I enjoyed this column enormously, so it is reprinted here courtesy of The Wanderer
From the mail, from The Wanderer
From the mail, from The Wanderer
An estimated two million Catholics from around the world descended on Madrid for World Youth Day 2011, providing some “good news” for a weary world that seems to be spiraling into total chaos, with wars and plagues and famines proliferating. What a beautiful sight it was to behold!
For FROM THE MAIL, what set this World Youth Day apart from its predecessors was the showcasing of so much high quality Catholic music, an incredible demonstration that, finally, Catholics are learning how to sing.
In 1990, Thomas Day, chairman of the music department at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I. published Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, a book that won praise from every quarter, from the Jesuits' America magazine to Sacred Music, then under the direction of the late Monsignor Richard Schuler.
More than twenty years later, the state of liturgical music in Catholic parishes is still dismal, for the most part, though progress is continually made, as Wanderer columnist Jeffrey Tucker reminds readers every week.
This progress is significant, especially because – even before the introduction of Pope Paul VI's Novus Ordo, even before Vatican II – the state of liturgical music in the United States “is a sad one,” as Thomas Day pointed out in an article in Triumph magazine, January 1968.
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While going through FTM's collection of Triumph a few weeks ago to find articles written by the late Dr. Warren Carrol, FTM came upon Day's article, “Must Church Music Be Bad Music?” and some of the observations he made then are as timely as ever, and questions he asked then should be answered by a new generation of priests and bishops now that the liturgical revolution is over and the time for clean-up has begun.
“The story of liturgical music in this country,” Day began, “is a sad one; in fact it has been and still remains something of a scandal. Today, while great urban centers like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles have a few passable choirs, the music in most parishes is deplorable. Almost everywhere , Gregorian chant and polyphony are completely unknown. To the average Catholic, Gregorian chant means singing in a monotone, and practically no one has heard Renaissance polyphony sung in his parish, though this music received the high praise of Benedict XIV, Pius X and Pius XII. Our popular tradition of hymnody and Church music is one of Victorian sogginess, and whenever I want to treat myself to some of the Catholic Church's best music, I have to visit a remote monastery or a High Episcopal church.
“It is hard to explain why a Church that has placed so much stress on the beauty of worship tolerates such bad music in the parish. Some may have thought of music as a danger to devotion: Catholic dictionaries printed in this country usually claim that Canon Law somewhere prohibits the use of 'distracting' music, whatever that may be. Church music has too often been treated as a nuisance and a necessary evil; at best it has seldom been taken seriously, so that church organists are not uncommonly recruited from the ranks of eighth-grade girls who are just capable of playing a few chords on the piano.
“In the United States we therefore possess no background, no solid establishment, no proud tradition of Church music. The Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy presupposed a healthier situation; as things were, in unleashed among us any number of misconceptions, distortions and consequent resentments about the terrible music now permitted in our churches. If we are distressed by the recent lunacy in Church music, we must put the blame on our own scandalous neglect of it in the past....”
Day was prescient in predicting that “musical illiterates” with a “shocking disregard for quality” were coming to the fore and would dominate the arena of liturgical music, and he reminded Triumph readers then what most Catholics still do not know now, no matter how often Jeffrey Tucker reminds us: the Roman Rite of the Mass is to be a sung Mass.
“Consequently,” Day continued, “the Gloria and the Sanctus fall flat when dryly recited – they were meant to be sung. Nothing sounds quite so absurd as the dehydrated recitation of the Dies Irae in a funeral Mass: it can only make sense when sung. And how silly and short some of the Communion verses sound when they are recited; their meaning is enhanced by singing.
“Nobody would think of opening a baseball game with a recitation of the National Anthem: Protestant congregations would never tolerate the idea of reciting the hymns for a service. But today, those key items of the Mass which were intended to be sung are flatly spoken instead. What was meant to be a burst of song is now a perfunctory recitation. This isn't what the Church requires.
“A recent Vatican decree on the Eucharistic devotions and a directive issued by the Sacred Congregation of Rites on Church Music both emphasize that the Mass should be sung whenever this is practical, even if this means having more than one High Mass on Sunday. It shows a curious response to this principle, however, when four revival hymns are sung at Mass, while the two great hymns actually in the text (the Gloria and the Sanctus) are given quick recitations....”
Day then turned his attention to the “musical freaks” – the “People's Masses” pushed by liturgical publishers and diocesan liturgical commissions, and the ongoing “liquidation” of quality choirs with a tradition of singing Catholic music, and offered this reminder, as relevant now as it was in 1968.
“H.L. Mencken, of delightful memory, expressed in his essay Holy Writ, a sincere admiration for the Catholic Church 'despite its frequent astounding imbecilities,' because it had always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism but a poem.' Mencken went on to say that 'a solemn High Mass must be a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big top....In the face of overwhelming beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic; they are better convinced by letting them alone.'
“From those Catholics who eat aggiornamento for breakfast, Mencken's words will provoke a gasp of horror. But the truth in this sensitive observation is worthy of note, and we rightly surround even the simplest Mass with the 'poetry' of elaborate vestments, elevated language, candles, gestures and so forth. When it comes to music, however, anything will do – provided that it is not 'distracting,' in Latin, old, or sung by a choir....”
After a brief summary of the history of Church music and congregational singing, Day concluded with praise for Gregorian chant and an exhortation that it be given pride of place in parish worship:
“....Everyone from a Bavarian farmer to a Chicago school teacher – non-Catholic as well as Catholic –is bound to understand, and even to identify with, the deep religious expression of this music. Folk music appeals to few, and modern, avante-garde Church music appeals to even fewer; but somehow Gregorian chant is almost impossible to dislike after one has heard it well performed. A further reason, and by no means the last, for the place of honor given to chant, is its timeless quality. Although most of this music was written in the Middle Ages, it has a freshness and a beauty that men immediately understand in every century and in every generation. All of the folk music that is in such vogue today will be considered an embarrassing joke, something affected and dated, in twenty years. The sane thing has happened to those weeping hymns that were written in the last century. One generation sweeps aside the contributions of the previous one. But Gregorian chant has shown a remarkable ability to survive the centuries. If it were to be legislated out of existence or retired to the library shelves, the result would be the one of one of the riches musical languages we possess for expression our religious thoughts.
“Now: Among the best settings of the Ordinary of the Mass for congregational use are those which are based on the simpler chant melodies or the chant-like idiom. The vocal range is small, there are not difficult skips to sing, and organ is not always necessary, and the rhythm flows naturally from the words themselves. The simple chant idiom is suitable for large and small congregations. If music based on chant has so many advantages, who needs a People's Mass for mighty organ, bellowing chorus, and virtuoso congregation? We can do without the excessive breast-beating at the Kyrie and the crashing finale to the Gloria....
“In short, there are a number of plausible escapes from the aesthetic desert into which contemporary liturgists have led the Catholic Church. But if they are not taken, what can future musicologists be expected to conclude about this era of Church music, except that it was a time of senseless barbarism, destruction and impoverishment.”
Yes, indeed, the past 43 years have been a time of senseless barbarism, destruction and impoverishment, and one wonders how many parishes will continue to indulge in such habits when it is clear today – as it was not then, accept to a few such as Day – that the Roman Rite of the Mass is to be sung – chanted, by priest and people at their designated times.
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Prompted by Day, FTM searched for, and found, Mencken's little essay Holy Writ, and the Sage of Baltimore packed a lot of wisdom that bears repeating today, especially to those who believe that what our Catholic people need today is better preaching by priests on Sunday morning.
What priests need to understand, wrote Mencken, is that the liturgy needs to speak for itself.
Here is the little essay, written in October 1923:
“Whoever it was translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France. Contrariwise, the men who put the Bible into archaic, sonorous and often unintelligible English gave Christianity a new lease on life wherever English is spoken. They did their work at a time of great theological blather and turmoil, when men of all sorts, even the least intelligent, were beginning to take a vast and unhealthy interest in exegetics and apologetics. They were far too shrewd to feed this disconcerting thirst for ideas with a Bible in plain English; the language they used was deliberately artificial even when it was new. They thus dispersed the mob by appealing to its emotions, as a mother quiets a baby by crooning to it.
“The Bible that they produced was so beautiful that the great majority of men, in the face of it, could not fix their minds on the ideas in it. To this day it has enchanted the English-speaking peoples so effectively that, in the main, they remain Christians, at least sentimentally. Paine has assaulted them, Darwin and Huxley have assaulted them, and a multitude of other merchants of facts have assaulted them, but they still remember the twenty-third Psalm when the doctor begins to shake his head, they are still moved beyond compare (though not, alas, to acts!) by the Sermon on the Mount, and they still turn once a year from their sordid and degrading labors to immerse themselves unabashed in the story of the manger. It is not much, but it is something. I do not admire the general run of American Bible-searchers -- Methodists, United Brethren, Baptists and such vermin. But try to imagine what the average low-browed Methodist would be if he were not a Methodist but an atheist!
“The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its frequent astounding imbecilities, has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem. It is accused by Protestant dervishes of withholding the Bible from the people. To some extent this is true; to the same extent the Church is wise; again to the same extent it is prosperous. Its toying with ideas, in the main, has been confined to its clergy, and they have commonly reduced the business to a harmless play of technicalities --- the awful concepts of Heaven and Hell brought down to the level of a dispute of doctors in long gowns, eager only to dazzle other doctors. Its greatest theologians remain unknown to 99% of its adherents. Rome, indeed, has not only preserved the original poetry in Christianity; it has also made capital additions to that poetry -- for example, the poetry of the saints, of Mary, of the liturgy itself.
“A solemn High Mass must be a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big-top by a Presbyterian auctioneer of God. In the face of such overwhelming beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic; they are better convinced by letting them alone.
“Preaching is not an essential part of the Latin ceremonial. It was little employed in the early Church, and I am convinced that good effects would flow from abandoning it today, or, at all events, reducing it to a few sentences, more or less formal. In the United States the Latin brethren have been seduced by the example of the Protestants, who commonly transform an act of worship into a puerile intellectual exercise; instead of approaching God in fear and wonder these Protestants settle back in their pews, cross their legs, and listen to an ignoramus try to prove that he is a better theologian than the Pope.
“This folly the Romans now slide into. Their clergy begin to grow argumentative, doctrinaire, ridiculous. It is a pity. A bishop in his robes, playing his part in the solemn ceremonial of the Mass, is a dignified spectacle, even though he may sweat freely; the same bishop, bawling against Darwin half an hour later, is seen to be simply an elderly Irishman with a bald head, the son of a respectable saloon-keeper in South Bend, Indiana. Let the reverend fathers go back to Bach.
“If they keep on spoiling poetry and spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic deacon will astound humanity and insult God by proposing to translate the liturgy into American, that all the faithful may be convinced by it.”
What would Mencken, who died in 1956, have thought of the botch made of the English translation of the Mass foisted upon the English-speaking people of the world 40 years ago?
Likely he would have gone apoplectic with rage.
On the other hand, he likely would salute the new translation coming this Advent, even though he probably would prefer the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.