Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Can you sing?

As if he doesn't get into enough blog-related trouble already, the indomitable Mark Shea today tackles an issue so divisive and so controversial that he is likely to ruffle the handful of Catholic feathers he has thus far managed to avoid ruffling: bad liturgical music:
As a resident of the Soviet of Washington, I have endured my share of "Hey! Check me out! I'm a MUSIC MINISTER!" "ministry". We all have, no doubt, our horror stories. I figure there are two basic ways to approach such matters. One is to lose your Christianity and call it "righteous anger" (a favorite approach of the anger addicts so often found in the reactionary dissent wing of the Church who snort bitterness like crystal meth and tell themselves they are thereby accomplishing some great good for the Kingdom of God). I have never seen any good--any good whatsoever--proceed from this approach. All it does is corrode and destroy the life of grace in the soul, alienate people who might otherwise have been attracted to the faith, and ensure that harried priests and music ministers who might otherwise be open to reason are frightened off by that pissed-off guy in the back pew who does nothing but murmur, grumble and complain. [...]

That said, of course, there is, as well, the fact that some music comes close to (and some music actually constitutes,) if not sacrilege, then at least an assault on the ears, on good theology, and on the prayers of the people (as in your case). Reactionary dissenters are often very quick to leap to 'sacrilege' as the charge. I'm not so convinced. Often music ministers are doing the best they know how with a willing heart of praise. To spit on their efforts too swiftly may put you in the position of spitting on the widow offering her mite: something I would not advise having on your resume at the Pearly Gates. But other times, you may really be dealing with the raw insertion of ego into the liturgy (I remember a woman in our parish who just could not refrain from jamming in a lick from Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" at the end of the (admittedly dreadful) "Sing of the Lord's Goodness" (both are in 5/4 time).) All it did was shout "Hey! Look at me! Aren't I witty?"

The first recommendation of the tradition to such little mustaches being painted on the Mona Lisa of the Mass is prayer. If we feel anger (and emotions will do what they do) then our task is to turn it to action, not just sit there stewing. A quiet and supportive word to the pastor--mainly emphasizing that you appreciate his hard work, while sandwiching in some positive way of directing the music toward its focus (i.e. God, and not the music ministers or our celebration of our Usness), with another slice of living bread again thanking him for his hard work and pledging what support you can give him--can go a long way. It's more or less what you want to hear on your job, right? Do you want to hear "You suck, you incompetent moron! Do better!" or do you want to hear "I'm with you all the way. Here's a place I think could improve the already fantastic job you are doing so that you will rock even more!"
Read the rest here.

Regular readers already know that I'm a member of my local parish choir, also known as the "music infliction team." (Just kidding. Sort of.) As a choir member with strong traditional leanings, I love it when we sing great old music and well-done newer stuff; I also hate it when we sing the gobs of utter dreck out there, most of it newer for the simple reason that the really old dreck doesn't tend to survive all that long (for an example of old dreck, see here. Yes, some traditional-minded people would argue that this piece is lovely and wonderful just because it is old, but I'm sorry--this is bad on so many levels: theologically, musically, poetically--"By the light of burning martyrs..."?? Really?? etc.). The point is that bad music existed before the Second Vatican Council, but bad music couldn't really do all that much to the tone of the Mass when hymns were relegated to an opening and closing hymn on occasion, with choir-produced chant, motets, etc. filling up the rest of the musical "space," so to speak.

Of course, even before Vatican II there were sometimes problems with a "runaway choir" which dragged out long chant settings and left Father waiting at the altar to proceed with the Mass. And the often-quoted passage by then Cardinal Ratzinger, “Whenever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of the liturgy has totally disappeared and has been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment...” is not exclusive to the post-Vatican II Mass; one problem (mainly in Europe) before Vatican II is that some tourists and other non-Catholics had a tendency to treat Masses as free concerts, to show up when some really good choir had some particularly challenging classical Mass setting planned in order to listen (and applaud) just as if they were in a concert hall. It is sobering yet funny to realize that at least our terrible post-Conciliar music has all but ended that practice, as you can hear better music almost anywhere besides a Catholic parish these days.

One of the biggest problems I have as a choir member is that the music books we use--the dreaded OCP hymnals--contain a large selection of music which is simply not good; some of it is theologically wrong, while other pieces are just trite or silly. I have more patience for the trite and silly than I used to, though, because I've encountered many people, both in real life and online, who tell stories of how this or that hymn means so much to them because it was sung at a relative's funeral or a wedding Mass or some other deeply moving occasion. For the theologically inept, though, I have less patience, and have voiced my opinions on occasion to our choir director, who is a thoroughly nice person and a good friend. The problem, though, is that the theologically bad stuff is there, in the hymnal, with the bishops' approval, and without the leadership of a good, musically inclined pastor it's almost impossible to get rid of that stuff altogether--I've even had pastors (in the past) who enthusiastically like some of the terrible stuff so much that they are pleased when it is scheduled and will ask for it when it's not. How are mere lay people supposed to say, "But, Father, doesn't this hymn really contain the heresy of consubstantiation?" when nobody else seems to have a problem with the piece?

Some people hear their parish choirs singing that sort of thing, and just give up. They close their hymnals, glare, and dream of better days. I used to be one of those people--until I realized that, having a fairly decent singing voice, I could probably do more good by being involved in the parish choir, even if it meant occasionally singing stuff I hate. And the truth is, most choirs are sorely in need of people who can sing and will show up for practice (mostly men; there are usually enough women, though not always). The funny thing is that since I've been in the choir I've realized that some of the traditional hymns will cause the same hymnal closing, glaring behavior among those people who hate the "old stuff," either because they associate it with bad memories from their young days, or because they are convinced that we have to "stay relevant" in order to attract teens, who apparently love music that was written in the 1970s or something.

If you can sing or play the sort of instrument that is appropriate for sacred music, and if you are not already so over scheduled in your life that a weekly hour or so of choir practice would be impossible--yet you prefer instead to sit in the pew and grumble about the music--then, my friend, I'm sorry to have to tell you, but you're part of the problem. I was, too (though there were some years when my girls were too young for me to contemplate being in choir; I don't want to make things harder for moms of young children who would love to be singing but can't for the near future). It's true that you won't transform a V-II choir into a schola cantorum overnight (and the thing that's holding us back from attempting some of that lovely Latin music is that we.have.no.bass.voices.and.can't.get.any.more.men.to.show.up....sorry, but I found a lovely 4-part piece for Easter the other day and realized that since the parts separate and layer and weave in and out we can't do it without experienced basses), but you'll never be able to expect that a handful of people who can barely (but enthusiastically) sing the melody line of rather simple pieces are going to be transformed into a choir capable of sacred polyphony unless you're willing to lend a hand.

Now, I realize that for many good singers the issue really is time, or the scheduling of practices, or a bad past experience with a choir director who refused to sing anything but "Gather Us In," or some such thing. But for others it's the same issue that keeps them from volunteering in other capacities at church: a fear of the committment, and of getting in over your head in some way. Still--why not try? We've had a few people join but then leave when they couldn't make practices or found the music too challenging--but there were no hard feelings, and we'd welcome any of them back in a second even if they only wanted to sit with us for one Mass and sing the melody line of the hymns.

Can you sing? If you can--and note, I'm not asking if you're a trained singer and can sight-read music and so forth--then instead of complaining about the dreadful music at Mass, why not see about joining the choir, provided you can make the time in your schedule without being overwhelmed? If you like good music, if you'd like the music at your parish to improve, if you'd be willing to work on and practice the good pieces to the best of your ability, if you can make even the not-so-good pieces sound better by using your good voice to give it a full, rich sound--why not try? If it's better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness, surely it's better to sing a clear, pure note than to cover your ears against the discord, right?


Carrie said...

Hurrah! I love your perspective on liturgical music, and it very closely matches my own.

This is my story: Our old parish before we moved to our current city didn't have a choir per se, but they were badly in need of cantors who had pitch and sang with devotion. Some of the music they chose was very lovely and traditional; some, as in most parishes, was simply awful, but I decided that instead of grumbling about how "I could do so much better if I did the music!", that I would offer my services as a cantor. I couldn't choose the music or how things were done, but at least I could sing for the Lord.

It was simply amazing how that simple act which required me to step off my high horse and swallow my pride worked wonders. The parishioners became enthusiastic about the music; they enjoyed the Mass; I daresay they were even more attentive. Honestly, I was utterly shocked at the difference such a small thing accomplished. Granted, the Mass is about so much more than the music, and it's not about whether or not anyone "enjoys" it; and I know it certainly wasn't ME who was accomplishing anything, but rather Christ through me ... but it was a humbling and beautiful experience at how, firstly, God can work beautiful things if we use our talents for Him, and secondly, by God's grace we can even bring some good out of some pretty horrible liturgical music if we sing it with a sincere heart full of devotion.

Bathilda said...

I sang in two choirs when I first joined the Church. One in a college town known for its music school, and one in a large midwestern town. Both were large choirs (over 35 people) and both sang largely classical pieces. The one in the college town had paid section leaders and was filled in by student music majors and adults in the parish. (it was not the campus church). The music minister was a PhD student in Organ music. Needless to say, it was glorious. beautiful to sing and challenging as a musician. Ditto the choir later in my years. We sang challenging music, most of which was classical or good contemporary. (Although we did sit in front behind the alter and wore choir robes. We jokingly called ourselves the Baptist Choir) Fast forward to my current parish. Gather us In and Sing of the Lord's Goodness (ref. in Shea's piece) are staples, and Red, you have humbled me. I indeed DO close the hymnal and refuse to sing (of the Lord's Goodness). That song is SO ghastly, and we sing it SO OFTEN, I just stand there, trying not to roll my eyes. I do stop short at glaring at anyone, though. I have been strongly considering throwing my voice into the ring at Church. OUr music ministry is really small considering that we have an enormous parish. Now our Priests require the psalm to be sung at the lectern instead of over at the music area. The separation from the piano is HUGE, and it causes a bad disconnect for the musicians. I think that this is technically correct for the church, but it's goofy, and it makes me shrink away from being a cantor. I simply don't want to "put myself out there" like that. I also don't want to seem like I agree with the five minute hideous responsorial psalms that we do at my parish. My old parish was the beautiful two line chant-type psalm. Short and sweet.

Anyway, the music is horrible, but nothing is worse than when the priest sings the entire Mass in this hippy crescendo thing-y in his off-key-but-he-doesn't-know-it voice. It's embarassing and completely takes away from the ritual. in my irreverent mind, I always picture him getting gonged on the Gong Show. (I should probably confess this) It has caused me to have the "church giggles" on more than one occassion. I've blathered enough, but you are right about Mark Shea, he needs to be part of the solution.

One more story...we took our kids to our old parish in our college town last Thanksgiving weekend. There is a magnificent organ there, and it's an old Cathedral style church with a loft. (our current church is auditorium style) They still do traditional music. After the opening hymn, my kids looked at me..radiant, albeit with a windblown look from that wonderful organ. I just gave them a knowing smile and said, "THAT'S and opening hymn!" They just smiled with saucer eyes and nodded in agreement. speechless. ready for Mass.

Nathan said...

Erin, you are brave to take on this can of worms as well! I endorse your approach to singing and music at Holy Mass.

I think there might be something deeper here, something most definitely NOT the fault of musicians, music directors, or pastors. My family did the music for a Mass at my daughters' school, and it struck me that, as we selected the music, that I was choosing the texts for Holy Mass. That's not right, even if I do a good job. On whose authority does a layman (or even a parish priest) choose texts of the Mass, especially what might be the most memorable (how many times do you remember the songs, and not which Eucharistic Prayer Father used?)

Take the First Sunday of Lent. We chose "Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days" as the Entrance. It's a fine hymn, but the Entrance Antiphon in the Missal was the tie between the Old Testament reading and the day's Gospel, from Psalm 90, the same psalm that the devil and Our Lord quote in the Gospel. Provided you can find the text set to music, which is the wiser choice? Who am I to replace what the Church has used as that text for centuries? And if we become accustomed to choosing texts, how much does Holy Mass become a refection of our personalities rather than worship of Almighty God?

The GIRM allows for pastors/musicians to "use a suitable song" in place of the Introit, Offertory Antiphon, and Communion Antiphon as the last, or least prefered, option. Shouldn't we think about giving the actual texts of the Holy Mass precedence? Couldn't the Catholic music publishers help us out a little?

In Christ,

Melanie B said...

I so wish I could sing. Oh how I wish I had even a lick of musical talent or that my family didn't groan when I try to sing. I would join the choir in a heartbeat (well, once I was no longer in the trenches of nursing babies). But I can't so I try to keep my complaining to a minimum and to pray for those in our parish who can sing. But oh I wish I could sing. Good for you, Erin, for doing something about it.