Tuesday, May 13, 2008

An Open Letter to Marty Haugen

I've been rather caught up in the odd and fascinating tale of Marty Haugen's recent communications to the Curt Jester, which the paragons of blogging perfection at CMR report on here. The interesting exchange prompted me to look up a little more on Marty Haugen; some info can be found here, and Haugen's website is here. For fun, go here. One more useful site is this one; it is one disappointment of my life that I didn't get to become an official member before they stopped taking new members.

Marty Haugen is, of course, the liberal Lutheran composer responsible for much of the music inflicted on those of us who attend the Novus Ordo Mass each Sunday. As the gentlemen at CMR justly point out, though, he's not the only one; there's lots of treacly dreck in Haugen's style infecting the pages of most of the hymnbooks purchased and used at Catholic Masses all over this country. Still, Haugen's influence can't be denied, and the fact that he apparently thinks that Catholic teaching should change in a number of areas, including on the subject of ordaining women, explains a lot, most notably why so much of his music seems so jarringly inappropriate for a Catholic Mass.

Don't get me wrong: plenty of Protestants have written music which has ended up being appropriated for use by Catholics at Mass. But there was a sound policy in the past of waiting until the composer was dead, and had been for centuries, a precaution against trendiness and inadvertent heresy which served us well in the past, and which I suggest should be immediately re-introduced in all Catholic Churches.

Marty Haugen gave his email address in his letter to the Curt Jester, and was fine with it being published. I'll include it in this post as a public service: quietbreezemusic@aol.com . But since I'm fairly sure that Haugen's mailbox will fill quickly, I'd like to write my letter to him in the remainder of this post:

Dear Mr. Haugen,

I'm a Catholic who sings in a choir, and as such have been exposed to lots of your music. And I hate it--most of us do.

Don't get me wrong; if you were writing showtunes for a school's fifth-grade play in the year 1976, your music would be fine. It has all the catchiness of a radio or TV jingle, and all the musical depth of the Partridge Family's music, which would make it great for little fifth-graders (provided they could catch on to the randomness of the meter or the occasional purposeful discordance, which is probably supposed to symbolize something, but which tends to make people's vocal chords hurt).

But, you see, the Catholic Mass is about worship, the worship of the Almighty God. It is called the Holy Sacrifice because it is a re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary, though in an unbloody way. The priest at the altar stands in the place of Christ and, having been given by virtue of his ordination the power to confect the Blessed Sacrament, offers to the Father on our behalf the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord and Savior, really and truly present under the appearance of bread and wine.

It's a big deal. Angels are there, as well as men (and I mean that most inclusively). At this solemn occasion, is it really a good idea to start singing Gather Us In, or any of the Mass parts from the unfortunately trite Mass of Creation?

Composers from the past, whatever their religious faith, understood that sacred music was--well, sacred. They were diligent and untiring in writing music for church; their various Mass settings have survived the test of time, and are still listened to for the sheer joy of hearing them. They were art; they were universal; they endure.

I'm afraid that already works like the Mass of Creation are showing that they are not universal, but rather connected rather strongly to an age which was not notable for its great art, unfortunately. Just as the ugly felt banners and clumsy liturgical dance will become but a hideous memory, so too will the not-so-sacred sacred music fade away; even today, much of the music written by you and by others sounds dated, as if it were somehow obligatory to play '70s music at Mass on Sunday, and to interrupt the Sacred Mystery with music that mixes echoes of Peter, Paul and Mary with the lyrical style of Neil Diamond.

None of this, of course, is meant to judge you for what you did--everybody seemed to want it, and there was a sense that just as one no longer needed to be able to draw well to become an artist, so too did one not need to understand the great music of the past to write clever tunes for church. I'm sure that sense of liberty was inspiring, if ultimately as misguided as the educational theories that believed children could learn to read without ever learning phonics.

For some of you, those were the best of times. For many of us, they have since become known as the worst of times. It may have seemed like the spring of hope, but we know it since as the long winter of despair.

But the thaw has set in, at last. The reform of the reform is underway. The trivial and banal and trendy and secular will be, and are being, swept away. Fairly soon, Mr. Haugen, your music will be addressed with words some of us have been waiting a long time to hear: Your services are no longer required.


Red Cardigan


Paula in MN said...

Bravo! I sent snippets of the Curt Jester's comments to my FIL yesterday. Boy, did I get an earful! He's sung in our choir for 38 years - since he converted - and he thinks as long as everyone is singing we shouldn't care what song. Ack! He also thinks women should be ordained priests - my MIL and I vehemently disagree.

matthew archbold said...

Red, that was one of the funniest things I've read in a while. The Partridge family thing really killed me.
However, what's with dissing Neil Diamond. I'm afraid you're delving into sacred territory there for me. Please refrain from dissing Neil ;)

Red Cardigan said...

Matthew, I'm sorry. But Neil Diamond commits one of the cardinal sins of songwriting: the forced rhyme. Other examples include Barry Manilow, Jimmy Buffet, and, of course, David Haas.

John Quinn said...

I am puzzled by your comments. Marty's music is in my opinion beautifully crafted, and lyrically scriptural in content.
I find the 'Mass of Creation' very powerful.
In his communion antiphon 'Bread of life from heaven' Marty uses the phrases: 'Break now the bread of Christ's sacrifice', and 'come receive the body and the blood'. How can this be jarringly inapropriate in RC worship?

Red Cardigan said...

Mr. Quinn, thank you for your comment. Mr. Haugen's music is inappropriate for several reasons. The first is that not only does it not relate in any way to the sacred music of the past in terms of composition, but it also seems to depart deliberately from the hallmarks of that music, best exemplified by Gregorian Chant, but also detectable in polyphony and other historical manifestations of sacred music.

The second can be demonstrated by the words you've quoted above, "Break now the bread of Christ's sacrifice." I'm not a theologian, but I know those words are theologically deficient--the *bread* of Christ's sacrifice? Christ didn't sacrifice bread, did He? Moreover, words in sacred music should generally be directed toward God, Whom we're worshiping--are we telling God to "break now...etc."? Come to think of it, just who is that imperative verb directed toward? God, the celebrant, the community, Christians in general? It's unclear, isn't it?

A third reason has to do with the purpose of sacred music, which ought always to point to the actions of the Mass, and never away from it. But the Mass of Creation, which is used at many parishes (including mine, sadly) does the opposite. The music breaks in with all the "Look at me!" emphasis of a song in a musical play--instead of reverently pointing to the parts of the Mass, the music seems to take over the focus from those parts, to intrude--which sacred music ought never to do.

These are just some thoughts--I could probably go on! I do hope this helps to see where I'm coming from--the point isn't to be some sort of elitist musical snob, but to rediscover the nature and purpose of truly sacred music, and to re-form the music we sing at Mass to find its worthy place along the continuum of sacred music in such a way that the music of today blends with what has gone before instead of standing out as something apart.

God bless!

John Quinn said...

Our Lord said 'I am the bread of life'.
At the Last Supper he broke the bread and said 'this is my body'.
When the cantor sings 'break now the bread of Christ's sacrifice', she/he is acknowledging Christ's command to 'do this in remembrance of me'.

John Quinn said...

'Shepherd me, O God'
Marty's setting of PS23 is haunting, memorable and beautiful.
It is thoroughly based on plainsong, most notably on 'Orbis factor'.
Also, at a recent RCIA Mass at St Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham (England), in addition to singing Byrd & Tallis, Marty's 'Go in peace was sung'.
This is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard anywhere, so let us all follow Marty's lead and 'go in peace, the peace of Christ, and learn the ways of God'.