Pushing Back With The Bible

At the Café, Jeffrey Tucker writes of “non-liturgical texts” (read: not the propers) and many of his coffee drinkers predictably fall in step behind him. The problem with this conga line is not the propers being celebrated. These are almost all scriptural texts, usually snippets from a psalm or a gospel passage. It is good to allow them to inform a parish’s musical repertoire, even when they are out of whack with the Lectionary selections for a particular ordinary time Sunday. The problem, naturally, is the dogmatism in the preaching of propers. And that many of their apologists see the situation as a way to reinstate specialty music after two generations of encouraging congregational singing.

One of the arguments I found most unconvincing:

If musicians are given discretion and lack anything like a serious formation in the Roman Rite, they end up looking for some kind of affirmation of what they do. Being musicians, they look to the audience and begin to regard themselves as performers. They seek praise. They seek evidence that people are emotionally affected by what they do. That means choosing music that connects with the secular and not liturgical sense of what music should do to people, which is not permit prayer but entertain.

Classical musicians have been performers for centuries. Performance music can be serious art music, and is usually beyond the abilities of the average music lover to reproduce, especially in the last two centuries or so. Liturgical music written since the 60′s has, in large part, been written for a singing congregation. One person might say it’s been dumbed down. But I think the best modern liturgical music easily communicates beauty in its simplicity. A Shaker didn’t make a piece of furniture to complicated you needed to solve a puzzle to build it. But it has a beauty in the craft, in the quality of materials, and in the utility of its use.

One can discuss how effective such music is in the voices of the assembly. One can focus on particular songs, or on whole genres and styles. But when you look at the output of a contemporary liturgical composer like, say Ed Bolduc, you can’t deny that a parish musician writing psalm settings and biblically-based songs for a faith community is leaning rather more strongly to getting people to sing than, say, a parish schola singing a refrain in an unfamiliar language utilizing an unfamiliar notation often not even given to the people in the pews. And the suggested solution is to use this, then add an organ hymn on top of it all. Why bother with that? If the propers are insisted upon, either let the people sing them or chant the psalm verses. First option for the entrance song is a dialogue between people and the music ministers. Let the dialogue begin! We don’t need another preacher–the chant schola.

One could argue that Mr Bolduc’s piano arrangements are generally for the intermediate or better pianist. One might argue his pieces include sections for solo singers, and if the people in the pews are just sitting back to listen and be entertained, it’s not really liturgical music. But I could just as easily argue that the spectacle of a Tridentine Mass is really no different from contemporary sacred music in concert at a liturgy. Some people will be disengaged and will be watching. Some people, it is often claimed, don’t need to be singing to participate spiritually.

I’m sure it stings a traditionalist to consider it, but the reality is that the back of a $20,000 vestment is not really all that different from a gospel-style verse of a psalm setting by Leon Roberts or Val Parker. And if the people are singing those refrains with gusto, it might be worse.

The modern approach is to sing Bible-based music, not devotional fare. The propers have a place to contribute to a movement already in progress: to sing the liturgy, not just sing devotionally at the Mass. But the dogmatism doesn’t do these texts credit. The hope that a poor and stuffy English translation will somehow open up the floodgates to a better appreciation of Scripture and sacraments in tandem. It is already happening in the Church. It’s been happening for two generations now.

I can appreciate the frustration of those who think excellent liturgy is just a matter of legislation: tell the people to do it, and it should be so. You can’t dictate artistry. You can only inspire it.

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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.
This entry was posted in Liturgical Music, Liturgy, The Blogosphere. Bookmark the permalink.

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