Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Can the Catholic Church Be a Patron of the Arts Again?

Does the Catholic Church still support the musical arts? The contrast between the Renaissance and today is striking, when you take a step back and look at it. There was a time when every world-class composer had Cathedrals and Bishops competing for their attention, and the demands on their services—composition, teaching, rehearsal—were intense. Today, music for liturgy is mostly a commercial venture backed by quasi-secular outfits that create and push music through the conventional pro-profit methods that relying heavily on the copyright-royalty model.

The separation between these publishers and the needs and desires of Cathedrals regular Catholic parishes is deep. A very strange indifferentism and agnosticism afflicts the culture of these publishers, such that hardly anyone in the management structure itself really believes in the bulk of what they are doing—not the employees, not the composers of their music, and not those who are recording the music for demonstration purposes. Hardly anyone is happy with the system as it stands, and that is especially true of Catholic musicians at the grass roots level.

I'm all for free enterprise, but to what extent should purely commercial interests dictate what music dominates Catholic liturgy? There is a serious problem here. The sounds and texts that the Church asks for in her official documents are not those of the commercial marketplace. Instead, they need to be produced on the model of the university of old or the Church herself—less of a profit and loss model and more of a benefactor/expenditure model.

In fact, the other day I attempted a test of the proposition that you can know that music is not appropriate for Mass if you can find something like it on AM-FM radio. So far, I've not found an exception to the rule. There might be some commercial radio somewhere that can make a buck playing Josquin and Byrd, but I have my doubts.

In any case, what is need in our time is what the Church provided in the past: support for new composition and distribution of liturgical music. A major advantage here is that this will further remove us from the copyright/royalty model of the commercial marketplace and assist in promoting music in way that doesn't tax parish financial resources. Commercial publishers have become insanely obsessive on the one topic of prohibiting piracy, so much so that they forget that the real problem serious liturgical composer in our time face is not piracy but obscurity. They need to find ways to get the word out about their work.

Todd Flowerday on a radio debate with me the other day proposed a number of practical suggestions that I think the US Bishops should think about seriously.

1) The Bishops should use every major liturgical event to commission new pieces of music. Think in particular of the Papal Masses in the United States, and the enormous controversy surrounding the hodgepodge of music that was selected. A much better route would have been to select one of the many serious American composers in the Catholic Church today (a list would have to include Kevin Allen, Kurt Poterack, Michael Lawrence, Don Roy, Richard Rice, among many others) and commission a major setting of the Ordinary parts of the Mass or of the Propers. This action would have made those Masses not only impressive events for Catholics but would have also shown that liturgy remains an important venue for serious art as well. There are many opportunities to do these apart from Papal Masses. Corporate matching gifts can be sought. There are many creative ways.

2) Bishops should consider purchasing the rights on serious compositions suitable for general use and republishing them under a Creative-Commons-type license and making them available for free download. This would take financial pressure off parishes that end up spending thousands of dollars to pay for music every year, money which ends up not in the hands of composers but mostly in the coffers of the big publishers themselves. Putting an end to this problem would be a major contribution.

3) Continue the pressure on ICEL to make its texts free to the world, not only for free download but also for commercial use. As it is, everyone who publishes the text of the Mass has to pay very high royalties to ICEL, which, despite assurances that the money is well spent, runs contrary to the charitable spirit of the faith. I'm not sure how else to put this: there is something that is just unseemly about the idea of profiting from selling the right to print the Mass texts. If the Bishops wanted to put an end to this strange system, they could do it in one day. This one action would open up the field for new composition and for the re-setting and re-publication of older works.

The Church Music Association of America is doing its part by encouraging composers to set the new Mass texts and publish these settings under a Creative Commons attribution license. What this license does is permit the free and commercial distribution of these settings without any limit whatsoever. Fire up those photocopy machines. The only restriction is that the source music be acknowledged. This is one step short of public domain, and a wonderful model.

How do artists and composers get paid under this system? This is where commissions, benefactors, and arts patrons have a big role to play. No one is in a better position than the US Bishops to raise money for this purpose. The arts community would be thrilled, and benefactors would emerge if they knew that their support were needed. There is hardly a Catholic alive is happy with the way music is in Mass. Everyone has an incentive to make a contribution. All that is needed is an organized effort.

In the end, no serious artist is finally happy and fulfilled with the "art for arts sake" model of composition and performance. The Church needs to become their haven for producing works of immortal value, and should always stand ready to accept their gifts when they are ready to be given. But today, serious musicians are mostly not attracted to liturgical venues, simply because it seems that the Church isn't very interested. This can change with a heightened consciousness.

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