Nuns, an island, a new organ and spectacular chanting

It has been my great privilege to pay a number of recent visits to the Abbey of St Cecilia in Ryde on the Isle of Wight, just off the south coast of England. My first visit was to give a talk to the community as part of my then role as Director of Music to the UK based Panel of Monastic Musicians. The second visit, prompted by the first, was a Chant Day I organised through the Academy of St Cecilia, when Professor John Caldwell of Oxford University gave an excellent history of Chant and we enjoyed several master classes from the Monastic Choirmistress, as well as taking part in the Divine Office.

The Abbey has an interesting history in that the nuns were originally members of the community of the Abbaye Sainte- Cécile de Solesmes. The French anti religious laws of the early 20th century forced the whole community into exile in England, to the forerunner of the present St Cecilia’s Abbey. After several years of exile the French community was at last able to return to Solesmes in 1921, but a number of the sisters remained and formed the community we now know today.
The sisters sing the entire Office and Mass to Gregorian Chant every day of the year. A visiting monk from Quarr Abbey, a few miles away on the same island, makes a daily trip to celebrate the Mass (Novus Ordo in Latin) and the Monastic Choir, under the direction of Sr Bernadette, a true disciple of Dom Cardine, trains the sisters on a regular basis in the Chants of the Office and the Mass, using Cardine’s Semiological approach. This, coupled with the use of Dom Saulnier’s new Antiphonale Monasticum, now fully in use in the Abbey, makes for the most vibrant, fluid and prayerful performance of the Chant I have heard in the UK.

The Abbey also boats a new Kenneth Tickell organ in the West End of the Monastic Choir – details of which, for all organ enthusiasts, can be seen at www.tickell­organs.co.uk/specInfo/opus54.htm. The Community can be visited at any time and has an excellent website – www.stceciliasabbey.org.uk – and I urge those of you who live in or are visiting the south of England to make a short trip across the Solent by hovercraft, ferry or catamaran, to hear the mesmeric singing of this wonderful, young, thriving, growing community of nuns.
Nick Gale, June 2010

An ordinary parish with an ordinary priest!

There has been a great deal of talk lately of the dismal state of music in the average parish, not just in the UK and the USA, but all over the Catholic world. Chant and polyphony, rather than being the staple diet, as VII stipulates, are the exception rather than the rule, as is the use of Latin. Choirs are rare, ‘folk’ music groups are the norm. The organ is the exception, the guitar is the norm.
When I make suggestions to clergy and parish musicians as to how they might go about improving music, such as using simple chants from the CMAA’s fantastic Parish Book of Chant, introducing a Gregorian Ordinary etc, even if it is De Angelis, the general response is “Oh that’s all gone now”, “That’s old hat now”, That’s too difficult for the people”, “The children won’t like it”, “We can’t worship in a language people don’t understand”, “We can’t do all that – we’re just an ordinary parish”.
Apparently, ordinary people are too stupid to learn a chant ordinary – they need a Gloria with a refrain, maybe the odd burst of clapping to keep the children amused, something tuneful that they can enjoy when they go to Mass, something they can hum. Am I alone in thinking that this is patronising to the People of God, that this is an insult to the intelligence of children, and indeed their parents? Am I also alone in thinking that the music we use in the Liturgy should be an offering to God, not chosen to suit the tastes of the people? Do children really enjoy clapping at Mass? Is that really to be regarded as the only way to keep them happy during the liturgy and enjoying Mass more? This is an insult to our youth – give them more credit! And as for understanding the texts we sing, does anybody actually know what Kum bay ya actually means?! Whenever I have seen and heard this musical, poetic and theological travesty of a hymn in use in a parish, I’ve never seen a parallel translation of the text!

I’d like to tell you about an ordinary parish in an ordinary town with an ordinary priest and an ordinary congregation. The Church in question is Our Layde and St Michael, Abergavenny. Abergavenny is a small market town in rural Wales, near the border with England. It has a population of around 14,500 and its Catholic Church is Grade II Listed (a British system of ensuring buildings of note are preserved and not tampered with). The town, which has a Catholic minority, is served by a monk of Belmont, Dom Thomas Regan, a Welshman, and the Church has a digital organ, a self-trained organist and an amateur choir drawn from the local population. Sounds remarkably ordinary doesn’t it?
However, this ordinary priest is actually a visionary man. Wherever Dom Thomas has served as a priest, he has left behind a legacy; of increased Mass attendance, of brand new churches built, of new church centres and halls funded and constructed, of schemes for local youth and for the elderly, of a deeper understanding of the faith, of excellent catechesis, of happier faithful and of excellent liturgy.

A typical Mass at Abergavenny involves a small-scale choral liturgy (the choir will sing a motet or a simple SATB Kyrie), Gregorian Chant, good, stable, quality hymnody in English, Latin (and Welsh!), fine vestments, a beautifully looked-after church, attention to every possible detail. Dom Thomas celebrates a Low Mass in the Usus Antiquior every Friday evening, and a regular Missa Cantata or even a Solemn High Mass on a frequent basis. Every so often the main Sunday Mass (Novus Ordo English/Latin) is replaced by a Solemn High Mass in the Usus Antiquior, with all propers provided by the amateur choir and all parts of the Ordinary sung by the faithful with a gusto that only the Welsh can deliver! The people don’t just accept this, they adore it! The Church is full, the faithful are happy and supportive, safe in the knowledge that they have a priest and musicians who serve them in the best possible way. The Sacred Liturgy is performed and prayed in the most solemn, dignified and prayerful way, and the choir is the envy of every ordinary parish in the UK, thanks to Dom Thomas, his faithful, dedicated and enthusiastic organist, Gwyn, and the loyal members of the Choir.

When I visit this beautiful town to see Thomas (who received me into the Church at Belmont Abbey when I was 18), I am always struck by how good everything is. I am also slightly saddened, and ask the question “If they can achieve all this here, then why not everywhere?” This is indeed an ordinary parish in an ordinary town, but what has been achieved is (sadly in many ways) extraordinary. I hope and pray that what happens in Abergavenny will become the norm in every ordinary parish the whole world over.
Nick Gale, June 2010

Pittsburgh and Chant

I’m writing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a town I’m just getting to know, and I’m wild about the place. What strikes me immediately is the remarkable range of architecture, materials, and styles used to make this place, all created over a very long period of time, all delightfully lacking in evidence of central coordination but somehow all cohering in a spontaneous order. It is huge, industrial, complicated, and beautiful in its way – highly suggestive of history with technology from all times currently in operation, an impressive demonstration of intratemporal and intergenerational life that is all working together. The unifying theme is the working together of design and function.

It might at first seem to be an implausible home for the holding of the CMAA Chant Intensive and Colloquium. The setting is not monastic. It is not a city of gardens and natural beauty so much as a city in which the work of human hands is everywhere in evidence. But in the same way that chant, with all its transcendent and divine qualities, must ultimately be rendered by human voices singing in places built and maintained by human hands, it strikes me as a perfect place for these programs to be held. 

Like Pittsburgh the city, the chant which was similarly born across many generations. No one sat down one day and wrote the chants and codified them. They grew up alongside and integral with the Roman Rite, becoming ever more embedded in the ritual through trial and error and achieving stability and universality through use and function. We look at the entire body of chant and we are in awe of its sheer size. Sometimes we are intimidated by its scope. We know that we can never get to know it in a lifetime and yet we experience joy exploring every bit of it.

It is the same with a great city. The whole can be awesome and intimidating. Yet as we explore it and get to know small pieces of it each day, our appreciation intensifies for the whole. It seems ever friendlier by the day. We can move faster through it. We get to know the tricks of transportation, and learn where to shop and where to live. Eventually, if we live there long enough, we become natives, which means that it seems truly like home. It doesn’t happen all at once. No great city is immediately accessible. A great city is something that we get to know slowly, one fascination at a time.

Like a great city, chant is also something that will outlast our lifetimes. We have but a short time to participate in its living aspects, aware that we are surrounded by the ghosts of the previous generations that experienced it and knowing too that how we handle our period of domesticity will have some measure of influence on our future generations will experience it. Both chant and Pittsburgh are filled with millions upon millions of stories, each one fascinating in its own way. Our voices and lives become part of story if we take on the challenge.

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.

The Irrelevance of Tradition

A highly respected ethnomusicologist I had the pleasure of speaking to recently feels sad for her nieces and nephews in her native Nigeria. They have little knowledge, much less awareness, of the long musical tradition that is indigenous to their culture. Like most teenagers, they are quick with computers and all things digital, and listen to the same music other teenagers around the world are listening to. They can take cell phones apart and put them together within a matter of minutes.

But what they can’t do, she reports, is beat out even the simplest rhythms on a drum. This is a music that is unique to Nigerian culture and to a Nigerian understanding of the world. They haven’t been taught.

Readers here are sure to understand her point of view. Advances of the 21st century have made ancient sounds and customs obsolete in more spheres than we’d like to acknowledge. In fact, they’ve become downright irrelevant in many cases.

You can order anything you want from Amazon at any time of day, or manage your bank account and speak to a business colleague halfway across the world and across time zones in the comfort and convenience of your own home. You don’t need your ancestors to tell you how.

If you do pay attention to the sound of a drum, it is probably not because you have a vested interest in what the drum means to any particular culture, let alone your own. It’s probably because it provides the kick and pulse for the gazillion popular selections cranked out on Itunes. With downloads ranging from $1 to $3 a piece, it doesn’t take a lot of time, money, training or sage advice to get what you want and fill a void – right now.

I will not deny that disseminating information so quickly and comprehensively to all citizens of the world is quite simply an amazing thing. It is for the betterment and material advancement of all. It’s progress. The future we dreamed about as children is here – we can do what George Jetson did (with the exception of darting about the universe in a hover craft) and much, much more.

But has fantastic and easy access to all things blinded us to something even more essential and amazing? Namely, the unique traditions that make world cultures and traditions what they are: practices and rituals that define cultures and illuminate truths about life on heaven and earth?

Our young man in Nigeria can control his environment and hear what he wants to hear, see what he wants to see, and know what he chooses to know—almost instantly. He can create his own culture. One that is personalized and tailor-made for comfort and survival in an advancing society. He’d be the top-paid engineer at Spacely Sprockets, to be sure.

Yet we suspect that the life he creates for himself will not be tenable unless he is willing to acknowledge the lives, dreams, suffering, and rituals of his ancestors as they tried to understand their place in the universe. He might even be so blasé about the amenities and ease of modern life that he is not sure why he would want to.

Is he so different from American Catholics today? Are Catholic teens texting their friends the minute they leave Mass because it is the best use of their time? Does it bring them more gratification, immediate or real, than the Mass they just attended?

This of course begs larger questions. How many teens in this country have the opportunity to go to Mass and listen to the pulse of a solemnly sung Introit? How many Mass goers of any age have the chance to listen to the words of the Gospel with ears and hearts primed by a melismatic Alleluia?

How many have learned through repetition of ancient ritual — timeless words, melodies, and movements— that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist? Have they been taught?

If our esteem of ritual is not measured by lessons learned from ancient tradition and its organic development, who is to say that our Catholic belief system won’t be dismantled altogether? It might become as obsolete as the beat of Nigerian drums.

The Liturgical Movement – Major Advancements Every 60 Years?

I mentioned in the comment box on one of Jeffrey’s recent posts that in a course I’m currently taking on the 19th and 20th century “Liturgical Movement”, a classmate remarked that we are, now in 2010, almost as far away from Vatican II as Vatican II was away from Pope Pius X’s 1903 Motu Proprio, Tra le Sollecitudini.

This was a very keen insight, one that the professor himself had not yet thought about. I was thinking about this more and I realized that there was another equally important event 60 years earlier than Pius X’s 1903 Motu Proprio: Prosper Guéranger’s “The Liturgical Year” was begun and first published. This 15 volume work on the liturgy really was the first substantial rumbling in the 19th c. Liturgical Movement, perhaps the “soft” inauguration, or initiation of the movement.

So it seems a paradigm shifting event has taken place just about every 60 years in the modern liturgical movement since it first begun:

  • 1841 – Guéranger’s “The Liturgical Year” is first published (the Liturgical Movement initiated)
  • 1903 – Pius X’s “Tra le Sollecitudini” on Sacred Music is given Motu Proprio (the Liturgical Movement is officially inaugurated by the Church)
  • 1963 – “Sacrosanctum Concilium” of the Second Vatican Council is promulgated (the Liturgical Movement is codified in a Dogmatic Constitution of the Church)
  • 2023 – ???

What’s coming friends? Each of the previous events was a forceful and paradigm shifting event in the modern Liturgical Movement. Each built upon the other, no doubt amidst the simultaneous chaos of the developing modern world, but each was a substantial and clear turning point in the movement. If history repeats itself, we are due for the next 60 year installment of the Liturgical Movement in about 13 years.

Here is my initial prediction, if my logic is on-target:

1. Initiation
2. Inauguration
3. Codification
4. Implementation

This is great reason to hope, friends. This is clearly where our Pope is leading us. What will be the next paradigm shifting event that future generations will study in their liturgy courses? There is great reason to hope!

London on Sunday

Following on from Jeffrey’s interesting article about typical music lists in US parishes, I thought it would be an interesting exercise if I looked around London for what is on offer this coming Sunday. Whilst the majority of small churches offer an almost identically depressing diet of tripe to that available in the US, I was delighted to see that there are at least 13 Roman Catholic churches in London with choirs that sing both chant and polyphony on a weekly (or in the case of Westminster Cathedral, daily) basis. I thought readers may find the following interesting. The list is by no means comprehensive and is based on what details I could glean from web pages and quick telephone calls, but it does go some way to restore one’s faith in the Church and her music.

There is no particular order to the music list, simply the fist places that sprang to mind! It is also worth pointing out that London is, given its sheer size, split over 3 Dioceses. Two of the Cathedrals are in Central London (Westminster and Southwark) and are less than a mile from each other (one north and one south of the River Thames). The East End of London is largely covered by the Diocese of Brentwood whose Cathedral, though not strictly IN London, is very close and has diocesan territory in the City, hence its inclusion here.

The London (Brompton) Oratory deserves special mention. The London Oratory School Schola sings a the Brompton Oratory for the Saturday Vigil Mass. It has been listed separately here because there are two SATB choirs, one for Saturday (LOS Schola) and one for Sunday (The London Oratory Choir). The Sunday Choir, under the expert baton of Patrick Russill (Head of Choral Conducting and Church Music Studies at the Royal Academy of Music) also sings Solemn Vespers and Benediction every Sunday of the year, plus Solemnities. It also sings a regular Missa Cantata for major feasts in the Little Oratory. The LOS Schola, under the inspired direction of Lee Ward, is an internationally renowned liturgical and recording choir and is responsible for the soundtracks of all of the Lord of the Rings films and some of the Harry Potter films, to name but a few! It also sings, frequently with professional orchestral accompaniment, for the School Masses. The London Oratory Church also has a Junior Choir, under the talented direction of Charles Cole. This Choir sings the Family Mass every Sunday at the Oratory Church and has a diet of Chant and polyphony combined with congregational music. This Choir can also be heard on John Eliot Gardiner’s legendary CD of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, recorded in San Marco, Venice, for Deutsche Grammaphon’s Archiv label.


Music for Sunday 20 June 2010, London, UK


1) St James, Spanish Place (Latin, OF): Mixed adult professional choir; Rheinberger Mass in E flat Op. 109; Morales Inclina Domine; Organ: Franck Chorale No. 1; Full latin propers plus Credo III and sung Latin Confiteor (based on deacon’s sung Confiteor in EF)



St James, Spanish Place


2) London Oratory School Schola (English/Latin OF): Boys and adult male professional singers; Schubert Mass in G; Bruckner Ave Maria; Sanctus XI Orbis Factor; No Gregorian propers.



The LOS Schola in concert


3) Immaculate Conception, Farm Street (Latin, OF): Mixed adult professional choir; Flor Peeters Missa Laudis; George Malcolm Veritas mea; van Amelsvoort O quam admirailis; Organ: Widor Finale (Symphonie II); Full Gregorian propers plus Credo III & Domine, salvum fac Elizabeth



Immaculate Conception, Farm Street


4) Brompton Oratory (Latin, OF): Mixed adult professional choir; Organ: Reger Benedictus Op. 59 No. 9; Rheinberger Mass in E flat (Cantus Missae); Clemens non Papa Ego flos campi; Lassus O sacrum convivium; Organ: Rheinberger Introduction & Passacaglia (Sonata No.8); Full Gregorian propers plus Credo I



The London (Brompton) Oratory


5) Westminster Cathedral (English/Latin OF): Boys and adult male professional singers; Chapple Missa brevis Exoniensis (Kyrie & Gloria); Palestrina Exsultate Deo; Full Gregorian propers plus Credo III, Sanctus XI & Agnus Dei XI



Westminster Cathedral


6) St George’s Cathedral, Southwark (English/Latin, OF): Boys and adult male professional singers; Organ: Rheinberger Sonata 9 ii; Duruflé Messe ‘Cum Iubilo’ (Kyrie, Sanctus, Benedictus & Agnus Dei); Nicholas O’Neill Dominus Regit me; Organ: Rheinberger Sonata 3, i; Full Gregorian propers plus Gloria VIII, Credo III & Salve Regina (This Sunday is a men’s voices Sunday, the boys have the day off!)



St George’s Cathedral, Southwark


7) Ealing Abbey (English/Latin, OF): Boys and adult male professional singers; Duruflé Messe ‘Cum Jubilo’; Boyce The Lord is King; Palestrina Super flumina Babylonis; (Coincidentally, this Sunday is also a men’s voices Sunday, the Ealing Abbey boys too have the day off!)



Ealing Abbey


8) St Etheldreda, Ely Place (Latin, OF): Mixed adult professional choir; Patronal Festival – Valls Missa Scala aretina (with violins, oboes and continuo); Valls Fiat misericordia; Full Gregorian propers plus Credo III & Salve Regina



St Etheldreda, Ely Place


9) Sacred Heart, Wimbledon (Latin, OF): Mixed adult amateur choir; Grayston Ives Missa Brevis; Stanford Beati quorum via; Wood Occuli omnium



Church of the Sacred Heart, Wimbledon


10) Carmelite Church, Kensington (Latin, OF): Exact details unavailable but there is a professional choir singing a full Latin Mass.



The Carmelite Church,
Kensington


11) Brentwood Cathedral (English/Latin, OF – 20 mins from London but whose Diocese covers a considerable part of the East End of London, hence its inclusion here): Mixed adult professional choir with boys, girls and volunteers; Palestrina Missa Papae Marcelli; Tallis O sacrum convivium; Some Gregorian propers & Credo III




Brentwood Cathedral


12) Our Most Holy Redeemer and St Thomas More, Chelsea (Latin, OF): Mixed amateur (but excellent) choir; Hassler Missa a 8; Philips O quam suavis; Some Gregorian propers and Credo III



David Bevan, Director of Music, rehearses the
Choir of Holy Redeemer


13) St Dominic’s Priory, Hampstead: Mixed amateur choir singing Chant and polyphony. No details available for this Sunday.



St Dominic’s Priory, Hampstead


I offer my apologies to any churches which offer traditional music at their Sunday Masses – I merely blogged about those I know of. Please do add further details in the comment box below if you know of any other places with similar musical offerings.


The Church of St Bede, Clapham Park, offers a sung Solemn High Mass in the Usus Antiquior every Sunday and a Low Mass daily. There is occasionally a visiting professional choir for Solemnities. Otherwise, there is a small schola to lead the ordinary and propers on Sundays.



St Bede, Clapham Park


The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, Blackfen (Greater London) has a sung Mass in the Usus Antiquior every Sunday with a small schola. They sing a Chant ordinary and some propers using Padre Rossini’s simplified version. On the first Saturday of the month the Latin Mass Society Schola sings the Propers for a Missa Cantata. The Parish Priest of this Church is the wonderful Fr Tim Finigan who has done so much to encourage the use of the EF and who does such fantastic work with his blog http://the-hermeneutic-of-continuity.blogspot.com/



Our Lady of the Rosary, Blackfen


The Oratory and St James, Spanish Place, have a Low Mass every Sunday. Many of these churches also offer a Solemn High Mass (with choir) in the Usus Antiquior on a reasonably regular basis.



Solemn High Mass at St George’s Cathedral, Southwark
(the Cathedral Choir can just be seen in the background)



Clergy and the blogger (NG – far right)
preparing for Solemn High Mass at Southwark


Whilst this is all very encouraging for Londoners, we can but hope and pray that this wonderful musical provision be extended to all the great cities and towns of Christendom.



Martin Baker, Master of Music, and
the Choir of Westminster Cathedral

When Will the Texts Stabilize?

According to Jerry Galipeau of WLP, the final version of the English for the new translation of the Mass is still in flux. Rome has approved a version but there are so many requests for changes and exceptions and indults that the publishers still don’t have a stable version that can be used to prepare materials at Mass. It is fascinating to see how the musical considerations are oddly forgotten whenever the liturgy goes through another upheaval.

The Parish Musical Convention Is Unsustainable

There is no reliable empirical study of the kinds of music used in the typical parish, so generalizations are rather difficult. This is especially true now that parishes have sliced and diced their Mass schedules in order to meet perceived demographic needs. There is the youth Mass, the family Mass, the college Mass, and so on. Moreover, available musical forces change week to week. Also, of course, it all depends on the pastor of the moment as to whether the propers are sung or if the Masses are accompanied by old or new hymnody only. All these factors cause us to resist making sweeping statements about the state of music in the Catholic Church in the United States.

And yet, I contend that all experienced Catholics know more about what is typical that we think we know.

This past week, I tried an experiment in stumbling upon a parish in the town I happened to be in for the night, and attending the main Sunday Mass. I knew nothing about the place. Ahead of time, I talked to some friends to ask for predictions about the music program. After just a bit of thought, they all said the same thing. It will be accompanied by the piano. There will be four hymns. The hymns will be from the Haugen-Haas genre of dated contemporary music. The ordinary setting will be the Mass of Creation of Mass of Light from the same genre. The Psalm will be metric, probably from “Respond and Acclaim” or a similar resource. There will be no choir or perhaps there will be two or three people led by a cantor. They will sing no motets but rather only sing hymn melodies.

Do you think this is a good prediction? If so, you know more than you think you know about the reality of parish life in the United States. We all know of exceptions like St. John Cantius in Chicago, St. Agnes in Minneapolis, St. John the Baptist in Charleston, and many others. The exceptions are growing in number. In fact, most every major city offers many exceptions to the rule, and there can be no question that the momentum is with the exceptions. Nonetheless, the rule persists, and, in our hearts, we all know it.

So what did I find? I found the rule, what we might call the modal parish music program – modal meaning that it has characteristic and predictable feature that constitute a norm. In fact, it conformed in every way imaginable. The musicians were fine at singing the songs. They were doing their best with what they have. The same was true of the celebrant, who sang as much as he possibly could and did he best to involve everyone. The ordinary setting was in fact the Mass of Light, and the four hymns, all drawn from GIA’s Gather Comprehensive, were Haugen-Hass.

If you are not surprised, then you do understand something about the state of music in our parishes. Once my own expectations were confirmed, I was able to settle in and take the time to observe other aspects of how the program worked.

Recall that a great goal of the paradigm shift in the 1960s was to permit the people to be more involved in the Mass, and singing along with the choir and cantor was a crucial aspect of this. The reformers imagined that the people’s voices had been somehow silenced and that the Catholic people were aching to be free to express themselves. Of course this wasn’t entirely true, as most everyone knows, and that left a vanguard of the cantor elite to elicit singing from people. This has gone on continuously for many decades. All programs, all compositions, all ensembles, are to be judged by how effective they are in calling forth audible participation.

The music program I witnessed had done everything correctly according to the prescribed model. The music was upbeat, catchy, and, by now, incredibly familiar. The cantor stood in front of everyone, chatting it up and raising her arms high. The pianist was heavily amplified. There was nothing too complicated for people to sing. People were asked to introduce themselves to their neighbors, “breaking ice,” as they say.

How did it work out by this overarching standard of audible participation? Let me see if I can describe the scene at the entrance. The cantor made the announcements and greeted everyone. We all greeted each other. The hymn was announced (“Gather Your People”) and the page number given. The pianist played a rollicking introduction. The cantor’s arms waved in the air and she began to sing. The wireless microphone on the celebrant’s vestment picked up his voice and he began to process.

As for the people, it was absolutely striking. Not one soul among the one hundred assembled picked up a hymnal, at least from what I could tell. Not one soul among the hundred even attempted to sing along. Not one soul among the one hundred even pretended to sing. I had some sense that if I had started to sing, my action would have elicited shock and awe from those around me. It was almost as if singing had become a taboo. This is despite all the efforts of the cantor and the celebrant. The people just stood there in stone silence with expressionless faces. And so on it went for the entire Mass, from the gathering to the scattering.

There was a time in my life when music of this sort in Mass made me angry about what has been lost. This time the whole scene struck me not as an outrage but rather as a tragedy. It was extremely sad. The people were there because they were obligated to be there. But there was no inspiration that was visible. The aesthetic package lacked the capacity to transform the heart. It seemed no different than the mood music you hear at the mall or the grocery store, something vaguely pleasant but otherwise non-intrusive, the great white noise of American Catholic liturgy.

How might we imagine that this parish could change? I think it could be done rather quickly, with a program that begins with Psalm-tone English propers and moves gradually to more complex propers. The parish needs a chant-based ordinary setting, which can also begin in English and move to Latin. The Psalm should come from Chabanel Psalms. The recessional can be eliminated completely. The dialogues can be in chant. The pianist could play organ instead, something very easy during offertory or communion. And all of this can happen without spending a dime.  

This change would make a dramatic difference. It would give back to the Roman Rite the music that is native to do, creating an integrated package that would touch the heart. The musicians would feel good about themselves. The people might start to sing because by doing so they will be participating in the ritual and not merely singing backup to a contemporary soundtrack. In other words, this approach would actually achieve the results of participation over the long term. Not that this should be the standard by which the music is evaluated but it is one side effect of a program that actually centers on genuine liturgical music.

As it is, the modal music at the American Mass is unsustainable. It just can’t go on like this, simply because it is an incredible failure, even on its own terms. How can the change take place? It is a matter of a growing conviction stemming from a sense of urgency. It is the job of everyone who believes in sacred music to contribute to this growing conviction. We are fortunate to be living in times when this process has not only begun but is making great strides.