Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Is Modern Classical Music As Bad As It Sounds? A New Sacred Music Podcast Has the Answers

I once saw a headline in the culture section of a British Sunday newspaper that ran, “Modern Music - It’s Not as Bad As It Sounds.” The point that the journalist was making was that once you understand the theories behind the use of dissonance, then you will recognize it’s goodness. The whole premise highlights for me one of the absurdities of many modern intellectuals’ approach to the culture: that it is something to be understood more than something to be appreciated or enjoyed. This puts the onus on the listener to be intelligent enough to appreciate what is good.

For the most part, the intellectuals in the modern conservatory have been so successful in pushing this line of argument that many people do in fact accept that they don’t like modern classical music because they don’t understand it, rather than because it really is every bit as bad as it sounds.

I have seen people in the Catholic world falling into the same line of argument in order to reinforce the value of traditional music too. They will argue, for example, that people ought to like Gregorian chant and polyphony, and justify this with a quotation from St Pius X’s Tra le sollecitudini:
Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, in particular, sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality...These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently the Chant proper to the Roman Church
The problem with this is that unless we can narrow down the musical criteria of what these terms actually mean, it simply becomes a matter of personal judgment as to whether or not a particular piece of music is authentically sacred, good in form and so universal.

You are then left with a choice: either you follow Pius X in a limited way and only allow ancient compositions of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony for fear of getting it wrong; or you admit modern compositions in your Sunday repertoire and risk the music director arguing that in his opinion, the compositions in the common pew missalette possess these qualities. You and I might think this an absurd assertion, but if we can’t say why precisely in terms of musical structure, then it’s just a conflict of personal opinion.

Neither of these is choices is acceptable. Gregorian chant and polyphony will not connect with “the many” unless there are modern, noble and accessible compositions that they can connect with more easily. These modern compositions will then very likely act as doorways into the traditional canon, which will then be appreciated more deeply by more people. This is the pattern of all vibrant traditional cultures.

I therefore want to bring readers to the attention of a new podcast on sacred music Paul Jernberg’s Singing in Harmony with Heaven.

Paul is one of the few people who can explain in layman’s terms the essential musical characteristics of Gregorian chant in such a way that they can then be applied to other forms of music. Furthermore, he knows how to do it himself; he composes music that is not chant or polyphony, but it is nevertheless sacred.

The evidence that convinces me of this is not simply that I like his music and judge it to conform to these criteria (which I do), but also I have seen the effect that it has on ordinary congregations many times. People want to sing it and it leads them into a prayerful approach to the liturgy. Choirs that ordinarily sing chant and polyphony want to sing it too.

Here are a couple of examples:

First, I know of a traditionally inclined church in England that focussed almost exclusively on chant and polyphony for its repertoire. When I used to attend it, the pastor was so wary of modern compositions for the Mass that he forbade anything that postdates World War One. This same church now performs Jernberg’s Mass of St Philip Neri regularly - at one point it was doing it weekly at one of its Masses.

Second, we sing his Our Father in a group that regularly sings Vespers where I live, and those in attendance have learned the four-part harmonies and all sing the melody. This group includes all levels of musical ability. There are trained singers (one of whom sang in William Mahrt’s choir in Menlo Park), there are others who normally avoid singing in the congregational setting under any circumstance, and there are even small children. All sing heartily, but prayerfully. A three-year-old mimics her elders by insisting on holding a score and then sings as she hears it (including the phrase, “Halloween thy name”!)

Third, someone who heard his St Philip Neri Mass, which was composed for the vernacular, was so taken with the music that he commissioned a Mass for the Ordinary of the Latin Mass, which is about to be published.

Paul’s podcast explores these issues surrounding the question: how can the music heard in the Catholic Church today be renewed so as to faithfully fulfill its traditional role – to proclaim the divine dignity of the Mass, and to draw people into its contemplative dimension of reverent adoration, transformation, and loving communion?

You can listen to it here at pauljernberg.buzzsprout.com/

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