Sunday, July 4, 2010

Peter Jeffery’s Six Point Agenda

Peter Jeffery is a top-ranked Gregorian chant scholar by any standard, making a name for himself at Princeton University and bringing serious attention to the details of early liturgical music as both an art and a science. It is very much to the credit of Notre Dame Univeristy that this institution was able to recruit him as a professor and as the leader in a new program of sacred music. Both Notre Dame and the Catholic Church in the United States is very much in need of his help and expertise. 

Speaking at the Sacred Music Colloquium sponsored by the CMAA, Jeffery presented a six-point agenda for helping Catholic liturgical music in the United States, an agenda he had thought about for many years while at Princeton. Now that he is at Notre Dame, he hopes that he can bring his influence to bear in hopes of implementation. The points in order are as follows:

1. Diocesan certification and professionalization of musicians;
2. An educational campaign to teach Gregorian chant as the music of the Roman Rite;
3. An educational campaign to explain that the music of the Roman Rite is not pop songs;
4. A new push for doctrinally sound hymns, not just songs that explain how we feel about things;
5. A push for the formation of the young in children’s choirs;
6. Train the theologians in cultural studies so that they understand that this is serious business.

He elaborated at some length on each point. All the points strike me as fundamentally sound. 

In general, I was mightily encouraged to hear an academic musicologist on his level take an intense interest in the practical application of music at the parish level. In the years since chant was banished from the parish environment - not by law but but cultural convention - an impenetrable wall has emerged between the academic specialization in chant and the parish practice. Major efforts are now underway to heal this breach, and Professor Jeffery’s lecture was certainly part of the evidence that we are starting to see results.

Most gratifying was to hear his clear statement that there is simply no possible way to be a competent Catholic musician, working in any parish, without a solid understanding of what music in the Roman Rite is for. It is not accompaniment. It is not there for cultural ambiance. It is not there to draw people in and make them happy to be at Church on Sunday morning. It is not even to be popular, to be “inclusive,” to be an open-ended “ministry” for anyone who wants to be on stage. The role of music in the ritual is to provide for a singing the texts of the Mass: the propers, the ordinary, the dialogues, and other texts from scripture.

That role is inseparable from Gregorian chant, which is the music of the Roman Rite. This is as much true in the ordinary form as the extraordinary form. As Professor Jeffery points out, a musician needs to understand all these things, even if he or she is primarily interested in vernacular plainsong or hymnody. It is just not possible to be a musician in the Catholic Church and not be able to have some degree of competence in the chant tradition. Otherwise, the musician never quite gets the point of what he or she is doing. In particular, knowledge is what helps the musician in the Catholic Church understand that the goal is not to perform pop music at Mass.

I do have a reservation about his first point. He is of course correct about professionalization. The culture of the American Catholic Church has long resisted paying musicians properly, with the result of an inferior product of untrained organists and singers. When all standards were swept away in the 1960s, the lack of professionalism invited disaster. The musicians, the serious musicians, were either driven out or left because they couldn’t take it anymore (the full story is yet to be told). To this day, Catholics have a very difficult time finding remunerative employment in Catholic parishes. Many end up serving at Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian and other communities - simply because the opportunity costs of staying at Catholic Church are too high. This must change.

However, I do not believe that pursuing diocesan certification, much less national certification, is a good idea, certainly not now. To be sure, I understand the impulse. Someone just wrote me of a dreadful “vigil Mass” performance of a sort-of pianist who played organ, more or less, and cantor singer who stumbled randomly through fits and starts throughout, and it was clear that neither had the slightest idea what they were doing. It’s not their fault; no pastor should permit this. But witnessing this kind of spectacle makes one wonder why there are no standards and how they might be brought about.

It is not at all clear that there are people at the diocesan level who are competent to be in charge of such a program. Often these bureaucracies are impenetrable and laced with strange politics that will keep concerns over excellence at bay. In any case, if it were really the case that the diocesan offices were prepared to do this, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in now.

Further, requiring certification is as likely to keep good musicians out rather than assure that quality stays in. It would certainly discriminate against non-Catholic musicians. Let’s say a fantastic conservatory-trained organist moves into town, someone with full knowledge of the Roman Rite, but this person happens not to be Catholic. Is it likely that this person is going to submit to the petty training and certification demands of the diocese before the parish is going to be permitted to pay them peanuts to play?

Knowing what I do about the reality at the diocesan level, I can easily imagine that certification program - which would inevitably be controlled in some way by the big publishers and their affiliates - would actually end up halting progress and entrenching the status quo. Let’s just say that adherents to the Jeffery-style agenda are very few and far between. I can understand the frustration with the seeming anarchy of the current situation but this liberality at least permits an opportunity for change and for excellence to rise.

To be sure, I can imagine that a diocese could issue a clear and coherent statement that explains the musical demands of the Roman Rite to musicians in the parish - but this statement would have to be free of the convoluted, pressure-group inspired, and overly qualified bureaucratic twists and turns of the usual statements that tend to be issued from on high. A statement like “Sing to the Lord” does some good but it also tends to leave people with more questions than answers. We need something short and clear, with a clean model drawn from  broad history, with a proper theological orientation, in order to achieve results.

In any case, this is probably just a quibble with Professor Jeffery’s points. In general I find his list very inspiring. His talk with beautifully delivered with expertise and humor. Perhaps his position at Notre Dame will lead some some progress toward implementation.
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