Some History of MCW

In all of our interesting internet discussions on liturgy, one thing you can count on: reform2 liturgists rarely head to the source. Unless it’s a Roman one. I feel fortunate to know some of the people who actually wrote MCW, so when I had the chance very recently to ask one of them about it, I got some interesting answers.

When liturgical folk music exploded in 1966, there were a lot of alarmed church musicians. My friend conceded that most folk groups were quite bad in those days. I’m not surprised by that assessment, coming as it does from an organist. It’s likely I would concur.

The US bishops approached some of the clergy involved with the FDLC and asked them to write a document on music. MCW was the result of that request. I found it interesting the bishops approached clergy who were musicians. No lay people were among those who penned various sections and then put the whole package together. And it was in part, a response to the lack of excellence many folk groups brought to the liturgy in American parishes.

I asked my friend about the three judgments, seeing that has been a recent source of vigor on this blog. He didn’t mention a connection with Musicam Sacram 5ff. I stand corrected on that, though I think MS sections 5 through 12 do parallel much of the thought on the judgments.

Of the other folks who wrote MCW for the bishops, one was a chant scholar, and another was a theologian. There were no folk or contemporary musicians, and as I said above, they were all priests.

It strikes me as a curiosity that William Mahrt would misread the three judgments so badly. He was right that those who wrote MCW fully intended for music to be the first judgment. Musical excellence was very much on their minds. Despite their training in classical church music and theology, there was a distinction made about musical style being a separate consideration from musical excellence.

What was the relationship between Musicam Sacram and MCW, I asked. It was intended to be an American statement, I was told, a response to the unique challenges in US parishes at the time. There was certainly a familiarity with MS, my friend said. One example of an aspect that was more or less dismissed in MCW was presider chants. When I asked why, I was told it was a practical matter. American priests didn’t sing. There wasn’t a thought to list sung dialogues as essential: the writers (presumably as clergy themselves) knew it wouldn’t go anywhere.

It’s clear to me that the Church was operating in a totally different way in the early seventies of the past century. Bishops asked experts in certain fields to produce material for them. I don’t believe there was a widespread ill intent to ignore or circumvent Roman documents. It struck me that MCW was intended to fill in the gap where pragmatic American clergy saw that Rome wasn’t even in the ballpark.

It begs the question for today: is Rome any more connected to what’s going on in parishes? Aside from what it hears from the Culture of Complaint, of course.

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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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15 Responses to Some History of MCW

  1. Jeff Pinyan says:

    One example of an aspect that was more or less dismissed in MCW was presider chants. When I asked why, I was told it was a practical matter. American priests didn’t sing. There wasn’t a thought to list sung dialogues as essential: the writers (presumably as clergy themselves) knew it wouldn’t go anywhere.

    Oh well. That’s not a very hopeful attitude to have. There are some priests who chant (part of) the liturgy, at least on special occasions. But now, for American Catholics, singing the Mass is relegated to the “won’t go anywhere” bucket?

    I mean, when even a document from the Bishops’ council doesn’t emphasis on the singing of the Mass, why would a priest have the impetus to go ahead and do so?

    It just seems a bit defeatist to me is all.

  2. Todd says:

    I’m not sure it’s any more defeatist or pessimistic as what I hear from reform2: that American church music is all screwed up. No signs of hope. Nobody doing good work.

    It’s possible that clergy themselves might have seen a document leaning on brother priests would have less chance of being taken seriously. It’s also possible they thought poor music leadership from the laity was a more serious problem.

    It’s likely that American clergy of the 70′s were a more independent sort than priests today. At least twenty years ago, musical priests were seen as something of a curiosity by their colleagues in orders.

    Next time I see my friend, I’ll ask him about that.

  3. Jeff Pinyan says:

    Well, I’ve only been of the “reform2″ camp for, oh, not even a year (this whole introspection started last Lent), but I’m inclined to agree that our music isn’t what it could be. I’m not old enough to know when the problem started. But I do know that Pope Paul VI didn’t help when he said:

    It is here that the greatest newness is going to be noticed, the newness of language. No longer Latin, but the spoken language will be the principal language of the Mass. The introduction of the vernacular will certainly be a great sacrifice for those who know the beauty, the power and the expressive sacrality of Latin. We are parting with the speech of the Christian centuries; we are becoming like profane intruders in the literary preserve of sacred utterance. We will lose a great part of that stupendous and incomparable artistic and spiritual thing, the Gregorian chant. (n. 8)

    Instead of saying “we must not lose Gregorian chant!” he says “we will lose much of Gregorian chant.” That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy right there.

    And then comes the matter of the liberties that many musicians took with the liturgical texts. I’m surprised how many of them altered the words of the Ordinary of Mass to fit their music, rather than write music around the words of the Ordinary of Mass.

  4. Todd says:

    Thanks for commenting, Jeff.

    You raise an interesting last point. The problem you describe is about thirty to forty years old. I can’t recall any published Mass setting since the late 70′s with any textual alteration. As Mass settings came into use penned by songwriters instead of composers, one would see words adapted to fit the music, an option still more or less open for the responsorial psalm.

    I would say it is the job of the music editor to ensure adherence. From what I hear from friends overseas, it’s much less of a problem in the US than in Europe.

    Keep in mind also the publisher’s profit motive. A few altered words in a psalm setting, and no copyright is due to the bishops (for the NAB) or anyone else for a strict word for word setting.

    I know one composer who reported his settings of psalms from the 1992 ICEL Psalter were initially discouraged, not because of problems with the translation, but because 50% of the copyrights would go to ICEL itself.

  5. Liam says:

    Todd – perhaps you mean only in the past decade, rather than since the 1970s, or you’re just forgetful….

    The Mass of Creation is a well-known example of a setting that alters the ordinary texts (in that, I also include troped LOGs, never licitly approved – but we’ve had that discussion too often). There are at least several others published in the past 20 or so years (just for example, those that add “Alleluia” to the Great Amen), and included in a variety of standard hymnal/missalette collections.

    Anyway, I have to say that the context of MCW you describe – an abandonment of presidential chants and dialogic response by the assembly – was a strategic error. Understandable, perhaps, but a big blunder nevertheless. Had the musicians consulted aggressively promoted such plainchant in the vernacular (as did Musicam Sacram – very much consistent with decades of Liturgical Movement emphasis), we might not today be faced with such acrimony over hymnody. Because, when the Mass is sung, hymns clearly become incidental in focus. I live in a parish that is a testimony to the truth of this: In the immediate wake of Mediator Dei in 1947, my parish’s longtime pastor and Ted Marier (who ahd spent the 13 previous years as parish organist and was promoted to music director) began a vigorous program of making singing the Mass the norm (in Latin in those days – shifting to mixed language after Vatican II). We have a highly transient population (not all Harvard students – though Harvard’s land purchases and general gentrification have blended with the once very blue collar surroundings), and it works for the newbies, not just the longtimers.

    In any event, MCW no longer has any force. But it’s worthwhile to understand its context.

  6. Todd says:

    I didn’t forget, Liam. But again, like some reform2 advocates, you apply the rules of 2008 to the situation of the 80′s.

    The Lamb of God tropes are an addition to the given text. Unlike the alterations I’ve seen to the Lord’s Prayer or the Gloria, these were not designed to fit the music, but rather it was a liturgical understanding (or misunderstanding, if you will) meant to underscore the Agnus Dei as a true litany, rather than an acclamation repeated three times with a coda.

    Jeff’s comment addressed the songwriter’s/composer’s choice to alter text to fit the composed music. Embellishment, either by the addition of “Alleluia” to “Amen” or by the expansion of plainsong into polyphony, is artistic and liturgical license of a different sort.

    And I agree about the strategic error on dialogues.

  7. Liam says:

    Well, I am not apply rules anachronistically. You made a simple statement about altering texts – texts were altered after the 70s, too; that’s my point in that regard. I don’t agree that “embellisment” to add new words to the text is not a textual alteration (as opposed to literal text echoes, long standard in Catholic music).

  8. Todd says:

    My conversation with Jeff had a context. Instead of writing, “I can’t recall any published Mass setting since the late 70’s with any textual alteration,” I could have been more wordy and written, “I can’t recall any published Mass setting since the late 70’s with any textual alteration for the sake of the music itself.”

    While troped litanies for the Breaking of the Bread weren’t authorized by the text of the Mass, the practice was widespread, not discouraged by church authority, and grounded not by the creative echo of a composer’s creativity, but by a perceived liturgical need. I do think this is an example of applying *judgments* anachronistically.

  9. Liam says:

    Ah. You’re clarified text makes more sense to me – and I would not have made that point if you had been clearer.

  10. Randolph Nichols says:

    Being old enough to remember when MCW was issued, I agree that it was intended to repair American liturgical excesses. It was, however,a debated document from the day it was published. The line in paragraph 17, “Everyone must be willing to share likes and dislikes with those whose ideas and experience may be quite unlike his own,” struck many as a capitulation to the anti-intellectualism that defined so much church music of the era. The three judgements were meant to solve that dilemma, but the fact that we are still arguing demonstates a failure to resolve core concerns.

    You mention that the authors were all clergy who happened to be musicians. I’ve known priests who were in fact legitimate musicians. (The pastor of the parish Liam mentions above gives piano recitals featuring demanding repertoire.) Unfortunately, experience has taught me that the priest-musician label invites skeptism. Most have not endured the rigors of a throgough music education and there are indications that the authors of MCW were at times over their heads. An example is the comment in paragraph 38 that the location of the organ console “near the front pews will facilitate congregational singing.” No experienced musician would have worded it quite that way.

    I don’t doubt that the intentions of MCW were good, or that we have derived some benefits from it. But it was, as you say, a pragmatic response to a particular historic time. That time has passed. Let’s move on.

  11. Liam says:

    Yes, our new pastor is an accomplished musician, and introducing him to the presidential chants in our hymnal has been a pleasure that does not call attention to itself (as always, we strive for understated, even quotidian perhaps, excellence).

  12. Todd says:

    Thanks, Randolph for your input.

    ““Everyone must be willing to share likes and dislikes with those whose ideas and experience may be quite unlike his own,” struck many as a capitulation to the anti-intellectualism that defined so much church music of the era.”

    I’m not so sure I would characterize “folk” music of the time as “anti-intellectual.” Certainly, many of the secular folk musicians of the time put their own intellect at the service of songs of protest, philosophy, and the like. Perhaps the sense that “anybody” could write and perform songs made the endeavor more of a populist one. Thank the Beatles, I guess, for good or for ill.

    It also strikes me that within classical circles there are certain biases as well: various preferences for early music, the Baroque Era, Mozart, opera, 12-tone, impressionism, Romanticism, and the like. I know musicians who argue for their own and belittle others outside their circles. This statement seems intended for anyone inclined to substitute a judgment of taste when an assessment of quality is needed.

    “The three judgements were meant to solve that dilemma, but the fact that we are still arguing demonstates a failure to resolve core concerns.”

    Simply because quality cannot be established by fiat. We simply don’t have enough excellent church musicians to go around.

    “You mention that the authors were all clergy who happened to be musicians. … Most have not endured the rigors of a throgough music education …”

    At least two of these guys did. One studied organ from childhood and another was the head of a sacred music program at a university.

    “That time has passed. Let’s move on.”

    If indeed this is true, then the criticism of MCW will dry up also. It strikes me that the critics are equally unready to loosen their bulldog grip on the Culture of Complaint.

  13. Jimmy Mac says:

    Lest we forget that most of the “popular” hymns of yester-year had a rather singular flavor, here’s a lovely little selection of “wonderful old church hymns” for which some people are pining away. Having suffered through them as a child (and I think my diabetes is a direct result of their cloying sweetness) I am so very glad that they are not high on most parish’s hit parade:

    Mother Dearest, Mother Fairest
    Mother Dear, O Pray For Me
    On this Day, O Beautiful Mother
    ‘Tis the Month of Our Mother
    Bring Flowers of the Rarest
    Holy Mary, Mother Mild
    O Queen of the Holy Rosary
    Daily, Daily, Sing to Mary
    I’ll Sing a Hymn to Mary
    Dear Guardian of Mary
    Hail Virgin, Dearest Mary

  14. Tony says:

    Unfortunately, experience has taught me that the priest-musician label invites skeptism.

    For me the priest-musician label invites thoughts of St. Louis Jesuits. :P

  15. Todd says:

    Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Perosi, probably lots of guys before 1600 …

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