Friday, February 3, 2012

Is the job market improving for serious Catholic musicians?

There’s a book on Catholic music published in 1977 by Msgr. Francis P. Schmitt, former director of the Boys Town Choir, one-time editor of Sacred Music, major mover and shaker in Church music circles before and during the Second Vatican Council. You can get it from online sellers for $1.

His book is called Church Music Transgressed. It is short. It achieved very little circulation in those days, and is mostly not talked about today. It is very depressing. In fact, it is almost unbearable to read because the story he tells is so shocking, so alarming, so mind blowing. His famed wit from the old days is barely noticeable through the fire and heat of his nearly despairing prose.

It’s the story of a revolution that began after the Council who words elevated Gregorian chant and sacred music to musical primacy in the Mass. The reality is the story that Msgr. Schmitt tells. Music directors were fired. He was let go of his job. Cathedral musicians with positions lasting back decades were sent packing. Choirs were disbanded. Children’s music programs were defunded. University posts were shut down. Old organizations went bankrupt. Music books were trashed. Whole libraries were hurled into the dumpster. This happened all over the U.S., Canada, England, and even the North American College in Rome.

New publishers, organizations, singing stars, and events emerged to take their place. The ethos was entirely different. Instead of professionalism, amateurism was strangely exalted. Everything old was regarded as outmoded and ridiculous, stuffy, pompous, unsuited to the new age. All that was new, even if it had nothing to do with the Mass, liturgy, or even religion, was given a pass. Choirs in general were put down as elitist and contrary to full participation. Organs were locked and gathered dust.

What caused all this? It was the perfect storm of culture changes, confusions, mania, demographic shifts, rebellion, and a crisis of confidence on the part of bishops and priests. It was a time of intense fear from all those who knew what was right but felt powerless to do anything about it. Those who stuck their neck out to defend tradition were taught a lesson for others to see. They lost every struggle. There were survivors, but they lived lives of isolation and deprivation. They suffered as hardly anyone suffers today.

This is the story that the author tells in great detail. Do you see what I mean that you probably don’t want to read this book? It’s very hard to take. Remember too that no one under the age of 60 even remembers much about these days. Young musicians today know nothing about this period. Probably they don’t care to. I can see why. It’s good to think about the future and not dwell in this past.

However, I don’t want to give the wrong impression about Msgr. Schmitt’s book. He is not entirely one-sided in placing the blame on the goofballs of the progressive camp. He has plenty to say about the sacred music camp too. He blasts their elitism and inflexibility in dealing with the new liturgy, the new language demands, the insistence on the part of the council that the music of the Mass not remain the exclusive work of the choir and organist. In his view, the sacred music camp of this period saw their whole agenda as attempting to prolong the exact model of the before the Council with very little if any thought put to even the smallest adaptions in light of the times. Their bet everything they had on turning back the clock and, in the end, lost everything. (If that description offends you, don’t blame me: I’m just reporting what the author writes.)

But consider that all of this was long ago. Surely we’ve turned the corner. Surely we have. In the last weeks, I’ve been taken aback by all the parishes seeking serious musicians to lead a real reform of the music programs in their parishes. I’ve been contacted by many pastors seeking advice, benefactors looking to help, musicians who report the types of things you want to hear. CMAA programs are filling up early. Scholas continue to spread. January jobs postings are up significantly.

I’ve worried for some years that the successes of the CMAA’s efforts might be leading to an emerging gap in the supply and demand for full-time Church musicians. So many young people feel the call and are making career plans. How tragic for them to spend years in training only to find a barren land when it comes time to turn their vocation into a career! These markets can never be perfectly adjusted, but I’m starting to feel confident for the first time that making this career choice is not a mistake. The jobs are appearing.

To be sure, there are plenty of problems remaining. Salaries are too low. There are few serious singers left in any parish. The musical capital is so low that the director of music spends a vast amount of time doing remedial eduction. Sometimes these musicians show up in parish situations with the support of the pastors, but small pockets of parish resistance then shake the pastor’s confidence. An agenda can fall apart quickly under these conditions. Then there is the problem that pastors can get transferred with little notice, replace by someone new who does not share the reformist point of view.

So the whole field is strewn with landmines. These are problems of the transition. It cannot happen all at once. What matters most here are the trendlines. The good news is that times have really changed. The momentum is in the right direction. How long will be rebuilding take? The rest of our lifetimes.

The driving force here are the young pastors. I’ve never met a newly ordained priest who is not very interested in chant and sacred music. My rough-and-ready model for understanding this runs as follows. In the 1980s, the new priests were focused on theology. In the 1990s and 2000s, they started getting interested in liturgy. In our times, the focus is music. This is the way the rebuilding is taking place.

Another important change: that inflexibility of the old guard in the 1960s is changed to a new spirit of liberality. For the first time, we are seeing major efforts toward providing music for English propers and ordinary parts of the Mass. Msgr. Schuler once described the vernacular as a “gift” of the Church to the world. His view on this matter is now being taken seriously. This does not mean that Latin is being forgotten; on the contrary, it is being upheld as a goal and ideal to which we need to transition. But the means of that transition are just as important as the goal.

Truly, it is a different world today for Church musicians from ten years ago. We have tens of thousands of free scores available, dozens of new websites and resources, chant camps occurring nearly fortnightly in places around the country. The enthusiasm and excitement seems to build by the day. Sometimes it looks to me almost like the opposite process that Msgr. Schmitt describes in his harrowing book but it is all happening in a more humane way. This is not a “counterrevolution” but rather a serious, sincere, and loving effort to improve and progress with openness and sensitivity. And it is working toward the benefit of everyone.