On Quality in Catholic Music

While NLM and I have some differences of opinions when it comes to what styles of music are appropriate for the Liturgy, I couldn’t agree more with their assessment of the quality of musicianship within the average Catholic parish.

Let alone the “hard stuff” like Sacred Polyphony and organ preludes, most choir directors aren’t qualified to do the contemporary styles that are so popular. I’m convinced that this is one of the reasons for the Traditionalists distaste for rock/pop styles- they tend not to have heard them done well or authentically. (C’mon people- clap on beat 2 and beat 4, not 1 and 3… is that so hard?!) I think a lot of progressives dislike “old, boring” music for the same reason. Badly performed Palestrina is not much worthier than badly perfomed Carey Landrey.

And I don’t think very many other progressive/modernists would dispute their assessment either.

Catholic musicians, even those of us who love the contemporary styles and work in parishes where that is the norm, should have a firm grounding in the traditional styles of Catholic music. Chant and polyphony form the basic foundation for all quality music in the Western world, even today’s pop. The musicianship, discipline, and ear for quality that one learns when studying “classical” music makes you a better musician, regardless of what style you plan to play in. That’s why Jazz students learn Bach.

That’s one of the reasons that, while I’m generally happy about the new music we have gained in the last 50 years, I’m intensely sad about the amount of old music we have lost. And I think that’s a sentiment even most liberals could get on board with.

So what’s to be done. Well, that’s tough, but I’m pretty sure here too, modernists (if they stopped chasing every new trend) and traditionalists (if they stopped sounding so angry) could come to some serious agreements on methodology and intent. Step one is for all of us join hands and voices and demand: better musicians. Stop hiring the first guitar-playing volunteer who shows up. Stop equating “able to play piano proficiently” with “able to lead a choir.”

From there, a host of individual steps need to be taken at the institutional and individual level.

Hiring preference should be given to those with a choral background (who can hire organists and pianists as needed), rather than to instrumentalists who don’t really know how to sing, conduct, or teach.

Seminaries should teach music skills, particularly critical listening. We don’t need to turn priests into performers, but they need to be able to tell good singing from bad singing. (That doesn’t just mean teaching them that this composer or work is good and that one is bad. That also means helping them identify the difference between mechanical precision and artistic beauty, between amateur proficiency and professional quality.)

As to parish music directors-
Stop having rehearsal in the sanctuary right before mass. That’s been bugging me since I was in elementary school. It interupts personal prayer and communal socializing, and it sends everyone the message that preparing music for liturgy is barely worth an extra 45 minutes of everyone’s time.

Organs may be too expensive and/or pastorally inappropriate for some parishes. But an out of tune spinet or a hum-n-strum guitarist is an insult, no matter what style of music you like. Invest at least in a decent grand piano. A used Yamaha baby grand in excellent condition is within range of most parish budgets, and people will give to a special collection if they have a concrete goal.

While we’re on the subject of instruments, synthesizers should be banned. I don’t say “banned” alot about church music, but they should be banned- for the same reason we shouldn’t allow fake flowers, moving spotlights, or those ridiculous electric flickering coin-op votives. There is no place for artificiality within the liturgy. None.

Most importantly, we need to look to the children. Scholarships are nice, but they don’t help much if there isn’t a love of music and the necessary discipline, and that must begin in childhood.

Children’s choirs need to be more than an opportunity for parents to see their kids onstage at Christmas. Children’s choirs should be an integral part of every parish, and they should follow the English chorister tradition. Children should learn to read music (I recommend Conversational Solfege), to sing correctly, and to become increasingly responsible for the leadership of their choir. It’s amazing how much children are capable of in this regard if we treat them like humans with musical and spiritual aspirations instead of like dogs who perform novelty tricks for treats.

Music directors, whether they play organ, piano, guitar, or hammer dulcimer need to make themselves available to give private lessons, especially to the kids who show an interest in church music particularly, and even more especially to those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford private lessons. As soon as they are competent, these kids need to have the opportunity to play for mass (in a way that doesn’t set them up for public embarasment or detract from the prayerful purpose of worship).

Musically active high school students should be given leadership opportunities: accompanying, conducting, writing descants, leading warm-ups. And they should be given the opportunity to attend workshops and conferences such as those given by the CMAA, NPM, and ACDA. Above all, it’s important for High School students to understand that church music is a viable career option.

And all of this should be grounded in high quality music choices. Yes, I think that includes some contemporary styles (I know you don’t all agree with that), but the bulk of the literature should be things like Gregorian Chant, Palestrina, Bach, Thomas Tallis, John Rutter, Richard Proulx- because that’s where you learn musicianship and technique. That music presents a challenge, and kids love challenges.
(And while we’re on “quality” literature: Let’s assume for a minute that I’m right in that contemporary styles and pop/rock/folk music are appropriate for Mass… it isn’t ALL appropriate for Mass. That piece in Spirit and Song that sounds like “Can you feel the love tonight” has got to go. And “Fill My Cup Lord” makes everyone giggle every single time because it sounds just like “Hello mudah, hello fadah, here I am at camp grenada.” License to do contemporary music should not mean you turn off your brain or ignore the snickering just because the text fits the readings.)

I believe very strongly that Modernist-Liberals and Traditionalist-Conservatives can come together, and agree on the need for quality and the methodology I’ve just outlined.

If everything I just suggested was suddenly implemented overnight, it would still take a generation before Catholic parish music is where it ought to be. That means we cannot delay, as there is so much work to be done. It also means that, while pastors and musicians on the front lines need to keep one eye on pastoral, budgetary, and (dare I say it) populist concerns, they need to keep their better eye on the future, and not exchange the hard work of moving onward and upward for convenience or expediency.

I must say, as I finish up, that I am sometimes deeply bothered by those who seem to obsess over music, liturgy, and ritual (even though I like them) because Jesus clearly was more concerned with things like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the dying, visiting the imprisoned, and caring for orphans than He was with things like proper ritualism.

But, I think a certain amount of obsession, by those who are called to it, is actually quite worthwhile. It is in the public liturgy of the church that we come to understand the love of Christ which we are called to emulate. It is in the sacrifice of the Mass, dwelling in the sacrifice of Jesus, that we hear our calling to sacrifice ourselves. Recognizing Christ in the Eucharist, recognizing Christ in the assembled family of believers, gives us the eyes to recognize Christ in His “disturbing disguises” out in the world. We know how to clothe the naked because our God has clothed us in the garment of Baptism; we know how to feed the hungry because our God has fed us with His very body; we know how to comfort the dying because Our Lord has died in our midst; we know how to visit the imprisoned because God has visited us in the prison of our sin; we know how to care for orphans because our God has given us a spirit of adoption…

So, yes- what we do in Mass is important, rightly to be called the “source and summit” of our Christian lives. And we must take care to bring our best to it, and teach our children to do the same.

Finally, I believe with all my heart that all sincere Catholics, regardless of their liturgical/political/theological predilections, can also agree on the need for the most important tactic: fervent prayer. It was, afterall, Grace that hath led us safe thus far, and grace alone will lead us home.

8 thoughts on “On Quality in Catholic Music

  1. wonderful article!
    i first saw your responses over at nlm and your thoughtful comments are very refreshing. while more of a traditionalist then you are, i nontheless see a role for haugan/haas and having a choir that sings this stuff really really well,ive come to appreciate some of it. (and ive even seen reverent guitar playing.)
    its time to move beyond the hurtful liturgy wars and come together. your article is a wonderful first step. i hope my side can move beyond its social and political conservatism and meet you half way.

  2. I’m not sure I consider myself a traditionalist/conservative, though my preference is for Latin Masses and traditional liturgy…

    I have no problem with well-done contemporary music. I personally don’t care for it, but have met a lot of people for whom this music is very moving. My only real problem with it is that it has completely shoved traditional music so far out of the way that one could live their entire life as a practicing Catholic and never once hear any of it. I should know, I was 20 when I first heard a Greek Kyrie, and have never heard Latin at the Novus Ordo without first spending a lot of effort to seek it out.

    IMO, a small repertoire of Latin chant (like in that Jubilate Deo book) and sung liturgy with the Mass propers should be the default for the principal Mass on Sundays and major Holydays. This what children should be taught as part of CCD. Everyone should have to *learn* to participate in a Novus Ordo High Mass, even if they end up liking folk Masses better. Doing so might give Catholics a sense of tradition and continuity they currently don’t have, and stress the universal nature of our wonderful faith. A Latin setting (even the much maligned Missa De Angelis) should be what tugs on a Catholic’s heart strings whenever it is played rather than the Mass of Creation, or any other vernacular setting, regardless of actual personal musical preference.

    I don’t think we should have eclectic Masses (a rock song followed by Palestrina, followed by a folk tune, etc), but I see no reason why there can’t be separate Masses in a variety of styles with the traditional one having true pride of place as a sort of default that everyone can still look back to and participate in.

    BTW, sorry if my post was too much about musical style as opposed to quality. I realize that quality was what your post was mostly getting at.

  3. “Badly performed Palestrina is not much worthier than badly performed Carey Landry.” Hear, hear!

    I am not one of those called to obsess over liturgy, but I greatly appreciate those who can do so with balance. And I would love to see your suggestions were implemented.

  4. No problem with the meander into style considerations.

    I have mixed feelings about eclecticism vs. “different Masses.” A lot parishes have this schedule:
    4pm Saturday – Boring, badly played organ music
    7am Sunday – short, no music at all
    8am – High Mass, or something like it- increasingly in Latin EF
    1030 – Folk Mass or “Family Mass”
    1200 – Spanish Mass (or polish, german, phillipino, whatever)
    6pm – Life Teen / Youth Choir

    This has the benefit of “pleasing everyone,” but it also divides the community into little subcultures who rarely see each other. Plus- what music do you do on Feast Days when everyone is together?

    A more eclectic approach, while a bit jarring at first, can – if done well- get everyone on the same page together, providing a shared repertoire of music everyone in a parish knows. Also, you can start to hear and understand how the “Hermeneutic of Continuity” becomes a real live experience and not a dry philosophical discussion.

  5. I dislike the eclectic approach simply because I think the Mass should feel unified when it is celebrated. Constant changes in musical styles within the same Mass would distract. The Mass I was confirmed at took the eclectic approach. Every verse of every hymn was in a different language, and different cultural styles of music were used for every piece of music. I found it very off-putting and couldn’t sing anything.

    For major feast days, multi-lingual gatherings, and confirmations, I would say to always go the more traditional route and use Latin chant. That’s sort of what I meant by chant being the “default.” Vatican II stipulated that we all know how to participate in Latin, and there’s nothing wrong with following the council’s request that chant be given pride of place at times.

    In my neck of the woods, having different styles of music at different Masses is completely out of the norm. It’s more common for the same music to be used at every Mass.

  6. JW- I see your point about stylistic unity, but I have to respectfully disagree. Artistic unity doesn’t require everything being in the same style.

    As with every other good idea, though, execution is the main thing. I’ve been at Masses with a multiplicity of styles that were unified and sacred and wonderful. I’ve been at others that felt like a (as my grandfather used to say of his parish) “like a three ring circus with two rings broken.”

    Of course- all of my suggestions concerning proper training and vetting of liturgical musicians would go a long way toward getting execution right.

  7. Adam, I loved your post here… excellent points, all. Thanks for giving us the “heads up” over at the NLM. I’ve now bookmarked your blog, and am looking forward to reading it regularly!

  8. Adam, this is a refreshing site, and I’ve added it to fav’s as well.
    Your sensibilities are spot on here and elsewhere.
    I, being the quibbler and devil’s advocate, would take you to task regarding your banishment of synthesis-based instruments at Mass. Your rationale of “nothing artificial at Mass” is admirable, but in comprehensive praxis, unreasonable. I’m not going to bullet point my counter argument, gotta teach in a few, but, there is only one truly non-artificial instrument that is commonly upheld as the principal “tool” for sung worship: the human voice. Period.
    At a conceptual level, the first billows powered organ was a synthetic imitation of the human voice. And because of the mechanics of piped organs, they’ve evolved beyond that imitation in order to imitate other types of instruments as well. You can finish the dialectic, I’m sure.
    Waves of sound “disturb” silence at frequencies, common to all things that can vibrate. So, to me, the tool of synthesis in the hands of a master of its craft, can be practically (and theoretically) just as valid as that of a great organ and organist. And, I do still recognize the heirarchy of the church pipe organ as the ideal. But a wholesale dismissal of synthesis as an “artifice” seems illogical to me. YMMV

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