“Why Do We Keep Singing this Music?”

This week at Acton University, I was in casual conversation with a professor of theology at a Catholic seminary and the topic of music came up. She did not really know of my activities here or in music at all but when she found out that I had written a book on Catholic music, she asked me a pointed question. “Why do parishes and seminaries continue to sing music that is so obviously inferior to what has come before?”

I asked her to explain what she meant. First she gave provisos that she is not a musician and knows nothing about the topic. Then she went on to describe her gradual discovery that she could pretty much tell if some hymn is suitable for Mass based on its publication date. If it was composed anywhere between 1960 and the current day, it was likely to be silly and thin and not really very serious. It was likely to be a song that just didn’t seem very churchy.  In contrast, she said, she has variously sung hymns from the 19th century that are strong and inspiring and seem suitable for reasons she couldn’t entirely identify.

Perhaps you know this narrative well. I’ve heard it dozens of times, even hundreds of times. But she persisted in asking why. Why is it that this inferior music continues to be printed and sung but the great music of the past is not? I thought for a moment and first began with the explanation that this debate between old and new hymns is probably the wrong debate, that we really need to be talking about the problem of all hymns from all times replacing the actual text and music of the Mass centered on the propers and chant ordinaries. This intrigued her; she had not heard this before.

Still, she persisted: given that we are singing hymns, even if we should be singing propers instead, why do we sing these hymns and not better ones? I do understand what she means. In general I think she is correct – with all provisos for the sappy material in St. Gregory Hymnal and the like. In general, she has a point. There are many answers to the question I could give, and even then I’m not sure I know the one most important reason.

And yet, in the end, all issues of culture and taste and the triumph of mediocrity granted, the factor most often overlooked is the issue of copyright. The older hymns are in public domain. The CMAA has made hundreds available for free. But the newer hymns are all held in a proprietary legal arrangement bound up with royalty payments to publishers, writers, arrangers, and composers. That means that the publishers can extract money from congregations, pay their employees, pay whatever is leftover to composers, charge people for using them, license them out to other publishers, and so on.

The entire economic viability of these publishing firms that dominate our parishes is bound up with this state-based regulatory institution. If you doubt it, take a look at the ostentatious display of GIA’s copyright warchest in the back of Gather Comprehensive, for example. Here you find a major driving force behind the strange mystery of the persistence of bad music. None of this music has stood the test of time and most of it will not. That means that there is money to be made in the short run. Using public domain material, to put it very bluntly, doesn’t pay the bills.

I would like to know more about this, and much of what I’m saying here is based on hunches drawn from other industries and not inside knowledge about the ledgers of the big three. Whether it is the number one factor or just one among many, it is certainly the least talked about element of this debate.

Regardless, however, no one is forcing parishes to buy this material. The pastors who support these institutions with parishioner dollars are doing so of their own free will. They can stop anytime. So to some extent my explanation really explains nothing at all. As Adam Bartlett has written and emphasized, we lived in changing times in which digital media provides ever more free options to the warchests of the old-line publishers. If more parishes start to use them, there will come a time when the problem and mystery of inferior music will be no more.

27 Replies to ““Why Do We Keep Singing this Music?””

  1. Jeffrey,

    Might I suggest that a very straightforward explanation of the phenonmenon you describe is the faulty understanding of the notion of "active participation" that is widespread amongst a significant number of the faithful?

    This faulty understanding implies a sort of lowest-common-denominator approach to the resources for liturgical music because, it is argued, such resources have to be "accessible". (And yes, there's a faulty understanding of accessibility stuck in there as well!)

  2. Yes, this is surely central. And yet, it is almost universally true in my experience that people tend to sing more with preconciliar music than with postconciliar music. (Actually some people say that Catholics only really sing four hymns, and you know which ones they are.) And "praise and worship" music is no more participatory than a rock concert. In other words, this participation you get from "contemporary" music is pretend participation (I wrote on this earlier this week.) So I'm not sure that this problem, which is real, addresses the specific issue that the professor raised with me.

  3. Hear him. It's not just the hymns: consider the English translations of the liturgy and of the lectionary psalms. It's bad enough that they're often flat and uninspiring – to add insult to injury, reproduction is subject to the same copyright restrictions as modern hymns. So, a site like this would have difficulty posting a practical piece on singing propers and responsorial psalms to psalm tones, because illustrations of useful length would run into the copyright sand.

    Oh that the Church would drive the money-changers from the temple!

  4. Jeffrey,

    I think your observations are accurate, but I don't think that this argues against what I've suggested.

    It is the belief that this type of music is more open to active participation that keeps it going. Your observation speaks to the fact that this belief is incorrect.

    There appears to be a communal self-perpetuating delusion occuring that prevents many from realising the truth of your observation.

  5. I'm happy to offer a dissent on this. Catholics sing decent to excellent music when it is presented to them. The problem across Catholicism is that the level of musicianship is very uneven.

    That said, the quality of contemporary music probably surpasses the hymnody found in most pre-conciliar hymnals as far as metered music is concerned.

    Keep in mind the big post-conciliar tussle was not hymns versus propers, but organ versus guitars. And while some of us may not care for a piece like "You Are Near," it is closer to the sung propers than any organ-accompanied metrical hymn. So I'm curious why CMAA wouldn't work on musical forms more like the antiphon+verse psalmody, even if it does resemble the work of David Haas or Dan Schutte.

    Many Catholic musicians speak as if the choice were stark for parishes: either chant and polyphony or the SLJ's. In fact, most pre-conciliar parishes did very little chant and no polyphony. The reason why Ray Repp and Joe Wise did well with their music is that in many places it *was* an improvement over what was being sung there. And where volunteer guitarists surpassed volunteer pianists in musical skill, it was probably sung more fruitfully.

    By the time John Foley and Mike Joncas and Suzanne Toolan and others were hiking music up a few notches, it had further advantages: it was based on Scripture and it had spiritual appeal to Catholic laity who were growing more familiar with the Bible–both in liturgy and in their prayer and devotional lives.

    I've seen the CMAA hymnal and of the music there not in my hymnal, very little is what I consider high quality in terms of texts. There's quite a bit that's catechetical, and rather lacking in poetry. "Wondrous Gift," to suggest one example, strikes me as bland: the assembly singing to "teach" itself. No thanks; we had that in the 60's.

    As for the subjective witness of how "our" congregations sing with "our" music, a forum like this will naturally find music directors with "successful" singing in the pews. We're professionals, after all, and the parishes that utilize us are already committed to liturgical music to a substantial degree.

  6. Thank you for this Todd and I'm always glad to be reminded of your reconstructed version of history, which always strikes me as largely true but just a bit disproportionate. Just when I start to believe your version of history (you are surely correct about the SLJ!), I have people like this seminary professor come up to me and say: hey, what's the deal with all this silly stuff we sing? I'm very sympathetic with her intuitions here and I generally find the old hymns more suitable — while freely granting that my own perspective might be driven more by tastes than ritual concern. Her point of view is shared by millions of people – many of whom stopped going to Mass just to get away from it.

    I should be clear about those free hymns we offer. It is not the CMAA's hymnal. If anything qualifies as a CMAA hymnal, it is the PBC. The page I linked in my post are English hymns that we've liberated into the commons as a service to the faith. However they are used, propers should take priority.

  7. However they are used, propers should take priority.

    Subject to the copyright constraints if you wish to set and sing them in English!

  8. Can we also consider a further possibility — that the decision-makers in the parishes hate chant, as such, because it's "pious and overly devotional" or "pre-Vat2" or [insert your favorite ideological catch-phrase here]?

    This in spite of, or perhaps because of, what the authentic Magisterial documents have to say?

    In other words, these decision-makers are ideologically committed to the goal of "singing a new church into being."

  9. "Can we also consider a further possibility — that the decision-makers in the parishes hate chant …"

    Please, let's not consider it. This is a good site and let's keep the discussions vigorous, but real.

    Ray Repp used chant-inspired music for his 1978 release Benedicamus. Marty Haugen recorded a number of chant pieces in the 80's. The SLJ's first NALR collection was sprinkled with it.

    I think some people are skittish about chant because it can be performed so poorly, especially a slow tempo that lags and drops in pitch as the piece continues.

    I've programmed chant pieces in my parishes since the 80's, and have no problem doing more of them.

  10. Unless you sing Graduale propers for which there is no official translation

    That's true, Jeffrey, but I'm in the position where, like it or not, the parish would prefer to have the Missale Propers and Grail Psalms, and I'm only too pleased they're willing to chant them once a month. I suspect I'm not the only one in this position.

  11. In the nineteenth century a person could just steal whatever current published music they wanted and not think twice about it. Now, the only difference is that there is a real threat of enforcement.

    Professional composers and text authors should be compensated for their work, and they have always looked to the publishing industry for that support. This was true for everyone from Monteverdi, Mozart, and Beethoven to Andrew Law and Fanny Crosby. I would argue that it's not really the economic model of the publishing industry that's the problem. Since publishing began, consumers had to go through the industry to get what they wanted. The problem as I see it is that today's church music consumers are compelled to view the industry as their only viable option. GIA and OCP are brand names with extensive marketing initiatives and "benefit" programs. There are lots of economic incentives to use them.

    But that's not the whole story. There are also incentives not to use them, as Jeff rightly points out.

    With public domain music available, it is a surprise that agents in the free market so often choose to pay exorbitant prices for mediocre (or worse) materials. There are just so many externalities that are hard to put into economic terms. Fear–of change and of uncertain consequences–is what first comes to mind.

  12. Well, Doug, there was no copyright outside of England before the 19th century and none was enforceable outside national borders – and it was the greatest boon to music ever. Mozart, Beethoven, and Monteverdi did not use it. They naturally hoped their music would spread far and wide. That is not incompatible with making money as the copyright-free fashion industry shows. It is not stealing to emulate and imitate and spread the infinitely reproducable – the Gospel being the best example.

  13. First off – Mr. Tucker – congrats on the blog!

    Q. "Why do parishes and seminaries continue to sing music that is so obviously inferior to what has come before?"

    A. People's taste (in music, art, etc.) is skewed by the zeitgeist, i.e., relativism. People are inclined to want to be sated, and that inclination is not easily reoriented. Call that aspect of persistent concupiscence a form of lust that leads to gluttony, a kind of fixation on a musical trollop. Junk music, like junk food, satisfies to some degree. People are more inclined to take an easy path and buy into an idea if everything is worked out for them. The media understands this well and the news is designed to shape public opinion by enabling the easy consumption of highly pared down or biased information. The hermeneutic of rupture crowd understood this and their ideological children persist in the production of pablum (heterodox texts combined with faulty harmony) for easy consumption at Mass.

    The sonic goo we're given at Mass may accompany a (dumbed down) text and thus may offer people ready access to an idea. However, a host of problems ensue: it may be easy for people to wrap their heads around a theological idea – and we know the power of music to shape prayer – but what happens is people grow downward (or outward) away from mystery. People become spiritually lethargic. Instead of being drawn out of our selfish, narrow bandwidth of comfortable christianity toward the mystery of the Godhead, we're only made more complacent by the steady diet of Haugen Daz (I scream). Contemporary liturgical music reflects a low view of man's capacity for authentic music appreciation.

    Bottom line, most liturgical music these days is sub standard, akin to junk food. Catholics are not being given real meat. We're addicted to a liturgical drug and giving up this addiction will require much effort – i.e., one heck of a 12 step program. In our case, we are not left alone – we can call on the Holy Spirit to revive our own spirits and help us to kick the habit of bad music.

  14. Ya know, I could take SLJ settings of _scripture_ over wonderful music set to "spiritual texts" 1000 times over. I'd rather worship with Eagles' Wings (i.e. Psalm 90/91) any day at all, than a polyphonic setting of some uncanonical text.

    I think if the _words_ we worship with were enforced to be Holy Scripture when it wasn't Mass propers, the music (and the composer's taste) would take care of itself.

    I really do. Who agrees?


  15. Jeff, I'm not sure if I agree with you about a composer hoping the music would spread "naturally." This seems a little idealistic and impractical. The only thing that's natural is that the composer hopes people will buy the music.

    Consumers have always to work within the system to acquire music, and that meant some amount of contact with the publishing industry. If that's what you are calling natural, then I don't disagree. My point, however, was not that composers have always used copyright (no need for lessons on its history here), but that they used a business model that is still pretty much intact today. The business isn't to blame, only how people use it.

    Let's pretend for a minute that I'm Fill-in-the-blank composer. If I have an exclusive publishing agreement with publisher X to receive money up front and a certain % of royalties on sales (which were often monopolized in specific stores), I don't want basement printer Y reproducing plates and distributing them for profit. This is theft, whether protected by copyright or not. The big problem is that if basement printer Y lives in Savannah and I live in Boston, how am I ever going to find out about it? And even if I do, I have little recourse. Very common situation. For better or worse, copyright is merely the enforcement mechanism used to prevent this kind of theft. As a concept, copyright seems fair (for publishers or composers, who knows?), but its current implementation (as you suggest) may be excessive. Maybe a better solution is to eliminate the publisher altogether? Barring that as an option, it's not so much the publishing industry that's to blame, but how people use it. I think this is what you were getting at by the end of your post.

    Lastly, have you seen the statistics on the amount of money lost to fashion designers on cheap imitations? Staggering. Comparing the spread of Mozart's music or fashion design to the Gospel is unfair. Salvation of souls cannot be purchased, but the String Quintet in C Major can.

  16. In my hypothetical, I might add, I was pretending to be William Billings–patch over one eye, withered arm, wooden leg, stentorian voice, and all. But I could have been Mozart, had he ever moved to Boston. Amazing to think that the two were contemporaries, isn't it?

  17. Just found this site, and I must say, I'm really enjoying the posts (and the comments too). Coming from a Protestant background, I always assumed the problem wouldn't nearly be as bad in the Catholic church where there were standards (such as the Propers) within the service for a given time to rely on for music.

    Perhaps part of it is the loss of the expectation that the church music director's job includes composing for the parish as part of the job requirement that contributes to it as well (though the copyright issues can create problems there too from time to time). When Joe Shmoe that knows how to read music and play a little piano becomes the leader of a parish's music activities, he only has one place to turn (most of the time) for music: publishers. He's generally not as knowledgeable as someone trained in music or theology, so he goes with what he knows: music that sounds like what you'd hear on the radio.

  18. '… If it was composed anywhere between 1960 and the current day, it was likely to be silly and thin and not really very serious … '

    This is a statement of breathtaking ignorance.
    Some of the best texts and music the Church has ever had have been composed in this time period – The hymns of the Jubilate group (surely Bp Dudley-Smith is the Wesley of our day) – The music and texts of Bernadette Farrell and Marty Haugen (often weaving in themes of social justice and Lumen Gentium) – The music of Taize – The biblical texts of Fr John Foley – The music of the Thomas More Group – Gelineau / Proulx / Murray et al. – The Rev. John Bell.

    By contrast, the 'Chabanel' psalms merely ape plainsong melodies, and the music of Fr Samuel Weber is rather poor.

  19. John,

    In my own case I’m not ignorant of a number of the names on your list, and I still concur with the observation. Much English liturgical music of the last forty years is shallow, emotionally self indulgent to the point of triteness and awkward for congregations to sing. The same can be said for many of the para-liturgical texts that are frequently used to substitute for elements of the liturgy, and their musical settings. There are names on your list whose work tends to these failings.

    The liturgy is the ordinary means of our encounter with God. Music and text that point inwards to our passing emotions rather than upwards to God get in the way of that encounter.

  20. 'I think if the _words_ we worship with were enforced to be Holy Scripture when it wasn't Mass propers, the music (and the composer's taste) would take care of itself.

    I really do. Who agrees?'

    I thoroughly agree. We cannot go wrong when we sing Scripture (in a language that people understand) to good music – 'Eagles wings' (Joncas) and 'Shepherd me, O God' (Haugen) are two very popular examples of this.

  21. 'Much English liturgical music of the last forty years is shallow, emotionally self indulgent to the point of triteness and awkward for congregations to sing. The same can be said for many of the para-liturgical texts that are frequently used to substitute for elements of the liturgy, and their musical settings. There are names on your list whose work tends to these failings. '

    Ian – you are simply wrong.

  22. John,

    I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you mention Wesley. I think EP Thompson had a point on the emotional distortions of early Methodism, and I’m afraid it’s one that applies to some degree to many of the liturgical settings and much of the para-liturgical material of the last forty years. To put it into a Catholic context: as more than one Holy Father has pointed out, some music is antithetical to the ethos of our liturgy, while other kinds have developed in harmony with it over the centuries.

  23. And sometimes it's just a matter of personal taste. I knew many conservatory-trained church musicians in the 80's. Their thing was hymns and anthems. It was how they were trained as musicians in Catholic settings.

    The largest single factor, of course, is the musicianship of the leaders of music. If these people can't sing chant or contemporary music, and can't teach it, then yes, the result will be awful.

    The truth about music composed since 1970 is that most of it is poor. But that is true of any single forty-year period in church history.

  24. I'm not sure I'd agree with that last comment – a quick glance at pre-Reformation England (and Scotland) and you see a constant flow of the very finest polyphony from composers whose work is now largely lost due to the terrible sacrilege of the Reformation period. Composers represented in the Eton Choirbook, for example, were constantly churning out finely-crafted works, as were their predecessors (and some of their successors who were permitted to continue writing Latin works – Byrd and Robert White spring to mind). Never mind 40 years, I'd argue a couple of HUNDRED years of fantastic choral output here, stifled only by the horrors of the so-called Reformation that was so unwelcome and unnecessary on these shores.

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