Musical Style I

Gavin takes some exception to my commentary on SC 112 and on his blog where I poked at him for “giving up hymns,” then scheduling them for his parish liturgy anyway. Gavin and his boss don’t like contemporary music in their parish’s liturgy. That’s a more or less reasonable judgment that can either be informed or less so.

Folk music is inherently the music of the people, of common life. It’s been said many times that worship is to be different from the ordinary. Of course, this can only be taken so far, otherwise we wouldn’t let people themselves into the church! But still, for my area at least, you want the music to be different from the local barn dance. Not to mention the MOST important point that this music is inherently harder for the untrained to sing. “You are Near” is a fine example. How many beats per each syllable in that one?

Perhaps in some locations post-conciliar music is like the local barn dance. I’ve usually lived in cities, so my proximity to barns has been limited. I’ve rarely heard a parish guitar group quite as musically skilled as the dance bands I have heard or danced to, so I’m not quite sure the comparison is apt.

Like the clarinet, the piano, and the organ, the guitar is a fairly nimble instrument. Good guitar players–and I count myself among them–can play in many different styles. I would hesitate to say that Segovia, for example, was a strummer. Or that the great lutanist Paul O’Dette, when he plays in early music ensembles, plays some pretty nifty hoedown material.

On one level, the musical discussion we’re having is about respect. Or the lack of it. Many years ago when I was somewhat in demand as a liturgical guitarist in my home diocese, many organists turned up their nose when I showed up. But many others had no problem playing with another musician who could read, knew the repertoire, and really wasn’t that much different from the Christmas trumpet player. Except I didn’t have to work valves. What, the psalm is Proulx? No guitar chords? No problem.

I’ve played a lot of good church music through the years. I didn’t go to conservatory, but I turned out pretty well. I can play dance music, but I prefer other styles, especially in church. I find the musical noses-in-the-air are usually not about Catholic tradition or appropriate music. Often it’s a sense of narcissism: “I’m a better musician that you. I play better music. I went to music school. I have a music degree.” I can hear the sneer.

Let me break off at this point and say I don’t think Gavin’s a snob. He confesses he’s not sure I’m a musician, so maybe that’s because I’m posting too much theology and astronomy.

This is what I think: there’s a lot more to sacred music than what the trads or the pseudo-folkies will tell you. There’s a lot more to music that what your conservatory professor tells you. I’ll pick up on this tomorrow when I write about style in the sense of genre and how much of the very best music, including sacred music, can be played in more than one style. If that were not true, we never would have made the step from plainsong to polyphony.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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8 Responses to Musical Style I

  1. Gavin says:

    In all fairness, I did appreciate your comment, and I hope my response didn’t come off as mean-spirited or elitist. Though I may disagree with your viewpoint, I certainly respect it, and your comments are always welcome. As a broad and agreeable answer to the question of style for Mass, I’ll say that the appropriate music is good music well played. Frankly, I’ve heard “old lady organists” so bad that I would glady go to the local megachurch instead for the rock band service. Same goes for composition, there are a few finely written contemporary tunes (I wouldn’t say the same of most “folk” music) that are good for that style. And while I do listen to Bach 75% of my free time, I still enjoy some good rock!

    In terms of Mass, I think the arguments of style can get shoved aside if we ask “what did the V2 fathers want?” Many of them are alive, one of them is pope, and the documents DO seem to favor Gregorian chant or propers when possible. It seems to me that they wrote up the Mass, they should have a say in what it can sound like! I think the question should first be “how can we use favored music?” and secondly “what other music can we use?” Most (not all) of the style discussion revolves around that 2nd question. Frankly, and many trads would be angry about this, I’d be glad to not have used the introit today and instead sung that famous “Rejoice in the Lord Alway”. Then, one could argue over the style of English polyphony vs. monotone chant without getting into “what replacement music can we do?”

    For the record, not that you’ve accused me of such, I am not a traditionalist. I just try to do my job as well as I can and in line with what I think my directives are. As I’ve said several times, I’m very thankful that you have this series on SC, it’s given me a chance to read a document that I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise and interact with others about its meaning. It may seem, especially on the music part, that you and I are getting different ideas on what the council wants, but I think we can at least agree on much of the good that came out of the council, such as the oft-mentioned Participatio. While I might not agree that chanted propers go against the principle (if that’s something you might say), I think we can both agree that it’s better now that people aren’t just sitting praying rosaries until the elevation!

    And I’ll fix the addendum about your blog when I get around to it – I really didn’t know if you were musicians. I try to be exclusive in linking to music-related blogs to avoid sponsoring overly polemic or political blogs, but of course yours was just worth the add anyway!

  2. Todd says:

    Gavin, thanks for visiting and clarifying.

    While I think the question, “What did the bishops want?” is an interesting one, I’m not sure it’s the only question or the most vital. As people on both sides of the ideological divide are fond of saying, “Vatican II wasn’t a dogmatic council.” And to an extent they are right.

    Not from a sense of sabotaging or upstaging the Magisterium, I think Vatican II recognized that expertise lies outside the hierarchy, and in the case of music, it was time for that expertise to be considered, and where appropriate, implemented, even if the council itself didn’t touch upon the issue.

    And we do have the rubrics (not just the GIRM) to give guidance for certain points of the liturgy. Traditionalists point to Pope Benedict approving of concert Masses, but the fact is that for your pastor’s parish, the rubrics about the communal singing of the entrance chant proper, hymn, or spiritual song indeed remain in place.

    Take your time on updating your blogroll. Neil is a professor. My academic training is in theology, but I am also a musician.

  3. I do wish that you guys would get it right:

    Vatican II did not say that we had to have only folk music or the four hymn sandwich;

    Vatican II did not say that we had to have only Gregorian chant; and finally

    Vatican II did not say that we had to have only Palestrina, Bach or Vaughan Williams.

    The council fathers of the Second Vatican Council did say that in all liturgical gatherings, Gregorian chant was to be given pride of place, that the whole treasury of polyphony was to be preserved, and that the music of the people (whether “folk” or “popular hymnography”) was to be cultivated. The council fathers also said that choirs were to be cultivated, and even that the choir could sing exclusively some of the music reserved to the people, but that the possibility of the participation of the congregation was not to be excluded.

    I do wish that you guys on either side of the RC cultural revolution would realize that it is not either/or, but both/and.

  4. Todd says:

    It is both/and, Bernard, as far as I’m concerned. I’m mystified as to where you’re getting the idea I don’t advocate for the full plate, so to speak.

  5. Again, Todd, I have had the misfortune to remember the days, not too far gone, when people who used the language which you are using now led the way for the disbanding of choirs, the abandonment of gregorian chant, and the minimization of any music written by “dead white guys”. In consequence, I tend to associate those who use that language with those people. If you in fact are working in your churches for “the full plate”, then you have my most sincere apologies.

    On the other hand, I am in the above screed writing about both the gruppenvolkfuehrers who are pushing an exclusive diet of Haagen-Haas frozen yogurt, as well as the people who, if they are recovering from what I call the RC cultural revolution, are therefore striving to remove all hymns and all post 70s music from the Liturgy, or who are wishing to have only gregorian chant and polyphony. Neither of them are faithful to Vatican II.

  6. Tony says:

    It is both/and, Bernard, as far as I’m concerned. I’m mystified as to where you’re getting the idea I don’t advocate for the full plate, so to speak.

    Todd, I don’t know your musical background, but I have a couple of questions:

    1. Are you qualified to direct chant?


    2. Do you?

    I am interested in integrating Latin and chant into our musical repetoire. Interesting thing… Last Holy Thursday, we chanted Pange Lingua, and I distinctly heard 6 voices out in the congregation singing out with perfect Latin diction, reasonable tonal quality, but with the quaver of age.

    One of the ladies who had been singing approached me with tears in her eyes and thanked us for praying that hymn with her. She said she hadn’t heard it in years (I’d imagine she hadn’t heard it in 40 years, thanks to the “if I had a hammer, I’d pound out all the Latin” folks.

    But the desire is there.

    BTW, I got a new CD for Christmas. I’m basking in Palestrina :)

  7. Todd says:

    1. I don’t have any formal academic coursework in conducting or in chant. Whatever I know I’ve picked up from workshops and from osmosis. If I had a serious chant choir in my parish, I would know enough to be a member and hire a director who could take us places.

    2. I program plainsong hymns, and to the extent one or more of my groups sing them, yes I do “direct” it.

    Honestly, I can’t remember not singing Pange Lingua on Holy Thursday. Ever.

  8. Tony says:

    Well, then I have to tell you that you seem to have a well rounded mix of music at your parish. This is something we’re getting more and more of as we move a long. We’re sort of limited as we (according to our pastor) must plan any music the congregation is going to sing from the Heritage Missal.

    I have suggested purchasing older editions of Glory and Praise which would allow us to sing more of the music which we are familiar with, since the congregation would have the hardbound hymnals in the pews.

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