Friday, January 8, 2010

Do we hear what she hears?

Last month, I wrote about Christmas songs, particularly the ones people don't much like. My husband Thad dislikes Do You Hear What I Hear; and though it's past Christmas now I just found this great commentary on the song by comedian Tim Hawkins:

Now, I know there are probably people out there who love the song Do You Hear What I Hear. Perhaps they have fond memories of singing it, or of hearing their children perform it at a children's Christmas pageant. Perhaps it's the sort of song that just pleases them for reasons they can't quite analyze. Music is, after all, sometimes a very personal thing.

Every time I write about sacred music, I hear from some people who point this out. Who are we, goes some of the thinking, to impose our ideas about sacred music on our fellow Catholics? What if Gather Us In is, to them, a stirring and fitting song for a processional hymn? What if they cry whenever they hear On Eagle's Wings because the song was played at their grandmother's funeral? What if Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence or a chant setting of a prayer in Latin leaves them cold?

These emotional responses to songs or hymns are deeply personal, and shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. But the problem, when it comes to sacred music, is that when sacred music is part of the liturgy it can't be understood chiefly at the level of personal appeal; it can't be too much at the whim of the personal tastes or emotional responses of the music director, choir, congregation, or even pastor. Why? Because the Mass is not private. It is the highest and best act of worship, and it requires a certain amount of unity and uniformity in its music as in its ritual.

So instead of asking ourselves with sacred music as we do with secular or popular music, "Do I like this?" we should be asking whether the music fits with the Church's idea of fitting worship. This is not something we have to guess about; this is something that the Church makes pretty clear, by preferring chant, by differentiating between the sacred and the secular or profane, and by her rich history of sacred music from which we can draw and in which we can find inspiration.

When we join in song at Mass, are we listening to the Church? Do we hear what she hears, in terms of what ought to be sung? Or do our personal preferences, our likes and dislikes that can have a million different explanations, get in the way?


Siarlys Jenkins said...

Thanks for the link. Hawkins is indeed funny, and without being blasphemous or disrespectful. When it comes to Christmas music, my taste runs entirely to the sacred. I hate "Dreaming of a White Christmas" and "Silver Bells" and "Home for the Holidays." I want to hear the traditions of what the holiday is about, not lyrics about the face that we are celebrating it. "Do you hear what I hear"? Not my favorite. Maybe its because I don't like male soloists. I like mixed choirs. Westminster Cathedral and St. Paul's and St. Mary's are both excellent.

Geoff G. said...

Just to add a historical note to this argument, there's lots of major changes that have happened to sacred music over the centuries. Some of the biggest include the introduction of polyphony, the introduction of musical instruments and the introduction of female voices.

There's also always been an element of popular music crossing over into the sacred realm. As an example, there's an entire Mass written in the 15th century based on a popular secular tune of the time called L'Homme Armé.

It's actually very common for religious themes to creep into secular music (IIRC I cited some Anglo-Saxon examples recently) as well as for popular secular music to end up in religious services. Always has been.

And why shouldn't it be? Musicians are constantly borrowing good bits from each other without regard for what's "sacred" and what's "profane."

Moreover, look at all of the great composers who moved back and forth between the secular and religious realms. Bach, Mozart, Händel, Beethoven, Verdi and many others wrote music for the Catholic Church that drew extensively on their secular music as well.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

...not to mention the adaptation of Gospel music as the foundation for rock and roll. But when looking for meaning, the lyrics are what count. The tune carries the lyrics. (Nobody I knew in high school agreed).

lp said...

Just out of curiosity, why is On Eagle's Wings often called out as a poor example of a modern hymn? The verses are faithful to Psalm 91, and the refrain is based in Isaiah--possibly the imagery appears elsewhere in Scripture as well.

At least in terms of the lyrics, it seems acceptable for liturgical use. Yet I've come across several bloggers who express annoyance whenever it pops up at Mass.

And, full disclosure: I have fond memories of the song at grade school Masses growing up, so maybe I'm emotionally biased! :)