Friday, December 31, 2010

It Didn't Turn Out that Way, Did it?

I’m reading the 1976 issue of Pastoral Music, then a brand-new magazine devoted to ushering in a new dawn for Catholic music, sweeping away the old and bringing in the new age of participation, fresh sounds, and excellence.

This first issue appeared not long after the old publishers of the preconciliar era went belly up, the old conductors and directors were toppled from their posts, the parish collections of the Liber Usualis were hurled into the dumpster, organs were mothballed, and dinosaurs who liked Palestrina and Gregorian chant were declared extinct.

Now and in the future, said the editor Pastoral Music on page one, “the musician will be concerned with increasing repertoire, improving technical skills, evaluating and upgrading the total music life of the parish.”

In the bad old days, wrote Edward Murray, Mass was “a static ritual observance. There were some blanks to be filled in, like the name of the deceased at a funeral or the name of the current pope or local ordinary. But, basically, Mass could be ‘said’ like some lines of a play at a side altar with no one there but the priest.” Now, “the music will be worked into and around the ideas of the group: their visuals, their dance, their prayers, processions and meditations. The task of the music minister is to be true to the faith meaning discerned by the group.”

Another writer in this issue, James M. Burns, bemoaned the old days when Church music “was locked into a theology that stressed the transcendence of God... Today, however, with existential theology and philosophy being the intellectual ground for many of the scholars in the Church, a tendency to reduce the transcendental aspect of worship to a more ‘realistic’ concept has appeared. The stress is on the human, the real, the ‘non-God-talk’ approach.”

This is fantastic, he wrote, because the old way “was a veritable dead-end street in terms of artistic development” whereas in the new way “new and inventive planning are manifold, and the truly inquisitive spirit of the church musician has a larger sweep today than ever before.”

Another writer, Stephen Rosolack, celebrated the dawning of the new age for musicians. “The great strength of a musician at the present time may be to recognize that he is involved in all of the styles, but still free to develop personal excellence within a community in the style that he loves the most. The quality of our work will convince our people that we care for them as well as ourselves.”

Lewis McAllister, music director at Mount Saint Mary’s, was just wild with excitement at what the changes swept in. “We are faced, then, with what must surely be the greatest offering of music in the history of the church, and most of it within easy listening access through performances on recordings! Such an opportunity!”

Another editorial said: “The quality of music in our assemblies is the great priority among the reforms. Many people are talking about it; and many are translating their talk into the work of searching, studying and sharing.” Still another imagined that the new dawn affords “the opportunity for enlightened courageous leadership to lay the groundwork for musical skill.”

So on it goes, on page after page, and this is just one issue. The spirit, the anticipation, the optimism, is pervasive, the sense that by wiping out the old and ushering in the new, we would experience a new renaissance of musical quality, competence, and enlightenment across the land. The themes are repeated in nearly every article.

Whatever problems exist in the music program at the parish are due to the atrophied ritual of the past, the stultifying air created by tradition and its supporters, while the guitar-strumming youth will bring a new passion and energy that will end in new heights of musical accomplishment and vigor.

(Not that the magazine didn’t draw attention to what it regarded as the most serious problem: “the present copyright laws are being flagrantly violated by many, many parishes in the United States is a scandal,” wrote the president of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. This is “to the detriment of good liturgy and good music”)

I revisit this history here for some context to evaluate the present moment. No knowledgeable Catholic today can read the above without a sense of bemusement and incredulity. In the future, thanks to the revolution, there will be new quality, excellence, skill, accomplishment, and vigor? It didn’t quite pan out that way, did it?

I can recall the first time that I walked into a Catholic parish and looked at the music resources. Having an education in music history, I was aware of the patrimony: the greatest choral and organ works ever produced, plus 15 centuries of glorious chant. What I found instead was a floppy missallete on news print with a bunch of pop-like songs. There weren’t even scored parts for singing. It was all in unison. The group that led the singing had less musical ability than the average member of a high school marching band.

Sadly, as I later discovered, this was not an exception but the norm. In musical terms, the Catholic Church was a windswept house. The serious people had evidently given up, fleeing to other worship communities or just deciding that Church was just too much trouble.

When I finally decided to start a choir, I will never forget what a soprano I was trying to recruit said to me. It ran into her in the grocery store and asked her to join, assuring her that we were doing quality music. “I’ve been there and done that, she said. “As soon as you get something of quality going, your group will be pushed aside to make room for the Willy and the Poor Boys.” Ouch!

You don’t have to take my word for it. David Haas, a leading composer in the Catholic world today, a man who struggles to provide marketable music in today’s parish environment, has provided one of the most despairing commentaries on the state of Catholic music that I’ve ever read. He was commenting casually on the prospects for Simple English Propers project of Adam Bartlett, the CMAA, and the Chant Cafe. Even though they are formulas and plainchant, he judged them too difficult.

“I certainly am happy that the amateur choir at your parish is capable of this,” he wrote concerning Adam’s success with his own choir. “I am certain however, that much of its success has to do with your leadership, and your competence in this genre. I am thinking of the average choir director who comes to many workshops that I present, volunteer, not a great musical background, can sometimes barely stumble through “Holy, God We Praise Thy Name.” I see very little possibility of her, and many others in a similar situation being able to even read the chant notation that you provide, let alone present in a way that would be pleasing at all, let alone possible for this assembly to join in.”

So there we have it. The exuberance of 1976 has led us to 2010, a time when a man who is probably more knowledgeable about the nation’s parish choirs than any living musician, says that the average choir director can barely stumble through the most famous Catholic hymn in the English speaking world.

I cannot say whether his judgment is correct here. But I will say this. The right way to address the problem is not by continuing to “meet people where they are” but rather must begin by inspiring them to be more than they are. That is impossible without ideal musical models in mind. I don’t mean abstractions like “arouse the community into a new awareness” or something like that. I mean exactly what the Second Vatican Council said: the Mass itself should be sung with Gregorian chant having first place. It is this chant tradition that is our treasure, the most beautiful gift that Catholic musicians have been given to preserve and make ever more beautiful.

The musical experiment of the 1970s and following threw out the archetype of liturgical music, brutally drove out those who believed that and strove to reached those ideals. It was an experiment that has failed and miserably so, even by the standards that its champions laid out in the 1970s.

If I were to describe the music situation in the average parish today, I would use language very similar to how these writers from Pastoral Music described the preconciliar world: static, uninspired, lacking in competence. It is ritual observance: pick four songs from the Missallete, and, if in doubt, sing the Mass of Creation. That’s about it. Change will not happen by continuing to cater to this level. That only creates the race to the bottom that we’ve seen in operation now for decades.

A new era for Catholic music will require the cultivation of serious choirs that have an important role beyond merely leading the congregation. It will require attracting real talent and inspiring existing singers to upgrade their abilities and challenge themselves to be willing to change. It will require that excellence is newly valued. There will need to be a new dedication to training. There must be stability in the parish music program, guarded over by pastors who are dedicated to solemnity and excellence. And there must be new resources such at the Simple English Propers that make it possible for choirs to take their jobs seriously, contributing in a real sense to ennobling the Catholic liturgy.

I’m so grateful to be living now, especially with a chance for a new beginning in Advent of 2011, with the new Missal translation and a new generation that is not naive and not caught up in the goal of banishing transcendence but rather understands the sacred music ideal and is working toward going as far as possible toward realizing that ideal in our times.
(Comment moderation is now in effect for this site.)