Conventional Wisdom? “So What” spaketh Miles Davis

A quotation cited from a 1930 volume of “Caecilia“-

0nly a limited amount of energy is given us. Perhaps we would tackle the problem better by leaving off preaching the beauty, and all that, of the Chant, and beginning to convince the world and ourselves in particular by giving the Chant a chance to talk for itself. If we admit that its exalted mood of meditation and mystic calm and all that is a bit foreign to the hip, hip, hurray spirit of twentieth-century America, then the task of making Gregorian chant prevail begins where our vocabulary leaves off. The solution seems to be: less talk and more honestly patient work.

The Top Ten (Con)Temporary Songs That Should Be Cut Some Slack:

THE SERVANT SONG Richard Gillard
IN EVERY AGE Jańet Sullivan Whitaker
ALL THAT IS HIDDEN Bernadette Farrell
THERE IS NOTHING TOLD Christopher Willcock

Honorable mention:

Hymn text to THAXTED: THREE DAYS M.D. Ridge

From the Summer 1958 issue of “Caecilia“-

The New Music

The problem is no longer whether contemporary church music will be accepted. It is plain as the stars that cluster over a vistadome rushing through country darkness that it is accepted and sung. What the faint hearted have viewed cautiously as an alarming experience is past. The question now is how much of it will remain contemporary. For great music is always with us: The great body of Chant and Polyphony and some of that in between-the Gothic, the Baroque, some of the Classical, and isolated giants like Bruckner and Gabriel Faure – having nothing temporary about them; they remain, in the practical domain, contemporary. C. Card. Micara, Bp. of Velletri, Prefect.

I first encountered the link to the FIRST THINGS article over at the MS Forum, and commented with my contention that there was no greater good to be found, IMO, by tagging our initials with the original author’s piece.
Jeffrey Tucker and I then began an email dialogue about the matter. After a few exchanges it occured to me that sharing our conversation might be of more benefit through our different generational perspectives. I will likely also take a couple of my arbitrary list and do a little forensics later on in an edit. One aspect that has totally been ignored by the FIRST THINGS diatribe is a recognition of what constitutes a valid “alius cantus aptus.” Be that as it may, my list above does reflect my appreciation for specific pieces that correspond to my criteria.
So, our discussion follows-

JT (Tuesday)-“I worried that my post would annoy you!”
CC-“Well, my dear friend, it is only an annoyance because by “going there” and reprinting this person’s opinion, our organization’s repute can and likely will be hijacked, and be caricatured as an obstinate, staid, and fringe group of wingnuts by the likes of our friends Todd and Dom Ruff et al. If you’ve noticed, the hubris factor over at PrayTell has surged of late. They’re closing ranks nicely. So, by even a presumed notion of an innocent reprint of the “First Things” article, both the forum and CC have needlessly (IMO) opened themselves to factionalism. Noel’s comment is right: people have formed emotional bonds with this top ten list. You won’t win friends and influence people by trampling upon people’s sensitivies over issues they don’t fully understand, but that they feel acutely.
Just look at the combox polarities over the cappa magna at PT- needless. You, yourself, said “move on.” Now, we have tacitly endorsed this writer’s uninformed, niggardly written and ill-considered opinion on our presumably loftier platforms. We shoot ourselves in the foot by doing so. I love being an apologist for CMAA; I don’t enjoy having that goal made more difficult by aligning ourselves with self-appointed “Miss Manners” who feel it necessary to squeal the names of the Usual Suspects.
First rule of vocal pedagogy: Don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It will frustrate you and annoy the pig.
Pax et bonum.”
JT-“Hmmm, well, as you know, I’m just a bit tone deaf on these issues. I don’t really get it (though your analogy to the cappa magna slightly makes some sense to me). I would remove it if you think that it really does cause harm.
I truly do believe, however, that this music has driven multitudes off from the faith. People just run from this stuff. I find it strange that there is something of a fear of admitting this out there. I try not to ridicule this mainly because, as you say, it doesn’t accomplish anything. And yet, I do think that the ridicule suggests a certain truth.
Bear with me, I’m learning to balance my strong internal tendencies with a slowly coming and enlightened sense of strategic purpose.
But truly tell me: do you really think we are better off without the post than with it? I do respect and defer to your judgement.”

CC-“No, please don’t remove the posts on either site. I’m in the minority, but not because I straddle fences, I have always bristled at gross generalities being elevated to iconic status.
“Democrats favor abortion, Republicans are pro-life.” Yeah, right.
Besides, the horse is out of the barn already. The reprinting of the article is, if nothing else, reportage on matters with which we deal on a weekly basis.
If these ten tunes represent the bogeyman which has alienated multitudes of people from communion with the Church, then such folks built their houses on sandy soil to begin with. Poor songs have always been among us.
I might offer that next colloquium, if we continue the practice of a panel discussion during a dinner, we discern some topics that deal with these very visceral issues, and how we can positively respond to the problems we face when we try to shift focus away from the temporal top ten to the transcendent paradigm.”
JT“What’s funny is that I was going to suggest that you write some reflections on all of this – starting with your own history – and put some of this in context. You have a perspective from the inside that you can offer here. then this morning I wake and see that you have posted! I think you could write more on all of this. One of my mentors used to say that to understand is to forgive. The big problem is that many people, I among them, cannot understand this music no matter how much we attempt to do so.”
CC-“Yeah, I do that sometimes.
You’ll notice that I didn’t augment my list or the Caecilia quotes with anything other than the title (typically, purposefully enigmatic/odd) with anything “me.”
What might be interesting is to give our readership the backstory of our own email dialogue over the original article, and include that after the second Caecilia quote.
Then I could provide some specific insights as to how I approach the process of winnowing chaff from wheat in modern “alius…” and how the stark reality must be acknowledged that there is a likely “multitude” of deeply reverent catholics among four generations that regard the wheat of modern song as very worthy expressions of worship directed to the Lord they love totally. We are gospel obliged to respect these brethren where they are, and, like physicians, “first, do no harm.” So, our task becomes a mission to enrich their worship experiences by sharing with them the beautiful expanse of their Church’s heritage, and do so with a positive and self-evident enthusiasm that does not, of our volition, contend with their sensibilities.
So, if you’re okay, I’d like to offer readers our own exchanges. I might also be inclined to cite an example or two from my subjective list and illuminate some of their qualities.”
JT“Oh I think that would be wonderful!
I was thinking that last night, my own failure to comprehend any of this material comes from a very strange accident of history. My entire conversion to Catholicism took place within a liturgical context of a Latin ordinary form setting with Gregorian music that was unaccompanied. I knew virtually nothing about anything else. Only after I became a Catholic was I exposed to the other. That’s probably why all this other music strikes me as completely alien – and that goes for G&P, P&W, and even traddy English hymns. I just don’t get any of it. Again, this is probably an accident of history – especially since all this happened in the 1980s.”

So, there you have it, for now. A little more may follow, as I said, with a forensics-like examination of one or more of my little list. But I don’t want to detract from the focus this blog and that of CMAA and other kindred spirits’, with a reactionary defense of any modern pieces. Like I said, my real position in the larger picture remains “Move on, nothing to see here.”

One Reply to “Conventional Wisdom? “So What” spaketh Miles Davis”

  1. Thank you for printing this correspondence. I actually enjoyed reading through it again. It's funny how things look different as public postings vs. private notes.

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