Do You Want a Moonroof and Satellite FM with That Hymnal?


More pragmatist than philosopher, I let an itinerant thought take root in m’ noodle and according to one’s POV, this thought is ovulating or metastasizing.

It’s likely that a vast majority of parishes either make the one time investment in a hardbound hymnal, or they subscribe to seasonal and yearly newsprint hymnal/missal products. The vast minority of parishes choose to self-publish weekly orders of music or “permanent parish hymnals” culled from various copyright-governed, common license or public domain sources. Some others make use of the “overhead projection” of power-pointed lyrics, licensed or, uh, otherwise.

So, let’s backtrack to the vast majority and focus upon the subscription-based parishes, such as mine. Here’s the germ idea: We are fortunate to live in a world where if you leave your 50 page, three color, glossy pictured proposal in the cab, you can use your smart phone and have one waiting for you by the time you arrive at the corporate reception desk, at least according to the advert I saw on the TV.

Okay, stay with me. For a modest surcharge, couldn’t the major RC American corporate publishers offer their core market parishes/dioceses a premium offer that allows the crafting of, essentially, boutique hymnals whose content is drawn from the publisher’s existing repertoire holdings, public domain sources and the creative commons sources that are sprouting like dandelions?

Still with me? Okay, let use our parish as a model and I’m the local editor. I’ll try to cut to the chase. First, I lose items in the ordinaries, psalter section (not from the missal section) and the hymnal that, after “pastoral consultation” among my peers and clergy, we concede to be dead-weight. We communicate those itemized decisions to the publisher’s agent and agree upon how many pages of content are now made vacant with a certain percentage of margin for error. Let’s say that I know that I want to include a number of additional chants from the publisher’s stand-alone product that contains such, ie. OCP’s “Laus et Tibi.” Let’s say that over the years the parish has purchased and maintained octavo versions of choral hymn concertatos, liturgical songs and ordinaries that once were included in former yearly editions of their missals, all of which have congregational version plates archived. Couldn’t they be accessed easily and added to the vacant pages?

Let’s say that we still have a surplus of pages and we desire to include hymns, psalms, propers or whatever from either public domain sources such as the ICEL resource hymnbook, or the hymns found in the commons listed on the Musica Sacra website, or other sites similar to the Choral Public Domain Library (a wiki source) of works we find worthy of inclusion that the composers or license holders put “out there” gratis. Once content and layout are finalized, the publisher adds their surcharge to the amended yearly product, and the parish signs on the dotted line, and the publisher sends the master to their printer, and the custom hymnal shows up, bill gets paid, everybody happy!

I realize that all of this could simply be mounted at the parish level. But, I’ve been there. Once. One time. Back in the Seventies. I don’t care how accessible license permission can be obtained now, self-publishing is not in my future. But the Biggies have their protocols and printing companies already tooled-up. If I can order my Chevy Malibu with a heavenly host of options on Monday and it’s ready for delivery the next Monday, can’t the publishing market consider re-tooling for a still lucrative boutique hymnal market. I don’t see a downside for the publishing houses. Now, if I opt not to include Sebastian Temple’s “Take My Hands” in our boutique parish hymnal, maybe there will be a miniscule loss of royalty revenue to his heirs. If I take out all of one composers’ songs, such as that goofball Charles’s tunes, would the revenues lost by our parish subscription amount really affect Charles’ yearly income drastically. Doesn’t Charles have to churn out new product to keep building the profit pyramid? And if that’s good product, won’t my parish want that included in next year’s boutique hymnal?

I’ve been made aware by a publisher’s representative there are many complexities that seriously would apply specific problems to this proposed idea. The pioneer publisher Friends of the English Liturgy (FEL) once had a program wherein parishes could purchase loose-leaf versions of select songs culled from their library in large amounts that would constitute a “parish hymnal.” Also in the early 70’s. Can you say “Edsel?”

But if we cannot ever reach consensus that either a national hymnal (with its own set of issues) will supplant the free market publishers, or that the Graduale Romanum or Gregorian Missal will be mandated by the USCCB/FDLC/BCL – PTB’s, then cannot there be a reasonable, affordable and profitable (in many ways) alternative to the narrow monopoly of options with which we currently contend?

Progress in Whole and Half Steps is still….Progress

I am approaching the seventeenth anniversary of accepting the duties of Director of Music for my parish. As I retired from teaching choral music at one of our four excellent public high schools (excellence in choral programs particularly) in 2005, I have served the parish as a full-time director for five years now. In the last two and half years our parish and pastor articulated the merger of three other local parishes and missions into the only clustered parish I’m aware of in our diocese. And we’re scheduled to open a fifth, large capacity parish worship facility sometime next year. Because of our central geographical location in the diocese, both the bishop and pastor have articulated plans that will designate the new parish to serve as a venue for diocesan liturgies.

In the last two years plus, my job description has been augmented greatly. And in the last two weeks, after consultations with the pastor, it now has expanded to include being the director of liturgy as well. Our parishes’ administration and organizational flow chart have, out of necessity, been reorganized into departments with cabinet members; Liturgy being one of six departments, and myself as the top of that “food chain” who reports to the pastor.

What has been a striking result, to me, of this administrative change, is that it has already provided me with more substantive collaboration time not only with the pastor, but our parochial vicars and deacons than I’ve ever enjoyed prior. For example, I casually initiated a conversation with “the boss” about various concerns- the progress of fixing a faulty PA system here, the development of new and younger organists and cantors there, Spanish-language music ministry needs, etc., pretty standard stuff. In the conversation I had mentioned to him I had posted an article in our parish website about the Proper processional antiphons that we employ at three of our nine Vigil/Sunday Masses at our “mother” parish. The pastor, who’d previously expressed much appreciation for the choral homophonic settings in English by the great Richard Rice, mentioned his interest in my other Proper sources for the Introit and Communio. He commented that he noticed occasionally that the tessituras and “ornamentation” of the melodies seemed “complex.” And he contrasted that thought by mentioning his personal appreciation for the Owen Alstott Respond and Acclaim “method.” (I’m sure if we’d had Chabanel 17 years ago, he’d have the same sort of appreciation for those.) The importance of this, to me, is that my pastor was opening channels of conversation that previously were taken for granted. He and I discussed other approaches, such as “By Flowing Waters” (he went to seminary with Dr. Paul Ford) and “Psallite” (not a favorite for me personally.) My pastor is not in the least a disinterested liturgist, nor musically prejudiced or under-exposed to all forms of sacred/liturgical music. His regard for Respond and Acclaim’s ethos doesn’t clash with his appreciation for our choir’s performance of the Allegri “Miserere mei” or the chanted Reproaches by Bruce Ford.

What I’m most encouraged by is that we both seem much more at ease with engaging in specifics. From that informal talk yesterday I was provided an opportunity to show him sources of English chant that we use by Fr. Kelly, Fr. Weber, Bruce Ford and the Anglican Use Gradual. I was able to demonstrate their distinct qualities and approaches by comparison to the Latin originals from the GR. He was interested in systematically understanding the different approaches that are evident between Bruce Ford’s text and melodic interpretations and those of Fr. Kelly. He was similarly struck by the “new chant” modalities of Fr. Weber and the AUG. From there we discussed the future of all of our merged parish Masses utilizing Propers, not only from these sources, but by teaching our congregations the basic Psalm tones, and perhaps by the creation of a home-grown gradual that is utilitarian, accessible upon hearing and not banal, such as how he regards much of the Respond and Acclaim product.

We also discussed in these last two days an upcoming Solemn Vespers on the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. He showed great enthusiasm when I showed him Byrd’s “Ave maris stella” for three voices, and an “Ave Maria” by a Philadelphia composer who lived and worked there at the same time our parish’s founder was in seminary and then assigned to St. Ann’s, Philadelphia, before he emigrated west and founded our parish in 1861. And we “sketched” out some musical approaches within the breviary framework together.

This is almost a totally new experience for me, this “freedom” that invites collaboration that reflects more of the “paradigm” ideal that I first heard explained by Professor Mahrt in my first colloquium three years ago.

Of course, I’m supremely aware that there will be many colleagues who would rightly challenge the very notion that Respond and Acclaim is even viable, much less worthy in practice and concept. But this post is not about merit, it is about two veterans (the number of years of my marriage are the same as those of his ordination) who’ve been working with each other for over six years, but have now entered a new, nascent relationship that can only bode well for the “brick by brick” future of our parish worship.

Te Deum laudamus!

Optima Musica

Last week my wife and I took the opportunity to meet with a couple of dear friends from CMAA who are also Directors of Music in their parishes; two of us in OF parishes, and one of us at an EF parish. We afforded ourselves as much time as possible to reminisce and share our experiences, offer each other encouragement and advice, and more importantly, celebrated the reality that our jobs afforded us opportunities to know and embrace so many virtues. A lot of “gaudete” was going on, and it was no mere “lattice of coincidence” that produced our optimism. (I’ll give a bottle of Mondavi Reserve Cabernet to the soul who first correctly cites the cinematic reference to that last quote!)

One fact we celebrated was the providence the Holy Spirit gifted the Church when the conclave elected Benedict XVI. For me, this pope exemplifies (with his predecessor) the true humility and joy within the organic optimism that we call Christian faith. But he also manifests a lifelong emblematic assertion of the axiom “lex orandi, lex credendi.” John Paul II turned the lenses of the Church unflinchingly towards the world, and, as with the nine days he walked his motherland among his fellow Poles as the Holy Father, our world was overturned virtually on a widow’s penny and the dignity of humanity had its champion. We could only move forward. Could it be said that Benedict has now refocused the Church’s vision, turning it inward by calling into question the meaning of “lex orandi, lex credendi” as the pre-eminent model for evangelizing our own faithful as well as the world to witness for Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord? “Theology as expressed on our knees in worship,” to paraphrase Baltasar.

Save the Liturgy, save the world” means many different things to many different people. The cliché’s coining seemed to correspond to the pithy television series “Heroes” and its catchphrase slogan, “Save the cheerleader, save the world.” But Benedict’s legacy just may be that of a heroic priest/professor who, during a hellish and horrific decade among many within and outside of the Church, has invigorated the Church to reconciliation by nudging us back to the real “center of our lives,” the rich traditions of our ritual forms and elements that demand our adherence to the Real Presence of Christ among us at the Altar of Sacrifice, including the clear exhortations to re-orient ourselves, in the language that is chant and polyphony, towards the Eucharistic worship of God, and not an abstract celebration of ourselves as a community of believers.
It was Liturgy that called me to the Church forty years ago this year. It is Liturgy that has been the best and only suitable expression of a naïve child’s innate knowledge that God has, is and always will be “here, there and everywhere.” It is Liturgy that has humbled me so that I may taste and see the existential optimism of salvation and union with my Maker.

Here in blogdom, the culture of pessimism is well nurtured. How could it not flourish here when in real time we’re enduring the omnipresent assault of our reason and senses through the “miracle of media?” But I believe that what erodes the moral certitude of our Holy Fathers current and of recent memory isn’t pessimism but cynicism. The egocentric and narcissistic trademarks of our post-modern societal norms find their power magnified by the evolution of social networking that is inorganic and intoxicating. Cynicism can appear overtly and benignly. When it’s confrontational, which I find more common within the internet venues, there is no real community. There can only be facsimiles of community or communion. When it’s benign, we can sometime find it couched in the manners and niceties of “do they like me?” or “do they like what we’re singing at Mass” or worse, “do they like what we sing at church?”

My prayer for this new blog endeavor is that cynicism never finds lodging here. I also pray that we musicians at service to the Church’s worship and in that ideal charity of serving the Faithful, consider emulating the optimism of our current Holy Father, who has always answered “yes” to the Lord, even if that answer was to a question that he did not anticipate ever hearing addressed to him.

Musicians, consider saying “yes” to a particular parish calling and, being immersed in optimism and steadfast of spirit and perseverance, stay as long as you can within that parish to infuse your talent, knowledge and your own faith in the “mind of the Church” so as to take root through many seasons and years.

Let us, indeed, join our voices with choirs of angels and saints in an unending hymn of praise that, really, in our hearts we know to be not only in concert with our patrimony, but also we know are truly sacred, beautiful and universal.