Skip to comments.Bishop Sample and the Future of Catholic Music
Posted on 02/07/2013 5:48:40 AM PST by NYer
There are two errors to correct in the news that Bishop Alexander K. Sample is headed to Portland, Oregon. The first is that it means nothing. The second is that it means everything. As is often the case, the reality will be something in between.
At one level, it is a momentous choice because the Bishop is one of the great voices and minds in our time in favor of the “reform the reform” plus the push for sacred music, about which he is a genuine expert. Portland is the home of the Oregon Catholic Press, which provides music for a plurality of American parishes, and what OCP provides (for the most part) represents an older paradigm (roughty 1968-2010) of musical expression, the reform without the reform. Insofar as OCP’s publication program depends heavily on the approval of the local ordinary, the appointment could be very significant.
But let’s be clear about the Bishop’s temperament and approach. He is an extremely kind and thoughtful person. He is extremely accessible and not puffed up in any way. He is not a “hard liner” by any stretch. He loves beauty and tradition and would like to see this spread through inspiration and example. But he is not the skull-cracking type at all. He is a broad-minded man of genuine conviction but also possesses great pastoral sensitivity. He has a warm heart, a delightful personality, and loves people. If you see someone describe him as Torquemada, know this: that person is utterly clueless about the reality of this shepherd of the faith.
It was my great pleasure to be invited as part of a Church Music Association of America team to Marquette, Michigan, to put on a music seminar for the diocese. The purpose of the meeting was to introduce sacred music and sugn propers and chant to the musicians of the diocese. I gave several lectures and got people singing the ordinary of the Mass in English chant. Arlene Oost-Zinner taught the details of music reading, tonality, rhythm, and singing properly. Attending were most musicians from the area. We used resources such as the Simple English Propers and the Parish Book of Psalms.
Bishop Sample attended the entire event from start to finish. He gave some talks too, and in each, he struck precisely the right chord. His talks were about the rationale and need for gradual change. He explained that what the musicians are doing at liturgy is generally underappreciated. Their job is not just to sing anything but rather to aspire to sing the actual liturgy. This task raises the important of the musical arts to a much higher level.
Now, if you know anything about Catholic musicians, they tend to resist any change. They get invested in what they have done in the past and are happy to do that in the future. They tend to think that any push for change is an insult to their past contribution, even when no insult is intended at all. Even when they feel a sense of internal frustration and confusion about their task, they fear new missions because they worry that they don’t have the skill, that they will alienate people by failing to sing people’s favorite songs, and that they won’t be able to perform the new music in a degree of competence that makes them come across well.
It was absolutely dazzling how Bishop Sample dealt so beautifully with all these fears. He was light and conversational with everyone -- plus he is genuinely funny! He assured them all repeatedly how much he values what they have done. He also gave them the confidence that they needed to undertake a new challenge. We could easily see the effects of his presence there.
Everyone was delighted and inspired. He made our job much easier. In the end, the seminar was a rousing success in every way. I would suggest that not even one attendee left those days with a sense of fear. They were all excited about the future. This is the way he works: like Benedict XVI himself, Sample leads not through coercion but through example, inspiration, and frank telling of what is true.
There are many problems besides music in Portland, Oregon, among which bankruptcy and shortages of priests and many other issues. At the same time, it is obviously true that the issues with the Oregon Catholic Press will be on the table.
You might be surprised to learn that the OCP has already undergone many changes in the last five years. It has spent a lot of money and taken a huge financial risk in producing top-of-the-line recordings of the entire sung Mass in authentic Gregorian chant. It has pushed these and distributed them widely. Their advertising for these recordings has pointed out that this music is the music of the Roman Rite. In addition, OCP distributes many books of chant, along with tutorials and otherwise. The “reform the reform” is not utterly foreign to OCP.
In addition, the staff of OCP has some outstanding musicians there, people who sing high-quality music around town. They know their stuff. There are scholars and sacred music enthusiasts all throughout the building. It is by no means barren of high artistic sensibility and expertise in this area. Some employees of OCP listen to chant and polyphony in their cars and homes and even perform this music as part of their musical avocation. They attend concerts in the lively artistic scene in Portland. In their private lives, they revel in their vast knowledge of the repertoire.
If you are shocked to hear these things, it is understandable. This is not part of OCP’s reputation. This is because its bread and butter is the distribution of pop music to parish in fly-away resources. They have many resources they distribute, from resources for the pews, organ accompaniments, many different types and styles of hymnals, choral resources, and more. When a parish signs up for their subscription services, the materials arrive like a tsunami. People in the music world speak of this or that parish as an “OCP parish,” and everyone knows what that means. It’s not good.
I would rank the quality of their main product to be inferior to anything you will see or hear in the Protestant world. My own parish is an “OCP parish,” and the frustrations that musicians feel with their product is unrelenting. The choral books don’t match the hymn books. The hymns are in different keys, sometimes different rhythms, and sometimes even different words. There will be verses in the hymnbooks that are not replicated in the choir books -- and attempting to use both without a thorough pre-Mass check can be enormously frustrating.
The sheer volume of week and predictable pop music in these resources, even those claiming to represent the Catholic heritage, is overwhelming. And the absence of core traditional repertoire is just as notable. One might expect that “Sleepers Awake” would be there for advent. Nope. One might think that the the Marian antiphons would be there. Nope. One might expect more than one Latin setting of the ordinary chants. Nope. Sung propers of the Mass for entrance, offertory, or communion? Nothing. For a musician who sets out to use music that is part of the long tradition of the Catholic world, and attempts to use OCPs main publications to do, he or she will find a desert.
This is a problem. But it is not a problem without easy and fairly painless solutions. If those solutions exist, I have every confidence that Bishop Sample will find them. And he will manage to do this in a way that does not create enemies but rather makes new friends. This is his way.
In addition, I know for a fact that there are many within OCP who are ready for a change. They have grumbled quietly for years but deferred to the marketing managers at OCP who are convinced that they have to keep doing what they doing or else they lose money. Sometimes it takes a real pastor to show up and say: there is another way and I believe you can thrive by pursuing it. And no matter what you hear to the contrary, many people within OCP will be celebrating this change.
And here’s the thing: everyone knows that things must change. The problem with Catholic music is famous. I’ve never spoken to a group of Catholics where the problems are not well known and understood widely. You only need to raise a slight eyebrow on the subject to garner laughter. Everyone knows. More importantly, everyone at OCP knows too.
The change won’t happen immediately. It might not even be detectable by anyone but the closest observers. It might takes several years. But it will come. And the Church and her liturgy will be much better off as a result. Making this change in Portland will spread change to the whole of the American Church and then to the whole of the English speaking world and then to the whole rest of the world. This is the center, the core, the spot from which a major problem that exists in the Catholic world can be rectified.
A chanted liturgy in the Latin Church ... now, that is exciting! This has been the traditional practice in the East and it is quite beautiful.
I hope this means that we will see some serious draining of the Catholic Sappy Liturgical Music Swamp.
We had a priest at a former parish who used to chant the entire Mass. He had a terrible stutter and couldn’t string 5 words together in 10 minutes but he had no problem singing and had a very good voice. His Masses were a thing of beauty. He was also a wonderful human being, truly a holy priest.
We can start by banning “Lord of the Dance”!
LOLOLOL! (banning Lord of the Dance)
This is seriously encouraging news. Our parish uses the "Classic" OCP missalette, which is marginally better than the standard one, but still has a heavy proportion of trash to decent music.
In addition to getting rid of the hideous pop music (including anything by Haugen or Haas) and putting in ALL the old Catholic standards, they need to ditch the tacky 1970s woodcuts at the head of each Sunday. They look like hippy cartoons produced by a 10 year old with limited artistic talent.
Of course, "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" or "Sleepers Wake" (one of its English names - "awake" doesn't fit the metre) is not really a Catholic hymn. It was written by Philip Nikolai, a Lutheran pastor and famously set in a cantata by J.S. Bach. But it's sound theologically and should be stolen. We should steal all the good Anglican hymns too.
It was never intended as a hymn by its author, who was a sometime Quaker, and it shouldn't be sung in ANY church. He was surprised as heck when the Catholics picked it up.
It loses its point anyhow when it's sung without the first part, "Friday Morning".
**If you are shocked to hear these things, it is understandable. This is not part of OCPs reputation. This is because its bread and butter is the distribution of pop music to parish in fly-away resources.**
So true. What a shock to me that OCP has even ventured into chant.
Very encouraging. I recently learned about how lists of songs sung at each Mass must be sent in for copyright and money reasons.
The person I was talking with said that the choir in which they are a member is not singing some songs by a certain author because that author has outed himself. They do not want to support his alternative lifestyle that is against church law.
**In addition, I know for a fact that there are many within OCP who are ready for a change. They have grumbled quietly for years but deferred to the marketing managers at OCP who are convinced that they have to keep doing what they doing or else they lose money. Sometimes it takes a real pastor to show up and say: there is another way and I believe you can thrive by pursuing it. And no matter what you hear to the contrary, many people within OCP will be celebrating this change.**
This internal strife will work to Sample’s benefit in my opinion........please Lord, let us get good Catholic music!
Amen. Things went downhill after Palestrina.
‘Draining the Catholic Sappy Liturgical Music Swamp’ - oh Hallelujah! I will ONLY attend the 7:30 am NO music mass. The music at the other masses is gut-wrenchingly banal, and yes, it is worse than any of the Protestant worship, some of which is quite well done (and some of which is pretty bad).
Oh, I am so encouraged.
Hmmmm .... yes indeed.
Perhaps some mean no insult ... but I do.
The 'past contribution' of OCP, and of entirely too many 'church musicians' has been of negative value. It has not been merely useless, but has actively detracted from the Liturgy, replacing the sacred with the banal, replacing the Catholic with the heretical, and serving only to puff up the already over inflated egos of the self anointed "ministers of music". We would be better off without them at all. Silence, or the spoken word, would be preferable to their 'past contributions'.
Down with the whole bloody lot!
(OCP = Oregon Clown Posse)
“...I will ONLY attend the 7:30 am NO music mass. The music at the other masses is gut-wrenchingly banal...”
YES, YES, SADLY, YES.
A year ago, I made the leap to a Traditional Latin Mass (TLM) group; we are permanent guests in a local R.C. parish.
Every Sunday and holydays, we have TL Mass, and twice a month, is is a Gregorian Chant Missa Cantata; processional and recessional hymns are traditional Catholic hymns, sometimes in English, sometimes in Latin. In accordance with the rubrics of the Latin Mass, offertory and communion hymns are always in Latin.
We(I sing in the Schola Cantorum) have done some of the most beautiful medieval hymns that I have ever heard.
I grew up with the TLM, but I had forgotten how reverent, beautiful, and uplifting an experience it is.
If you have the opportunity, seek out a TLM in your area.
Not complaining, because we really don't see enough Perotin, Machaut, Landini or Dunstable -- but it is difficult music based on quite different theories from what we moderns are used to, and it is tough for even very experienced choral singers.