Tribute to Charles Culbreth on His Departure

In the area of sacred music, I’m ever more convinced that we cannot go forward with wisdom and effectiveness unless we understand something of our mid-century past. The problem for those of us under a certain age is that we were not there during the great upheaval of Catholic life. It is hard for us to understand. I’ve spent some 15 years trying and reading and seeking to gather insight concerning what happened and what to do about it so that I can have greater clarity about where we go from here.

Charles Culbreth, the well-known contributor and parish musician/composer, has been an important bridge to my own understanding. He was there every step of the way. He understands the culture of the time and many features of why events transpired as they did. His knowledge of the names and the music of the postconcliar period is vast. At the same time, he made a intellectual transition to appreciating the beautiful and integrity of the deeper tradition, and became an important voice within the Church Music Association of America.

It was for this reason that when this blog was first established, I went to him and asked him to become a contributor. He agreed, and he has been a valued voice here, and, I must say, a helpful correction to my own excesses. His continued themes have been to show greater empathy to the practical demands of parish musicians, to never let our ideals become fanaticisms that trample on pastoral sensibilities, to seek peace in our own communities as a precondition for progress.

He has been a great champion on the sacred music tradition while still urging a sincere appreciation for those over the last decades who have worked to bring music to the liturgy in many styles. Sometimes he has posted his own compositions, and they have moved many people. In addition, he is an amazing singer. I recall once sitting next to him in the tenor section and feeling a profound sense of inadequacy as I listened to his clear voice effortlessly navigate even the trickiest of passages from complex polyphony.

Over the years, we’ve spent many hours on the phone and in social time at the Colloquium and enjoyed each others’ company. We come from different coasts and different musical worlds but we always delighted in the meeting of minds that would emerged in these conversations.

Sadly, he has asked to be removed from this blog in protest over something I wrote. The article in question is Why We Must Chant. It concerned the Islamic tradition of sung prayer that I experienced on a recent trip to Turkey and what Catholics might learn from it. Charles said he found my piece “revolting.” It is a “deal breaker” for him. He further urged that the CMAA “disavow” my article which left him “stunned” and “stymied.” To underscore the point he added: “remove my presence from the masthead.”

All of these comments were posted publicly, and so that left me little choice but to comply even though I remain confused about what he found so objectionable. Let me say that while I regret his departure, I hope that I can nonetheless retain his friendship. We fortunate that he will continue to post on his own blog, which I urge you to read for its insight.