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?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?
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.
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.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.
Wine for all peoples: people who thirst.
May we who eat be bread for others.
May we who drink pour out our love.
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.