Thursday, September 17, 2009

Notes from the Choir

I've given up putting volume numbers on the Notes from the Choir posts, because I do this so infrequently that I keep forgetting which number I'm on, exactly.

I hate to be too negative in my posts about choir music, too, but this week I'm afraid a bit of negativity is going to surface. We've been singing a lot more of the "contemporary" music lately, if by "contemporary" we mean things that are anywhere from ten to forty years old, for the most part. Frankly, I dislike quite a lot of this music; but I know I'm not in the majority. A sweet older woman approached me after Mass last week and just gushed about how much she appreciated the music selections--not the music, you see, the selections. Another older gentleman argued vociferously with me not long ago about "all that old traditional stuff" we've been doing--the young people don't want to sing that stuff, he insisted. No offense to this gentleman, but my young years were a couple decades closer than his, most likely, and when I was young I hated the modern stuff even more than I do now, if only because we were surrounded by it and I hadn't learned to separate the wheat from the chaff, from the perspective of what ought to be the standards of sacred music. To be honest, I'm still learning to do that. In any case, the young people who are going to sing aren't turned off by "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," and the young people who won't sing wouldn't sing if you had the church equivalent of some current pop star (Heaven forbid) playing. Sadly, what the gentleman also fails to realize is that what he considers "modern" music is more like the greatest hits of ABBA than anything recorded in the recent past--which is something the young people know perfectly well.

This week's music includes two songs that I want to comment about; I consider them rather bad, and unfortunately must sing them on occasion.

The first is titled The Servant Song, and was written by Richard Gillard in 1977. It was later adapted to make it "inclusive," since the first line used to be "Brother, let me be your servant," instead of "Will you let me be your servant."

What's wrong with this piece?

Aside from the treacly music, which I haven't got the sufficient background in liturgical composition to judge intelligently but find somewhat trite, there are the lyrics. A few of them are as follows:
Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey, we are trav’lers on the road.
We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.
It goes on like this. So, what's wrong with it? Isn't it just a nice expression of Christian fellowship, the sort of sentiment we should all have for each other? Aren't expressions of Christian love and brotherhood appropriate for sacred music?

Here's where it gets a little tricky. Hymns at Mass are supposed to be a part of the act of worship. Many of them address God directly, as they should. Other hymns, even old, venerable ones, do not address God directly; that beautiful hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence comes to mind. Such a hymn is more exhortation to the Christian assembly than prayer directly addressed to God, and yet its ancient origins and beautiful words make it fitting for a hymn sung at Mass. There are other hymns too, which also exhort, or encourage, or call to prayer or to action. So, again, what is wrong with The Servant Song?

A clue can be found in the original lyrics: "Brother, let me be your servant." This is a song not directed at the whole assembly, but to one specific person; and the pronoun "me" makes it clear that it is being sung by one person, as well (even though it isn't literally being sung by one person at Mass, of course). As such, it becomes what I often think of as "You and me" songs, in which the singer seems to address one other person individually. Another example of such a song would be All I Ask of You by Gregory Norbet; there are others, and perhaps you can think of some and add them to the comments.

The focus of the song, then, is neither upon God nor upon the whole Christian assembly; it is (lyrically, that is) upon two individual Christians who wish to serve each other in some way. But the Mass is a public act of worship, intended to be the assembly of all Christian faithful--so a song which seems so intimate and personal can't help, to me, but seem out of place. It is a little like singing a love song at Mass--there's nothing wrong with a good love song in its proper place, but as many wedding couples have learned to their chagrin, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not a proper place for this sort of music.

The second piece I want to discuss is that unfortunate Bernadette Farrell piece, Bread for the World. I'll admit to being amused by the parody of that song, titled "Bread for the Squirrels," which is here, (you have to scroll down) though sadly the site is no longer maintained. First, I'll refer you to this wonderful article about what is wrong with Eucharistic hymns today, which mentions Bread for the World; the author is right that singing about becoming bread for each other is bound to be confusing from any Eucharistic standpoint.

The lyrics of the whole song are terrible; sadly, they aren't available online for the usual reason involving Catholic music publishers and copyrights. But the refrain goes like this:
Bread for the world, a world of hunger.
Wine for all peoples: people who thirst.
May we who eat be bread for others.
May we who drink pour out our love.
In addition to being excruciatingly bad poetry--almost Vogon poetry level--these lyrics are hideously incorrect theology. We don't receive "bread" at Holy Communion; we receive Jesus. Same for "wine," which is His Precious Blood. And eating and drinking them does not in any way make us the product of grain and liquid mixed and baked. If anything, we are supposed to draw grace from Christ to become more like Him in our dealings with each other; it would be pretty stupid for us to be bread, notwithstanding the unsuccessful attempt at poetic imagery.

Considering the rich history of the Church's great Eucharistic hymns, some of them written by great saints, it's maddening to have to sing, pardon me, utter tripe like this at the holiest and most important part of the Holy Sacrifice. But why do we?

Remember above, when I talked about the two older people who expressed in no uncertain terms their love of the musical tripe and their disdain for the Church's musical treasure?

It's not their fault. They've been taught for forty years to prefer reflexively the novel and shallow, and to choke upon the ancient and wise. They were taught to distrust their younger appreciation for the beautiful liturgy of the Church and for her music, art, architecture--they were taught that these things were wrong, from beautiful statues and venerable devotions to Mary or the saints, to, yes, the hymns their parents sang at Mass, when hymns were sung, which wasn't necessarily all of the time.

So their preference for the new ugly stuff is sincere, if misguided. And they express this preference. A lot. Which influences more choir directors than you can imagine.

Moral: if you like traditional music, ask for it. Tell the choir director you like it, and ask wistfully for your favorite pieces. Don't give up if it takes a few mentions, either.

Believe me, choir members with appreciation for traditional music will thank you.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful as always! But don't knock Abba - I love to work out to the Greatest Hits cd!

Karen said...

Ahh, with me you're preachin to the choir! ;) You are much more articulate than me though.

We do sing a mixture of good music and junk. Our choir director said some people will be happy and some won't; but equally.

The soppy songs we do are usually psalms, so the lyrics are acceptable. The problem for me with the newer songs is that they all seem to be in a low register. As a soprano singing anything under middle C is difficult, not impossible but there won't be much sound on that note. There is a reason 4 part (and more) harmony exists!

Anonymous said...

Seriously, it might be time to hum the music at Mass. It sounds as if singing in the choir is a personal distraction from worship. But, it's a good point, about requesting favorites, if choices are disturbing. When I sang in the choir, our director worked closely with the priest (they were brothers) and for the most part were extremely accommodating if anyone had special requests.

Go into many malls--there's a radio blaring. At Christmastime, sometimes, and at most other times, repetitive 'pop' can cause headaches.

People wonder about my personal preference to listen to instrumental music at work. Occasional irritation with lyrics, and sometimes character or 'voice' interferes with concentration. But, then, I could tolerate doses of music by Muzak!

c matt said...

On the artistic front, I also agree that there are some ugly things out there. Two examples: the new co-cathedral in Houston, while on the whole, is pretty good (especially compared to L.A.) they kind of blew it with the crucifix. While the statues of saints in the other parts of the cathedral look very lifelike, Christ on the crucifix has a cartoonish look. It is horrible. Similar problem with St. Vincent de Paul parish in Houston - the older statues (luckily, including the crucifix) are phenomenal - so lifelike they look like they could breath. But then in the back they put up this very ugly, very cartoonish "risen Christ" thing. I can't even look at it.

Sophie said...

Just wanted to say thanks for explaining so well exactly what is wrong with some of the contemporary music at Mass. Your breakdown of the lyrics is similar to thoughts I've had, because ever since you started the choir series I've (in my head) begun to better distinguish between the true hymns and the theologically-poor songs I learned when younger.

p.s. Holy God, We Praise Thy Name is one of my favorites...and I was especially delighted a while ago when it was played at a church we were visiting and my mom started singing it next to me by memory, "Oh we always sung this in school at First Friday masses."

eulogos said...

I certainly will make no apology for either of the songs you mention.

But the idea of Christians being like the grains of wheat ground up to make the Eucharistic bread, or like the grapes crushed to make the wine, is a patristic theme. The emphasis was on the unity of the Church and how the Eucharist makes us one.

One also cannot make an absolute rule against referring to the consecrated species as bread and wine. This is done traditionally. What about "Panis angelicum"?

Is there any way your parish could move towards singing the mass, rather than singing at mass?
Your Byzantine rite director comes from a tradition which does that, with the exception in my Ruthenian rite church of a few (mostly rather saccharine in my opinion but obviously beloved by the people) hymns which are sung before liturgy or during communion.

Susan Peterson

Andy Bonjour said...

interesting post. I think choir directors should pay attention to church acoustics as well. Some churches acoustically lend themselves better to the classical hymns. Although I'm not opposed to contemporary music, I'm opposed to bad contemporary music.

Daddio said...

We sang "Let there be peace on earth" on Independence Day weekend. Well, some people did, I adamantly refused to "actively participate". I don't think that's a sin, is it? The songs aren't technically part of the liturgy, are they? Maybe you could post on that topic sometime - whether the congregation is required to sing. Anyway, I was really irate about that song choice. First, it's corny. Second, it was too high and nobody in the congregation could actually sing it. Third, it was Independence Day, and we had to sing about peace instead of kicking butt. I don't know any good butt-kicking hymns, but I'm not down with wussy Charlie Brown songs in church.

Anonymous said...

Schubert, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, et al... came up with awesome Masses. (Vivaldi, hmm, I don't know if he composed a Mass per se, or maybe there aren't any copies left around, but he certainly came up with music to be sung during Mass).

Is your choir up to translating or learning a new old language and singing a classically composed Mass? Vivaldi's music was composed for orphans to sing (those certainly not born with a silver spoon nor a golden ear...) Surely, the music wouldn't be too difficult to learn considering that national Messiah groups get together for community sing celebrations at holiday time.

And, on another note(!), besides the factor of church acoustics, accompanists could come up with keys that untrained musicians could sing! (Per the 'Let there be Peace on Earth' issue of the high notes.)

Todd said...

Some of the complaints you register have been addressed and discredited long ago. One, that the psalms themselves as well as the antiphons of the Mass propers offer language referring to God directly, or even in the third-person. Eucharistic hymns have a context larger than even the whole texts. Few complain about the "bread" and "wine" references in the Eucharistic Prayers (even post-consecration) or even in John 6. Not every single expression of Eucharistic theology need reference all the important bases.

As for the notion of "becoming bread," the image is Patristic. I believe it dates back to Ignatius of Antioch.

I would dispute your point about the last "forty years." Preconciliar hymnody was often worse.

But as for the aspiration to better music, yes, keep plugging away for it. Music directors--good ones--appreciate the input and consider it.

sologal43 said...

I, too, upon hearing the Servant Song several years ago wondered why such an intimate song would be appropriate at Mass. However, in the context of today's Gospel reading and in tandum with the homily I heard, it resounded loudly within me as a song that would apply to various situations, not just between two people and would indeed be a song appropriate for Mass when it complements the readings, as I feel it did today. The homily centered on the Gospel and Jesus' exhortation for His disciples to be like children - in the sense of innocence with regard to their actions - selfless love, giving and receiving that is not tainted by a personal agenda or a conditional rationale. Sometimes in that, we feel as though we are being taken advantage of - that someone is benefiting from our selflessness. Well, isn't that 'Christ-like'? Didn't we all benefit from his selfless passion, death and resurrection?

It could just be the place I'm in but it spoke to me so profoundly; and helped me to move past the feelings of resentment which were trying to hold me bound.

God uses all means possible to save us from ourselves!

peace -