Sacred Music Pricing

I recently reviewed a wonderful new Mass setting by Chris Mueller, which he is self-publishing and selling on his own website for $75.

This sounds really high, right?

Well- except that you’re getting digital content which you are free to print and copy at your leisure. A score for a Mass setting from a mainstream publisher would cost significantly less, but (to stay legal) you’d need to buy multiple copies: one for every choir member (which is probably a lot if you have the kind of choir that would be doing Chris’s mass setting) plus your conductor score and (probably) and organist copy.

This brings up an important issue in Sacred Music publishing today… how do price/sell/distribute your work today?

Let’s look at the facts.

  • A vast amount of traditional sacred music is available for free from sites like the Choral Public Domain Library and the Jean LaLande Rare Books Library
  • A new generation of passionate revolutionaries (which is likely to grow) is writing new sacred music in a variety of styles and giving it away for free, for a host of reasons (which are unlikely to go away) and distributing that music using a host of technologies (which are becoming cheaper and easier to use every day)
  • Consumers of sacred music are increasingly reliant on these free resources and expectant that everything should or could be free
  • Consumers of sacred music have less money than they’ve had for a long time:
    • We’re still in a down economy, and giving is down
    • The New Translation of the Roman Missal is causing many Catholic parishes to spend their already limited music budgets on new mass settings, new hymnals, and other new ritual books.
  • Mainstream publishers seem unwilling to adapt to either the changing ethos of music distribution or to the new wave of liturgical and musical traditionalism

Some Options

Traditional Publishing. If you can manage to get noticed and welcomed into the fold at a mainstream publisher, you have the advantage of a larger distribution network (probably), and you don’t have to spend (as much of) your own time promoting and marketing your own work. You also don’t have to figure out things like e-commerce websites or cross-state sales tax.

The problem I see with this approach is that you effectively cede control of your work to a commercial organization which may choose to promote your work, or not. They might change your text or arrangements (without your permission) to fit either their commerical agenda (guitar music sells better) or their corporate theology (apparently “Master” is too conservative a descriptor for God). And they might simply stop printing your music altogether.

On the other hand, the advantages of the support system offered by a mainstream publisher are undeniable: more people singing your music, less work on your part. Additionally, it’s a little disingenuous of the Traditional Sacred Music folks to bemoan the lack of high quality literature among the “Big Three” publishers while at the same time declaring that they would never choose to work with them.

Ultimately, though, this is hardly an important issue, as most of us won’t ever have the opportunity to publish with GIA, OCP, WLP, or even a smaller publisher like LitPress, even if we wanted to. I suspect most “I don’t believe in Mainstream Publishing” ideologues would sign a contract if it was offered, especially if it was clearly going to expand the composer’s reach and/or wallet. I’m pretty sure I would.

Self-Publish and Sell. This is the option taken by my new friend Chris Mueller. All of his choral scores are available on his own website. This gives him a great deal of control over his music, but it also limits his distribution in at least two ways:

  1. Not being in a quarterly catalog or in the “You Might Also Like” sidebar (advantages of mainstream publishing) means that potential buyers are only going to find his music based on his direct or indirect efforts. That’s great if you can catch the attention of a famous reviewer of new Mass settings, but what if your stuff just doesn’t quite fit the tastes of the handful of well-read liturgical blogs?
  2. Having your music available on your own website puts it (psychologically, for the buyer) into the same category as other micro-publishing intiatives, many of which give music away for free. If you look like a duck, quack like a duck, but cost a lot more than a duck- who’s buying you? This can be overcome if your music is so ridiculously good that it’s obviously worth it (Chris Mueller falls into that category, as does Kevin Allen), but
    1. Most of us don’t write music THAT good.
    2. I suspect it still is a hindrance to sales.

Most Sacred Musicians are not particularly business savvy, so things like marketing and sales (not to mention the complexities of setting a website and handling e-commerce) may be daunting. But for excellent composers with a bit of moxie, this can turn out to be a lucrative (relatively speaking) way to go.

Just Give it Away. This is my preferred method, primarily because I’d prefer to have a few people actually singing my music, rather than a smaller few paying for it. My assumption is that I will never make enough money as a composer for it to matter that I made any money as a composer. I don’t know if that’s downplaying my own abilities, or just being realistic about the fact that between my day job, my church job, and my regular life, I’m lucky if I write six new short pieces in a year (including arrangements and hymn-texts).

Moreover, there’s a lot of people (I like to think I’m one of them) who simply feel that the Church needs good new music, and they want to provide it as a service free of charge. I have to admit, when I finish a piece which I feel is worthy of being used in liturgy in a way that would give glory to God and comfort to God’s people, I have a hard time following up that feeling with, “And nobody should be allowed to use or photocopy this work without paying me.” I get all the justice issues and fair wage issues, but I think that only applies when using other people’s work, not when figuring out what to do with your own. That is- you should respect the intellectual property rights of others, but you shouldn’t seek to restrict your own.

The problem with giving music away is: How do you sustain/support a life dedicated to the creation of new music? It’s all well and good for me to declare that I don’t care if I ever make money on my composition- I have a day job, and composition is not high on my “employable skills” list. I wasn’t “born to write,” so I don’t think of composition in terms of supporting myself, my wife, and our future (God willing) children. Clearly, though, there are others (I mentioned both Kevin Allen and Chris Mueller) who are obviously called to be composers of Sacred Music. These people need to find a way to make sure that they can sustain their lives while devoting their time to the creation of music (they both seem to be doing well with that, by the way). Those in that situation are less likely able to give their music away, and if they were to do so, would need to find either patronage or related-work.

Freemium, or The Mixed Model Of course, you don’t have to be all in one way or another. I think, for micro-publishers the Mixed Model is probably the most sensible from a business standpoint.

The “Freemium” model is where some things (of usable value) are given away, while other things (of higher value) are reserved for paying customers. This is different than the “Free Sample” model of advertising, where unusable or barely usable things are given away in order to draw attention. Freemium gives away enough that many users are able to realize significant value without paying. This is good for PR, it’s good for Karma (or whatever), and it’s a way to be ideologically in the “give it all away for free” camp while reaping the benefits of actually selling things. In fact, I dare say that in most instances, you are likely to make more money in a Freemium model than in one where everything costs money.

The Freemium model is all over the place in modern business, because the cost of technology and content delivery is so low. (If you have a Pandora, Skype, or GMail account, you’ve experienced Freemium). A few examples in the Sacred Music world:

  • Noel Jones uses the Freemium model for his Catholic Choir Book series. All the material in the book is available for free, but you can also purchase “real” copies. Clearly, some see a value in that. Others (me!) can’t afford the hard copies and get a lot of use out of the free PDF version.
  • CCWatershed publishes a ridiculously large (and ever expanding) treasure trove of free music: Psalm Responses, Gregorian Propers, Gospel Acclamations, Rare Manuscripts, Latin Ordinaries. But they also offer materials for purchase, like this fabulous polyphonic Kyrie. They have built a fan base which has seen the high quality of their free output, and are able to leverage that goodwill into sales of premium content. (It also helps that everyone knows that the proceeds from sales get put back into the orgainization so that CCW can provide even more free resources int he future.)

What to do?

There are a lot of real strong opinions all over the Internet (shocking!) about what other people should do with their work, their money, their time. I think making declarations about what is the good or right way to do these things is arrogant at best. I can offer only some suggestions, gleened from my observations in the Sacred Music world and my experience in the Secular world of internet business and marketing.

I think it’s vitally important that composers realize what their options are, and think through the consequences of their decisions, particularly decisions that can’t be taken back (like putting a work into the public domain or signing away rights to a publishing company).

Beyond that, I think composers need to do the thing that will allow the most people to hear/sing the most amount of their music. For me, giving it away for free is the best way to get more people to use it. For others, charging some amount would allow them the financial resources to write more music, increasing the relative impact of their gifts on the world. The balance of free vs. not free, and the distribution/marketing/sales channels are going to be different for each, but that is the best judgement criteria I can come up with: what makes the most music.

I’m sure a more thoughtful reader will come up with a better philosophy here.

Learn More

The secular world has been dealing with these issues in a much more robust way than the Sacred Music world has. While not all lessons are transferable, I highly recommend learning from what they have been talking about. Two excellent places to start:


What do you think is the best way forward for pricing and distribution of Sacred Music? Do you think mainstream publishing is on it’s way out? Is the “Give it away Free” model killing composers?


Reviews of Mass Settings with New Translations – OCP’s New Settings

The second in a series that started with the GIA settings of the New English Ordinary. These settings, all new compositions published by OCP, can be found here.

Belmont Mass – Christopher Walker

The Gloria (or “Glory to God,” as it is labeled) is fine piece of work. Straightforward, chant-inspired, a bit contemporary. The organ seems a bit like overkill, but that could certainly be a matter of taste. The Sanctus (“Holy”) is very nice as well. The Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”) is a bit long and boring, even in the context of a mass described as “Style: Chant.” I did not care for the Our Father at all- it seemed oddly sentimental, and reminded me a bit of the type of choral music in early Disney films (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty). That might just have been the harp.

Overall, this seems like a very nice setting for a parish that likes organ music already, and is trying to move towards a chanted mass but is a bit skiddish about unaccompanied music or has some hostility toward “Chant.” It would also be worthwhile for a parish or small cathedral that wants to sound “High Church,” but simply doesn’t have the time/talent to do a full (SATB) choral setting of the Ordinary.

Excellent work, Mr. Walker.

Mass of Christ the Savior – Dan Schutte

There were three styles of “folk Catholic” that developed during that genre’s heyday. The hum-n-strum guitar stuff from the mid-1970s gets the most attention (positive and negative), and that is the music most closely associated with Dan Schutte. The second style is the faux-Cathedral choral music, which developed more in the mid 1980s, and (if I have my timelines right) peaked in the early 1990s. This Mass setting is firmly rooted in that later development: big choir, organ, trumpets, strings- but still with a very singable melody and a contemporary feel. (The third style is the world-music trend of Iona and late David Haas).

I found this Mass to be very easy to listen to- quite nice musically. It would present a pretty exciting and worthwhile musical challenge to a parish choir not used to a big choral ordinary. It is a bit over-composed, though, and I think it would get really tiring week after week in Ordinary time. Best venue: a large suburban parish that likes contemporary liturgical music, during the Easter Season.

Mass of New Life – Scott Soper

This Mass attempts the style I just described of Dan Schutte’s new Mass, but Soper simply does not handle it well. The tunes are tedious, the harmonizations overwrought, and the orchestration seems schizophrenic. I am not a fan.

Mass of Renewal – Curtis Stephan

This Mass is well written, but I’m a bit conflicted about the style. It’s a big soft-rock ballad, the kind you write when you have a choir of notable celebrities singing about ending the war or believing in yourself. I’m just not sure that’s the rigth atmosphere for the Mass. Beyond that, I simply can’t imagine how anything like an average church can pull this off. Even if you have a full praiseband (hmmm), the scale of the instrumentation and the productino values on the recording basically dooms you to “this doesn’t sound as good as I remember it.”

If you like this sort of thing (and I have to admit that I do), buy the CD and keep it in your car. But don’t inflict it on Sunday worshippers.

Mass of Spirit and Grace – Ricky Manalo, CSP

I have to confess, I have never really cared for Fr. Manalo’s music. Every piece I have ever heard from him has seemed a bit weak, a sort-of lilting, easy to get through music that neither requires nor delivers very much. This Mass feels the same way. A lot of noise, a lot of triple meters, a lot of layers of (probably synthesized) strings and brass and woodwinds which all seem to attempt to distract you from the fact that the melody just isn’t that good.

On a personal note- I spent time in a parish staffed by Paulists (Fr. Manalo’s order). I am quite sympathetic to what seems to be a common progressive theology and ecclesiology among the order. But liturgy at the parish was a disaster. For example (and here’s the tie-in), we did Manalo’s “Come, O Spirit” as the Sequence at Pentecost. This piece, while based on the Sequence text, is not the sequence- it is neither proclamatory (for the congregation to hear the text) nor supplicatory (prayer directed at God), but rather a sort of easy-listening pop-song with a religious text that might give you a warm fuzzy feeling, if you like that sort of thing.

Mass of St. Francis Cabrini – Kevin Keil

I just don’t get this Mass setting. It seems designed to be as boring as stodgy as “folkies” think Chant is, but without being anything like Chant. The organ drones away (not literally) on square-metered minor chords while a choir of what sounds like sad Episcopalians uses their “legitimate voices” to screach out the oh-so-predictable SATB harmonization. I’m not sure who this is written for: the chant and polyphony crowd surely won’t find it solemn enough, and it pretty much exemplifies why the contemporary-music crowd hates the organ. Maybe you can find an Anglican-Use parish that really hates happiness.

Mass of St. Gregory the Great – Luke Mayernik

The name of this setting makes a promise linked to the musical genre with the same namesake. I’m sure Gregorian purists would find much wrong with this setting, but I think it’s got a lot of promise.

The Kyrie (in Greek!) opens with just the slightest flavour of Renaissance polyphony, and then proceeds into chant-inspired, but wholly contemporary in feeling, choral writing with very decent organ accompaniment. The Gloria went on a bit too long, and I don’t understand what seemed like made-up words for the Lenten Gospel Acclamation. The acclamations for the Eucharistc Prayer are lovely, but I have a hard time imagining an “average” choir doing a particularly good job. Same with the Agnus Dei, which reminds me a lot of the popular British choral writing of the 1970s and 80s (John Rutter).

The real gem here is the Kyrie, and there’s no reason you couldn’t do just that with another setting for the rest of the Ordinary.

Mr. Mayernik is young (about my age, I think) and I’m sure that his output in the coming years will be stellar, especially as the Kyrie here hints at what I hope will be a way to musically bridge the “old guard” (contemporary music, progressive theology) with the new movement in the Church (traditional music and liturgical orthopraxis).

Mass of St. John – Bobby Fisher

This has the out-dated “folk mass” feel that even the most of the folkies are starting to get tired of. The Gloria sounds, quite literally, like the rousing opening number of a theme-park pavilion show. (You know it’s going to be bad when the snare drum hit is the first sound of a track). The Gospel Acclamation sounds the same as the Gloria (exactly the same). The Lenten Gospel Acclamation feels as far removed from Lent as I can imagine.

The theme-park pavillion show thing pretty much sums up the entire experience, including the changing of style and feel as the Mass goes on, to match the “placement” of each piece in time, corresponding to a typical musical/emotional arc of a theatre piece. A deft music director could select just the right four songs to go along with this, and you’d almost have a whole production for Sunday.

Mass of St. Paul the Apostle – Christopher Walker

This setting simply does not work nearly as well as the other Walker setting reviewed above. It’s in the faux-Cathedral style I mentioned for the Schutte setting, which Walker helped pioneer. He has a much better control of the genre than Mr. Soper, but this setting suffers from some overwrought choral writing and an ill-advised attempt to emulate dance rhythms. One of the things that really confuses me is the insistence that this Mass (like ALL settings from the major publishers) is geared for congregational singing and “active participation.” No one who writes contemporary music seems to want to admit, “I wrote a concert Mass.” With a change in emphasis, the basic materials of this setting could have been a really good concert Mass setting. As it is, it doesn’t do that or congregational singing very well.

Mass of the Resurrection – Randall DeBruyn

Yet another almost-High-Church setting. I’m starting to think OCP is picking up a trend toward more “worthy” music for Mass.Like the Mass of St. Paul the Apostle above, I think the composer (or the marketing department) is fooling itself into thinking that a congregation will sing this easily. It seems all the world to be a lot of well-crafted noise, with a lot of correctly-written harmonies and brass parts and all the things you’re supposed to have in a big festival-styled Cathedral Mass. But it sounds uninspired and boring.

Mass of St. Cecilia / Misa Santa Cecelia – Estela García-López & Rodolfo López

I always wonder if Spanish-speaking Catholics really want mariachi music at Mass. It seems somewhat reductive and insulting to foist this on a congregation, but who knows- it could be exactly what they want. I doubt it, though. Especially this cleanly-produced and oh-so-preciously orchestrated recording that sounds like high-quality children’s music. (A side question might be- Why does Children’s music have to sound like that?)

The Kyrie was the only piece of interesting music in this setting, and I would have been interested in hearing a Mass with the plaintive, chant-like folk singing found therein. Instead, it’s mostly Mexican band-in-a-box: as spiritually enriching as Vacation Bible School, and as culturally authentic as public school cafeteria Taco Tuesday.


Seriously some hits and misses here, but overall it seems that OCP has a better handle on getting quality Mass settings published than GIA does. I find the incessant pseudo-High-Church style to be a funny trend (epseically when you listen to several settings in a row), but one that may eventually lead toward bridging the gap between the liturgical music traditionalists and progressives. I will continue to say, though, that I don’t think any of these settings are a good choice for the First Sunday of Advent, 2011. The ICEL chants, unaccompanied, are your best bet, regardless of your parish resources, preferences, or demographics.

Top 10 Reasons Liberals, Progressives, and Heretics Should Sing Gregorian Chant

1. It was big in the 90s.
2. Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Joan of Arc, Teresa of Avilla, and every other awesome feminine mystic you like to reference (but never actually have read) prayed in Latin Chant every single day.
3. It makes Elton John sound even weirder.
4. It was big in the 70s (the 1070s, the 1170s, the 1270s, the 1370s…).
5. It’s in a foreign language. That means its exotic and awesome, right?
6. Vatican II said so.
7. Why should conservatives have all the fun?
8. You can print it in your worship aid for free (legally).
9. Less time picking out songs every week means more time for practicing the Conga Drums.
10. Bowties are awesome!

My Personal Church Music Preferences

Please note!
The following has nothing to do with correct liturgical practices, or what would be pastorally appropriate in particular parish. It does not represent what I would actually do if put in charge. It does not represent my understanding of Sacrosanctum Concilium or the USCCB’s guidelines on anything.

The following is what I, personally would like to experience as a consumer of music at Mass.

Generally speaking:
1/3 Plainchant, mostly in English, sometimes in Latin
1/3 “Contemporary Catholic” music from the last 30-40 years: St. Louis Jesuits, a lot of David Haas, Dona Pena, Bob Hurd, Talbot, the Iona Community, Taize
1/3 A mixture of everything else- mostly Protestant Hymnody (especially early American), Sacred Polyphony (mostly Palestrina) and Choral music (mostly British), with a smattering of Contemporary Praise and Worship, Black Gospel, and other ethnic styles from time to time.

The choir and instrumentation:
Big choir.
Mostly piano based, with a rhythm section. It’s great if you can have a separate set drummer and hand drummer. A mandolin or other small lute instrument is a nice addition.
I usually can’t stand organ, so it would be no loss to me if there wasn’t one. (Again- this is just about what I personally like).
Most importantly, though- everyone doesn’t play on everything.
In fact- there should be a strong preference for acappella singing whenever possible, even with contemporary styles. Up to half of the music heard should be unaccompanied.

Which brings me to some specifics:

I want the Ordinary of the Mass (all the dialogues and all the acclamations) chanted, unaccompanied. In English (except perhaps the ones everyone knows well like the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei). There are some composed Mass settings I really enjoy as music, but all that stuff really clutters up what I think should be incredibly simple.

I enjoy the common “four song slots” practice- Gathering (Processional), Preparation (Offertory), Communion, and Sending (Recessional). Those would generally be the Contemporary music styles, with some taken from the last 1/3rd when textually appropriate.

In addition to hymns and songs, the Propers would be sung or chanted. For example- after the contemporary congregational singing during the procession, a Cantor or Schola would solo or lead the Introit. A similar practice would be taken with the other Propers. This would probably lengthen the Mass considerably- which would be fine with me (my preference, here, remember). Some compositional attempt would be made to connect the music of the Propers with the hymns and songs they are being paired with. That is a project I would gladly work on each week.

When the congregational communion song runs out of verses, the choir has the opportunity to sing some (textually appropriate) Palestrina or Tallis or Rutter or Faure or something beautiful along those lines. Sometimes the children’s choir sings. Sometimes we have instrumental music. This music is allowed to go on after everyone has received communion- there is no rush to get the Mass over with.

The congregation, of course, sings contemporary pop hymns and ancient chant equally well, full of joy and earthy heavenliness.

The Ordinary Form is used, and the Priest faces the people. (Prayers are addressed up and out, to God). Gestures are large- slow, and deliberate.

There is incense. There are bells at the Elevation. There are Gothic style vestments and deacons in dalmatics. Altar servers wear the traditional black and white. Processions take a long time. Everything takes a long time. There is plenty of silent space around each action, each reading, each prayer. There is no ad libbing (AT ALL), but the spoken prayers are read so sincerely that we all think they are the Celebrant’s own words. When we do clap, we clap on 2 and 4.

This wide variety of songs and styles will be very well planned out, so that it will feel like a unified whole and not a random collection of things. Great care will be taken with each element individually.

I’m probably missing some details. And I know that this hypothetical Mass would be two hours or more, and that lots of people would dislike at least 1/3 of the music. Some will call it too solemn, others not solemn enough.

I understand all of that. And again- I am not writing this to teach others about proper Liturgical programming. I just thought some of you may be interested in knowing what perfect Mass I have in my head when I dream about Liturgy.

So- rather than fill up my comments telling me that I’m wrong (since I can’t be wrong, because this was really just about what I want), I would like to encourage everyone to write about your perfect Mass.

Not what you think is right. Not what you think is Pastorally appropriate. Just, for the fun of it (maybe more), describe your ideal Mass- the Mass that would most completely cater to your needs, tastes, and desires.

New ICEL Chants for the English Ordinary of the Roman Missal

Jeffrey Tucker, my new friend and leading candidate for the position of “my arch nemesis,” was kind enough to send me the entire set of the new ICEL chants that go with the new translation of the Roman Missal. First of all- thanks!

Let me preface my thoughts on the new settings with some context about me. I like contemporary music in Mass. I like pop and folk based composed through Mass settings. I generally consider myself a progressive when it comes to music in Liturgy. I do not particularly care for the new translations, and I strongly disagree with the need to implement them.

I’m saying all of that because I want my next statement to surprise you:

I think every parish in the English speaking world should start using the chants when they begin using the new texts. In fact- I think the chants are going to save the new translations.

At this point I’ll hedge my progressive street cred a bit by saying- I like chant anyway. BUT normally I would not advocate chant over other styles of music as a universal norm (I’m much more of a case-by-case basis kind of guy). Also- I’m trying (as best I can) to separate my thoughts on the effectiveness of the chants from my personal tastes.

So, let me elaborate a bit.

Part of what I dislike about the new translations is that they are (as was intended) more Latinate and hieratic. As much as “Et cum spiritu tuo” makes sense in Latin, “And with your spirit” sound ridiculous in English.

Let me correct, though- It sounds ridiculous in spoken English. As soon as I chanted it (even by myself in my apartment, hunched over my crap keyboard) it made so much more sense. (Especially the tune used in the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer).

Page after page I had that realization. These texts (in my humble opinion) are awful…. when spoken. They are lovely when chanted. (And the few that aren’t lovely are at least passable when chanted). Even my absolute least favorite line of the new text, “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…” works when chanted in a way that simply does not work spoken.

And, while I can’t be sure without hearing some attempts, I have a pretty strong feeling that these simple chants will be much more effective than composed through settings in any style (contemporary or classical). I can tell you at least from my own experience- I’ve been trying to write a Mass setting with these new texts since I first saw them and have been completely unable to do so.

I would be very sad to see a wholesale reform of the Liturgy that excludes the singing of contemporary music. However, I think that simple chant, rather than composed-through settings, is the most viable way forward for the new translations of the Ordinary. The ease of the tunes, and the nature of unaccompanied monophonic congregational singing, brings both a powerful earthiness and a solemn heavenliness that most Mass settings lack (even the ones I like). Also, their unadorned nature means they will sit well in any other musical milieu- that is (while the real champions of the chants may disagree), this will feel equally “right” sitting next to Palestrina, David Haas, or Blue Grass- something no composed-through setting can ever accomplish.

Besides their inherent quality, I also think that using the new chant settings will help everyone “reset” their brains. It’s going to be very hard to use an adapted Mass of Creation: everyone will just sing what they already know. Likewise spoken dialogues such as the preface- what’s going to stop everyone from just saying what they’ve been saying for 40 years? Having to think about a chant tune, that’s what.

Also, these chants are free to use. That’s a whole lot better than having to buy 20 more choir editions (each) of the Mass of Creation, the Mass of Light, the Mass of Glory, the Mass of Endless Descants, the Mass of Faux multi-culturalism, the Mass of White People Clapping, and all the other Mass settings your parish has been mixing and matching acclamations out of for the last decade.

So- Use the chants.

Especially those of you least likely to use them: progressive suburban parishes that don’t like the new translations. I encourage you, before you give up on the new translations, or decide to grin and bear it while you wait for the Ecumenical Catholic Church to set up shop in your home town (ain’t gonna happen), give the new chants a try. Really- I’m way more like you than I am like them- and I think they’re exactly what we need.

The Constitution on the Divine Liturgy in the light of the “Reform of the Reform”

Some traditionalist Catholics simply deny the efficacy of Vatican II and the reforms that followed. But the more common trend these days, following the example of Benedict, is to reinterpret the work of the council.
In this way,they move backwards toward a preconcilliar ideal (which many of the neo-traditionalists are, like me, too young to remember) without violating John Paul’s directive that there is “no alternative to Vatican II.”

This “reform of the reform” is meant as a corrective measure. “Yes, yes- we were meant to have a reform. Yes, Vatican II was great. It’s just that you all are doing it wrong.”

My first exposure to this attitude was typical of the young, progressive (maybe slightly heretical) American Catholic that I am: horror and fear. I don’t want to go back. I’ve seen pictures.

But since then, I increasingly have come to realize two things:

  • The neo-trads are right. The reform was in fact handled poorly, and what is being done in the average American Catholic parish is not at all what the council had in mind when it wrote Sacrosanctum Conciliam.
  • What the neo-trads envision is approximately as wrong as what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years, and is also not at all what the council had in mind.

I hadn’t read the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy since high school, so I read it (online!) in light of my recent thoughts concerning the reform of the reform. I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t read it in Latin, it having been 10 years since I last had to translate anything other than ritual prayer texts. I trust the English edition made available by the Vatican itself is of sufficient accuracy.

Upon reading again, it became very quickly obvious that both the progressives (by which I mean, the champions of the vernacular, the lovers of “Guitar Mass” and contemporary music, the glass chalice people, the kumbaya kids… often I include myself here) and the traditionalists (the Tridentine, Extraordinary Form, RotR people), if they bothered to read the document at all, have all cherry-picked the paragraphs and lines that support their own view point while excising the rest either through ignorance or death-by-interpretation. (Hey- at least we’re affording the documents of the council the same respectful treatment usually reserved for the Bible.)

In respect to those I most often disagree with (the Traditionalists) let’s start with what they are right about.

The most obvious point is the Council’s clear desire for the retention of several things which (in most US parishes) have completely vanished. Notably: the Latin language, Gregorian chant, and the large body of Sacred Music. (Less notably, the pipe organ.)

“Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.”

The document goes on to specify that the vernacular languages could and should be used, and seems to give a great deal of lee-way to individual regions on exact implemenation. But even within that lee-way, it’s clear that the Council assumed that the Ordinary of the Mass (all those Eucharistic acclamations) would continue in Latin:

“Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.”

This could also mean, “You can do it in English most of the time, but do it in Latin often enough that everyone is still familiar with it.” Even with this more liberal understanding of the text, we have not lived up to their intent on this point at all.

“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.”

Progressives (if they bothered to argue) would probably argue that other things are not equal. And they would be right, I think, to point out that Gregorian chant can be a hindrance to “Religious singing by the people,” which, according to a paragraph just a few lines down from the injuction to use chant, “is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises, as also during liturgical services, the voices of the faithful may ring out according to the norms and requirements of the rubrics.”

Still, current practice is a far cry from “Pride of Place,” even after taking into account the desire for congregational singing, and the document’s other calls for simplicity and ease.

“The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care.”

It’s clear that the “treasure” is the great body of musical literature which the church has accumulated over the centuries, and which the council would like us to not forget or let lapse into disuse. Here again, the Traditionalists are right to criticize. When was the last time you heard Palestrina in Mass? For me, the answer is “never.” In fact, I heard more of Catholicism’s treasure of sacred music while attending an intensely liberal Episcopalian parish for 10 months than I have in 27 years in Catholic congregations.

My fellow progressives say… so what?

For many conservatives/traditionalists, it is enough that they said it- we should follow their directive. But we all know that such Ignation deference to the Church’s will is not commonly found among the Guitar-mass crowd (as much as we like to reference S.C. when it suits us). So- why is it important that we retain Latin and chant and Palestrina?

Well- the most obvious reason is retaining a common Catholic culture across liguistic, political, and cultural borders. I have read that during World War I, Catholic soldiers on opposing sides of the conflict were able to celebrate Mass together in Latin. (That anecdote would be better if they didn’t then go back and kill each other, but I still think it’s pretty cool.) With a common foundation in Latin, multilingual parishes would have a common language for the most relevant parts of the liturgy. And, most importantly, Catholic tourists would be able to go to Mass anywhere in the world.

Gregorian Chant (which is properly in Latin) likewise provides (or could provide) a common musical heritage allowing people to worship together regardless of musical background.

Additionally, as many regularly point out, humanity loses something when it loses it’s art. You wouldn’t toss out the Mona Lisa or the Pieta just because you’ve created something else new. But with music, it’s not enough that the manuscrupts sit in a library or museum. If no one sings it, it might as well not exist.

To those common arguments (cultural universalism and the need for preservation) I would add this in regards to chant: It is simple.

At several points in the document, as progressives like to point out, the Council calls for liturgies to be simpler. What we usually won’t admit is that Gregorian Chant is clearly the simplest musical option. To get more basic, you’d have to just speak the text. While I love contemporary music, and think that modern styles certainly have a place in Mass, it can wear me out after a bit.

Use of Gregorian Chant (in Latin) or an adapted chant setting of the English texts is a much less cluttered approach to the Mass. With all due respect to the composers of some really great Mass settings, I especially feel that chanting the Ordinary would be both spiritually useful and in line with the intent of Sacrosanctum Concilium. (And would make a whole lot of angry neo-trads a whole lot less angry).

Another, less obvious, point is the use of the Divine Office.

“Pastors of souls should see to it that the chief hours, especially Vespers, are celebrated in common in church on Sundays and the more solemn feasts. And the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually.”

I grew up having somewhat regular experience with what I knew as “the Liturgy of the Hours,” and I know that it played a big part in my spirtual growth. And I’ve met many other progressives (usually of the intellecual-liberal set- the kind of people who go to Lay Pastoral Ministry Institutes and such) who have likewise had excellent experiences with the Divine Office. A few of them have even made gret strides in introducing this “public prayer of the church” to their home congregations. But it’s the Traditionalists who seem to be the most active and vocal about championing this means of sanctifying “the whole course of the day and night.”

It’s been almost 50 years since the Council encouraged us to revive this “ceaseless prayer,” but most parishes (as far as I am aware) don’t do it, and most Catholics don’t even know what it is. This is especially striking considering that the Divine Office is a perfect prayer form for progressive parishes: liturgy which can be led by lay people, even women.

So, have we done anything right in the last 40 years?

Or should we all subscribe to the NLM blog, find ourselves a good Extraordinary Form Mass, and burn our Gather Comprehensives?

Well, no- of course not. The progressive’s understanding of SC isn’t as far off the mark as the Reform of the Reform people would like us to think. For today, let’s stick with the subject closest to my own heart- musical style.

“Other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.”

Clearly, the Council had no intention of restricting us to Gregorian chant alone. And polyphony is not the only style “not excluded,” simply the only one important enough to mention. SC does not prescribe a style or set of styles, and (thank God!) so far no other Vatican decree has done so. The only requirement being that any piece of music be “in accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.” Many Traditionalists (especially the particularly conservative and angry ones) will try to set themselves up as arbiters of what music is and isn’t “in accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.” But if the Bishops of Vatican II didn’t feel it appropriate to make a list of approved songs, composers, and styles, neither should disaffected laypeople.

Further, the musical styles that have become prevalent in the English speaking world are “covered,” so to speak, by the text:

“In certain parts of the world, especially mission lands, there are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason due importance is to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting worship to their native genius.”

America has its own musical traditions that play an important part in our religous and social life: shape note hymns of early Protestantism, Black Gospel and Spirituals, and (yes) contemporary folk, rock, and pop styles. The directive to include native styles doesn’t only apply to mission lands, just “especially” to mission lands. And besides that- given the current religous demographics of this country, the U.S. might even qualify as a “mission land.” (That is, if you really mean “a country in need of mission work,” instead of using the phrase as a code for “a place full of non-white people.”)

Further, the Council clearly hoped for the continuing creation of new music and art for the liturgy:

“Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures.

Let them produce compositions which have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music, not confining themselves to works which can be sung only by large choirs, but providing also for the needs of small choirs and for the active participation of the entire assembly of the faithful.”

“Active participation” here can only mean “congregational singing,” which means that the Church doesn’t just want more great pieces for the Schola, but rather music (presumably in the vernacular) that the whole congregation can sing. With due respect for the Mass Propers, where but the four customary “song slots” is this music supposed to go?

As to the contention that certain styles, regardless of quality, are simply more suited to the Roman Liturgy:

“The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites.”

That paragraph is from the section on Sacred Art and Furnishings, so it is addressed specifically to visual art. But, in light of the other statements made about music, it seems this is the attitude we are to take towards all artistic endeavors, including music.

So, what then?

Does there need, then, to be a Reform of the Reform?

Probably, but not the one that is currently in motion. And also not one handed down from a group of men in another country. The right RotR will happen organically if The Institution (and lay leaders and influencers) embark on a sincere campaign of education and formation. It will happen organically if we acknowledge and appreciate everything that has gone so well over the last 50 years, as well as what we did poorly. It will happen if Progressives and Traditionalists spend more time talking to each other in love rather than in debate. It will happen if Guitar mass people get a chance to experience really great chant, and if Extraordinary Form people can hear authentically executed contemporary music. It will happen if we rely on the guidance of the Holy Spirit instead of our own inventive whims. It will happen if we learn that some of our inventive whims are the nudge of the Spirit.

And what would this RE-reformed liturgy look like? Well, I have a preference, and an idea. Certainly, there would be more Latin, more chant. Certainly the very best of the contemporary music would be retained and some of the dross would be left behind. Maybe we’ll stop holding hands for the Lord’s Prayer. Hopefully priests will continue using Gothic style chausibles (they’re so pretty!).

Beyond that, while I do have a plan in mind (if it were my job to implement these things), but for now I think it best to leave the rest up to your religous imagination. Guided by the Holy Spirit, it is that imagination which will ultimately determine the form of those things which are “subject to change.”

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.

The New Roman Missal

I have serious problem with the new translation of the Roman Missal. I have read as much of the text as I Can get a hold of online.

And I’m not just liberal liturgist who wants to complain about the text being hard to sing. I have studied Latin, and can competently read and worship the Latin Mass. I support an increased use of Gregorian chant (in both Latin and English) in the communal prayer life of the church.


Latin and English are not the same language, and everyone who has ever tried to translate a Bible passage, a hymn, a poem, or even basic instructional information from one language to another knows that word-for-word translating leads to confusion, awkwardness, and misunderstanding.

People come to Mass to pray, to commune with God and each other, to sing, to worship, and to receive the grace of the Eucharist. EVEN IF the new translations were demonstrably better, more poetic, and more in line with the original meaning, the change would still be an awkward interruption of the celebration of Mass. People come to learn about God, not to learn about other people’s linguistic concerns.

The last 50 years have seen Catholics all over the world, and especially in America, subjected to fads, re-interpretations, corrections, expansions, changes, omissions, decrees, experiments, and back-pedaling.

Stand now, or kneel now. Hold hands. No, don’t. Sing these songs only. Don’t sing those songs ever. Tabernacle there. No wait, tabernacle over there. No wait- it’s better to put it in it’s own room. What kind of bread are we using? Let’s have a special procession for the book of the Gospels. Quick- get rid of the glass chalices. Liturgical dance is great. Liturgical dance is an abomination. What should we call CCD? Stop singing, “Yahweh is my shepherd now.” The precious blood will give you swine flu.

Do we really want to have yet another top-down “opportunity for parish-wide catechesis?”

This post was taken from my comments on an online petition I encourage you to read and support:
What if we just said wait?