The real reason most liturgical music is terrible
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the Jan. 23, 1982 edition of America.
Numberless things liturgical have changed for the better since Vatican II. Should you have any doubt of the progress, plan a Tridentine Mass in your parish next Sunday. Turn the altar about and scout a copy of the Leonine prayers.
However, one cannot escape the dread feeling that the reforms have not made the grade. Did something go awry? Twenty years ago, and more, we had such great hope. Everything was going to be bright and new and shining. Every parish would feel the warmth of the newly risen sun and rejoice and be glad, praising and glorifying the Lord. We had great hopes in those days for congregational participation that would fill our churches with gorgeous sound.
It does not seem that the promise has been completely fulfilled. Fatigue has settled over us. We do not succeed past a certain point. Some people have become frantic and are still carrying out bizarre experiments—called liturgical—to awaken interest.
Religious art is at an all-time low. The only interest in this area seems to lie in producing banners proclaiming peace and happiness. However, when we listen to and watch the celebration of the Eucharist, the mood we derive is gray and somber and lifeless. The banners shout “Joy,” but the healthy man does not talk about health. We refer to grace as the seed of glory and can find only a cheerless and dismal atmosphere in most of our churches. There is a sameness and repetition and, inevitably, a lack of interest in the celebration of Sunday Mass.
There is one area in our liturgy that has been sadly neglected. I speak of the music involved in the liturgy. Music will save the situation. Surely that is a strong statement, but it cannot be disproven empirically, because good liturgical music has never been given a chance in the United States.
What we hear at Mass certainly reflects a discouraged and confused church.
Art reflects life. Liturgical music reflects religious life. What we hear at Mass certainly reflects a discouraged and confused church. One cannot deny the drab, lonely, dull and hopeless atmosphere that liturgical music in American parishes provides. If this is a prediction of the hope for future glory, I have serious questions about the contemporary American concept of heaven. It seems to be a dreary place. Lex orandi, lex credendi. Prayer mirrors belief.
One reason for this musical dullness lies in the wordiness that currently burdens the ritual. Some liturgists now are saying: “Too many words; too many words.” Throughout history, it has been difficult to keep a classic balance between text and music. Whenever the weight fell too strongly on the words, the music became deadly. As Pope John Paul put it: “Faith not only needs to be confessed and spoken; it also needs to be sung. And music indicates that the matter of faith is also a matter of joy, love, reverence and exuberance.”
Since music is vital to the liturgical reforms it shows the Achilles’ heel of the liturgists, who forgot to account for one thing here in the United States in reforming the ritual. They did not count on the fact that American Catholic church music has always been in the hands of amateurs. And it continues that way.
Having dared say this, we come to the central problem. We in the United States have a special view of amateurs: Amateurs are immune to criticism. It is socially unacceptable to criticize them. Some readers of this article will rush to defend the amateurs’ obvious sincerity. They will say it is unfair to judge them in terms of professional standards. However, anyone who appears publicly, in the theatre or concert hall or church, becomes a public person and is rightly subject to public examination. One cannot walk upon a stage and tell people not to look at him, not to appraise his performance. Yet, to the defender of the amateur, it would seem that lack of ability should be a positively sought after value. This, not real talent, should win applause. The truly incompetent person should be cheered for his courage in standing up in front of a group and doing something that he can only do poorly.
It is said that we must look at his fine motivation. He is praying and adoring his Creator. This, however, is not the point and the explanation suffices only when he gathers like-minded friends together at home and holds a private prayer meeting. Openly appearing at church on Sunday morning, he involves hundreds of people.
If, unwittingly, I kill a man, he remains dead even if I never discover the fact. Our continued use of amateurs as music directors in our parishes is a cruelty perpetrated upon parishioners.
Those who would protect the amateur from the critic do not hold the liturgy in high esteem. It becomes a plaything, a toy, a kind of recreation. Everybody does what he wants with the church’s common prayer. What he does is harmless and should not bother anybody. Thus prayer is seen as an exclusively private action.
An unconscious cruelty remains cruel in spite of insensibility. If, unwittingly, I kill a man, he remains dead even if I never discover the fact. Our continued use of amateurs as music directors in our parishes is a cruelty perpetrated upon parishioners. Nobody has a right to do that.
The world, the historical context of our church, pays great heed to—and money for—professionalism in its music. In the battle we are waging with the world for minds and hearts and souls we are defeated. Whether we like it or not, the standards we are being judged by are professional.
The problem is not only that the music we hear in our churches is dull, it is immature as well. The components—melody, harmony, rhythm, text—are simplistic; and what can we say about the instrumentation we hear in church? We wonder why teen-agers leave the church with such reckless abandon. Possibly we give them no challenge to reach for. Certainly we are underestimating their capacity for understanding music. There seems to be an almost universal consent that adolescents all love folk music in the church. Not true!
We have relied on amateurs, who have no memories of our great historical traditions and who have no understanding of modern music. Their background is exclusively secular. Therefore, they have little or no appreciation for liturgical celebration. Thus we have produced a body of musical materials that is “Catholic,” i.e., only found in Catholic churches. Our musical expressions are antithetical to our hopes for ecumenical outreach.
Moreover, we seem to feel that as Catholics it is inappropriate to have fine music in our churches. I cannot believe that attendance at symphony concerts is limited to Protestants, Jews and atheists.
There must be a reason for the situation. Could it be economics? That is the reason one most frequently hears. Yet, moments later, after saying that he cannot afford an organist’s salary, a pastor will brag about the amount of money he has in the bank. Pipe organs are considered prohibitively expensive. But, many churches containing cheap electronic devices called organs will boast marble altars, elegant stained glass, mosaics and rich wood carving. Certainly, there are parishes that cannot afford the best. But, many, very many, are poor-mouthing their situation. The question is one of priorities.
The fact of the matter is that the ordinary professional musician knows more about church music than the ordinary priest.
Perhaps the reason is a lack of vision. Here we come to a valid possibility. Priests in their seminary training in this country are not prepared for church music programs. Before Vatican II they learned music that sounded like college alma mater songs. Since Vatican II, they have received a steady diet of “folk music.” Both before and after Vatican II, then, we are dealing with overly sweet and sentimental music reflecting the Jesus-and-me school of piety.
But there seems to be a much more important reason for our present difficulties. If one looks at the nearly total lack of communication between professional musicians and liturgists, one wonders if there is not something else going on here. There are major Catholic universities in this country with schools of theology and of music. These people are not talking to each other, except in anger. The liturgists complain that the musicians are putting on a concerto. The musicians snipe back that the liturgists are using too much incense. Code words enter the argument. One red flag word hurled at the musicians is “performance.” The feeling is that the congregation should be participating in everything and that when the musicians sing or play without the congregation they are impeding this participation. Angrily, the musicians point to the attractive vestments, the bright lights at the altar and intense homilies and wonder who is performing.
Since the musicians have been and continue to be excluded from liturgical decisions, they do not bother with the church professionally. (Name three major composers who have written for the American Catholic Church!) Instead, they have to resort to finding satisfaction artistically (and usually financially) with Protestant congregations or completely outside the church. Sad, but true, as the musicians see it, the liturgists are invading their territory and are blithely making proclamations about music without any competence in the matter. And while musicians and liturgists are engaged in this great struggle, the congregations in our churches suffer. The integral role of music in liturgy as emphasized by the conciliar and postconciliar documents, as well as the function of the liturgy itself, is being forgotten.
In this situation, I cannot help but come to the uncomfortable conclusion (I hope that you can find another) that the basic reason for our difficulty is that liturgists are priests, and musicians are lay people.
I do not propose to follow this up with an anticlerical diatribe. We are simply dealing with two different points of view. Frankly, the priest, especially the scholarly liturgist, inhabits a region of ideas and concepts and history and feelings that is remote from America of the late 20th century. He enjoys reading descriptions of ancient Hebrew and Christian rituals. He sees the liturgical reform as a restoration of times past. And the musician stands up and says, “Impossible!” The musician looks at the unmetered psalmody, the performance of which even the scholars cannot explain, and says that there is a better way to do it. (Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland, solved the problem of psalm singing in the early 16th century.) The musician looks at the dialoguing conversation between celebrant and people and remarks that opera never was successful in English. Thus the battle rages. And the battle is cultural.
The solution? In a word, we are Americans first. I speak not of the order of grace and its priority. I deal with the order of nature. Grace presupposes nature and builds upon it.
In the Renaissance artists attempted a literal restoration of ancient Greek thought. In that they were notably unsuccessful since time does not move in loops. There was, however, a great influence of Greek thought in the magnificent Italian art of the 15th and 16th centuries.
Simply stated, we cannot expect a literal restoration of ancient liturgies though these can have power and force. Our cultural outlook is American. My strong suggestion is that we translate the liturgy itself into American, as we have the texts.
The fact of the matter is that the ordinary professional musician knows more about church music than the ordinary priest. These musicians do have solutions to the problems that the liturgists propose and cannot solve. They do know what will work and what will fail. Saying this should not threaten the cleric. In this age, when we are discovering that all knowledge is not imparted with ordination, nor expected of priests (how to run the furnace, church construction, leaking roofs, bingo), it should be a relief to realize there is one less burden. Leave the music to the musician.
This is a historical moment. How rarely, if ever, has there been such a reformation of the liturgy! The old musical forms are no longer in use and cannot be revived. Pope John Paul realized this when he said: “New forms of music are being sought as a result of the liturgical reform. Here an ample field is open for development. The connection between the church and art is alive and fruitful in the area of music.”
A choice must be made. We can continue as we have been without taking the professional musician into account, heeding his practical insights. This way the liturgy will continue its drab course. Or, we can give the musician a chance for input and realize the splendor and beauty of the Trinity brilliantly reflected in our worship.