Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Church Musician As Artist

In his book Ein neues Lied fuer den Herrn, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger discusses the various ways in which verse seven of Psalm 47 has been translated. Some were rather inadequate, such as "Sing a psalm." Others have come closer to the truth, such as "Sing artistically," or "Play as an inspiration."

Sing artistically.

Art indeed had its beginnings as an expression of religion--the expression of religion, probably in the days before languages were spoken. It is the way in which religion has become manifest in this world from time immemorial. And yet the idea that one should "sing artistically unto God" is a stumbling block to many and a folly to others.

Pope Paul VI once lamented that in modern times the Church and the artists had walked away from each other. (Paul was himself a great lover of art.) This problem goes back to the beginning of the modern era, when the Enlightenment ideals began to reign supreme. Both parties--artists and churchmen--began to feel that they did not need the other, and a terrible separation ensued which lasts to this day, as well as a most lamentable suspicion of art and artists on the part of a large number of people in the Church. In many cases, art is even seen as contrary to religion.

This ecclesiastical suspicion of the arts is evidenced by the scourge of mediocrity that has descended upon sacred art in general--and perhaps upon sacred music in a most particular way. Contrary to the perceptions of some, this problem of musical mediocrity is not an issue stemming from the Second Vatican Council, for the examples of mediocre music go back at least to the 19th century. One need only scan the "White List" for a sampling of some of the most forgettable music ever written. On that list you will find works by the Cecilians, who were determined to bring back the Golden Age of Polyphony but who in fact understood very little of the theory or art of that era of music and who in fact harassed those very composers who were capable of writing truly great music. The true masters of polyphony were, for the most part, only footnoted on that "White List." Then there are the likes of the Rev. Carlo Rossini (who needs no introduction to those who've followed my comments on him) and Nicola Montani, editor of the St. Gregory Hymnal. Not all of the material in the St. Gregory Hymnal is bad, but enough of it is unimpressive so as to warrant it's own category in "File 13."

As the reader can see, a rather lengthy directory of lukewarm Catholic music can be produced without even mentioning "On Eagles' Wings" or "Be Not Afraid," let alone "Mother at Your Feet is Kneeling" or "Bring Flowers of the Fairest."

Mediocrity has long been the rule rather than the exception in Catholic sacred music, and churchmen of varying liturgical likes and dislikes are agreed on this point. It is seen in many places as a badge of honor and even an indication of "sincerity." Professional musicians are looked upon with suspicion, in spite of the fact that there is a very long line of distinguished professionals who devoted their lives to the praise of God through music. This lineage goes right back to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Many of the Church's better musicians have heroically tried to concoct elixirs for this epidemic mediocrity, only to be brushed back or beaten into submission. It seems that many of them end up going with the flow so as to keep food on the table. One of this writer's colleagues once lamented, "If I hear 'It's good enough' one more time....." Indeed, "excellence" seems to be defined as that which is better than mediocre. It's good enough.

Even if we could have done better.

One of the excuses put forth by many of the apologists of mediocrity is that singing high falutin' art music is not as important as ministering to the pastoral-liturgical needs of the faithful. Generally this problem is falsely set up as an "either or." For one thing, how pastoral is it to feed the people with musical stones (whether they come from the 1860's, the 1940's or the 1970's) instead of bread? For another, what's wrong with bringing the people up to the level of the music, rather than bringing the music down to the level of the people? (This presumes a rather poor level of taste amongst the people which I'm not certain is always accurate. The ones that scream are usually ideologues who presume to speak for "The People," even while the majority of people go along their merry way.) One priest who once interviewed me asked a question along the lines of how I see the musician as a minister. My response was that the musician ministers through music, so his first priority must be music. If the music is good, we musicians are well on our way to being good ministers. If it is not good, we are shirking our pastoral duties.

Indeed, it is the church musician's responsibility to God to be excellent. Any perceived popular demand for mediocrity is irrelevant. I had a teacher in college, a very successful trumpet player, who considered it his duty to God to practice every day. It was his vocation, and he took it seriously.

Too often, it seems as though we church musicians get bogged down in a rut, a rut that often comes from being expected by our superiors to meet low expectations. Anyone who dares to break the cycle of mediocrity is, in most cases, worn out by the harassment that ensues. This rut brings with it all manner of frustrations which I myself have felt. It can also bring a certain kind of despair in which the musician no longer takes the care to sing or play well, because it is too disappointing to work hard on a piece of music, only to be rebuffed by those who "know better."

It seems to me, however, that it is our duty to be prophetic witnesses in our lay apostolate to the power that beauty has in bringing people to Christ and His Church. In order to do this, we must think always as musicians--as artists. The going will be tough, and resistance will be found in some very surprising (i.e. "conservative") places, but we must stay true to our vocation, to our duty.

Outside of the obvious point of picking truly artistic and beautiful music (and in saying this I do not mean to disqualify congregational singing, as much that the congregation can sing is true art, e.g. a beautiful hymn or the Missa de Angelis), the main point which I would like to push pertains to our practice habits. Practice must be the priority of the musician's day. It must come first, if not chronologically, certainly in terms of priorities. No one wants a spiritual director who does not foster his own healthy prayer life; who would want a musician who doesn't practice the music for the most important hour of the week?

Practicing is a lot like a spiritual exercise; it can even be offered up as a sacrifice to God for His glory. It is something that must be attended to with regularity. Not too long ago, I was working on a Bach fugue, and had just about put the finishing touches on it when I allowed some other commitments to get in the way of my practicing schedule. I missed two days of practice, but lost two weeks worth of work on the Bach. Practicing must be done religiously.

The second area I'd like to look at involves hymn playing. To be pithy: Learn the proper way to play hymns, then throw the book away and play hymns like the truly beautiful songs they are meant to be. Most organists pound through congregational music in metronomic fashion. But listen to the way a group of people sing when music breaks out amongst them simultaneously. Sure, the pitch sags and the rhythms are inexact and the tempo drags, but besides all of that, they generally sing with expression. I have heard organists ruin the inherent beauty of a piece by insisting on a mathematical approach. Surely we want strong leadership from the organist, but not at the expense of beauty and musical expression.

Thirdly, with every ounce of enthusiasm that we have, we musicians must cultivate a love of truly artistic music amongst the people. Most are quite receptive to this if they are approached as the intelligent people that they are. Your enthusiasm will rub off on them, and great fruit will come from this. The best way to put a stop to the culture of mediocrity is to make people aware of those things which are better than that to which they've been exposed heretofore. I have done this mostly through speaking, whether in classes or by making introductory comments during rehearsals, etc.

Sing artistically. Play as an inspiration. Do not allow the mediocrity, the useless utility music, to run you down. Offer up a sacrifice of jubilation to God, who deserves the highest praise possible.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: