Sunday, February 15, 2009

Eliminating Bad Music

Many young priests arrived in parishes fresh out of seminary and despair at the pathetic quality of music they must deal with. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could just push a button and replace the saccharin ballads of the 1970s with dignified plainsong and Gregorian chant. The issue is that all music, no matter how bad, has a way of burrowing into the fabric of the life of any community in any setting.

Even those who know that the music is unsuitable will favor it over what is unfamiliar, simply because all new things come with a learning curve. Even music that his historically integral to the Roman Rite might initially seem like an alien presence as compared with historically unprecedented music that is well-known and yields a certain sense of comfort.

A necessary first step is for the pastor to deal directly with the musicians and explain the need for progress and change. How long does this take? I just spoke with a pastor who has been at a parish for two years—4,000 families with 40 choir members plus an organist and director of music. After two years of hints and requests and nudging here and there, and after having socialized with choir members during this period, he has managed to build support for plunging in. Several members will be attending training programs this summer, and the choir is getting the Parish Book of Chant.

The next issue concerns parishioners, and here there are tougher nuts to crack. There are some people of a late middle-age generation who recoil at the slightest sound of chant. They are instantly driven to sputtering incoherently about the return of the Dark Ages and how the whole point of Vatican II was to leave all this behind once and for all. Forget about evidence from documents, issues of aesthetics, quotes from conciliar and postconciliar popes, or examples of other parishes that have successfully reformed; none of this matters. There is problem not a strong basis for optimism that everyone in this crowd can be swayed.

There is a much older generation that will of course greet the return of chant with great joy and comfort. They will tell lovely stories of learning it in school, and be able to recall some particular chants. These are wonderful stories to hear because they illustrate that chant really was part of the cultural fabric of preconciliar Catholicism—not ubiquitous and not nearly as central as it should have been, but it was there. It made a mark on the people who experienced it. They adjusted to the new realities of the 1970s but feel a sense of returning home when hearing it again.

The real hope, however, as everyone knows, is with the young people, who are open to all kinds of new possibilities, and particularly with new liturgical approaches that stand some chance of upsetting the stupor of the status quo. If a parish has Mass times that are demographically segmented—I know of none that do not—the Mass attended by high school and college-age kids, along with young adults, are the ones that are best selected as the occasions for pushing forward.

Here is a passage from Catholic Church Music by Richard Terry, England's great master. He is writing in 1908 concerning the English experience. He writes of an experience in which good music was cultivated in the young as a way of gradually pushing out bad music, without ever having to do violence to the sensibilities of those who love the status quo:

The writer knows of one church where all these bad tunes were eliminated in the course of a single generation by a very simple process. At the public services for adults, no change was made in the old tunes, but the children in the schools were never allowed to sing them, and at the children's Mass and on other occasions, good tunes were substituted for the popular ones sung by their elders. By the time the children had grown to youth, they had become as familiar with, and as fond of, the good tunes as their elders were of the bad ones, and so the new tradition was established. If our Hymnology is to be improved it must be by educating the taste of the younger generation, and not by doing violence to the prejudices of the elder, however mistaken we may think them to be.


Now, several conditions have changed in the 100 years. He is speaking here of hymnody used in Vespers and Benediction and other occasions, and not so much and often at Mass itself. Nowadays, Mass alone has become the musical battleground, which is gravely unfortunate. There is another problem that children are not being taught music in a Catholic school setting as they once were, and children’s choirs in parishes are far less common than they once were, so his solution has to be adapted to new times.

A more fundamental problem exists that makes our current situation worse than the one of which he speaks. The trouble is that a vast amount music heard at Mass these days is in fact intolerable, not just on grounds of taste, but on grounds that the music represents a violent attack on the Roman Rite and some of it actively works to undermine the Catholic faith. In these cases, I see no option to an outright crackdown, as the Vatican recently did concerning the use of the tetragrammaton in some music. The obligation to stop this music is a pastoral duty, the same as correcting grave doctrinal error in a parish. It is just part of the obligation that comes with being a priest.

There is a phrase for a priest who does this: a hero of the faith.