Saturday, July 7, 2012

How to Criticize Liturgical Music

It’s a particular problem for those of us who write about liturgical music. We can write and write about positive ideas, highlight good music, present the rationale and the ideal time and again, and yet not hear that much either way about the views we advance.

But if we take on a particular real-life liturgy and point out ways in which it fell short, it’s like the ceiling falls in. We are accused of being horrible people who are setting out to hurt others, of being terrible snobs who are out of touch with the people in the pews, of pushing a mean-spirited agenda at others’ expense, and other things along those lines.

It’s true enough that critics need to be respectful and never personal. I’ve not always maintained the wisest and most prudent path in this regard, though I’ve tried to improve in my tone and approach to criticism over the years.

Even so, it rarely makes a difference. Anytime you point that that some attempt at liturgical music falls short, and obviously so, the response is the same hysteria each time. You would swear that I insulted someone’s clothing or appearance or choice of radio station. The tenor of the response is always personal even when the criticism was not.

It was very interesting for me to hear Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth’s speech at the Sacred Music Colloquium XXI because it struck me as a model of criticism. It was precise, balanced, and well documented in every respect. But it still hit hard, making headlines in the Tablet and raising the hackles of the liturgical establishment all over the UK. His criticism was directed at the Mass of the 2012 Eucharistic Congress in Dublin in which the Pope himself participated.

The Pope had given a wonderful video homily on the progress of liturgical reform, but none of this progress was in evidence at the liturgy itself.

And so Msgr. Wadsworth made the obvious points that no one else was willing to make. He said that the “the entire liturgy had a ‘performance’ quality to it, with the assembly as the principal focus.” As evidence, he pointed out that musical numbers were met with applause. He further pointed out that the Mass used none of the proper antiphons assigned to the Mass of the occasion. The choir could have sung the entrance, offertory, and communion but instead replace each with some other composition with a different text. Illustrating the problem. the communion antiphon was replaced by a performance of “The Priests” singing “May the Road Rise to Meet You.”

Msgr. Wadsworth said” “I feel like asking, just what is wrong with the Communion antiphon and psalm?”

Further, there was no Latin in the liturgy.

Finally, the Credo was spoken in an antiphon-response structure whereby a different language was used on each phrase and the response came from the people each time: “Credo, Amen.” The rubrics nowhere provide for such an innovation. It was entirely invented.

Msgr. Wadsworth concluded: “The depressing cumulative effect of the disregard for all these principles in a major liturgy, celebrated by a papal legate, and broadcast throughout the world, is hard to underestimate. … There can be no talk of the reform of the Roman Rite until the GIRM is enforced as the minimum requirement. If it remains a largely fantasy text at the beginning of our altar missals then ‘the rebuilding of the broken down city’ will take a very long time.”

Strong and on point in every respect. It touches on all the salient points and does so with precision, accuracy, and the complete absence of personal attack or personal bias. All he did was compare the reality at a Papal Mass in Dublin with the words of the General Instruction and the true spirit of recent reform efforts.

It’s long past time for the people who construct these events be held to account for what they do. If they do not know better, that speaks very poorly of their liturgical knowledge. If they do know better, one does have to wonder about their motivation. Either way, something must be said and someone must say it.

For years, we’ve seen this sort of thing. I find myself dreading these events because you never know what’s going to come next, and it pains me so much to see the Pope in particular celebrate them. One suspects that he does find this heartbreaking.

The advance team does what it can to encourage good liturgy but there are pastoral limits to how far the team can go in imposing Rome’s wishes. And in fact, nothing should have to be imposed at all. The purpose of liturgical law, rubrics, and tradition is precisely to prevent the arbitrary exercise of power.

But what to do when such rules are completely ignored and the spirit of the times is treated like it is wholly irrelevant to the choices made over the structure of the liturgy? This tendency illustrates a complete disregard for the minimal requirements of being a faithful steward of the Roman rite.

So where do we begin the change? Msgr. Wadsworth suggests the following. a sense of reverence for the text, a greater willingness to heed Sacrosanctum concilium, careful attention to the demands of the calendar and the norms which govern the celebration of the liturgy, a re-reading of the encyclical Mediator Dei of Pope Pius XII in conjunction with more recent Magisterial documents, a widespread cultivation of a dignified and reverent liturgy that evidences careful preparation and respect for its constituent elements in accordance with the liturgical norms, a recovery of Latin, the recovery of the liturgical voice, the exclusion of pop music, a clearer distinction between devotional music and liturgical music, and greater commitment to silence.

Most importantly, we need to start to see “the music as a vehicle for the liturgy not the other way around.”

If we heeded those principles, we would start to see dramatic change. You can help in this regard. If you find yourself in a position to comment on music in the Catholic Mass, go through a checklist:

Where the proper texts sung?
Did the form of the Ordinary texts conform to rubrics?
Did Latin make any appearance?
Did the musicians perform as if on a stage and elicit applause?
Where the people or God the focus of the liturgy?
Did the style draw mainly from secular culture or sacred forms?

These are all important considerations. It is true that a Papal Mass should be held to a higher standard but these really are universal standards. And remember to always criticize in charity and awareness that many people today just simply do not know better. Education and enlightenment are better paths than outright condemnation. The model presented here by Msgr. Wadsworth really does need further application.