Saturday, January 26, 2008

Music and the Snob Question

The other day I posted about the claim that chant is really just music for the elites and snobs, not for common folks livin' out their faith in a plain and everyday sort of way.

The article I was addressing was from 1977--oh those culturally wonderful days of the 1970s--but the fact is that this observation is still with us. Every chant group that begins in a parish will eventually bump into this claim. People who are used to pop music in English are naturally going to look for a motivation for the change when the music suddenly changes to plainchant in Latin.

The people who gave us pop music made their motivation clear. They wanted music to be "relevant" to people's lives, immediately understandable to them in both language and style, and present a kind of uplifting groove so that people would find liturgy more enjoyable. That was that idea, at least as I understand it -- and those of us for whom this music inflicted a sense of misery were just not thinking with the community.

The point is that it is completely normal for people to look for an underlying motivation for change. The very clear motive for doing chant is plain as can be: musicians should seek to do what the Church is now asking of us, and always has. Chant is the music of the Catholic Church. It bears all three marks of what the Church calls sacred: holy, beautiful, and universal. It grew up with the Mass and is bound up with it in every way.

But what if this motivation is not made clear? What if the pastor is reticent about explaining it? What if the musicians themselves are shy about explaining it? Here is where the problems present themselves, and the claims about snobbery start appearing. If there is not an open and candid statement about the purpose here, people can be forgiven for reducing all matters of aesthetic controversy to matters of mere taste.

Probably I'm writing this post as a lecture to myself in some ways, because I've often believed that it is enough that people hear and experience chant in order to understand its primacy. And for many people that is enough. But not everyone, and maybe not a critical number. Let us never shrink from explaining with confidence the ideals of the Church, if only to put to rest these claims that the new liturgical movement is really just about high-brow tastes and nothing more.

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