Friday, July 9, 2010

Sing a new song...PLEASE!

Mark Shea has a couple of terrific posts up about liturgical music. From the first link:
One of the things I've noted in the past is that my friend Sherry Weddell has remarked that wherever she goes, she hears roughly the same twelve or so OCP hymns at every liturgy. Conspiratorial minds may discern a sinister pattern of indoctrination here. I think the answer is much simpler: your average suburban parish works on the Warm Body principle. The nearest Warm Body is asked to do whatever needs done. So the guy who can play four chords winds up leading the music and doing the four or five songs he knows. The repertoire expands to the other songs that other music leaders in the area know. Lather, rinse, repeat. Most people aren't giving the crappy lyrics a thought ("Something something God. Something something new. Something something life. Something something Spirit. Something or other Jesus and joy!") Those of us who care what lyrics say put the best construction we can on them and, where the lyrics are obviously revolutionary tracts disguised as hymnody, just don't sing them.

I do think Bender had a point in the thread of discussion that followed the Anchoress' remarks on the subject. Namely, that people who express nothing but contempt for the music used in Mass risk treating the musicians who offer it with contempt, when they are often giving (like the widow with the mite) the best they have. I'll take lousy music offered with a good heart over great music offered in cold Pharisaic pride any day. I often wonder how folks who try to help out with music at Mass feel when they read the boulders of sheer contempt that rain down on their heads in combox threads like those over at First Things. Can't be rewarding to offer the best you know how and then find a battalion of critics, reeking with disgust, contempt and mockery, spitting on your offering to God. So while I empathize with the critics of the bad music and heretical lyrics, I tend to want to say "Remember that as you rain down artillery on that position, there are civilians, women and children in there." [Link in original--E.M.]
As I've mentioned here before, my whole family sings with our parish choir. Being on the "inside" of the liturgical music situation has clarified many things about what Mark's post title calls "our wretched hymnody" that I didn't realize before. Here are a few of them:

1. Choir directors come from all sorts of backgrounds and experience levels, and some of them volunteer their time This may limit the music selection at your parish. Our director grew up as an Eastern Rite Catholic, for instance, and changed to the Roman Rite when she married--and the Eastern Catholics have a different (and beautiful) music tradition. She's more familiar, in terms of what's actually in our hymnals, with relatively modern music than with the older stuff; but we do a fair mix of both, anyway.

2. Congregations generally like the more "modern" music, even if it's deficient from a sacred music perspective. This is especially true in parts of the country where there are large numbers of converts who have no experience whatsoever of liturgical music before Vatican II. I have heard a few positive comments when our choir has sung a Latin hymn, for instance--but I've also heard someone complain for a good bit of time about all the "old" music we're singing, and how the young people were going to be driven away from the Church if we didn't try to make the music more hip and upbeat.

3. Few priests are both well-versed in sacred music and either able or willing to provide the proper leadership in regards to music at the parish level. I've had three pastors in the last ten years, and only one of them was (and still is) really knowledgeable about music and willing to set standards, nixing some hymns altogether on the grounds of theological deficiency while encouraging the frequent singing of some others--one of his favorites is "Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All." Interestingly enough this priest is himself a convert from the Episcopal church. But I do understand why some priests have not thrown themselves into the hymn battle; some, especially, it seems, some of those who are around forty to fifty years old, may not have been taught much about sacred music, while others have enough fights between factions at the parish without declaring themselves to be champions of traditional music.

4. The availability of traditional music may be limited by the hymnals the parish has, subscribes to, etc. We get paper hymnals from OCP, like many parishes. Our pastor actually wanted to order permanent books this year--until our choir director reminded him that all the Mass parts will be changing by about Advent of 2011 (506 days and counting!!). We're waiting until then to buy the permanent books, as it would be a waste of money to buy books now and then have to do so again when the new Mass translations are implemented.

In the meantime, though, those OCP hymnals only contain so many hymns. And the more traditional music is rather limited. While we have considered getting the Adoremus hymnals for our parish, I think we may end up with a version of the Gather hymnal. Though the Gather gets a lot of negative criticism (much of it deserved), it really does have a greater availability of traditional hymns than the OCP books I've seen--yet our congregation wouldn't be completely lost.

5. Not all old music is good. Not all new music is bad. There's a tendency to put anything composed before Vatican II in one music "basket," and anything composed after in another, and then to see the former as good and the latter as bad. That's not really true--there are old hymns the retirement of which was a mercy. (I'm personally not terribly fond of this one, for example; I sang it once with a college choir, and the line, "By the light of burning martyrs/Jesus' bleeding feet we track..." just seemed, anyway.) While it's quite natural to make a list of all the modern hymns which are earworms and which we hate and won't sing, etc., it's easy to forget that there were some awful clunkers in the past, too. Why didn't it seem to matter? Probably because the Mass was sung, not just hymns. Hymns didn't have the importance they seem to have now. On the other hand, the choir did the singing, from what I've heard.

I could probably think of half a dozen or so more things I've learned, but the one thing I've learned most of all is this: restoring our musical heritage is something that's going to come very, very slowly at the level of most parishes. Yet it needs to happen; it must happen.

Music is part of how we pray at Mass--and that's why, if we really want to sing a new song that's more like those older ones, we have to fix the Mass settings first. This past Lent, our choir sang the Latin Chant Mass settings for the whole season--and you know what? We could sort of hear which hymns sounded good with the solemnity of those settings, and which ones were off.

Our director then chose one of the modern, skippy, "upbeat" settings for Easter--and suddenly the solemn and majestic hymns clashed with the rather banal Mass setting. The hymns won't get better until the Mass music itself does--and we've lived for forty-plus years with the dreadful, the silly, the boring, the hideous and the ugly, in terms of the music we sing from the Gloria to the Agnus Dei; if we don't fix those, then the problem of which hymns to sing will persist. The musical foundations of the liturgy are cracked, crumbling, and in need of immediate repair, and we're spending much of our energy quibbling over the mismatched stained glass windows, some of which were built in the old traditional style while others resemble geometric gelatin. While we're busy arguing over the glass, the support pillars are decaying inside.

The new Mass translation is coming, and that will mean new musical settings for the music of the Mass. We need to get this right--because no matter how majestic and ineffable the new translation is, if we set the glorious prayers to music that sounds like it was inspired by Godspell then we won't be singing a new song at all, but the same tired old campfire song.


Anonymous said...

Good job Erin!! I love the fact that you never throw the baby out with the bath water.

Jacque Buntin

freddy said...

How To Get Better Music At Mass

1. Praise your choir. Even if they sound like elevator music in a cave, at least take the time to thank them for the gift of their time.

2. If your choir does a piece that you appreciate -- tell them! But don't just praise them as performers, make sure you mention how meaningful, what an aid to prayer, etc. the piece was.

3. If you are asked to join the choir, never refuse on the grounds that you don't have time. That's just insulting! Say you sing like a dying bullfrog, or that your youngest child is at "that stage," but unless you're an obstetrician or in law enforcement, don't say you don't have the time!

4. Volunteer to help host the punch and cookies served after Midnight Mass and Easter Vigil for the choir, servers, and their families. (Your parish does this, right?)

5. Make a polite and specific request for a particular piece of music. If your choir director is unfamiliar with it, go out and find it an purchase it yourself. Attach a polite note, such as, "This was my grandmother's favorite and I'd love to hear it again." or, "I heard this on vacation in Europe and thought of our choir."

6. Get all your friends to do the same, then

7. Fold your hands, thank God and enjoy the music!

(the word verification: cings (!))

Red Cardigan said...

Thanks, Jacque! :)

Freddy, I love your suggestions, too! But I would cut people slack on #3. Choir does get time-consuming, especially during Lent and Advent, and people have to be realistic about their commitments.

Unless they are men who can sing bass. Then the common good demands that they *find* time. ;)

melanie said...

Maybe the point is mute because everything will change for the better soon... But what our priest did that seemed to work well was allow the early mass 7:30am to sing more traditional music, and the later mass 10:30am to sing anything involving guitars and tambourines...this did work because if you really cared you got yourself up for early mass. Win win. And no I don't go to early mass. Sleep trumps horrible liturgical music in my book apparently. I am making a joke of it, but I think father was on to something in figuring out away to make everyone happy, God love him.

Rebecca in CA said...

Great post Erin.

Have you looked at the St. Michael hymnal? I have heard that it has a much fuller selection than the Adoremus. It is apparently geared to be a kind of transition hymnal, so it has some of the less offensive newer ones but also tons of more traditional stuff so you can gradually make the shift.

I agree, too, that not all of the older hymns are very good. I know I'm way too picky but some I find to be too stuffy or cheesy or Prot. I kind of feel like there should be some writing of music for congregations going on, very unlike what is going on at the OCP. But you're right, first things first. Mass settings first, and there are already so many good ones that we can all start there.

freddy said...

Erin, thanks!
Re: #3, I think you may have misunderstood a bit. I only meant that to be courteous to your choir and develop a good relationship, the usual quick "I don't have time" may be easily miscontrued to mean that one has better things to do with one's time than join choir and should be avoided in favor of a more complete and specific answer. Sorry!

Anonymous said...

Erin, at 44, I think I am a few years older than you, but I think that my exposure to the older liturgical music you usually prefer has been much more limited than yours.

I did go to parochial school for grades 6-8, in the late 1970s, and the only songs that I can remember learning then that might be the type of older songs you generally prefer are in Latin, the O Sanctissima and Christus Vincit. Am I close?

The Mass I attend could be called the "folk" Mass, with its standard guitar playing. I've never liked "folk" music in Mass - give me an organ and a choir any day - but I don't do mornings. The folk Mass is relegated to 5:30pm on Saturdays, so that's what I get. Though I DO appreciate the individuals who faithfully perform the music and I have told them as such.

Anonymous said...

but I've also heard someone complain for a good bit of time about all the "old" music we're singing, and how the young people were going to be driven away from the Church if we didn't try to make the music more hip and upbeat.

Curious - did this comment come from a young person?

Red Cardigan said...

No, Anonymous; it came from an older person. I can't imagine any young person actually thinking "Gather Us In" was a "hip, relevant" song! :)

The TORCH said...

I am all for more traditional hymns at Mass but why is it that white Catholics feel the need to s-l-o-w d-o-w-n every hymn or psalm? It doesn't matter which church parish I'm visiting, if it's a suburban or rural mostly white congregation, the music will be sung at a crawl (unless it's a LifeTeen Mass or something). Heck, I've even heard choirs slow a song down in the midst of singing.

Melanie B said...

I'm not a musician, but I wonder if they don't slow down in the (obviously mistaken) hope that it will somehow make it easier for the congregation to sing along? Or maybe it's just the sort of problem that amateur musicians are more apt to have, especially without a good director to keep them at a proper speed?