Music and the Great Mistake

Randolph Nichols writes as follows:

An applied physics professor and pillar of my former choir at St. Brigid Church in Lexington, Massachusetts, tipped me off to this New Republic article by Philip Kennicott, Art and Architecture critic of the Washington Post. Kennicott sees a parallel between the decline in American orchestras and the experience of post-Vatican II liturgy:

“For decades, the musical world has been going through its own protracted and painful Vatican II, initially driven by the assumption that the only thing that really ails the form is a superficial matter of liturgy and presentation. Conductors should turn away from the altar and face the congregants, speak in the vernacular, and forego white-tie-and-tails vestments. The service should be consumer-friendly.”

Though failing to offer a solution to the nation-wide orchestra dilemma, Kennicott makes a compelling case that attempts to broaden the market base by disregarding artistic standards has failed. “One can understand how and why adults concoct this sort of thing, why a market has developed for political poster music that offers only a generic sense of sadness at mankind’s sufferings. But why make young people play it? It seems a very ill sign for the future that bad music is so willingly foisted on serious junior musicians who have already made a commitment to the art form.”

I see the result of this “generic” thinking in recent ads for music directors within my own archdiocese. Newly formed collaborative parishes are requiring that applicants must be able to provide music in a “variety of genres.” That’s code meaning the applicant must not have strongly held artistic convictions. Or another way to put it, the aspiring musician must be able to program music with which he or she is uncomfortable. However you define it, it is a recipe for failure.

13 Replies to “Music and the Great Mistake”

  1. On the other hand, we could continue to circle the drain by programming music exclusively from previous centuries–a phenomenon that may be uniquely American, and uniquely 20th century.

    Or perhaps 100-player works are simply not the fad they were 100 years ago. I hear lots of things about the resurgence of chamber music. I confess I loved big orchestra pieces when I was younger. But I have a deeper appreciation for small ensembles of voices and instruments today compared to twenty, thirty years ago.

    And an appreciation for a "variety of genres"? Why the heck not? Plainsong, organum, polyphony, organ hymnody, chamber music, British choral, Gospel, shape notes, art song, and that's before you get to piano and associated styles people don't like to talk about here. Why wouldn't a parish want versatile music directors?


  2. Todd,

    Well even some chamber ensembles succumb to gimmickry to attract an audience. In the end, however, spiked hair, sparkling tight pants, and high heels aren’t what’s required to get at the heart of a Mozart or Shostakovich quartet.

    In regards to liturgy, it’s not the genre that grieves me so much as the assumptions and practical implications of the stress on “variety.” As a young man I played the piano in restaurant/bar settings to make a little extra money; though enjoyable, to be really good at it (say something aspiring to the Dave McKenna pinnacle) I realized an exclusive commitment would be necessary. In the end I had to chose what most interested me since only the very rare are capable of successfully venturing too far afield from their primary interest.

    A command by diocesan spokesmen for stylistic diversity is an invitation for nothing to be rendered well. To sing a particular style really well, you have to be steeped in that culture and devoted to it. Why should an expert black gospel ensemble want to attempt a motet of Tallis, or vice versa? What is to be gained by embarrassment and discomfort.

    Regrettably most of those in my archdiocese clamoring for the broadening of styles have never sung or played in ensembles requiring a solid grounding in music education. They simply don’t understand what is required. Encouragement to visit parishes that represent a unique culture is a good thing (I particularly enjoy visiting a local parish that celebrates in grand style the Feast of the Ugandan Martyrs), but don’t push diversity as an abstract impractical principle of liturgical correctness.

  3. "A command by diocesan spokesmen for stylistic diversity is an invitation for nothing to be rendered well."

    Maybe. In the hands of lesser musicians.

    The "command" is what makes me nervous … and inclined to poke back just to repel the notion that some chancery person or cathedral musician knows better than someone who works the trenches well and faithfully..

    "To sing a particular style really well, you have to be steeped in that culture and devoted to it."

    That isn't going to be a popular viewpoint on this web site. Are you suggesting that only monasteries and medieval Europeans can sing plainchant?

    I think a commitment to quality in multiple genres can be a good thing. It's an ability, perhaps a gift, that one doesn't find too often among the very best musicians.

    "Why should an expert black gospel ensemble want to attempt a motet of Tallis, or vice versa?"

    Maybe because they could, and could do it well.


  4. A commitment to multiple genres can be good in so far as they are in sympathy with the ethos of the rite. That's certainly true of chant, whose pride of place, rooted in its ancient, symbiotic relationship with the liturgy, was affirmed by the recent Council and both pre and post Conciliar Popes. They also attested the liturgical value of the sacred polyphony that grew out of chant. Other genres need to be assessed in a similar way. Creativity and range of taste are not enough. Indeed, when they become ends in themselves they become a kind of self idolatry.

  5. Todd, you know I concur that a musical leader with a multiplicity of honed skill sets could “bring off” successfully the polyglot Mass. But my heart is sure that the now PC/multicultural grafting of diverse languages and ethnic musical styles debilitates one face of the “catholic” aspect of the Roman Rite at the expense of its complimentary meaning. Sure, universality is inclusive. But delineating that ritually, in effect, tribalizes and segregates peoples according to cultural affects. Is that what façade that a community (diocese/deanery/parish) wants to exemplify “communion?” Folks like Ricky Manalo and Rufino Zaragoza are better apologists for the multicultural Mass experience, but for me, the end result always ends up seeming a contrivance. (cont)

  6. And to abet that point, I would say the same thing for a Mass in either Latin or just one vernacular that employs a “Gregorian” chant, a Sarum chant, then an ordinary movement from Machaut, to a hymn by Dufay, a motet by Palestrina, another ordinary movement from Schubert, a Communio from Richard Rice, “hymn of praise” by Kathy Pluth and a recessional by Kevin Allen. That sort of eclecticism, though endorsed highly by the doc’s, is just as disconcerting as the polyglot, hit or miss hazard of the multicultural model. Save that model for the sacred concert before or after. So, humility and coherency seem to be guiding principles in my estimation.

  7. To be clear, I'm not advocating a so-called polyglot Mass. Necessarily.

    But a good church musician–a good musician of any type, should cultivate abilities in various styles. It develops one's appreciation for good music, even if one doesn't perform such pieces in public.

    I think of some people who comment here: I can tell they don't really get the connection from plainsong to shape-note singing, white and black spirituals, jazz, gospel, and other American styles.

    I also remember a fine gospel choir in my former city that occasionally dropped in a plainsong piece. The suggestion that a gospel choir can't sing chant or that a white choir can't sing gospel is just plain silly.


  8. I know, brother.

    But I also don't think that disjunction and coherence are my only options. I really was thinking of the meta-repertoire of a musician or community. A non-black community dropping a gospel song on Dec 12th strikes me as a bit more disjointed than, say, on the day there's a pulpit exchange with the Black Catholic parish in the city.


  9. Okay, accepting your rejection of the premise, When Todd is tasked with preparing music for an ethnically diverse or ethnocentric (presumed) celebration (Dec. 12th, eg.), Todd takes into consideration: ???

  10. On the whole, input from the people. Look at the readings, ask about traditions … I would ask my students (if I could find any during finals week) what they sing in Texas, Mexico, or the US Southwest. I have a copy of Flor y Canto on my bookshelf, but I haven't a clue as to where to start in it. I would ask what English language music had appeal.

    I confess my singular inexperience in dealing with such things. When I was in grad school and my parish celebrated two Easter Vigils, one in Spanish at 4:30 and one in English at 7:30, my suggestions for a combined celebration were rebuffed by the Anglo staff members. And that was pretty much the end of my parish experience in inculturation.


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