Friday, March 12, 2010

Can Catholics Begin to Care about Music?

A great challenge within Catholic culture as it exists is to inspire something that is foundational to the entire project of music itself: Catholics need to starting caring about music.

Right now, it is not entirely obvious that Catholics care much about the topic. This is a striking fact, considering that Catholics sustained the chant tradition during the first thousand years of Christian history, invented the first viable system of writing down music, innovated multi-part writing, and gave the world the corpus of music that led to modernity itself. Even up to the 20th century, Catholics were the innovators in the area of music.

Today, it is completely different. For most professional musicians, the assertion that Catholic culture is unsupportive of music is not controversial. Well-trained musicians have not been able to look at parishes for full-time employment for a very long time. The real organists end up at the Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches, denominations that are paying to support the art. This is a known fact.

It's true that we are making progress in this regard, with some parishes and cathedrals that are beginning to pay real salaries for these positions. Still, we have long way to go.

A friend of mine is an organist at the Episcopal Church, and this friend tells me that the rector of the parish knows the names of the composers of the organ pieces played before services, knows the composers of the choral works that the choir sings, and recalls several years of repertoire on large feast days. He frequently comes to choir rehearsal to sing through Psalm and dialogues to make sure that they are right. He mentions the text of the propers during sermons, and offers thanks and praise for the musicians in closing comments during services.

Quite frankly, many Catholics cannot even imagine such a level of support. It's the same with Catholic parents who want their children to learn music. They cannot usually depend on the local parish. It only puts together children's choir for last-minute choral singing (or screaming) on Christmas eve. A systematic attempt to give children genuine training in music, much less sacred music, is something unimaginable in most parishes.

But let us move onward to progress.

A new video from Corpus Christi Watershed documents the finest efforts being undertaken in the Catholic world on behalf of sacred music. It features interviews with singers, conductors, organists, organizers, and scholars. They explain the need for serious music as part of liturgy, and spell out the hard work and resources in involved in providing it. It demonstrates the inadequacy of commercial styles and methods for the high calling of the liturgical project. The movie itself is beautiful, both visually and musically.

Will it make a difference? Much of that depends on how many musicians and priests are willing to sit down and watch it. I hope they do. If they do, yes, it will make a difference on the margin, if only to heighten consciousness on a topic that is largely relegated to the sidelines within the Catholic world.

To be sure, this is not a new problem. Reading books and journals that were printed before the Second Vatican Council and before the Second World War, it was always a struggle to get people to care, to raise choirs, to inspire pastors to pay musicians, to get children's choirs up and going, and the like. Progress was being made in fits and starts.

Then there was the notorious event that marked the end of progress. It is a incredible tragedy that a Church Council that set out to elevate the role of music, ratifying the efforts of many dating back decades, ended up having the opposite effect. Choirs were depreciated. Even knowledge of music at all was depreciated.

There was a more serious matter of the texts, which went not only from Latin to English but then to a version of English that was absolutely new in 1969, thereby rendering as useless not only all preconciliar Latin music but even the English music written during and after the Council.

In current petitions to stop the new translations from being implemented you will find the names of many Catholic musicians, some of them who have worked hard to write quality music for the Mass texts as they currently stand. The new, new, new translation will once again render their old music as obsolete. Granted that this is probably good news in most cases, but not in all. And let us be sympathetic to the plight of composers here. They are giving their art to the faith in the hope that their music might achieve some measure of immortality. But with texts that change with the times and every few decades, that opportunity is denied to them.

Perhaps you don't find this to be a very important point, but consider it as part of an overall problem that exists within the Catholic cultural milieu. The situation is in fact rather dire. Pastors can help the situation immediately by sponsoring their musicians to attend the Sacred Music Colloquium, which is being held at Duquesne this summer. They can encourage their musicians and consider even showing up to choir rehearsal. Small, small amounts of praise from the pulpit can make a massive difference.

If you are not a priest or a singer, there is still a way to help. Right now, the Church Music Association of America is inundated with scholarship requests for the colloquium. We cannot grant them. The money is not there. These are students, seminarians, and young people of all sorts who want to make singing part of their vocations as Catholics. Without funding, there is no way that they can do this. If you are willing to help, the money will go directly to a student. These people return from the colloquium to make a difference in the parish. This is the future of Catholic music and you can help make it possible.

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