Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Thought About Sacred Music

Recently I played a gig at a reception at an African American church that was celebrating the birthday of one of its highest ranking leaders. There was a lot that went into the festivities (such as the good food that I got to eat--a great perk), and they carefully planned an entire evening of live musical entertainment (canned, mass-produced music was conspicuously absent), for which I accompanied a friend on two opera arias.

Among the other entertainers was the gospel choir of said church. I marvelled at how they sang this music. I leaned over to my friend and said, "This might shock you, but I love this stuff." She was indeed shocked, but I went on to say, "I guess the shortest explanation for this is that it's real culture."

Real culture. This music is created by grassroots people rather than studio artists, and it's in their bones. It was amazing to watch the choir's bodily movements during the singing. I don't know how a group just "does" something like that. It was as if they all knew each other and the music intimately. I thought to myself, "These people own this music. It is part of their faith." At the same time, gospel music has developed through time a respectable tradition, so while it is "owned" by the people now, it comes to them from their ancestors, and even modern gospel music clearly owes a debt to the music that has come before it.

Then I got to thinking about Catholic sacred music. Let's be honest: While things are indeed improving in places, clearly, save for a few of us enthusiasts, Catholics no longer identify with the Church's music (i.e. chant and polyphony) the way the aforementioned gospel choir indentifies with its music. Many prefer instead to use music packaged by studio artists, music which is neither traditional nor of the people.

This brings to mind an immense challenge as we try to reform the sacred music of the Church. What do we do to restore the treasury of music to a pride of place not only within the four walls of a church building, but also within the souls of the faithful? It seems to me that there is no easy answer for this and that the solutions that seem likely to work are apt to meet with heavy resistance and require a lot of patience, such as teaching children from very young ages so that they associate chant with church, and sticking with the repertoire even if it doesn't "take" in the first year, fifth year, or even tenth year. We also need to be writing new music that is clearly indebted to the traditional music of the past. Nevertheless, this is a problem from which we must not shrink, for if someday every Mass is sung with Gregorian chant and yet the people are not edified by it, then ultimately we have lost.

Tonight, I made a phone call to a friend to whom I'd owed a reply for some time. Someone else picked up the phone but played games and wouldn't tell me who it was. Then I figured it out; it was an old friend with whom I'd not spoken in a while. Isn't it wonderful when we recognize someone's voice over the phone? I think that hearing Gregorian chant in church is a bit like that. We hear it and we recognize an old dear friend and we know where we are and what we're doing. Someday, may it be so for every man in the pew.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: