A church musician’s ditty for the Triduum

I’ll be at th’end of my tether /
By the time that Holy Week is done /
‘Twill be time for beef and beer then /
‘Twill be time for having lots of fun /
Still we can’t sing alleluia /
‘Till the scho–la’s finished Gloria I (one).


What’s wrong with art music?

I started directing a choir when I was 22 years old.  I was fresh out of music school and had started a grad degree at Catholic University.  I’m surprised I made it past my first few months.   Most of the choir was over sixty.   Some were Vatican II revolutionaries, the baby-out-with-the-bathwater folks who pronounced “amen” as “aye-men.”    The same people who lived through drastic change during the 60’s were determined that once they crossed over the vernacular and folk music threshold, would never look back and there was nothing new to look forward to.  I suppose no one wanted to turn in to a pillar of salt.   Or they thought that their generation owned the new style and had no desire to sing music that they didn’t own, that wasn’t created on their watch, and didn’t have modern, popular appeal.

And yet art music, especially Latin motets and chant was and is their own, but now like the unwelcome cousin at the family reunion.  Most of our parishioners are college educated and though removed by generations, have roots in Europe.  Why should any suburban parish have wanted to sacrifice Palestrina on the altar of congregational participation?  Because it seemed like the right thing to do in order to sweep in the new order. And now a few decades later, that mindset is pervasive from pastor down to the guy who sits in the back corner and leaves before Mass is over.  Some parishioners don’t even like the idea of a cantor with a trained voice.  Even if the mic is adjusted properly and his voice isn’t shattering eardrums, some people still think a trained musician means the music they sing isn’t authentically of the people.

First, we need to define terms.  Art music and classical music are synonymous. From the New Harvard Dictionary of Music, art music has

…perceived characteristics as poise, balance, proportion, simplicity, formal discipline, and craftsmanship, and universal and objective (rather than idiosyncratic and subjective) expression… a standard or model of excellence, one of enduring value.

Folk music according to the same publication is

Music in oral tradition, often in relatively simple style, primarily of rural provenance, normally performed by non-professionals, used and understood by broad segments of the population and… characteristic of a nation, society or ethnic group and claimed by one of these as its own.

The challenge with folk music for Mass is that given this definition, it is meant for specific nations or ethnic groups.  The more we create music specific for a small group of us – even if that group is that Catholic church goers in the USA, the more we depart from the idea the Church is universal.

Still, some think that art music in church is somehow an ugly, unwelcome of everything that we aren’t.  If you think there is something inherently wrong with art music, then imagine this.

In 1498, a french Cardinal picked a man from his congregation at random and handed him a hammer and chisel.  He said, “Over there is a block of Carrara marble, from which I would like you to craft a statue of the Madonna holding the body of Jesus after he is taken down from the cross.  I want this sculpture to be special, therefore I have chosen you – who could have been any man – to carve this stone.  You represent the people, use your vision and it will be that of my whole flock.  A thousand years from now people will still come to see your statue, because it was made by one of the people.”  And the man said, “But I am a butcher, I have never carved stone and would not know where to start.”   The Cardinal replied, “I don’t want an artist.  If this is made by a artist it won’t be authentic.  It won’t express what the people feel or think.”  And the man started to clink clink away at the marble.

Of course this didn’t happen, and wouldn’t have happened in that time.  Michelangelo was commissioned to make the Pietà as the Cardinal’s funeral monument.  Centuries later the Cardinal is largely forgotten, while the Pietà is venerated.  The statue is realistic to the last detail, a merger of the ideals of classical art and the Renaissance style.  It’s moving and most of all is beautiful, undeniably beautiful. It’s been viewed by generations of pilgrims to Rome.  It was beautiful from the start and will be beautiful until the end of time.

So why, if we have models of timeless beauty that propel man toward God, do we venerate the idea that folk music and folk art belongs in church instead of classical art and music?   Ink and pixels have been spent on this, by people who range from professors to cranks.

I’ll keep it simple – if you had the choice between something truly beautiful and timeless that pointed you toward God, instead of music that apes campfire songs, Disney ballads or throbbing rock tunes, why would you choose the latter?   The answer is sadly that many people have lost the idea of art as elevating the spirit and have replaced it with the idea that art should make us feel good in the most superficial sense.

For me, there’s plenty of time outside of Mass to listen to music that makes you feel good.  That doesn’t mean that our Masses and worship of God should sound like the music was snatched out of the recycle bin at Disney Studios.

A thousand years from now, baring catastrophe or mass destruction, people will still visit Rome to see the Pietà.  The Lion King won’t even be a footnote in music history class.


What’s the Pope up to?

David Brooks, with whom I seldom agree, suggests a pastoral strategy for the Church: following the example of St. Augustine, the model is to open the doors and get people in, rather than consciously aiming at a subculture position:

The problem with the Donatists, Augustine argued, is that they are too static. They try to seal off an ark to ride out the storm, but they end up sealing themselves in. They cut themselves off from new circumstances and growth.
Augustine, as his magisterial biographer Peter Brown puts it, “was deeply preoccupied by the idea of the basic unity of the human race.” He reacted against any effort to divide people between those within the church and those permanently outside.
He wanted the church to go on offense and swallow the world. This would involve swallowing impurities as well as purities. It would mean putting to use those who are imperfect. This was the price to be paid if you wanted an active church coexisting with sinners, disciplining and rebuking them.

Perhaps this is why Cdl. Bergoglio (now Pope Francis) has been advocating a generous approach to baptism for years:

Some priests In Buenos Aires are taking steps to facilitate the celebration of new baptisms and encourage them in every way. What is driving them?
JORGE MARIO BERGOGLIO: The Conference of Latin American Bishops held in 2007 in Aparecida reminded us to proclaim the Gospel by going out to find people, not sitting in the Curia or the presbytery waiting for people to come to us. . .
Evangelii nuntiandi itself repeated that “if the Son came, it was precisely to reveal, by His words and His life, the ordinary paths of salvation”. It’s the ordinary that one can achieve in missionary fashion. And baptism is paradigmatic in that. I think the parish priests of Buenos Aires are acting in that spirit. . . .
In your opinion, are the cases where baptism is denied to children because the parents are not in a canonically regular marital situation justified in some way?
BERGOGLIO: To us here that would be like closing the doors of the Church. The child has no responsibility for the marital state of its parents. And then, the baptism of children often becomes a new beginning for parents. Usually there is a little catechesis before baptism, about an hour, then a mystagogic catechesis during liturgy. Then, the priests and laity go to visit these families to continue with their post-baptismal pastoral. And it often happens that parents, who were not married in church, maybe ask to come before the altar to celebrate the sacrament of marriage.

It all brings to mind the words of Pope John Paul II, who urged the world to “open wide the doors” to Christ. But now perhaps Francis’ strategy is for the Church to open the doors and disregard the obstacles that would otherwise keep prodigal sons and daughters on the outside. It involves some risk.
(Hat tip: Thanks to Gordon Zaft for sending me the Brooks piece.)

Pope Benedict enters contemplative life

I wonder what effect the Pope’s departure into a quasi-monastic life will have on the world of vocations: i.e., on the aspirations of Catholics seeking the Lord in consecrated life. By making prayer and seeking the face of God the center of day-to-day life, he is giving a profound witness. By disappearing from the stage of the world, he is declaring the primacy of the spiritual. He is reminding us of the precious value of the contemplative life, the life of prayer, and in particular of the sacred liturgy in which man turns to God and finds him.
Dare we hope that his example will inspire many to follow?