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.

5 Replies to “The Parish Musical Convention Is Unsustainable”

  1. "It just can’t go on like this, simply because it is an incredible failure, even on its own terms."

    Very true, Jeffrey. And the nail in the coffin will be the publishers' tight grips on their precious copyrights. This will assure that the music of the "modal golden age" (70's-90's) will go extinct. It will only be a matter of time.

    This morning in one my course at the Liturgical Institute on the Liturgical Movement, the observation was made that we are now nearly as far away, in time, from Vatican II as Vatican II was from Pius X's 'Tra le sollecitudini'. (60 years separating the events). The context of this remark I'm not recalling at the moment, but if we think about those two very important moments in the 20th century "Liturgical Movement" it should give us great hope that something great is about to happen. Perhaps we can learn from the lessons of both periods and finally implement what the entire Liturgical Movement sought to achieve.

  2. I think you have the diagnosis down, but I'm not so sure about the prescription. Self-selection bias affects the participation in the parishes that use chants, propers, and other classically-based musical models.

  3. It sounds like you attended Mass at My Parish! (Los Angeles area.)The Pianist who plays here is no doubt a fine pianist but plays so loud and with so much added flourish and tinklings that the words the cantor (operatic tenor) sing can't even be understood. I go there week after week hoping that perhaps they will play the great pipe organ that sits up in the choir loft but it is silent. I've had to learn to look beyond all this 'stuff' if I want to keep the sacredness of the function before my mind. There have been times in the past when I have left the Mass when it gets really ridiculous. I do hope that the sacredness of the Liturgy is returned and that those who are 'Directors of Music' of a Parish, if they don't go along with it, are banished along with their pianos, to the moon.

  4. "singing had become a taboo"

    The microphone is a symbol of authority. The people with the microphones are the ones that are supposed to do stuff. It is that way everywhere (meetings, television, concerts, bars, …). Musicians get microphones, other people do not. A multi-hour exposure to this every week predisposes you to a passive behavior in church.

    Have you ever noticed that Mass is different when there is a power failure? Without chandelier lighting, the sanctuary candles attract your attention. Without microphones, the human voice attracts your attention. During dialogues, people respond with the people next to them. During singing, people sing with the people next to them, not with the soloist or the priest.

    Concoct a sound system failure and see what happens.

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