Monday, November 10, 2008

Why Stasis in Ordinary Form Music?

Parish experience in the United States is highly diffuse and resists scientific assessment. But when you knew of a dozen cases of a similar phenomenon, there is probably a good chance that it is a generalized problem. I'm speaking here of parishes with pastors who know better but are unwilling to make a change in the liturgical status quo, particularly as it concerns music.

There is a main choir that does the standard has-beens from the 1970s, a groovy communion hymn, with a few 19th century favorites thrown in, but otherwise completely ignores the propers and is uninspired to sing chant (even the notation looks like gibberish to them). There is also a youth group that is without direction, and tries to sound like an easy-listening pop band doing Jesus music. Then there is the downer Mass (usually the vigil on Saturday) that features one cantor plus a pianist, and the repertoire is even more risk averse than the main Sunday Mass.

No change. Ever. One Sunday blends into the next and no one really complains. The pastor knows better, and he longs for sacred music in his heart, but he does nothing to change the status quo. I'll speculate on the reasons in a bit, but first I'll fill in some more detail.

Ever since the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum, the pastor has been intrigued by the possibilities of the old form. He studies it and he has even started saying it once a month. It began with Low Masses. But he has also cobbled together some stray singers who otherwise have nothing to do with the parish music program, and they work through Rossini propers and sing some old standbys, not great music but it still beats the ozzy-woozy sounds you get at the ordinary form in all the main Sunday Masses.

You look at the situation from the outside and wonder what the deal is. Why put this effort into the extraordinary form but do nothing about the stupor and tired status quo in all the main Sunday Masses? Of course status quo is always easier than change, especially in the area of parish music. There are always battles to fight, and all change rattles people in some way.

Priests are quite busy with hospital visits, parish functions, budget struggles, endless issues in the parish from weddings to funerals to lives falling apart everywhere. At the end of the day, who need to take on yet another contentious area of parish life when things seem to be going just fine and reliably week to week? Ninety percent of success in life is just showing up and these musicians at least do that. What more can you ask?

There is the additional problem that all these musicians are banging and strumming away every week, with cantors lining up for Mass after Mass, and none of them are being paid much if at all. To march up to them and say, you know, it would be great if you could do chant or something, risks insulting their labors up to now. Are you saying that they aren't very good? That wouldn't be very pastoral (codeword for "tolerate mediocrity"). You don't make special demands of the people who bring casseroles to potluck dinners, so why would you impose special demands on singers and instrumentalists? The pastor knows that chant and Latin are not part of their skill set, so the request is only going to annoy them.

Now, it would be different if a schola formed on its on within the parish, practiced every week, became rather good at what it is doing, and then requested to sing at a Mass. This is something that the pastor could go for, because allowing them to sing would amount to giving time off to the other singers and instrumentalists. Everyone is happy.

But the truth is that this is not likely to happen unless the pastor intervenes and encourages it. As one pastor told me: "What I need is someone in the parish to take the initiative, form the schola, rehearse the singers, learn the rubrics, and make it all happen from its own internal energy. At the same time, I'm also aware that people who can initiate, inspire, and implement are the rarest people there are in the world."

So true. But in doing nothing, and bemoaning the lack of leadership, the pastor is making a choice in favor of a model of music that is alien to the whole history of Catholic worship. It is a model that came about in something resembling a stylistic revolution in the late 60s and 70s, and though it is tired and dull like Soviet life in the 1980s, the reality of the revolutionary origins of the status quo should not be forgotten. It is not a permanent state of being. Profane music shabbily performed does not go with the Roman Rite; at some point, either the music or the Roman Rite has to go.

What is especially insulting in the case described above is that the pastor is willing to make the extra effort in the case of the extraordinary form--as well he should--but not apply energy to the whole ministry of the parish. Are these ordinary form attendees being treated like the workers and peasants who know no better and don't deserve any better? Is there is a subtle disparagement of their worthiness at the root of the problem? That is something to consider.

There is another mistake that pastors make in suspecting that no matter what the Vatican says, everyone knows that music in the ordinary form is a loosey goosey thing, not subject to any real standards. They need to understand that the ordinary form also has propers. It has prescribed chants for all parts of the Mass. It is no less accommodating to polyphonic music and sacred music generally. Allowances are made for the vernacular but Latin remains the norm in the sung parts of the Mass. It's true that these facts contradict the seminary conventions of the 80s and 90s, but this represents not a model but a failing.

Another factor that plays into this has to do with Father's own self-perceptions of his musical competence. He has grown accustomed to thinking of the musicians as these oddballs over there who have this peculiar skill of singing and playing, neither of which he possesses, so what business is it of his to intervene? He doesn't know much about the subject and is not entirely sure that he knows where or how to direct them to improve. If he gets in a tangle with them over resources and possibilities, he will surely lose – like arguing with the doctor over medicines and treatments. That could be humiliating, so it's better not to risk it.

There is a further problem of authority. There are all these established publishers and institutions that seem to say that what the choir is doing is perfectly fine within the structure of the ordinary form. If this music were really incompatible with the Roman Rite, why would 2/3 of American parishes subscribe to their publisher's misselettes? If these organizations were really promoting music that is contrary to the liturgical spirit, how is it that they attract thousands of people to their annual conventions and how is it that they are able to put out full-color glossy publications on the glories of music that is not so hot.

The pastor should recall that Soviet Life was also a very beautiful publication, and that the collected works of Stalin were beautifully printed by Progress Publishers (top seller: "The ABCs of Dialectical Materialism"). Appearances can mask underlying decay.

I believe that someday we will all wake up and wonder what the heck went wrong that for 40 years, the entire Catholic world lost track of the propers of the Mass, introduce silly songs into Mass, let the treasures of the Church rot in a closet, failed to teach the children to sing, let the organs fall into disrepair, and gave billions of dollars to institutions that were promoting everything but the music the Church. On that day, everyone is going to feel very silly and embarrassed.

So why not give history a push forward and start reversing the error today? Contrary to what many priests believe, music has a massive influence on the shape and character of the liturgy. It is not something that can be overlooked. No matter how beautiful the vestments, no matter how thoughtful the homily, no matter how pious are the servers, insofar as all of this is framed up by the religious equivalent of the Mamas and the Papas, people will just not take it seriously. This is not merely a matter of ornamentation. The music of the Mass is integral to what people experience about the Mass. It is the major contributor to the aesthetic and it affects what people believe and how they live.

Yes, it is easier to let the status quo continue forever. It is easier, but it is irresponsible. It is crucial that pastors exercise leadership here. They must urge the formation of scholars. They must support them. They must not allow themselves to be intimidated or talked down to. They should treat the refusal to change as an act of insubordination, they same as they would with a parish secretary who couldn't meet deadlines for the Sunday bulletins. People will respond, and it is the right thing to do. The pastor who takes the initiative here and doesn't shy away from the hard choices is a hero and he deserves all our support.

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