liturgical music read this book as soon as you can!