Friday, December 07, 2007

Why Bishops (and Priests) Don't Take Music Seriously

This blogger raises an interesting point.

It occurred to me today that the same bishops who voted on “Sing to the Lord” (SttL) were once the parish priests who thought “Be Not Afraid” was just fine for funerals. In other words, I wonder if we don’t have a musically illiterate episcopate in this country.

And how many of us have pastors who appear simply not to care how well the liturgy is celebrated? It is out of this pool that the U.S. bishops have been selected. Again: the bishops who voted on SttL were the pastors when “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” was a responsorial psalm in the 1980s.

He continues on with this line of thinking, and it comes down to a serious problem that music is just not taken seriously by many who are in charge of legislating on the subject.

What he doesn't really answer is why. With this in mind, I would like to offer a theory. For as long as any living person can remember, the music of the Mass has mostly (there are exceptions but I'm speaking about a general rule) consisted of: picking hymns from the hymnbook and singing them. Point and sing.

The only real talent here is really a task-based skill of being able to play a keyboard or strum a guitar. There's just not a lot to it, and hasn't been for a very long time. It's not rocket science in this model. It is transparently easy in every way. Is it any wonder that neither the people who do this and nothing more (whether as professionals or volunteers), nor their craft, do not elicit a great deal of respect from the clergy? And can we really understand the fullness of the liturgical endeavor without understanding the music that is attached to it? I don't think so, or at least we can't appreciate what a gorgeous integration of theology and art the liturgy represents.

I recently had the experience of working very closely with a team of priests who are working toward dramatic liturgical improvements. In the process, I've noticed something interesting. Their respect for and appreciation of the role of music has increased the more that they know about the propers, the ordinary chants, the difficulties of singing Gregorian music, the thematic complications and artistic difficulties of polyphony, the coordination and rehearsal time associated with knitting together all the individual pieces within a framework of established tradition, and much more.

Once we get away from the 4-hymn model and move into whether the Church wants us to be as musicians, the attitudes toward what we do begin to change. The priests realize that everyone has a lot to learn from the music embedded within the Mass (not hymns but the music of the Mass itself), that it is as much as source of teaching as the homily, that the music is bound up withe liturgy and intimately related, that it is exceedingly difficult, that it has much to offer the ministry of the Catholic Church -- when they come to realize this, attitudes begin to change.

I've seen this year by year at the CMAA colloquium too. The priests who attend come away with a completely different view toward what Catholic music is all about. The realize that it is not just a line in the budget that pays people to accompany hymns. It is an expertise that is closely coordinated with the action of the celebrant. They realize just how much rehearsal is involved. They begin to think of music as not just accompaniment to the main action but rather a structural part of the liturgy itself. Then it all begins to take on a new meaning. They begin to take it seriously.

So this is a catch 22 situation. So long as musicians themselves are not called to a higher standard, they will not elicit respect from Church leaders in either the practical or intellectual areas. But so long as they do not inspire leadership to take the issue seriously, they will not be called to a higher standard.

What this means is that musicians themselves need to be self-starting and do what they know needs to be done. Gradually and slowly over time, we can expect attitudes to change. But if we just stick with picking hymns, the musical aspect of liturgy will begin to get all the respect it deserves and this might eventually be reflected in legislation. After all, it was the work of Solesmes that inspired Tra le sollecitudini.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: