Skip to comments.Five Problems, Five Solutions (Catholic Caucus)
Posted on 04/05/2010 4:09:27 PM PDT by Desdemona
After years of observing the Catholic music scene, particular as it affects the liturgical life of the Church, I think I can narrow down the most pressing problems of our time. The good news is that all five problem have answers that are readily at hand. For this reason, we all have cause for being extremely hopeful.
1. Musicians do not have a model, much less ideals, in mind. Catholic musicians are very sincere people who aspire to do research so that they can do their jobs well. They order book after book and read many official documents. And yet even after this, the music they sing in Mass seems like a big blur. They pick a Mass setting, some hymns, and slog their way through various small bits but otherwise have little understanding of the structure of what they are doing.
The best solution for these people is to break down all the things they sing during the course of a Mass and classify them as: ordinary, propers, and dialogues. They need to come to recognize that their hymns are substitutes for propers, that they need a stable and predictable model for dealing with dialogues, and that the ordinary of the Mass, which is changing, involves only a narrow set of music. Understanding this would go a long way toward stabilizing and eventually solemnizing the liturgy.
As a second step, musicians need to come to realize that in every case, there are ideal solutions to all these musical questions. That ideal is found in the chant tradition in general and the Roman Gradual in particular. Many musicians would be amazed to discover that they are singing nothing but substitutes for the music that the Church has given us long ago to sing at Mass! This understanding would be a major step in the right direction.
2. The music resources in the typical parish are nothing short of pathetic. Every weeks, I'm reminded of this when I attempt to sing a regular hymn and discover that the words in the missalette are different from the choral books from which the choir is singing. Sometimes whole verses are missing. The Psalms that mainstream Catholic publishers are pushing are a mere shadow of genuine Christian Psalm singing. The arrangements range from bad to ghastly, pointlessly changed from traditional arrangements only so that the music can be recopyrighted. The missalettes even leave out sequences and important chants for Holy Week. Believe me, this short summary only scratches the surface. The resources available today for Catholic musicians are a grave embarrassment. The worst nightmare of any Catholic musician is to have a Presbyterian or Episcopal friend visit the loft and see what we are using!
Here I can only praise the glories of digital media. On the internet, we can find all that we need to displace and replace the whole of this garbage cluttering up the pews and the loft. There are Psalms. There are free propers in English and Latin. There are free settings for the ordinary chants in English and Latin. There are tens of thousands of motets and other pieces. There are tutorials and sound files and more. It is all 100% freed. It is really incredible. Now, to be sure, you have to know something of what you are doing to make your way around the resources. We are all working together now to make all this material more accessible. The time will come. In any case, this is the source of our salvation.
3. The musical competence within the typical parish is shockingly low. Many parishes of 500 families have only a few people who know how to read music at all. Among them, very few are willing to commit to singing every week or volunteering to direct. As a result, many parishes lack even the personnel to begin a serious sacred music program.
I can't speak to how matters were before the great meltdown of the 1960s but it is fact, undeniable, that musical competence was depreciated after the Council. Many people came to believe, during the great folk movement, that competence was a bad thing that prevented people from creating art from the heart. You know the old story. Anyway, we are stuck with the results. The mass of Catholics can't find their way around a four-part hymn. Musical notation is Greek to them.
Fortunately, chant can be sung without formal training in musical notation. Often it is best sung by amateurs who care. Above all, sacred music requires a king of humility. People without training are more adept at humility simply because they have spirits that are more teachable. It's not that a lack of technical competence is a good thing, but I do think that Catholic music is not thereby shut off to them. In fact, to begin in ignorance is not necessarily a disaster. We can work around this and turn it to an advantage.
Another important element here: children's choirs. This must never be overlooked.
4. Catholics lack of a universal song. This problem shows up not just between countries but between parishes and even within parishes. The early morning Mass is traditional. The mid-morning Mass is adult contemporary. The evening Masses are divided between student populations. And so on. And none use the music you hear at any other Mass. It is the Tower of Babel. We are divided and fractured, and sometimes out of necessity to keep the peace.
But clearly this will not do for the long term. We need a universal Catholic song, and the answer here is clear: there is only one viable body of music to claim this mantle and that is chant. It is the music that can brings us all together. It is the music of the rite itself, and its style knows no demographic or period of time. It has lasted and lasted, as much as a thousand years with a tradition that stretches back perhaps three thousand years. It will be around long after we are all dead. By singing it, we are becoming part of something larger than our own generation. We help link the past with the future. It makes our musical efforts mean something. Then we can actually come together as a parish or even as Catholics from all nations and sing together.
5. The final problem involves orientation and I do not just mean the orientation of the altar, though that is a symptom. We need to make a decision here. Is Mass by and for the people or is Mass by and for God? There is a crucial difference here. If we are properly oriented to God, turning toward the Lord must be a pervasive action and activity not only of the celebrant but of everyone and everything. We become less demanding that our needs are met by happy clappy music. With a proper orientation, the people will demand music for prayer, and prayer will become our main need. This, after all, is what liturgy is all about: removing us from our mundane fixation on our earthly needs to prepare us for an eternal encounter. If all we do is demand more of what we can get outside of Church, we will never really find fulfillment in liturgy.
Perhaps this last point is the most serious of all, and there only way to address it is through pastoral leadership. We need people like Moses who will condemn our Golden Calfs made from our own possessions and lead us to higher goals. Once our orientation is right, the rest follows. We will find our voices, find our song, find the resources, and develop our knowledge and talents.
Along with this sound, a couple other things happened - at the Mass of the Lords Supper, the congregation was most vocal and confident for the Agnus Dei, which was from one of the chant Masses. As we were processing to the Pange Lingua, I walked by an elderly priest who was singing his heart out in Latin. This is the heritage that was all but discarded. The Exultet was chanted in Latin at the Easter Vigil and, frankly, it might be a little early for this. The English translation was in the program, but without having the Latin next to it, several of us got a bit lost.
We choir members were talking amongst ourselves and it seems that the Mass is headed back to the chant tradition. The article above does not address that exactly, but does make a partial case for reverting to chant. I think the author has some interesting things to say, while not necessarily agreeing with him. First off, all the books - useless. A good number are USCCB inspired and are more about how to plan than how to sing. And if you dont have a director who knows how to draw beautiful sounds, all the reading isnt going to do much good. As far as the music resources being pathetic - yes and in multiple ways. For a couple generations now, weve relied mostly on volunteers rather than employing professionals who could make the beauty happen and train willing volunteers. This was another place where tradition wasnt simply allowed to die - it was killed. The author does make a VERY good point about the copyrights, something thats bugged me for a long time.
Part of what we are facing is a couple generations who have never been taught how to sing, how to make music, the details of being a choir member, etc. Theres quite a bit that goes with it. To be blunt - you dont simply start singing motets or chorales or Renaissance pieces. Just the rhythm requirements alone require a pretty competent level of musicianship.
Yes, chant is easy to start with, except that as a church weve forgotten how to chant (we figured that out in the last couple weeks). Its easier to get the idea while reading neums (which is NOT hard to read at all). And I completely disagree on the untrained having a sense of humility. Not in my experience. The more experienced, trained, section leader sorts are usually the show up and sing people who are willing to sort music and get dirty under the organ. Its the ones who overestimate their level of competence that are a problem.
The other points arent exactly musical, but very true observations. That all does need to be addressed, but it would be nice if that could be somewhat separated from the actual musical issues. The non musical points are more a matter of catechesis.
There's loads of good music out there.
Most can be found here:
Desdemona is absolutely right about music directors and music education.
1. Hire a good music director for the parish. A real musician with a Catholic music background. Ours is a treasure. You have to spend the money to get a good man.
The Episcopalians may be a bunch of heretics, but they take their music seriously. In our former ECUSA parish, the vestry asked the music director what he needed for his budget, and then everybody else fought over the rest. I am not kidding - that is exactly how it worked. Until you make music a top priority, it won't improve significantly.
2. Bring back music education in the Catholic schools and in Sunday School. Our parish school is doing this already, with fabulous results. The choirmaster teaches a credit course in Western Church Music to great acclaim -- and the kids get extra credit for singing in one of the choirs.
3. Children's choir. I have already sent our children's choir director all the links and information on the Royal School of Church Music program -- it has ranks and awards for passing various music exams, the kids get medals with different colors of ribbon depending on the level of exam they have passed. There is also a national exam which entitles a kid who passes it to wear a special medal of bronze, silver, or gold. Nothing like a little competition and reward to get the kids going. It sure worked in our former parish!
I agree wholeheartedly with what you say.
One thing I hope we can all agree on is that all OCP influence, followed quickly by GIA influence must be utterly wiped out!
Um, did you read what I wrote? As a church, we’ve forgotten how to do that. In my choir, which includes about 12 trained voices, it took two weeks to get the feel of the chant, the right tone quality, pitch and rhythm. It’s not hard, but we have to relearn it - and then spice things up with anthems, motets, etc.
You all sing Palestrina too? We do at least one Palestrina a month.
For children’s choir, you might look into Pueri, too.
I thought that was a standing Free Republic rule.
(Or did the rules change during my absence for Lent?)
(with apologies to Cato the Censor)
Whatever that stuff is, it's not music. It's anti-music. I have never heard such damnable (I speak advisedly) tripe in my life.
As our choirmaster remarked about Haugen's "Massive Cremation" - "The first time I heard it, I said to myself, 'it's absolutely horrible, and everybody is going to just love it.'"
I like the St. Gregory's Hymnal to sort of ease people into the chant. It's the proper Graduale, but transcribed into ordinary staff notation. Once you have that mastered, you start handing out the original Solesmes notation.
I of course had never seen neumes until I converted -- but it is not difficult to learn. Of course I could read music about as soon as I could read print (mom was a prof in the Music Dept at GA State Univ, teaching "Music and Movement" i.e. teaching singers how to stand on a stage as though they belong there). So I don't know how hard it is for non-music readers. It may actually be easier to learn it cold, because the neumes look suspiciously like ordinary staff notation but function differently.
It's on it's way out in some places, but not everywhere. The problem with OCP is that it all comes as a package. It's easy. GIA does produce decent hymnals. It's their original stuff that's not all that great. Although now that Richard Proulx had died, even that should start to go away.
I'm not arguing, I'm just stating that chant doesn't solve all the problems.
I understand and agree. There is far too much good music and far too few good musical memories.
I would say that of the European Catholic composers, we sing mostly Palestrina and Victoria, with occasional excursions into the Germans, mostly Telemann, Hans-Leo Hassler and Bach, and the modern French (Faure', Poulenc).
But the 16th century English composers are probably our mainstay. They have the pleasing quality of setting good Latin texts, but nobody set English texts better than they did. Our music director points out the natural declamatory effect of the English in works like Thomas Morley's English/Latin "Nolo Mortem Peccatoris", which we sang for Good Friday.
Agree. Husband goes to the 8:00 Mass because it doesn’t have music.
And yeah, I know Bach and Telemann and Hassler were Lutheran . . . but we ignore it. Just like we ignore that the later English Edwardians were really Anglicans, albeit ‘high’.
We do a lot of Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis (a LOT of Tallis), Byrd, Mendelssohn, some Brahms, the occasional Mozart, etc. Easter was Bach overload. Zzzzz.
Fortunately, the guys going through the seminary now are fans of this sort of music. You should have seen what they requested for the Transitional Deaconate Ordination. All good stuff.
We really put on the dog for Easter Vigil -- four anthems (with visiting violinist who is truly excellent, she can play the Telemann Psalm 117 off the page, taking pieces from the Violin I and Violin II parts), the Exultet chanted in its entirety, the Sequence, and two handbell pieces to boot.
We use the Massive Cremation occasionally to mollify the superannuated hippies in our midst, but we chant the Ordinary in Latin every First Sunday (including yesterday), and our choirmaster has composed his own four-part setting which we use as often as we can. We do have to sing the horrible Becker "Litany of the Saints" at the Vigil because one of the priests likes it, but he's a wonderfully kind, orthodox and holy (if not very musical) man so we are happy to indulge him. (I also think he likes it because it was sung at JPII's funeral and he's one of the JPII priests). Hopefully we can eventually wean him to a more traditional chant setting though.
Some of the English Renaissance dudes were really Catholic, but posed as Anglican as a cover. It’s fine. We’ll take it.
Wrt Bach, one of the parishioners said absolutely the weirdest thing to our music director. She asked him why he played so much Bach for preludes and postludes, because "it sounds like squirrels in a box."
He was glancing over his shoulder for lightning bolts . . . .
He still plays Bach but also a lot of Buxtehude and his favorite 20th c. French composers (he did a Fulbright at the Lyons Conservatory).
One thing you have to remember, there is a difference between music and noise. Yes, some of us are massively picky about that.