Look on the Bright Side

At the risk of being labelled a pollyanna liturgist for wanting to look on the bright side, or even of being a Haugen apologist, let me offer another critique of conservative Catholics criticizing contemporary sacred music.

Have you noticed how infrequently they trumpet their own preferences? And when they do, they often find the fickle finger of fate turned back on them.

You can also ask yourself about the music line-ups for the pope in either Washington or New York why traditionalist musicians haven’t posted on the positive aspects of the selections. The snarks among us might respond that either there are no positive aspects or that we should all know which pieces are treasure and which are trash.

Wouldn’t it be more instructive to hear why church musicians regard the church’s artistic  treasures highly? Do surgeons learn how to operate from studying the botched operations that leave clamps, gloves, and towels inside a living body?

I suspect that many church musicians are reticent to praise in these fora because they fully know how quickly the bile can turn on them in return.

I’ve told my long-time friend Fr Jeff Keyes a few times that a hymnal assembled by collective subtraction will be a vanishly thin volume indeed.

It would be far better and more productive for internet Catholic musicians to write more on the pieces that work rather than waste time on the ones that don’t. Anybody up for the challenge?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to Look on the Bright Side

  1. Gavin says:

    I’m going to have to dodge this one and say that was the point of my former blog. I made a blog because I was disgusted with how much negative commentary existed among traditional music advocates. And I’ve spoken out against the hostile reactions to the DC music and said often that on the whole I find the list promising.

    I don’t have a blog anymore, but if you want to know what I’d do at the pope’s Masses, it’d probably be something like the following:

    Prelude: various organ music, followed by Bruckner “Ecce Sacerdos”
    Entrance: Proper chant followed by appropriate hymn
    Kyrie: Mass XVI, a capella
    Gloria: Mozart orchestral Mass
    Psalm: Alstott
    Alleluia: Mode VI, a capella
    Offertory: Proper antiphon followed by appropriate polyphony and maybe some organ music
    Sanctus: Mozart
    Memorial Acclamation: Paul Ford, from “By Flowing Waters”
    Amen: chanted
    Agnus Dei: Mozart/Mass XVIII
    Communion: commissioned responsorial setting of proper communion in English, followed by organ music as necessary
    Closing: Appropriate hymn
    Postlude: Finale fr. Widor’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra

    Oh, and the whole Mass would be chanted, including confiteor and creed, both chanted recto tono or to a very simple tone. Fisk away at that one.

    I’ve never seen the point in offering criticisms without solutions. I agree that a lot of the conservative blogosphere does that, with regard to music or not. However, I think the presence of bloggers such as myself and Cantor negates the idea that such destructive attitudes are merely part and parcel of traditional views on the liturgy.

  2. Liam says:

    Please make mine Agnus Dei IX (Cum Jubilo). That should be standard repertoire (basically, I’d like to see two of each of the basic Latin ordinaries, one simple and one more festive, in the standard American parish repertoire – and I actually don’t think that’s a pipe dream).

    Actually, it’s pretty easy for congregations to learn this one,e especially if they only have to sing “miserere nobis/dona nobis pacem” while the schola or cantor sings the rest. And it’s lovely. (Moviegoers may recognize the “dona nobis pacem” as the one Jennifer Tilly sings from the bell tower at the end of “Agnes of God”.)

  3. Gavin says:

    basically, I’d like to see two of each of the basic Latin ordinaries, one simple and one more festive, in the standard American parish repertoire

    I strongly agree, and I’d say large parishes ought to have 3 or 4. I’m leaving my parish in June, otherwise my goal would be to begin teaching Orbis Factor.

  4. Tony Neria says:

    I actually started searching for a “Catholic” liturgical music blog that I could learn from about six months ago—one where ideas could be shared, lessons learned, etc. But to my horror, I could only find the very conservative ones. I don’t think conservative is bad, but most seem so elitist and tend to be a platform to bash anything or anyone who doesn’t follow their way of thinking. I really had no idea Marty Haugen was so disliked or his music considered so offensive! His music has been a part of my life for the last 25 years.

    Catholic Sensibilities seems to be the only Catholic blog that is evenhanded when dealing with Catholic liturgical music. I’m sure there are others out there, but I haven’t found them. I do want to thank you for your modernist and pragmatic approach though. I believe you represent the “real world” Catholic thought.

    The goal of my blog http://theliturgicalmusician.wordpress.com is to look at Catholic liturgical music in a positive light. What music has touched me…what music has worked for various liturgies and what I’ve learned as a choir director. I even hesitate to mention my blog for fear the “conservatives” will find it and start bashing everything I write!

    Much of the psalmody that is used by my choir comes from Marty Haugen and David Haas. These psalms have been a part of my church community for at least 30 years. The melodies are well known by our assembly and are well loved. I’m going to be the first person to tell you that I have much to learn. I’m amazed at the depth of knowledge of some of your commenter’s like Gavin and Liam. They both tend to be more “traditional” in their music selections, but they are at least fair and charitable in their writing. I actually love their selections for the Pope’s mass although some of it is unfamiliar. I would be in heaven if I attended a mass that was all chant. But in my world, I have to be very careful with the Latin, least I get complaints from the assembly. A few years ago I introduced Bob Hurd’s Missa Ubi Caritas mass setting during Lent—I thought it was beautiful, but it was not very well received.

    I am excited about the current crop of Catholic composers and the music they are writing. That being said, at my choir practice last night, we were working on three traditional hymns that would be very welcome in any conservative Catholic church—so I guess there is hope for me.

  5. Liam says:


    Thank you, but I am not what I would consider *deeply knowledgeable* so much as broadly experienced and and a fairly wide reader and observer. My own past covers a wide range of terrain that speaks to certain common types in the American Catholic experience (though I have yet to worship in that worst of things, a church carpeted from wall to wall). I certainly was in a couple of communities where no-Latin was a mighty shibboleth, but even in those it broke down, for a number of reasons. (Rule number 1: don’t over privilege complaints and complainers, and learn to distinguish the *whys* of the complaints. It’s often not about the [Latin]
    , but other things for which the complainer is making [Latin] stand proxy.)

    I have long written that a situation where Gregorian chant and the Church’s treasury of polyphony are *strange* liturgical experiences for a congregation cannot reasonably be said to be a full embodiment of the liturgical reforms envisioned by the Council. I would not seek to make chant and polpyphony the *dominant* non-presidential liturgical song (but I would seek to make presidential chanting much much more normal than it is now) – but by the same token I would expect pastors and music directors to make chant and polyphony sufficiently familiar to their congregations that they are no longer strangers to one another. That estrangement, however understandable and explainable in pragmatic terms as a historical matter (and I don’t attribute it to a cabal of chant-haters as such, unlike many over at the traditionalist side of things), is neither good nor justifiable on a principled basis at least in terms of Vatican II.

  6. Gavin says:

    most seem so elitist and tend to be a platform to bash anything or anyone who doesn’t follow their way of thinking.

    That can be said about most conservative Catholic blogs. It’s not so much even about bashing those who don’t share their thinking, it’s about bashing those who even don’t act precisely as they demand. As an example, we remember the flap over Bp. Weurl not excommunicating Pelosi. Political humiliation is what the blogosphere wanted, but the bishop had other plans. Maybe a public excommunication would get her to change her stance, but if you’d listen to the blogosphere doing anything short of that makes the bishop in line with the pro-aborts. Weurl is still public enemy #1 over this. We can also see that if a bishop so much as says he wants to know where the EF is being offered, he’s trying to oppress traditionalists and is compared to a Nazi.

    I typically consider myself a moderate, and that’s more based on experience. When I was in Ann Arbor, I seemed quite conservative compared to the backdrop there. Now that I’m in west Michigan, I feel like quite the liberal. FWIW, I typically vote Democrat but will likely vote for McCain this year. And I have no problem calling Todd out on the occasional runaway “progressivism” or pointing out my CMAA colleagues veering too far to some musical fairy-world where we can have a square-note Latin hymnal in every pew. But I always am hesitant to condemn others for holding similar views to me yet acting on them in a different manner. As I said in another thread, I don’t think of myself as having the right answers but rather asking the right questions.

    I guess I’m interested in other views, conservative or liberal, hence why I read Todd’s blog. I don’t agree with him half the time, but he always has something interesting to say and always backs it up with facts. Todd frequently seems to be under the delusion that all progressives know council documents forwards and backwards, but I’d say that if all people in church ministry had his knowledge and care for following even their interpretation of the documents we’d be much better off. The same goes for my more conservative colleagues: I maybe agree with Fr. Z less than Todd, but I like to get ideas from both bloggers rather than only listening to those who agree with me.

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