Sing a New Song: The grass-roots debate about liturgical music

When the St. Louis Jesuits, one of the most popular singer/songwriter groups in the post-Vatican II church, began playing their music, they were often perceived as aspiring rock musicians, said Dan Schutte. “Before the Mass started, the congregation would say, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re bringing the guitars in!’” he said. “People’s whole image of contemporary music was connected with what they had seen on TV, like the Beatles or the Grateful Dead.” Schutte, a member of the St. Louis Jesuits and now composer-in-residence at the University of San Francisco, said those same people would come up after Mass with a much more positive reaction.

The debate about the use of contemporary music and traditional music has been a part of church life for ages. But since the Second Vatican Council, which called for “full, conscious and active” participation during Masses, the battles in Catholic parishes have intensified. Should music directors use newer songs, which may be unfamiliar to congregations, or older ones, which may seem out of date? When and how should a music minister introduce a new song? And what if no one in the pews likes it, or can sing it? Serving the congregation is a balancing act.

At the Grass Roots

Nicole Chambers Cook, of Omaha, Neb., who for three years was the director of music ministry at St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion, Neb., knows the importance of striking the right balance. “Much of what we now consider traditional was at one point considered contemporary, and where would we be without it?” she said in a recent interview. “I love when traditional songs are brought into a contemporary setting—for instance, “How Great Is Our God,” by Chris Tomlin—because it shows the juxtaposition of the two and brings together older and younger generations of the church in prayer.”

Schutte prefers a combination of different types of music. “The ideal would be to have a traditional hymn, Gregorian chant and contemporary song in worship,” he said. Schutte stressed the importance of performing the music well, so that parishioners who may not like a certain type of music might come to enjoy it more easily.

On one end of the “contemporary versus traditional” divide are churches that celebrate the Latin High Mass, like the Church of Saint Agnes in St. Paul, Minn. “Our repertory includes orchestral Masses by classical and some Romantic composers, like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Gounod and Herzogenberg,” said Virginia A. Schubert, who is secretary and executive director of the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale. “We sing about 27 orchestral Masses each season, from October until Corpus Christi.”

Michaela Glesinger, a mother of three from St. John’s Church in Omaha, believes that more contemporary music might help her teenagers keep focused through Mass. “I would like to see the Catholic Church make a real effort to find ways to keep our teens and young adults more represented in Mass, and I think a more contemporary approach to liturgical music is one way,” she said.

Is New Music Singable?

I asked several singers if they felt that congregations and choirs could sing newly composed music. Many believed they could if the songs are not too demanding. But some musicians, like Chambers Cook of Papillion, believe it depends upon the singer. “The youth I work with find it very easy to sing, while the older musicians find it a little more challenging,” she said. “A lot of what is written now, because of the more gentle melodies and accompaniments, is a better backdrop for prayer, while the older more traditional melodies and voicing lend themselves to congregational singing on your typical Sunday.”

Duane Gallagher, a guitarist at St. John’s Church in Omaha, believes the music of some composers tends to be easier to sing than that of others. “Dan Schutte’s songs tend to be easier to learn than those by David Haas,” he said, whereas songs by Bob Dufford, John Foley and John Michael Talbot tend to be more difficult. “It depends on the simplicity, and ‘flowingness’ of the song’s melody,” he said.

Introducing New Music

Learning new music can be a challenge for both the choir and the congregation. If the choir cannot read music, repeated practices may be necessary. Mylene Suzara, the music director at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Goose Creek, S.C., explained in an e-mail message how she and Mary Gertner, the choir director, teach new music: “We have a volunteer choir, and nobody in our choir reads music. The choir attends weekly choir rehearsals, and we plan in advance to teach new music to them.... As long as our choir has had several weeks to practice the new music, they have not had any difficulties in singing it.”

Their congregation also picks up new music over time, Suzara and Gertner said. “When we have a new piece, we plan that piece to be used for the next couple of weeks so that our congregation can become familiar with it.” They described theirs as “a singing parish,” in that “after they hear the new piece of music a couple of times, they can sing the new music like their regular music.”

Suggestions from music directors on how to introduce new music to the congregation focused on repetition. “I would suggest using the piece several times within the given season so [the people can] hear it more than once and are given a fair chance to learn it,” said Nancy Chmiel of Omaha. “Maybe introduce slower pieces that work as psalms, so the congregation has to learn only the refrain at first.” She added, “The preparation of the gifts is also a good place to introduce a new piece.”

Williams suggests publishing an announcement in the weekly bulletin or newsletter that new music is on the horizon. “It might be helpful to walk the congregation through a piece a few minutes before the service begins,” he said. Chambers Cook said she likes using technology to introduce new music. “I like the idea of advertising a link in the church bulletin so that people can go to the parish Web site and listen to some of the new music the congregation will be singing,” she said.

The placement of new music is also paramount. “I dislike it when brand new pieces are done during the gathering, Communion or recessional,” said Chambers Cook. “Those are times when everyone should feel very much a part of what’s going on, and that’s considerably more difficult when you don’t know the music being sung.”

John Rudzinski, choir director at Good Shepherd Church in Shawnee, Kan., said he, too, introduces new music seasonally. “First, it is played instrumentally as a prelude or a meditation for at least two weeks,” he said. “Then the cantor/choir/ensemble performs the piece as a solo. Finally the piece is partially taught before the welcoming at the liturgy.” He finds that such a process takes time “but is worth the planning and the repetition.”

Contemporary Music Challenges

For some, the use of contemporary music can be a challenge because of lack of money and resources.

“It is relatively expensive to introduce any music that is not printed in our hymnals,” said Thomas Kodera, choir director at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Lees Summit, Mo. “For this reason, many times I will select pieces for the choir to offer alone, without community participation.”

“Our hymnals are also becoming dated,”Kodera added, but “I cannot justify replacing our current hymnals before the new missal changes are introduced.”

Darla Sullivan, choir director at St. Pius X Church in Omaha, finds it a temptation to think the music must always please the congregation or choir or pastor. “A good music liturgist is like a good parent; we listen and understand but sometimes have to challenge people to new heights,” she said. “That being said, it should also be our primary goal to engage the congregation and draw them into the transcendent reality that the liturgy presents to us.

“It is far better to err on the side of simplicity and let the essence of the liturgy speak for itself than to distract from it with flourish and whimsy,” added Sullivan.

The debate continues. But, as those on the ground have shown, bringing contemporary music to a parish is possible. It takes gently introducing music to congregations, ensuring adequate preparation time for choirs, being sensitive about when new music is introduced and bringing a healthy mix of traditional and contemporary music into parishes and updating traditional songs. The experience of these parishes shows how music, new and old, can help congregations “sing to the mountains, sing to the sea,” as the St. Louis Jesuits would say.

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Mike Evans
7 years ago
Music during liturgy always seems a hit or miss experience. When we attend a celebration that has been exceptionally well planned and with perhaps a specially printed worship aid, we somehow are more engaged and enthusiastic in our participation. But the work of 52 weekend Masses is another case altogether. It is extremely hard to hold it together with different congregational make-ups (e.g. the Sat. evening crowd versus the family groups on Sunday morning), with only a few dedicated volunteers doing most of the work, and an overall low priority on advanced planning to make this particular Sunday special. It has not been a focus in most parishes for a variety of reasons, including a shortage of clergy, of professional leadership, and of good singable music itself. Throw in the culture wars between Latin and English, bi-lingual celebrations, keyboard vs guitar, drums or no drums, flutes, trumpets, tambourines, etc. and we have a veritable liturgical music war. No wonder most pastors just go along to get along.
C Walter Mattingly
7 years ago
Ditto the above comment from Deacon Evans. Yet there is so much beautiful church music, ancient, classical, contemporary. It is all simply praising God. To paraphrase Rodney King: can't we all just sing along?
Greta Green
7 years ago
They should use songs that are more in line with the new language of the litergy and the changes to reform the reform.
7 years ago

I'm with Walter! There's so much beautiful music that has been created throughout the history of our faith, yet we are given only a miserly portion. I'm a Gregorian Chant boomer and only knew what it was like to feel holy when the choir was singing!

And I have to confess, I'm not wild about the hymns we have to sing at mass, and resent that there's so much 'good' music that I resent having to sing what's 'liturgically correct' rather than beautiful.

I work with the kids, and take them out of mass, and we sing anything that tells the story of Jesus, from gospel, to "Wings of a Dove" by Ferlin Huskey (circa 60's). If it doesn't move your soul and give it wings it doesn't belong in church, or on our lips.

Too often, I've sat through mass and noticed that most folks aren't singing. Either the song's new and we don't know the words, or it's soul numbingly awful! This should not happen in church where we are suppose to be praising the Lord, and 'becoming one' as the Body of Christ.

Nor do we ever sing any of the liturgical music in Latin that Vatican II says should be maintained as part of the Church culture like the Gloria, the Agnus Dei. The Kyrie is only sung in Latin during Lent. Latin is beautiful, and we are all equally 'handicapped' in having to sing a language that nobody knows! How's that for equality! Variety is the spice of life, isn't it?

Where's the give and take on this issue?



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