Friday, December 9, 2011

Why Is Catholic Music Such a Mess?

I get this question enough that it justifies an article. Here’s the scenario. A long time Catholic of bourgeois sensibilities, a man who trying to hold on to his faith but doesn’t attend Mass on a regular basis, decides that it is time to try again. He goes to a parish not far from his house. The processional says to him: nothing has changed from the last time I tried this. He grinds his teeth throughout. By communion time, he is nearly losing his mind. The recessional hymn puts him over the top. He goes out to the parking lot cursing under his breath, mad all over again, recalling why he doesn’t go that often.

The problem is the music. It is bad pop music, shabbily done by people who nonetheless seem to be pretty proud of their performance. The entire Mass, the man keeps asking himself: how does it happen that the most beautiful liturgy, the product of 2000 years of tradition, could be reduced to this? More importantly, isn’t there something that can be done about it?

I receive phonecalls and emails along these lines all the time and have for many years. The stark contrast between what exists and what they remember Mass to be, or imagine it can be like or have seen or heard elsewhere, is too much too handle.

I see my main job here as trying my best to calm people down and get them to see that the source of the problem is not as metaphysically malicious as they might at first think. We do not need a purge, as tempting as that idea might sound. Nor is the solution some dramatic leap into an authoritarian future in which a Bishop or the Pope imposes one set of music and tosses out everyone who doesn’t go along, as satisfying as that fantasy might be.

There are a number of core reasons why this problem persists, and these reasons are related to each other in complex ways. Let’s first be clear that the musicians themselves typically feel a sense of discomfort about what they are doing. They are not entirely sure that they are really making a contribution to the liturgy. They feel a sense of disconnect with what is happening on the altar. They are unclear about whether the music they are doing is really appropriate. But they are unpaid volunteers who are aware that no one seems to be objecting, and they do receive compliments from time to time. Hence, they reason, they might as well continue what they are doing, which is showing up to Mass 30 minutes early and selecting for hymns and otherwise doing what they already know how to do. They do not see the big picture. They do not imagine what they cannot musically render or understand.

The number one issue, in my own view that has been formed over a decade of close study, is that the musicians themselves do not know better. Most people doing music in the Catholic Church do not even have a rudimentary understanding of the musical demands of the Roman rite. They do not know what parts of the Mass constitute the ordinary structure of the Mass. They do not know that the propers of the Mass exist. They have no idea how the music is related to the word or the calendar (apart from Christmas and Easter). They have no idea what is mandatory, what is an option, what is the Church’s choice, what is the publisher’s choice, what tradition consists of, or how to tell genuine liturgical music from nonliturgical music.

This is because they have never been told. And a reason that they have never been told is that very few people actually have this understanding at all. You can attend ten national conventions, read ten books, subscribe to all the major liturgy publications, troll websites all day, talk to your pastor and grill your predecessors, and still never discover these basic points about the Catholic liturgy and its musical demands. Yes, you will come away with some slogans and with the knowledge that “the people” need to participate but do not (it’s always easier to focus on the sins of others), but that’s about it.

The core information about the role of music is not known because it is not known, and this problem is not only serious at the grass roots; it goes straight to the top. Again, it is not malice that is preventing this knowledge from leaking out; it is just that so much information has been lost during these confusing decades that there are very few around that truly get it.

The second problem is that the resources to actually make a musical contribution to the liturgy have been missing for many decades. The music book of the Roman rite, the Roman Gradual, is unknown to 98% of musicians in the Catholic Church. They’ve never seen a copy and never heard of it, even though it is mentioned in both the Missal and in the instruction for the Missal. Even on the off chance that they have seen this book, they can’t read either the language (Latin) or the notation (four-line staff). They do not know that there are English versions of this available. If they did know this, they wouldn’t know how to get them.

Historians who have looked in detail at this problem note that it all began in the 1960s as an extension of a problem that pre-existed the Second Vatican Council. In a Low Mass culture, it was common to replace the sung propers with hymns and spoken propers. When the prevailing style of hymns changed in the 1960s from stodgy to groovy, and Mass propers fell by the wayside, that tendency to match the music with the times also stuck. That’s why the first signs of what many regard as corruption began to appear in the 1960s. Pop music began to dominate, first in the area of songs as replacements for propers. Only later did it become common for the ordinary chants of the Mass to be replaced by settings that matched the style of the new songs. By the early 1970s, it was a clean sweep. All the music of the Mass had a completely different face. By the time that the Roman Gradual that pertains to the ordinary form was actually printed in 1974, the whole issue has already been settled and the book was widely ignored.

There are other problems out there, to be sure. People talk about the problem of the publisher cartel, and it is a problem. But as I often remind people, they way to deal with this problem is simply a matter of changing the market. You have to change the buying preferences of the consumers. It’s pretty simple. You can do this without legislation, crack downs, hectoring, or belligerence. It is just a matter of supply and demand. In markets, products come and products go. If you don’t like what sells, support something else.

What about legislation and mandates? Statements from on high? Impositions from authority? I don’t consider these to be part of any real solution. There will continue to be statements just as there have been for decades. They are not as important as actually changing hearts through real experience. This is why educational colloquia and teaching conferences are so important. And it is why books like the Parish Book of Chant and the Simple English Propers are also so important. We have to have the resources. And we have to have the money to fund the production of these books and conferences - and generous donors (blessed are they!) are in short supply.

This is my sketch of the world we’ve inherited and how we must work to change it, the one I’ve relayed seemingly hundreds of times. There is a solution to the problem and it can be brought about quickly. We don’t need decades. But we do need passion, work, funding, and prayer.
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