Corporate Liturgy

Peter Nixon posts at dotCommonweal about the late Aidan Kavanagh’s views on the error of reviving the Tridentine Missal as well as the faults of the post-conciliar reform. The image in my mind is of a motorist getting a little turned around on unfamiliar roads. Some reformers want to head in the right direction even if it means plowing through a corn field. Some traditionalists want to put the car in reverse (not even bothering to turn around) and retrace all the way back to journey’s start.

Not the point of this post. Really.

One of Peter’s commenters notes public connections between prominent progressive liturgists and the Big Three liturgical music publishers. She asks some questions:

What potential do corporate interests have to shape our liturgies?

How involved are corporate publishers in other liturgical think tanks or apostolates?

Has Commonweal ever looked into how much influence corporate publishers have had on liturgical development and practice in the USA since 1970 and how that may relate to our present liturgical difficulties?

If any Catholic publishing employee wants to weigh in on this one, feel free. Meanwhile, I’m taking a shot at the Big Three (GIA, OCP, WLP) from the consumer’s eye view.

First, let’s keep corporate Catholic publishing in perspective. Compared to our corporate masters in the secular world, these outfits are small potatoes. They don’t trade on stock exchanges. Their executives don’t raid employee pension funds to line their golden parachutes. They don’t get ballparks and tv shows named after them.

I’ll say that customer service is a priority with the three publishers, all of whom I’ve done business with for twenty years or more. One publisher returned my call personally when I complained about a product. I’m talking the publisher himself, not some public relations lackey. Calling to place an order is always a pleasant experience, even if I’m trying to hunt down a piece of music with the most minimal knowledge imaginable because a bride or a cantor wants something special. In the best of the missalette options, an annual survey gets sent every year to ensure only the best music (granted, in the eyes of parish music directors) continues to be printed.

Though these Catholic publishers are relatively small businesses, they seem to have succeeded by giving people what they want. That itself might be a problem, in the eyes of some. But let’s be honest: Latin, chant, and traditional liturgy aren’t anchoring a 21st century market.  I’d be curious to compare the businesses of OCP with Adoremus.

How about a history lesson?

When I became a Catholic in 1970, I heard folk music from FEL (long-since out of business) and saw missalettes from JS Paluch. When I went to college in the late 70’s, I was exposed to music from NALR (absorbed mostly into OCP) and a few small outfits like Weston Priory and PAA.

By the 80’s, missalette publishers like OCP and WLP were making a move into contemporary music, and GIA was looking to compete in the same market. All three publishers continued to put out reams of choral music. And plainsong and polyphony: some more than others. And gospel and teen music and Taize-style thing and Latin, and all sorts of stuff. I think they all succeeded because of good business decisions: making connections with consumers and what they want, and striving for quality in all products.

In other words, good ol’ American values.

What the Church might lack is a more widespread generation of liturgical musicians to discern the best of what’s available. And a better-formed guild (for the lack of a better word) of musicians who can take things to the next level. Are publishers to blame that we don’t have this? As much as I might like to rail against the cult of personality in liturgical music gurus, I don’t think it’s their responsibility. The bishops have dropped the ball on this one, folks, and dropped it big time.

Maybe they can blame the culture: Americans don’t have a very high opinion of the arts.

Maybe they can blame sports: How many parishes employ more music leaders (paid or volunteer)  than ahtletic coaches (paid or volunteer)?

Maybe they can blame pastors: let’s compare parish budgets for liturgy and children’s education.

Maybe they can blame seminaries: How many of these schools have courses in art, music, and architecture?

Am I worried about too much influence on parishes? I admit I’m sort of a lone wolf when it comes to the liberal liturgy establishment. I don’t read ads for the latest LifeTeen cd or the latest “Mass of Creation” wannabe. I don’t go to music conventions. So I don’t worry about my parish.

But I know that “Father” will sometimes put someone in charge of parish music who might be a little green. The rookies want to make good judgments and “Father” and the bishop have little or nothing to offer. So they’ll look at the Sunday planning pages in the magazine the parish gets. And if they get some advice from somebody’s who’s willing to give it to them, why should the bishop or pastor complain?

Many traditional musicians are just now emerging to take up sword and shield against the four-hymn sandwich, disposable missalettes, and trite devotional hymnody. Like this is some new cause or something. Sorry, I was in the trenches on those tussles since I was in college. The publishers have moved on the first and last of those dragons ages ago. And pastors keep coming back for disposable missalettes, even though it costs more money in the long run.

If a parish is in liturgical difficulty, I think we can single out the pastor as the number one cause in most places. And if a diocese isn’t turning out church musicians to staff its parishes, then we need look no further than the bishop.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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7 Responses to Corporate Liturgy

  1. I agree the bishops have dropped the ball, and that accounts to a significant degree for the corporate liturgy sources not giving us what we need and should have.

    For example, will we ever have the proper Entrance, Offertory and Communion chants translated and set to suitable music? (Yes, I’ve read your posts about the St. Louis Jesuits’ accomplishments in this regard, but I think we can do better than that.)

    Another example: why is English chant such a frightening thing? Gregorian chant is to have pride of place; if we’re not going to use Latin chant, then it would seem obvious to me that English language chant would be in the “Spirit of Vatican II.”

    Finally, there is a lot of hymnody that is ambiguous, some that is very questionable, and some that is materially heretical, in its theology.

  2. Todd says:

    Missalettes were a crusade for many of my colleagues twenty to thirty years ago. GIA for one tried to publish hymnals without readings, but pressure from parishes (what people “wanted”) saw them cave in on the missalette mentality. Though they still publish a supplement annually to stick in whatever binder a parish might have. Lots of lay people, musicians, and pastors object when “some” authority tells them what they “need and should have.” Few church leaders want to die on that cross. I’m convinced the only way to do it is to show outstanding example.

    And I agree there’s lots above the Jesuits in terms of quality of music, especially over a three-year Lectionary cycle. But what parish music directors compose a chant for a Sunday, only to shelve it and wait another three years? The Entrance and Communion chant system is a failure outside of monasteries for pragmatic reasons far more than reasons of theology or musical taste.

    Chant is a frightening thing to some because it is easier to do it poorly than it is to botch metered music.

  3. Randolph Nichols says:

    While correctly accusing bishops and pastors for failing to provide support and leadership in the area of liturgical music, you are much too easy on the Catholic music publishing industry. That they give prompt attention to customer service is beside the point. Yes they are small by corporate standards, but their influence is enormous and their editorial shortcomings can be egregious if not irresponsible. Take, for example, the OCP keyboard accompaniment to ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.’ What rationale were the editors following when they placed the harmonic stress on opening “O”? And what justification do they have for including ‘All I Ask of You,’ a text so meaningless as to verge on humor, in hymnals for public worship? And in light of their insistence on catering to congregational needs, why do editors fail to perceive the importance of having the melody in the keyboard accompaniment? So many contemporary standards do not.
    The key to your argument is that liturgical music publishing must follow the principles of any business by giving people what they want. Catholic Christianity, however, is counter-cultural. It is the responsibility of music publishing editors to reflect standards that are true both to the faith and craft, not public whims.

  4. Gavin says:

    what parish music directors compose a chant for a Sunday[?]

    Well, I do. Every Sunday I have a chant introit and communion for the cantor at the early Mass which I had freshly written for that day. It is typically (although not always) the antiphon set to a psalm tone, but it’s chant and a different one each week. This is a simple answer to the question of propers.

    If we’re discussing the shortcomings of Catholic hymnals, Jeff Tucker’s recent post on the Jubilate Deo brings up my main contention: How can any hymnal be called “Catholic” if it does not include that material? WLP does, I think OCP does, but with GIA it varies from book to book. Ideally I’d like to see JD as well as the hymns for the hours, but JD is a good start. It goes back to what Randolph said above about publishers giving people what they want instead of what they need.

  5. Todd says:

    “The key to your argument is that liturgical music publishing must follow the principles of any business …”

    It’s not so much an argument as an observation. Bishops and pastors are content to give a blind eye to market conditions they implicitly endorse (for not forming and hiring 20,000 more musicians like Gavin.)

    Another observation: American Catholicism has so many composers and continues to see new ones popping up all the time simply because the music situation is so unsatisfactory.

  6. Gavin says:

    20,000 more musicians like Gavin

    THERE’S a scary thought! :P

    American Catholicism has so many composers… because the music situation is so unsatisfactory

    I don’t know, I think I’d disagree with this. It seems to me that good music produces many good composers, and bad music produces bad composers. This applies outside of Church, also. Look at the histories of France and England. And in our modern climate, look at WLP’s collection of sub-mediocre composers trying to be the next Haugen. And one has to wonder if so much of the hoopla happening in the ’60s and ’70s would have happened if the big Catholic composers of the time weren’t Nicholas Montani and Carlo Rossini.

    Todd: can you send me an e-mail with David’s address? I have my correct address entered now.

  7. Todd says:

    Gavin, just read how and why so many contemporary composers got started. The story is nearly always the same, and it was true of me, too. There was a need. No music was available to fill the need, so people just wrote for the circumstance.

    That’s definitely worth a post on another day.

    I think that composers working together on feedback and input for one another make for better composers. It’s obvious why so many published composers, including guys like Proulx, have jumped the shark. They no longer grow in their craft.

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