Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Washington Post on Music Wars

I thought this was an interesting article on the question of church music in the light of the Pope`s visit to the USA. Good to see Jeffrey Tucker of the NLM blog interviewed here as well as Thomas Day of `Why Catholics can`t sing` fame. I tried to introduce some chant here at Forest Hall at the 10.30 Mass but it would be wrong to say that it was enthusiastically received.

Between Medieval And Folk, Two Mass Audiences

Catholics don't argue about abortion or the death penalty nearly as much as they argue about what music is sung (or not sung, or used to be sung) at their local Sunday Mass. It was ever thus -- at least since the 1960s, when Sister first shortened her habit, strummed a G7 chord and, to hear some Catholics tell it, all heck broke loose.

Among his more fastidious devotees, Pope Benedict XVI is valued most for the fact that he is not Casey Kasem, and Mass is no place for a hit parade, and church is most relevant when it is serious. (The point of this trip is just that: Get serious.) Do not hold your breath waiting for "One Bread, One Body" -- a '70s liturgical hit at most American parishes -- to be performed at His Holiness's mega-Mass tomorrow at Nationals Park.

But don't listen for too many sacred hits of the 10th century either. While Benedict understands the deep power of ritual, and loves little more than a Gregorian chant, what he and 46,000 others will be singing (or not singing) tomorrow will be a sort of compromise, neither modern nor traditional, but a little of everything. As soon as tomorrow's Mass playlist hit the Web, the new traditionalists were fuming on blogs and comment threads. (The pre-show includes African hymns, a "celebratory merengue" and some Mozart; the Mass itself includes a gospel-style Kyrie, some traditional Latin chants and several new interpretations of standard hymns.)
Like devout record store clerks, American Catholics are still having a sort of Stones-vs.-Beatles debate about what the classics really are.

Imagine a bizarro world where all the 25-year-olds want Mozart and all the 60-year-olds want adult-contemporary. The kids think the adults are too wild. The backlash against "Kumbaya Catholicism" has anyone under 40 allegedly clamoring for the Tridentine Mass in Latin, while the old folks are most sentimental about Casual Sunday (even more rockin', the Saturday vigil Mass), and still cling to what's evolved from the lite-rock guitar liturgies of the 1970s. The result, for most parishes, has been decades of Masses in which no one is entirely satisfied, and very few enjoy the music enough to sing along.

"The great majority [of Catholics] are totally inert at Mass," says Thomas Day, 65, a humanities and music professor at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I. Day wrote a book called "Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste," which is often cited by those who'd like to see a return to Mass music that is to them more sacred. "Most Catholics have either forgotten or never knew traditional music," Day says.

The great enemy in the Benedict era? Why, somehow, it's Sister and her guitar.

Although everyone says rock Mass is long dead, there are parishioners still complaining about it. There are faded, nearly gone memories of singing nuns and hippie laity and teenage guitarmies at the altar of love; or faded stories of pop phenomena like Sister Janet Mead, the now 70-year-old Australian nun who discofied "The Lord's Prayer" and charted gold on Billboard's Hot 100 in 1974 (and who then released an album of an entire rock Mass).

It's been a long time since anyone at church was singing the hosanna from "Jesus Christ Superstar" or Cat Stevens's "Morning Has Broken" at the offertory. Even the vast catalogue of the St. Louis Jesuits -- the stalwart, lite-rock ballads heard in almost any Mass for the past few decades ("One Bread, One Body"; "Be Not Afraid"; "For You Are My God") -- has come under assault.

It's "Day by Day" -- out, and Agnus Dei -- in. Younger priests now go to weekend-long workshops to brush up on their Gregorian chants, or to learn the lost seminary art of singing the entire Mass in Latin, English or both.

"You know, just today I received a publication from a mainline Catholic music organization, and there are aspects of it that seem like the musical version of the AARP quarterly, if you know what I mean," says Jeffrey Tucker, 44, a choir director who lives in Auburn, Ala., and is the managing editor of Sacred Music, a journal of the Church Music Association of America. "There is no question that we are talking about a generational issue here. The young priests and the young people just can't seem to get 'hep' to the whole 1970s thing, and the old people just don't understand why."

Tucker encounters this all the time, and blogs about it frequently. At a recent conference, a jazz pianist confided to Tucker that he'd been playing at church, but there was a new, young pastor who had taken over and "he said, 'You know what that means.' [And] I said, 'Well, I'm not entirely sure.' So he added, surprised that he would have to clarify, 'That means he wants Gregorian chant!' " In one of his many blog posts at New Liturgical Movement, Tucker characterized most Catholic church parishes as ruled by a "hard-core" group that "is fanatically attached to music of the 1970s and fears even the slightest hint of solemnity, warning darkly that the new priest is going to take the parish into a new Dark Age."

In news stories with a "conservative Catholics" angle, the church's most faithful frequently mention the nightmare of Mass as it was in the decades after the Second Vatican Council. Loaded words like "hippie" and "total mess" and "Brady Bunch" get thrown around. There are stories of suburban churches built in mod, saucer-shaped architecture. ("Lots of guitars and banjoes," a 32-year-old Catholic man moaned to The Post's Metro section the other day, recalling the church scene of his youth. "I felt uncomfortable about it constantly.")

So really it's a retro movement, but instead of "I Love the '80s" (or '70s or '60s), it's "I Love the 1000s [Up Until 1963]," with Benedict encouraging Catholics toward rediscovering the beauty of the old way. He is on record as thinking of rock music as "anti-Christian," and once fretted (according to his memoirs) over Bob Dylan's appearance with Pope John Paul II in 1997. Benedict canceled a Vatican Christmas concert in 2006, fearing it far too pop in nature. He also shuns guitars in church. (Sister has been in big trouble lately. The pope doesn't like her music, isn't so wild about some of her politics, and when it comes to her role in priestly matters, don't even go there.)

Tucker says the music debates going on in parishes nationwide present a more serious issue for American Catholics, "having to do with what is appropriate at liturgy, what is timeless, what is sacred -- but the [young vs. old] demographic element is very difficult to deny."

In defense of guitar Mass, was it really so bad? It was the soundtrack of a lot of social justice efforts. The St. Louis Jesuits stuff conjures up, for many, memories of food banks and felt banners, of youth group carwashes and, more nobly, martyred nuns and priests in Central America. Maybe that was the problem for some churchgoers? The groovier music really was of its time, and came with an agenda?

"What about silence?" wonders Day, the music professor, 18 years after he wrote "Why Catholics Can't Sing."

If he has any prescriptive at all for Mass music, he says, "it would be to cool it. Pick plain, simple music. Plain, square hymns with reasonable accompaniment. And listen to silence occasionally."


Augustine said...

I do like Gregorian chant. Mozart too. And, schismatic or not, the Wesley brothers knew how to write music that a congregation can join in with! As a general rule, if its not chant, music is acceptable if it comes with a) a full orchestra, or b) a very big organ.

...not to sound too partisan...

Aage said...

This is beautifully written and not inflammatory. This would be a good time to bring out the vielles, sackbuts & douçaines (quiet shawms).

Volpius Leonius said...

"I tried to introduce some chant here at Forest Hall at the 10.30 Mass but it would be wrong to say that it was enthusiastically received."

What is wrong with Catholics these days?

Even people with no religious belief's love chant for crying out loud, that is why you can find chant cds for sale in HMV but you won't find any cd's with the new cheesy hymns for sale because quite simply it is dreadful.

Do you think Father it is simply laziness on the part of the choir?

I'm starting to get the feeling you are wasted in that parish.

Fr Michael Brown said...

Volpius, the choir were happy to sing it. This parish is like any other and has a wide range of opinion. It is difficult for older people who feel that Latin is something they`ve left behind and who made the mental leap to stay on board when all was changing to think that maybe too much was jettisoned. I think with younger people there is less historical baggage involved.

Anonymous said...

A very interesting post.

I wonder really if the root cause is that Latin rite Catholics simply don't have a sense of Catholic culture?

Before the Council sung Masses were far less common than said ones. The latter were, according to theolgical norms, as good as the ones that had music and were over a lot quicker. Likewise any office functions were a rarity with the very occasional parish offering Vespers on a Sunday. Sadly in post-Trent Latin Catholicism there was never a history of widespread and inculturated liturgical music.

In contrast in the East, be it Catholic or Orthodox, there are rich traditions of liturgical music that have developed and been maintained over the centuries. The various Eastern European countries all have their own, slightly different, styles of music with some international exchanges taking place.

In the West what does one do? I don't have an answer but I think a good starting point is to stop seeing music as an optional add-on to liturgy and make its use mandatory. Abolishing said services might be as good a start as any.

Adulio said...

Abolishing said services might be as good a start as any.

I think that this would do more harm than good. There is nothing worse than Graham Kendrick songs than Gregorian chant being screeched and murdered.

There should be certainly a push to make Gregorian chant the norm in the church in England & Wales. Every parish should aim to have a sung mass in chant.

PeterHWright said...

Father's parishioners want to remember the words of Vatican II on the subject of Church music.

"The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services." (Sacrosanctum Concilium)

and :

"The faithful should be able to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them." (Musicam sacram)

If that's not plain enough, what about these words :
"Genuine renewal (in Catholic music) cannot be achieved except by following the great traditions of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony." (Pope Benedict XVI, 25 June 2006)

No ?

What about Jeffrey Tucker's post "Sing a New Song To the Lord" at the New Liturgical Movement blog, 19 April 2008, where he says :
"What is needed is not dated music, whether old or new, but timeless music."

Yes, I know it's an uphill struggle, Father, but keep trying. Please.

Anonymous said...

In response to the posts about chant I understand that there is an issue about the authenticity of some modern Gregorian chant. The restoration carried out by Solesmes last century was based on a bar by bar analysis of the most commonly occurring phrases. The net result is that in some cases the result bears no relation to what was ever historically sung.

When it is sung some of it, one has to say, doesn't sound that edifying - IMHO the tracts for the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified fall into that category. Having watched the excellent series on Sacred Music recently shown on TV a couple of points struck me. The shots of the Palestrina archive included a brief shot a manuscript book of the Roman Psalter by Palestrina although (frustratingly) this was not explored. However it would suggest Palestrina produced settings for some, if not all, of the psalms. Listening to a lot of Palestrina’s simpler settings such as Pange lingua and the Reproaches for the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified one is struck by the fact that they are both simpler than the chant and far more pleasing to hear. The composer took the chant melody and gave it the lightest of harmonic augmentation. I would want to raise the question of what ordinary parish churches did with music when they lacked the resources of Collegiate or Monastic establishments. My hypothesis would be that the chant was sung with a drone and such like with the effect not being dissimilar to some Eastern signing.

The other point the excellent series struck a chord with for me (pun intended) was the way liturgy made use of popular culture. I cannot remember the composer but some pre-Trent musician had written a Kyrie based on the tune of a popular folk song which had lyrics about a maiden’s pair of generous assets. Less provocatively Lassus, for example, has given us ‘The Good Wine Mass’ and ‘The Armed Man Mass’ popular themes used to service the liturgy – what we might term inculturation. Of course Trent got a little puritanical about this sort of thing but Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit, a few centuries later, was based on French carols and highly effective.

I am afraid I would take a lot of persuading to see the value of said services, to me they are an abuse based on minimalism.