What’s Wrong with Catholic Liturgical Music?

(This is Neil.) Let me contribute one last post based on the writings of Peter Jeffery. On his webpage, he has an RTF file of an unpublished 1992 piece written for Boston College that he has provocatively titled, “What’s Wrong with Catholic Liturgical Music in the US Today?” Is there something wrong with Catholic music? Professor Jeffery quotes from the Notre Dame Study on Catholic Parish Life (its final report was published in 1989 and can be read here):

More than two-thirds of the congregation joined in hymn-singing in only 30 percent of the Masses observed. Participation is quite low when it comes to singing parts of the Mass [i.e., as opposed to hymns]. The pattern seems to be that the general level of singing the seasonal parts of the Mass is far from impressive. But the congregation does a little better with familiar, repeated texts such as the Sanctus than with texts which change from week to week.

Hopefully the situation has improved (perhaps Todd can tell us). But I doubt that very many people would argue that it is satisfactory. What has gone wrong? Professor Jeffery gives numerous reasons – the “legacy of centuries of clericalism and authoritarianism” that makes it easy to dismiss concerns about lay participation, the reality of time and financial constraints, and the lack of musical training in Catholic universities and seminaries that leads many pastors to imagine that barely trained amateur musicians are either completely adequate or even represent some sort of pastoral ideal. Todd has very usefully brought these up before. But there is a “deeper problem,” Jeffery opines – a lack of awareness of musical scholarship that makes it hard to set goals or even to discuss problems with any real precision.

Professor Jeffery suggests that we begin by avoiding simplistic terms and apocalyptic rhetoric. We should instead seek to identify competing yet complementary models of church music (here, he relies on now-Cardinal Avery Dulles’ classic work on the five models of the church).

The first model, he says, is sacred music, which follows two Tridentine principles: first, that liturgical music should be the servant of the words of the liturgy, and, second, that it should be free of the apparent “lasciviousness” of secular music. Thus, in Gregorian chant, the words are those of Scripture or the liturgy, and there is an emphasis on the holiness of the singer (“See that you believe in your heart what you sing with your mouth,” the medieval bishop or priest told the cantor).

This seems relatively clear until we realize that the first model is often confused with a second model, that of inspired art. This second model – very common in Germany – places a great deal of emphasis on artistic creation and our encounter with it as inherently spiritual. Thus, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger asserted that church music had to have “a power to enrapture which mere functional application can never produce,” revealing the hidden glory of God through “inspiration, which surpasses the level of the mere rational and objective.”

Alas, the confusion of the first and second model results in conceptual imprecision. Conceivably, the traditional claim that sacred music is the servant of the word should mean that we now use vernacular chant (perhaps the psalmody of Gelineau or Taizé comes to mind). But many who suppose themselves to be defending the traditional sacred music model borrow the criteria of the inspired art model to suggest, for the same aesthetic reasons used by those who oppose opera in translation, that chant should be kept in Latin, with even the original accent patterns. Furthermore, those who espouse the inspired art model to suggest the use of Mozart and Haydn “seem to forget that the liturgical music of these composers were frowned upon and even banned in the decades before Vatican II, when they were perceived as too operatic to meet the requirement that sacred music be free of secular elements.”

We encounter even more imprecision when we consider the other models. Our third model is pastoral music, which “wishing to emphasize the communal character of the liturgy, gives primary importance to the singing of the assembled congregation, almost to the exclusion of every other kind of musical activity.” The main difficult with the pastoral music model is that it makes unexamined assumptions about musical cultures and inculturation, often ignoring the fact that many cultures happen to make sharp distinctions between music used for worship and other music.

Our fourth model is the folk mass. There are serious conceptual problems with this model. Most so-called folk songs are really what scholars “call ‘popular music’ — a commercial product for sale in cosmopolitan, urbanized societies that have left behind the rural, tribal environment of ‘traditional music.’” This is true whether we speak of the Missa Luba of Africa’s industrial workers or the American folk revival of the 1960s, which did not really involve, in Peter Jeffery’s words, “hoary, semi-literate backwoods types trucked in from Appalachia.” Basically, then, there is no reason to think of “folk” music as some sort of authentic native American idiom and no reason to be surprised that many American Catholics remain unresponsive to it. While some American Catholic cultures will participate enthusiastically in some sort of “popular music” (African-American Catholics and gospel music, for instance), there is no real universal “popular music” that naturally crosses the divides in American society to unite Catholic congregations in full and active participation.

The fifth model is hymns and spiritual songs. Often the difficulty with this model lies in the simple fact that many Catholics are ignorant of the large repertoire of Protestant hymns, and hymns are thus associated solely with pre-conciliar Catholic selections that were used less in the liturgy than now discarded paraliturgical ceremonies and expressed an old-fashioned spirituality. Furthermore, there is the problem that singing the customary four hymns can overshadow the singing of the liturgy itself. Nevertheless, Peter Jeffery is most positive about the possibility of incorporating Protestant hymnody in Catholic services (I would, by the way, enthusiastically agree with this). Let me quote him at length:

The singing of strophic hymns should not be allowed to take priority over the singing of the liturgy itself — the Ordinary and Acclamations of the Mass, the psalmody of the Office. Yet it does have great value, so that any efforts to promote and improve it would be highly beneficial. The melodies are generally easy to learn and sing, and the best of them have been loved for generations and even centuries. The traditional “churchy” sound confirms our cultural expectations of church music rather than confounding them as liturgical pop music does. And unlike pop music, they are not identified with the political and social antagonisms of our own time, but reflect a common cultural heritage. This is even truer of the melodies than of the texts, which belong to the common tonal language of Western music that underlies much classical art music and most kinds of popular music. No music has a better claim to being the real musical culture of ordinary people.

Much Protestant thinking about musical worship begins with the Pauline admonition to “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart” (Ephesians 5:19, similarly Colossians 3:16). It therefore has tended (following broader trends in Renaissance and Baroque music) to emphasize the emotional power and effects of music on those who hear or perform it. The value of music for both expressing and directing the human heart is readily appreciated by most people today, and by no means foreign to the Catholic tradition. Therefore a place can and should be made for it in the more inclusive models of musical worship that need to emerge.

So, if I’ve read him right, Peter Jeffery would suggest that before we try to solve the problem of Catholic congregational singing, we need to speak with precision. We should take care to understand the difference between sacred music and inspired art. The proponents of pastoral music need to grasp that congregational singing requires a real understanding of music cultures. The espousers of the folk mass need to understand what folk music really is. Finally, we need to be able to answer the question of why very few Protestant hymns and spiritual songs have been incorporated into Catholic worship.

Would you agree with him?(Disagreement always welcome.)

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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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13 Responses to What’s Wrong with Catholic Liturgical Music?

  1. Todd says:

    It would take another post, alas, for me to offer substantive reflections on this post. I’m grateful to Neil for opening up the topic.

    I’m aware of Peter Jeffery’s article, but I would quibble with some of his models–again a matter of precision and definition.

    Pastoral music I would see as part of the three-fold judgment popularized by MCW, but with post-conciliar roots in the Vatican documentation. Broadly defined, it would be music that is “spiritually accessible” to the worshipping congregation. It would naturally exclude music that was not liturgical or of musical quality (the other two judgments). In my mind, the issue of singing something unmusical or non-liturgical at liturgy wouldn’t even figure in to the picture. My guess is that progressive musicians fall into this category, including many of the descendants of the folk groups of the 70’s.

    Model 5, hymnody, is getting raked over the coals in traditionalist circles. I don’t wish to replay those arguments, but I would agree there’s a wealth of material to be mined in non-Catholic traditions, not to mention the promise in adapting Catholic texts and styles to non-chant hymnody and spiritual songs.

    Regarding model 4, call me a doubter. People and groups stuck in “folk” music, however one defines it, are not the big players, are not advancing the overall cause of quality, and are usually not up to speed on liturgical and pastoral happenings in the parish or on a larger scene.

    Liturgical music in popular styles is here to stay: LifeTeen, gospel, jazz, and others. This strikes me as very much a part of the “inspired art” sensibility, especially given that the quantity of new compositions seems to be maintaining itself unabated.

    If Neil will forgive my hogging the show on this, I’d like to ponder his post for a few days and then piece together something of a unification of these models, at least in the way I practice liturgical music. From there, I hope to offer something substantive for other church musicians and parishes to consider.

  2. Gavin says:

    My own personal preferences (not those of the Church) are mainly for #2, followed by 5 and 1. And maybe a bit of 4. But I’m all in favor of dumping every bit of 3.

    I do believe I may have read Peter Jeffrey’s article here, and I do like it. I think it sums up many different approaches towards liturgy which can function in conflict or can work together. What do I mean by working together? Mix 1 and 2. Art music inspired by chant, by the experience of the divine. Somewhere between 4 and 1 you have “garage scholas”, mix 1 and 5 and you have the “Introit hymns”. As you may observe, I am then suggesting that one’s approach to liturgical music ought to be tempered by a respect for the “Sacred music” model.

    I’m rather hungry, perhaps I’ll offer more later.

  3. Neil says:

    Dear Todd and Gavin,

    Thanks for writing. Needless to say, I’m eager to read your further comments.

    I should just note that Jeffery’s main concern with this piece was conceptual clarity. I think that we should be very cautious about quickly ranking the different models or hastily trying to combine them. First, we need to make sure that we are using terms properly.

    Thus, Jeffery’s critique of the exponents of the pastoral model is that their conception of what would be “spiritually accessible” to the worshipping congregation was often not rooted in a real understanding of musical cultures. Jeffery, a man of tremendous erudition, suggests that this was often because of an understandable lack of detailed knowledge of the history of music (many exponents were instead schooled in theology or performance). For instance, the presupposition that informal or familiar music is more “spiritually accessible” is not necessarily correct: many cultures have traditionally separated music used in worship from other sorts of music. When we use the phrase “spiritually accessible,” we have to be careful.

    I’ll put my cards on the table – as one might guess from my posts, I think that we should really work on incorporating the tradition of Protestant hymnody in Catholic worship. (I don’t think that hymns necessarily pose a threat to the singing of the Mass.)

    Best,
    Neil

  4. Randolph Nichols says:

    A question and a couple of comments directed toward Todd. When exactly is music “spiritually accessible”? Do you mean music that invaribly focuses the mind and heart in prayer, or aids the envisionment of the heavenly city? There is so much jargon out there, it is important to clarify with precision our labels.
    Also, I’m afraid you may be following into a common trap by using “progressive musicians” as an identifier. I know many musicians who hold quite liberal theological and political views but are avid defenders of ‘classical’ values.
    Finally it may be overly confident to write “Liturgical music in popular styles is here to stay . . .(and) very much a part of the “inspired art” sensibility. . .” I’m quite a bit older than you and one thing age teaches is not to make brash predictions about the future. No one knows what tomorrow brings and the fact that some of this stuff is selling says nothing about its durability. The great composers of the past, stylistically diverse as Brahms and Gershwin, were “inspired” in ways that I believe today’s popular liturgical composers are not.

  5. Gavin says:

    I think that we should be very cautious about quickly ranking the different models or hastily trying to combine them.

    Open mouth. Insert foot.

    That aside, I do still stand by my remarks about combining models. It’s hard for me to look at this list and see it in terms of one right and four wrongs. I do lean strongly towards the “inspired art” paradigm, but by saying that I would mean modern choral arrangements of the propers as desirous.

    I agree with you that the treasury of protestant hymnody is a big missing piece in modern Catholic worship. However, consider this mixture of paradigms used by Fr. Weber in his “Mass Propers Project”. In addition to simplified proper chants, Fr. Weber always selects a hymn which conveys the meaning of the proper antiphon. Often this is a well-loved protestant hymn OR an obscure Scottish metrical psalm. Is that not a fusion of the principles of hymnody and sacred music?

  6. Neil says:

    Dear Gavin,

    Thanks for writing. I didn’t mean to suggest that you had inserted your foot into your mouth.

    I don’t think that there is anything necessarily wrong with using both chant and hymns. The problem occurs when we aren’t conceptually clear about what we are doing – when, for instance, we imagine that we are defending Tridentine principles by using the criteria of the “inspired art” model to argue against chant in the vernacular.

    The problem is that when we aren’t conceptually clear, it is hard to communicate with one another.

    Best,
    Neil

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  8. Liam says:

    I will dissent in the sense that I think the reach for conceptual clarity distorts reality. The reality is much less clear, and I am not sure we gain in communication thereby. The concepts don’t really account for the terribly pragmatic foundation of what happens (and what doesn’t) in typical American Catholic parishes. The places where it is conceptually driven are a minority, I would venture.

    The article is also dated in one important respect – in the half-generation since then, popular musical culture (meaning, the culture of people singing/playing music themselves) and musical education of youth in this country has declined dramatically. (btw, the median birthyear of Americans is…1972 and the age that represents that is the oldest it’s ever been!)

    Which makes me wonder if any conceptual model is ideal for cultivating participation from the pews.

    I should note that it’s not only traditionalists who have tried to diminish the emphasis on hymns – lots of progressives, too. We are far far far from having to worry about hymnody becoming an endangered species at Catholic Masses – Catholics in this country still have a far far far bigger challenge in singing the Mass itself. Against the relative paucity of music ministries that chant the introit, offertory and communion propers from the Graduale Romanum (simplex, triplex or whatever) one has to compare the ocean of ministries that are still inclined to sing a gathering hymn but not sing the Gloria, et cet. And there are plenty of people even in conservative/traditionalist circles who have encouraged vernacular chant (yes, they have many doubters, too, but even NLM has devoted many encouraging threads to cultivating vernacular chant).

  9. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks again for writing. I apologize for having overlooked your comment for the past day or so.

    I realize that a reach for absolute conceptual clarity can be self-destructive if it results in an inability to deal with the ambiguities of reality. And, as Todd would surely remind us, much of what really goes on in Catholic parishes can be ascribed to simple pragmatism. How could it be otherwise?

    But, that said, I am speaking of an awareness of musical scholarship, particularly the history of actual musical cultures – not some sort of absolute conceptual clarity. Furthermore, I am speaking of the dialogue presently going on and the questions already being asked about Catholic music, which cannot simply be dismissed with an appeal to the necessary pragmatism in suburban parishes or to the inscrutable complexity of things.

    I realize that popular musical culture and musical education have declined. But certain Protestant churches have managed to preserve musical cultures in ways that their Catholic counterparts have not. Is this inevitable?

    I do not think that any single conceptual model is universally ideal, but we should be aware of different models as we remain very attentive to context.

    Thank you for the comments about vernacular chant. Finally, I am not worried about the continuing presence of hymnody at Catholic masses. I suggested that we should be more aware of the historic traditions of Protestant hymnody – I mean, why have I sung Haugen’s “Gather Us In” numerous times in Catholic churches, but never Charles Wesley’s excellent “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast”?

    Thanks again.

    Neil

  10. Liam says:

    Thanks, Neil.

    The reason I feel a need to downplay the conceptual arguments is because so much more about what does/doesn’t happen in parishes is a function of other things like:

    1. The fact that pastors of Catholic churches have absolute control over hiring and firing of their music directors – with no review/input of congregation/vestry.

    2. The fact that such pastors are not hired by congregations but are moved about (or kept put) by bishops. This is related to #1 above because when pastors change, music directors may well change in a year’s time.

    3. The fact that Catholic laity give money to parishes in relatively small amounts, and that makes Catholic pastors much more likely to “give” on things – like musical programming – where there is a lot of give and take permitted by Rome.

    4. The fact that typical American Catholic laity don’t have a popular musical culture of liturgy to draw on the way Protestants do. (German-American dominated parishes were the specially notable exception to this rule, but there were others.) That’s why the Protestant congregations have been able to coast longer – but P&W choruses are cutting a balefully wide swath as we speak in Protestant churches.

    5. Catholic laity in the post-WW generations have been much less willing to invest in organs and musicians than their mainstream Protestant peers. The Catholics preferred to allocate money to schools.

    6. Leaving Catholic liturgical music often in the hands of volunteers or cowered employees who were often treated as the pastor’s punching bag.

    7. Catholic church buildings and renovations in the past couple of generations have normally relied on amplification to cover the defects in failing to design spaces with good musical acoustics in mind.

    That’s just off the top of my head – but all of these have had way more effect than the five concepts of the article. The concepts are, to some extent, a distraction from those unpleasant, more fundamental, realities.

    I also think the concepts are not well drawn. They seem to neglect the deeper, longer term strands in Catholic liturgical music.

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  12. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    I don’t disagree that you have enumerated serious problems. It would be wrong to suggest that everything depends upon constructing an absolutely brilliant conceptual argument.

    But still, after reading your reasons, the obvious response is to ask, “Why did it have to be that way?” And part of the answer is surely still conceptual – we will eventually say that something wasn’t understood and not properly valued, and so on.

    Furthermore, certain “conceptual” decisions were made. Again, we have my question from my earlier response – why is Haugen’s “Gather Us In” sung much, much more (at least, in my experience) than Wesley’s “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast”? Does the answer solely have to do with the cost of organs and music directors and the difficulty of Hursley or Winchester New? Or does it have to do in part with unexamined assumptions about spiritual accessibility and musical cultures?

    I realize that the concepts mentioned in the original post might inevitably seem simplistic (the post and the original article were relatively brief). But I do not know about the “deeper, longer term strands in Catholic liturgical music.” I generally trust Peter Jeffery’s erudition … Have I missed something?

    Thanks again.

    Neil

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