Who’s Been Workin’ on the Railroad?

The Liturgical Marketplace: Will the Big 3 get on board?

The summer before my first colloquium Wendy and I decided to visit relatives in North Carolina. We thought it would be quaint to take Amtrak cross-country via the southern route out of Los Angeles. We pony’d up first class. But we didn’t do our research and prep; Southern Pacific owns the single track from LA through NOLA to Atlanta. So, our train was stymied to side tracks time after time out of deference for freight trains. We made the best of it. Got into NOLA fifteen hours past the scheduled arrival. But us both having had wonderful train experiences throughout Europe caused us to wonder why we couldn’t have enjoyed as efficient and pleasurable journey on American soil via an American icon- transcontinental railroads?

A number of articles and commentary here in the Café, at MusicSacra Forum and elsewhere prompted me, once again, to ponder the economy that provides the artistic resources that serve celebrants, ministers, musicians and congregants at liturgies and devotions. Our friend and colleague Chironomo delivers this dart dead center bulls’ eye regarding worship “materials” and aides:

“The drive is on in many Diocese’ across the country to implement the chants of the Missal beginning next year. Has there ever been an effort like this on behalf of music in the liturgy, at least in recent history? I don’t think so.
My guess is that the likes of OCP and GIA just haven’t caught up yet, as the much more agile on-line community that is supportive of traditional music has outmaneuvered them. While they are trying to figure out how to manage their copyright protections, freely downloadable settings of the new translation are making their way into parishes. OCP and GIA will, of course, get their share of the market….but they haven’t had to face anything like this before and it appears they are either in denial or just slow to act.”

 I think that popularity in this era is worth less than whatever it costs to get one’s Warhol-ian 15 minutes. The denial mentioned above keeps the publishers mired in a perpetual and irrelevant past in which their CD’s and “albums” cannot keep up with either the pace of the delivery medium and the chicanery of their lack of authentic content. How long can an intransient, hide-bound and bloat-burdened system compete in a rapid and, let’s face it, fickle market? Someone “out there” with some modicum of talent and a unique hook can post their tune on YouTube on Thursday and be a “star” by Friday morning. 

Yet, the editorial staffs of the major, nominally Roman Catholic publishers function in some sort of Olympian monarchy, deliberating and deciding which heavyweight champion to keep in the hymnal rotation and which new upstart will get their big break and make the Show. And, of course, that system redounds to the many good people who provide the skills to keep that system working, from the senior managers, middle managers, and support staff.

But that system in American liturgical realpolitik is fixed not unlike a locomotive and its train of cars upon established networks of tracks. The recent film, “Unstoppable,” (about a runaway freight train) portrays an allegorical paradox where the Big Publishers can move large volumes of certain types of cargo, starting very slowly and with caution to make sure they are on the prescribed rail lines, but once they get up to speed they’re more or less held captive to those routes, period. And, God forbid, left unattended will gain momentum enough that could prove devastating not only to their own enterprise, but to the community in which they move. 

The iconic photograph of the moment the last spike was driven conjoining the monopolistic railroad companies (and its ideological import) through the establishment of a transcontinental means of human and freight transport and delivery, corresponds to a moment in a plenum USCCB convention a few winters ago wherein the issue of defining a so-called “white list” of approved hymn texts by the body of American bishops was tabled, and remains thus to this day, to the Sees of Chicago and Portland. And with the highest of regard for both Cardinal George and Archbishop Vlazny, has there been any evidence that there’s been direct oversight by their chanceries over the editorial content of the various organs of their respective publishing companies since that decision? Not really, the contents of the pulp missal/hymnals shift only in small fractional increments yearly, while the cost to both parish budgets and to the non-consolidation of a worthy liturgical repertoire are unwieldy and burdensome, and in effect useless in many regards. 

Through many other media, hundreds of options that are sourced either from the original Roman musical volumes or from new compositional resource centers (such as MusicaSacra, Corpus Christi Watershed and The St. Louis Liturgical Music Center) are literally moving through the airwaves for the taking. It would be foolish not to imagine that other new sources, not necessarily respectful of the Church’s musical patrimony but fashioned out of love for the liturgy are also being shared and distributed outside of the publishers’ network and clout. Again, if those whom some vilify as the “Liturgical Industrial Complex” don’t even ponder these realities, they risk becoming anachronistic antiques that simply parodied the culture of a bygone era. 

Has this ever occurred before so as to have been a lesson of history that could have reminded us not to tread that way again? Well, I have more than a few St. Gregory hymnals collecting dust amid the People’s Mass Books, the St. Basil, the Pius X, the Mount Mary’s, and a number of others that J. Vincent Higgenson spent years cataloguing. And then, among the non-nationalistic of those, English was the only “foreign” vernacular competing with the Mother Tongue.

The contingencies that will continue to vex the stability of any liturgical repertoire, whether at the national, metropolitan, diocesan or parish levels, will likely necessitate the expedience of a subscription-based missal/hymnal resource. There’s nothing to prevent any capable pastor and director of music/liturgy from opting out of that convenience with the abilities to access huge amounts of license-free, tried and culturally true Catholic music, and present it to congregations in “homegrown” hymnals, weekly pamphlets or visually projected forms. But, I personally don’t see a larger benefit to the whole Body of the Church in these individual opt-outs, either in practical or philosophical terms.

What I do see as possible is a scenario that theoretically pleases both progressive and traditional wings of liturgical music leadership, as well as a means by which the expressed vision of the Church that her bishops directly oversee the liturgical praxis and development within their Sees. 

Could not the USCCB/BCL authoritatively mandate all bishops to appoint diocesan councils of qualified musicians and directors according to a set of universal criteria, whose only duty is the collection, deliberation and indexing of a licit and comprehensive diocesan missal/hymnal that would, ideally, be so dutifully and scrupulously reviewed that it would, without question, receive the bishop’s imprimatur and nihil obstat, whether the resource was published by a yearly subscription or as a fixed hymnal by the very same publishers who offer us only their editions? 

I refuse to accept, until it is explained to me why, that the indexing and ordering of local, commissioned editions of paper or hardbound hymnals could not be compiled and indexed by the union of human editors and appropriate software programs. I formerly dubbed this the “boutique” hymnal. But I’m hopeful that a coalition of our hierarchy, the already “geared-up” publishing giants, the local bishops and their collaborative councils and the “boots on the ground” input from parish DM’s would result in a profound shift both towards the observance of universal standards, and the respect and appreciation for worthy additions of new repertoire from various cultural perspectives.

It is simply a fact that the dynamic tensions that are part and parcel of the options for musical expression at service to the liturgy will seem to most everyone involved as being self-contradictory. Gregorian (and other) chant achieving “principle place” (as opposed to the titular “pride of place”) at service will subjectively always be challenged by those who insist upon qualifying that place by citing the “all things being equal” argument. 

But it seems to me that if I were given an opportunity to serve on a diocesan music council whose tangible objective was the creation and dissemination of a valid, valuable local hymnal undertaken by a commission and agreements between dioceses and the PUBLISHERS on a major scale, I’d at least have no one to scapegoat for the paucity of repertoire choices in the one-size-fits-all products that have constituted the musical buffets and cafeterias that were “crafted” in corporate think tanks and labs as being the most generically profitable assortment that was consumer friendly, trendy and kept you wanting something “new and improved” every so often, but that was essentially just a variation or reorganization of the same components. It’s time for our trains to start flying. And I believe that the PUBLISHERS have an infrastructure in place that we could help become more agile, flexible, responsive if they believed in their mandate to truly serve the Church’s best interests in worship, and knew they would keep market share. I’m clearly not advocating returning to the clumsy days of homegrown hymnal making.

In the “Missal chants” thread in which I cite Chironomo’s observation above, an anonymous commenter after him states,

“We have a rare opportunity at this moment in Church history to undo the collateral damage caused by a false interpretation and implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium. There is nothing more spiritually powerful than priest and people chanting the Mass, whether in Latin or in the vernacular. That is where one finds both the majesty and simplicity of the Roman Mass.”  

This is the moment that we all must seize, including those who have confined themselves to the tracks and fortresses and economies that will, as all temporal human concerns do, eventually decay or become obsolete and irrelevant. I don’t wish that upon anyone affiliated with our Church, including the good souls working within “the complex.”

9 Replies to “Who’s Been Workin’ on the Railroad?”

  1. The difficulty in creating a hymnal is:

    1. Choosing the music, which is the easy part, even though there will be dissension among those making the choices.

    2. Dealing with the myriad problems of copyright. And though it would seem that the licensing people make this easy, One License and others only permit melody and words to be printed. This leaves your choir and organist with creating and maintaining a library of hymnals to root through to legally sing and accompany the hymns.

  2. Noel, I had typed a detaild clarification and Google ate it.
    So, I've done some editing and hi-lighted the main proposition, which is not about the creation of a local hymnal as a remediation of the editorial content proffered by the Big 3.

  3. Thanks, this helps to understand what you intended.

    If they were to try and reinvent themselves, I think they would alienate their customers to a point that would threaten their existence. Surely they could create a hymnal that you would want to order and it would take little time for them to do so. I'm sure this is a topic of discussion in editorial meetings at all of these publishers. But those who decide what is going to be published (read that as "make money" and "fulfill their vision of what music in the church should be") have made the decision not to enter this market.

    If this market were worth their time and effort, Adoremus and Litrugical Press would be dramatically affecting this sales.

  4. Charles;

    Thanks for the highlighting…at first I thought there was some bug in my browser but then I figured out what was going on!

    The commercial incentives of the publishing houses will always mitigate against chant, etc… If OCP, GIA or whoever were to publish a complete resource for chant for your parish, they would only be able to sell it once, since it would not, by definition, ever change. As it is, they are highly motivated to advocate a constantly changing musical vision, emphasizing the newest thing which is only available from them. Whether this market incentive has shaped their musical vision for the Church, or the other way around, there is no way to tell.

    But the online, free-to-everyone approach has no such limitations or motivations. In a marketplace which advocates "the best" rather than "the newest", this old-school publishing model will fail, and I do believe that we are entering a time when the paradigm is shifting from seeking the newest to seeking the best.

    It may be a bit cliche to say so, but the cat has been let out of the bag…. a cat that the contemporary music establishment worked very hard to keep IN the bag for a long time… and now that it's out, there's no going back to the way things were before.

  5. One other point…kinda important though!

    The commercially available resources cater to a very specific kind of Music Director… one who very often has good music skills (although even that is not a given in all places), but who is perhaps not educated or trained in liturgy. The myriad "Music Guides" and reference publications that make music selections for you (loathsome things… absolutely loathsome)are directed at those who have no idea how or why to choose music for the liturgy, and they are willing to abdicate this decision to someone with a financial incentive to advocate something other than what is most appropriate.

    Going forward, education in this area is going to have to be the key. There is certainly more of this going on now than at any time I can recall, as I made note of in the quote you so graciously posted. We have to very boldly propose the viable alternative to "Today's Liturgy" and the "GIA Quarterly". And we have something of an advantage… a far better product at a lower price!

  6. Noel and Chironomo, thanks for the responses.
    But we have to remember WE are their customers. As I tried to point out, opting out of their economy is not going to prove tempting to a ton of pastors and DM's who give a rip, whether it's about obstacles such as copyright/licensing or delivery method (local hymnal/weekly leaflet/visual projection) or whether there are amazingly wonderful sources of first option propers and great new vernacular ordinaries that are FREE.
    Pastors want conveniences as much as coherence. They're going to opt for a package that has a price point bottom line first, and hope that that package content keeps a majority of PIPs/choirs content, and the vocal minority silent.
    I'm advancing a notion that has many obvious positive win/wins for all. First, bishops can, at least say "check" if the governing body of their own, or the papal nuncio for that matter, asks them "Do you oversee your liturgical music practice in your diocese?" That, of course, presumes that the USCCB instructs the publishers to reinvent themselves to respond effectively to both local demand, and to agreed-upon standard repertoire inclusions, ala "Jubilate Deo," which could include the ICEL chant Mass as a minimum, or the whole Adam Bartlett/AOZ/JMO catalogs to whatever extent the local ordinary and his advisory board determines necessary.
    Think about it for a second: If there was consensus in the Diocese of San Antonio that for every "Alabare" there would also be an introit by Richard Rice (from his new collection) or a communio by Andrew Motyka from his new collection.) Same goes for ordinary settings. (And the added benefit of not having "Companions on the Journey" or "Sing a New Church" taking up space.) Imagine if OCP could create a mockup of the San Antonio pulp hymnal for 2015, and in the process, Dallas, Houston, Galveston, El Paso are provided review access, and their advisory boards and bishops say "Wow, that's great, count us in."
    Now, imagine that around 2018, education in pews, RE and schools that all things are equal (heh heh) the advisory board consults thebishop or his successor and determines, "Well, we can make the following revisions that will bring us closer to the ideal. These include the replacement of "XYZ" items with Latin propers and seasonal ordinaries, either in modern or square notation. Oh, and there's some really good metrical psalmody and hymns in the commons by Jaime Cortez Jr. and Ephraim P. that has to be there too! So, these current items from 2015 can be retired. Sign here, Bishop, please."
    I really don't want to belabor the idea much more, but we keep telling the bishops to DO SOMETHING, but short of demanding they mandate the use of the Gregorian Missal, because we know d*mn well KNOW there will never be an ABW (American Book of Worship, like the CBW), we have to preent them with some viable options.
    Paul Ford has already got this for over a decade now. But we know that the market share for BFW/Psallite as a stand alone product will be niche. The bishops might listen if we make it clear that we're not getting in their face about liturgical ideology, but with a plausible solution that they can sell back home.
    And let the marketplace of ideas be a real and actual marketplace of ideas, not the oligarchy that it is. And OCP can stop snail-mailing their fake surveys out every year.

  7. Part of what drives the continued consumption of pulp hymnals is the inclusion of the readings for the Liturgical year. That is one of the primary driving forces that hinders moving away from the reconfiguration of the hymnals (worship aids)in general.

    What seems to be lacking in the overall discussion for this shift is what about the return to private ownership of missals? Just as Protestants took their privately owned copies of the Bible to Church, Catholics took their own missals. Should Catholics once again feel the need to purchase their own missals that contain the readings and prayers I think it would free up the aspect of producing a better hymnal.

    BTW, I heard this morning that e-books outsell hardbound copies of books either in paper or hard bound. It is not impossible to download files in pdf to an electronic reader. This has a lot of possibilities. I think how great it would be to download what my choir is using this Sunday, in the order that it will be sung all on an electronic reader – no more heavy books, loose papers, disorganized papers, forgotten octavos, etc.

  8. Excellent observation, Musings!
    I've been carrying the "Let the people purchase their own missals" torch with my pastor for a couple of years. MR3 theoretically provides for such a shift.
    I confess that I love the idea of using E tablets as both text and music media. And to take it a step further, because of the changes in so many federal regulations, newly constructed churches must comply with visually/aurally impaired parishioners' needs. Boy howdy could personal technology remediate those problems instantaneously.

  9. Great idea with the tablet PC approach. A similar thought had crossed my mind many moons ago (when the ancient, now obsolete iPad came out). The advances of technology can certainly come to the church's aid in this regard. Soon enough it will be assumed that everyone has a tablet PC, just as it is now assumed that everyone has a cell phone. Perhaps a combination of the two. Maybe our phones will soon project a hologram screen!

    All very Star Wars, but could prove to be very useful in liturgical practice. Going to a certain parish could be as easy as directing your browser to a particular webpage. There the readings and all musical selections (appropriate to the congregation) can be found. A full missal customized to the parish you're at – specific musics and all.

    Sometimes technology is a great thing. I'm not sure that the projector craze in suburban spaceship churches is of any great help, but the handheld PC advancements (I would hope) will soon be adapted for positive influence in the church's liturgy.

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