Friday, February 27, 2009

Needed: A Forward Look for Sacred Music

Here is my introduction to Sing Like a Catholic, now on Amazon:

In 1995, Thomas Day published a book called Why Catholics Can’t Sing. It was daring and brave, and it shocked many Catholics out of their stupor.

He wrote that Catholic music is in dreadful shape. Our hymns are pathetic. Our Mass settings are uninspired. Our singers are weak and egotistical. Our parishes don’t pay musicians and don’t reward excellence, and we are paying the price for this. Our celebrants don’t sing. Even our hymnbooks are an embarrassment. We’ve lost our traditions, he continued, among which even simple plainsong and chant.

Some cheered him; some condemned him. But it did get attention. It was a wake-up call.

The book wasn’t filled with new revelations about the particulars. The revelation for many was that the problem was not limited to their own parishes. It was a pervasive problem, one that defines the whole.

As a columnist and daily blogger in Catholic music, I have to admire the courage it took to say what he said. I can’t even imagine what kind of abuse he must have dealt with from the Catholic music establishment (for lack of a better term), which until then was a self-satisfied lot. To say, as a professor of music at a Catholic college, that the Catholic Church had been led into a pit of bad taste and shoddy practice must have caused the ceiling to crash in on him.

That was fifteen years ago. Today we are fortunate that something is being done about the problem. There is a new debate, and, more importantly, there are new solutions being put into practice in our parishes.

This new debate is what this book is about. It chronicles how we are moving from the world of Professor Day, one in which Catholics can’t sing, to a world in which singing like a Catholic is considered a glorious thing. It is the fulfillment of a brilliant heritage of singing that began in the Apostolic age with chant, continued through the middle ages with the invention of the musical staff and the Renaissance with soaring heights of the polyphonic idea, and all the way through the later centuries with orchestral and organ Masses.

Now, a bit about me. My father was a church music director, and I sang under him as a kid. Today I am director too, with an unpaid position as director of polyphony for a local Catholic parish choir, the St. Cecilia Schola, in Auburn, Alabama. Indeed, I’m a complete amateur who dropped out of music school because I couldn’t stand the secularity and arrogance that seems integral to the craft. I turned to economics as a vocation.

Later in life, I discovered Catholic music and after some years of study and practice, I jumped back in. I now write monthly, weekly, daily columns on the topic, and lecture, and teach as time allows I’m also the managing editor of Sacred Music, under the mentorship of editor William Mahrt of Stanford University. The journal, which has been around 135 years, provides a publishing venue for Catholic musicians to share insights, debate, communicate, offer results of research, and explain the seemingly infinite variety of spiritual and intellectual implications of music for liturgy. Its specialization is sacred music, which is not just any music but music especially suitable for liturgy, which leaves time and strives to touch eternity. I also serve as the publications director, and was involved in the production of The Parish Book of Chant (CMAA, 2008).

I’m also involved in the workings of the Church Music Association of America. These are the training grounds of the new epoch. The crowds and its programs are too varied to characterize simply. The average age is 40 or so, and most people are parish music directors or musicians. There are also many priests who come to learn to chant their parts. We divide into polyphonic choirs and chant choirs. We prepare propers and ordinary settings for Masses, as well as Motets for Holy Hour, and Psalms for Vespers. We also hear lectures on theology, conducting, resources, singing technique, as well as critical discussions of the chant repertory. It is rigorous, fun, and spiritually life changing.

This is one new trend. Another is the rise of Praise and Worship music. There is a difference between “glory and praise music” of the 1970s and the new trends in pop Catholic music, just as there is a difference between the tango and the salsa. But neither style partakes of the marks of sacred music: holy, universal, beauty of forms.

The change from G&P to P&W strikes me as part of a changing fashion, like the width of ties. This book argues that what we need is a paradigm shift that takes seriously the long teachings of the Popes: the Roman Gradual is the book for the choir, the Kyriale is the book for the people, and the Missal is the book of music for the celebrant. The music most appropriate to liturgy, I argue, is either that music or an elaboration on that music.

It is not just the text that matters but also the music and its cultural context. Liturgical music is a special sort of music, one that lifts our hearts and minds ever upwards to the Heavens. The whole push is not so much for “restoration” (that word bugs me a bit) but rather for an ideal, which is what Catholic musicians lack and desperately need.

We need to get away from the week-to-week chart picking that characterizes the typical approach. The ideal we should seek is rather well presented by the Second Vatican Council, consistent with musical ideals established very early in the Christian centuries.

What sacred music offers is perfect integration between art and faith, a music that is wedded to the liturgy: textually, stylistically, theologically, and historically.

Yes, it is a challenge. It takes work. It takes training. It calls on all our efforts and prayers. In this way, it is like the faith itself: simple in form but infinitely complex in its meaning. No one expects an overnight change, but once the ideals are in place, the work of the people to achieve the ideal becomes more clearly laid out. Most of the musicians in Catholic parishes haven’t been exposed yet to the ideal, but the time is coming. I hope that this book makes a contribution to the cause.

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