Tomas Luis De Victoria: Missa Pro Victoria by Doulce Mémoire

by Zachary Thomas 
"Approaching religion through art is not the caprice of an aesthete: aesthetic experience spontaneously tends to expand into a presentiment of religious experience. From an aesthetic experience one returns as from a sighting of numinous footprints.(1)

––Nicolás Gómez Dávila
On October 21st, the Renaissance ensemble Doulce Mémoire put on a remarkable performance of Tomas Luis de Victori’a Missa Pro Victoria at St. Julien in Tours. Here is a description from the program:
“The Missa pro Victoria, sung by a double choir, resurrects Clément Janequin’s music composed in celebration of the battle and French victory at Marignan in 1515. Through this concert Doulce Memoire intends to restore the magnificent liturgical ceremony with the participation of three musical ensembles: the Chapelle de Plain-Chant, the spectacular Chapelle de Musique and the Ecurie du Roy, made up of the most dazzling and sonorous instruments. The object is to create a highly colourful ceremony as was customary in Spanish cathedrals.” (2)
Without any sacramental action, the “ceremony” was of course only a skeletal gesture toward the solemn liturgical celebrations of the Renaissance and necessarily excluded all priestcraft. Something like a concert Vespers. But even so it was an impressive attempt to capture something of the “high color” and grandeur of a Renaissance liturgy.

As one can see in a similar version of the concert posted on the group’s website, it began in the dark except for colored lights illuminating the choir area. A joyful instrumental prelude from the choir loft showcasing exotic period instruments (sackbuts, dulcians, and sawms!), began the event, after which the choirs processed solemnly in file, holding small candles, as the cantors sang the Introit and its psalm verses.

The choirs ranged themselves around the choir and sang the whole Victoria Mass, with musical accompaniment to several pieces. They threw several hymns into the mix too, and recessed to a hymn with a lively drum-beat.

To their credit the creators went out of their way to give the concert a semi-liturgical, even sacral feel, unbroken by profane utterance. As a Roman Rite Catholic I felt, strangely and unexpectedly, right at home with the semi-liturgical gravity and the familiar candle processions and plain chant, as if I had accidentally wandered into Vespers. At the same time I was dazzled by the completely new, —the musical accompaniments, the psalm verses, the free festive spirit of the music, the combination of plainchant and polyphony—was a fascinating retrieval of liturgical music one usually only hears in recordings.

Please take a look at the video posted on the group’s website.

“Whenever we drop anything in the Church, the world picks it up.”

This concert is merely one more excellent example of the impressive accomplishments of Historically Informed Performances, and one more word of rebuke to the people responsible for our liturgical ministries today.

In a recent illustration of Fulton Sheen’s common saying, while the greater part of parishes and even cathedrals trudge on languidly with vague gestures toward the Western sacred musical tradition, the musical world has spent the last few decades vigorously exploring and recreating the musical styles and even the rituals of the Western tradition. Avant garde directors such as Marcel Peres and Paul McCreesh, have appropriated this music for the delight of a secular public who have exhibited a keen taste for it.

But there is more here than superior taste. In their own way, these directors have reached a very sophisticated, even quasi-sacramental understanding about the relationship between the sacred arts.(3)  They’ve seen that somehow, they are meant to fit together.

The Russian theologian Pavel Florensky once pleaded before a Soviet commission to save several historic Russian monasteries.(4)   His argument was ingenious: the beauty and coherence of the sacred arts depend upon their active use by praying monks. Russian icons are written to be seen through incense smoke under candle light, and the chant must resonate in the church building as commentary on particular cultic actions. Therefore anyone concerned to guard these arts for “cultural reasons” had to preserve the monks in their places.

Taking the HIP movement to its logical conclusion would mean restoring the lavish liturgical ceremonies in which the Western repertoire is set. That would be the ultimate recreation, both historically accurate and yet transcending time.

Concretely, it would mean sending cathedral canons back to their liturgical duties, re-establishing the great monasteries, and even investing in artistic education for the laity. In essence, it would for the Church to perform the role assigned to her in Gaudium et Spes, to bring the seeds of goodness she sees in modern culture their proper fruition in Christ, to show the world how all of its legitimate values find their completion in the life of the Church.(5)  It would mean above all for her to take up her role again as custodian of divine worship, admitting only the most excellent tools for the purpose.

Especially since so much ado is made about welcoming modern culture into sacred worship, it would seem that the work of HIP artists, a cutting edge of music today, could fruitfully inform Catholic liturgical culture.

This concert provoked a wild moment of imagination of something like the restored boroughs of London in Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill.

If Doulce Mémoire was able to pack a medium-sized church with cultural tourists in secular France for a Saturday evening performance, what might pastors of souls the world over accomplish if sacramental Roman liturgies were as aesthetically pleasing as this concert? What if—as happened within living memory—something of this grand scale happened every Sunday at Vespers in the cathedral, in the presence of the canons and diocesan clergy, and again at every major feast? Who can say how many people it would attract, faithful and unbelievers, perhaps merely for the aesthetic experience at first, but perhaps soon for more?

In this regard, Shawn tribe cited Dom Gerard Calvet OSB in a recent article:
...one enters the Church by two doors: the door of the intelligence and the door of beauty. The narrow door... is that of intelligence; it is open to intellectuals and scholars. The wider door is that of beauty..

The Church in her impenetrable mystery ... has need of an earthly epiphany (i.e. manifestation) accessible to all: this is the majesty of her temples, the splendour of her liturgy and the sweetness of her chants.
Liturgy is the church’s democratic principle. It is the people’s theology. For that matter, it is the theologian’s theology, as David Fagerberg so often reminds us. If it is done without care, we will lose the people.

This bold adventure of thought—which in a Chestertonian sense is nothing more than the rediscovery of orthodoxy, here in its proper sense of “right glory”—is the more necessary as the Church’s failure to live up to the aesthetic demands of liturgy can be a sin against faith, hope, and charity and lead souls to despair.(6)

Puissent bientôt les échos de nos Cathédrales se réveiller aux accents de cette solennelle prière qu'ils ont répétée si longtemps!”—Dom Gueranger

After the first several exhilarating experiences of touring a Gothic cathedral, another feeling creeps in: sorrow at the barrenness of these dark, hollow places that once resounded with the divine praise, and hummed with the life of a religious community. The sight is common: Tourists wander in and out, aimlessly staring at unfamiliar faces in windows, visiting empty chapels, reading small plaques or listening languidly to the anecdotes of a curator, crane their necks at silent organs, or poke about in deserted choirs. What they want is to find some meaning in this place, some explanation for it. But there is none given.

Nietzsche called Europe’s cathedrals mausolea to a dead God. And in one sense it’s hard to disagree with him, because it would seem that the love of God that inspired the architects of those titanic structures has gone out of us. The immense cultic life, of which these structures are the supreme expression, is gone out like the soul. The uses to which dioceses puts these places often belies their whole existence. They have become museums—places for musing, musing in this case on the absence of Christian life. It is in this sense that that our liturgical culture becomes a bitterly ironic denial of the faith that is clearly written into the structure around them.(7)

Blaise Cendrar gives voice to the silent suffering of cathedral tourists today and of so many Catholics deprived of the divine praise, in his poem “Easter in New York”:

“I would have liked a church where I could kneel or sit down,
but there are no bells, Lord, in this town.
I think of tied-up bells: where are the sweet antiphones?
Where are the ancient bells? Where are the litanies?
Where is the canticles’ unadorned beauty?
Where the liturgies, music, long offices, duty?
Where are your nuns, Lord, and where are your fierce prelates?
Where is the white dawn, the Saints’ immaculate amice?
The joy of paradise is drowned in dust,
the mystic fires don’t burn, the stained-glass windows rust.”(8)

Where indeed!

What if instead of this roaring agnostic silence, visiting tourists were confronted with the Divine Praises in full vigor, i.e. for at least five hours out of the day? Or with full choirs of monastics or cathedral chapters using the building for its created purpose? The effects the liturgy can have on chance passersby have often been surprising.

I remember an old Anglican couple on vacation who happened by a modest Vespers at a parish in Rome. They came again every evening for the rest of the week. As he put it: “Very nice, thank you. You know we Anglicans like all that old Catholic stuff!”

Even for purely pragmatic reasons this proposal makes sense. There’s no question it would make churches more interesting tourist locations. As Hilary White pointed out recently in an excellent article that speaks to our point, regrettably most monasteries now bill themselves as tourist destinations anyway. If only their occupants understood how much more powerful they would attract if the sacrifice of praise was offered in its full glory! There are no practical obstacles, only spiritual ones.

Indeed Gothic cathedrals were often built as “tourist locations,” pilgrimage churches with the choir carefully sealed off from the ambulatories and crypt where hundreds of pilgrims flocked noisily to their own purposes. The Office would inspire people to stay longer, ask questions, perhaps even leave donations. Certainly regular crowds would come for the major hours and feasts. This is to say nothing of the fact that millions of people would witness, even in a small way, the moving image of modern men giving their lives to divine service.

To conclude: the growing success of HIP music reveals that there are both theological and pragmatic reasons for the Church to respond to the growing demand for authentic liturgical celebrations. By restoring the Office to its full vigor in our churches, pastors can simultaneously draw from the expertise and tastes of today’s musical establishment, satisfy the spiritual aspirations of modern men, and and do full justice to its profound historical tradition. It is not only an opportunity, but the Church’s solemn duty to fill the Churches again with a worship that constitutes true orthodoxy, the ravishing music of the Nuptials of the Lamb.

“Modern man” is looking for his lost sacred heritage in more convincing places than our passé liturgical celebrations. Will the Church hold out her hand to pick him up?

---

Footnotes

1. English translation retrieved from (http://don-colacho.blogspot.fr/2010/01/arts-letters.html), 7th November 2017.

2. (http://www.doulcememoire.com/en/programmes/missa-pro-victoria/?programme=missa-pro-victoria&post_type=programme), retrieved 7th November 2017.


3. See Shawn Tribe’s recent article (http://www.liturgicalartsjournal.com/2017/11/the-attractive-power-and-synthesis-of.html)

4. See Pavel Florensky, “The Church Ritual as a Synthesis of the Arts,” in Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art. Ed. by Nicoletta Misler. London: Reaktion Books, 2002. 95–111.

5. See e.g. GS 41: “Since it has been entrusted to the Church to reveal the mystery of God, Who is the ultimate goal of man, she opens up to man at the same time the meaning of his own existence, that is, the innermost truth about himself. The Church truly knows that only God, Whom she serves, meets the deepest longings of the human heart, which is never fully satisfied by what this world has to offer.
She also knows that man is constantly worked upon by God's spirit, and hence can never be altogether indifferent to the problems of religion. The experience of past ages proves this, as do numerous indications in our own times. For man will always yearn to know, at least in an obscure way, what is the meaning of his life, of his activity, of his death. The very presence of the Church recalls these problems to his mind. But only God, Who created man to His own image and ransomed him from sin, provides the most adequate answer to the questions, and this He does through what He has revealed in Christ His Son, Who became man. Whoever follows after Christ, the perfect man, becomes himself more of a man. For by His incarnation the Father's Word assumed, and sanctified through His cross and resurrection, the whole of man, body and soul, and through that totality the whole of nature created by God for man's use.”
(http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html)

6. On the relation of theological hope and liturgical splendor, see also (http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2017/10/liturgical-splendor-and-image-of-god.html)

7. There is often not the same cognitive dissonance in recent American constructions, which speak the same language as the modern liturgical forms they house.

8. Blaise Cendrars, “Pasque a New York,” (http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/record.asp?id=13055)
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