Marty’s Not So Bad

… seems to be the verdict from some of the reform2 crew. The two Jeffreys, the Jester and at NLM concede the point. Jeffrey Tucker:

Indeed, when Marty Haugen’s Mass of Creation finally came on at the Sanctus, it was a moment of dignity—so much so that I want to take back all my negative comments back when I thought that this Mass setting was unsuitable for a Papal Mass.

Indeed, it’s amazing to me that so many professional musicians would not be aware of a few basic principles in playing. First, it’s about the arrangement. We can be grateful for the post-Tridentine western musical tradition for writing it all out for us. Great composers can take a simple tune and craft it into a symphony. You never hear Vaughan-Williams laid out in lavender for taking guitar tunes and turning them into pieces like Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus.

When it’s not about the arrangement, it’s about the players. The greats are great because their music is profound, and often that means it’s difficult to play. Bach in the hands of a tyro is pretty awful. And if that was all you heard of Bach, you’d probably dismiss his music along with the players of it.

I feel like I’m wearing out the word, but it really is about context. Context, context, context. Context in liturgy means prayer. And prayer is not always aligned to high levels of musical skill. In such cases, sacred music works in spite of a lack of quality, not because of it. It’s more than telling a struggling musician or assembly, “Well, your heart’s in the right place.” You aspire to excellence because the liturgy deserves it, but as one saint put it, “Do not allow yourselves to be offended by the imperfect while you strive for the perfect.”

Chant failed as pre-conciliar Catholic music for two reasons, I think. Laziness and a lack of prayer. I sang in a chant schola once and I will tell you it is darned difficult to achieve a good unison sound from a non-auditioned cross section of parish singers. I learned a lot from our director. But after eight months, I still thought we had a long way to go. If a chant advocate tells you this music is easy: just sing a line and go … they don’t know.

I think the connection of language and prayer is important. Sacrosanctum Concilium alluded to this many times, and it’s why the world’s Catholic bishops accepted the vernacular after the Council. It’s also why weak English works better than Latin for most all American Catholics: it makes a connection through perception. We’re literally praying twice: the texts as well as the music. Without an understanding of Latin, even a basic one, music with Latin texts is praying once. (Unless it’s just listening to a performance.) It’s an emphasis on the musical sound and the style of the singing. And I suppose one could sing any words, any language, any nonsense words. If nobody in the schola or pews would know the difference, what would be accomplished? The same thing, pretty much. My chant director took time with not only Latin pronunciation, but also Latin meaning and how to interpret the text with prayer.

So instead of on Haugen, I see the bile spewed on the “appalling” instruments of non-white musicians. The commentariats are bad, generally. The bloggers a little more circumspect, but still wrong-headed.

Jeffrey Tucker again:

Blues and jazz – intended to appeal to African Americans? What about those African Americans who sing in chant scholas, are accomplished singers, are working to actually compose excellent sacred music?

What about white folk and Hispanics who sing and play blues and jazz?

Just because chant musicians keep to plainsong and polyphony doesn’t mean other people don’t find great enjoyment in more than two musical styles.

The criticisms I’ve read strike me as grossly ignorant. It’s about the basic principles. Question one: was the music itself good? Most people can’t bear to affirm anything as good outside their narrow musical taste. (Yes, taste!)

Was the non-classical music arranged properly? And did the listening critics hear the authentic arrangement, or were they stuffed away in the press box or in the tv studio, or listening to a less-than-professional feed from a media outlet? I ask this last one because I don’t know. I didn’t watch and listen to these Masses. I’m not accustomed to being a spectator at liturgy. If I couldn’t go, why would I filter the experience through a tv or computer screen?

Was the music bad because the players were not top-shelf? Or were they nervous, distracted, or just mixed up? Lots of possible problems there: not getting the best people, a lack of leadership, a lack of preparation, to name a few.

And lastly, what was the context in worship? I read that Fr Neuhaus has a hissy over the music. What was he doing at a papal liturgy yapping on tv and not praying? Is this a sporting event or is it the celebration of Mass?

With the advent of American Idol as the latest in a long line of critic-driven entertainment, I think many of the reform2 crew have adopted and embraced the Hermenteutic of Criticism as promoted in the culture. A great foundation for ushering in a new age of transcendence in liturgy. Smells like Matthew 7:26-27.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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12 Responses to Marty’s Not So Bad

  1. Gavin says:

    I had said over and over that the use of Haugen’s Sanctus was not a bad thing. And I was proven right, and have proceeded to “in your face” everyone who said otherwise.

    Your cry for context doesn’t work. The Mass does not hallow anything and everything that goes on at it. If I choose to pray at Mass by bellowing out gibberish in “tongues” and then yelling out loud a prayer for a better car, all during the Canon, that is NOT a matter of “well, it’s weird but let’s interpret it in light of the Mass!” If I choose to chant the canon with my priest in organum, that is NOT a matter of “laymen cannot pray the canon, but it’s still prayer!”

    I would say context only hallows the efforts. That is to say, if they got an out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-NY parish choir of 7 old ladies who came and weakly chanted the music proper to the Mass (as you can find but will doubtlessly ignore at Aristotle’s blog), that shabby performance would be acceptable to the Mass despite its imperfections because those singing wished to sing the liturgy. I have seen this myself at an Orthodox mission with a shabby choir. There is no professional choir that can compare with such beauty.

    The musical selections themselves are NOT hallowed. The gospelly Penitential Rite is still a gospelly Penitential Rite. The standard for music at the Mass is Gregorian chant and the Church’s musical treasury. If someone looks outside those standards to find music for Mass, he only opens himself up to criticism since he uses his own judgment above that of the Church.

    In short, I tell wedding couples by way of explaining the Church’s standards for liturgical music, “You agree it would be terribly inappropriate to have ‘Baby Got Back’ while the bride walks down the aisle.” Given your comments above, I question whether you would even agree with that judgment. Context, shmontext. Either the music of the DC Mass was appropriate to the Mass or it was not. The liturgy does many things, but it cannot cover up that which rejects it, as the music did.

  2. Brian says:

    Would it be untoward for me to mention that Todd and Jeff Tucker will be debating this very issue as my guests Saturday afternoon at 5 PM Eastern on “Catholic Radio 2.0” on BlogTalkRadio?

    Listen to the live stream or download the archive version at

  3. Todd says:

    A few things:

    Sacred music ordinarily consists of text as well as music. So even a gospel Kyrie is still a Kyrie. It’s not objectively less of a Kyrie than plainsong or a poorly performed one.

    The propers are less singing the Mass than the ordinary and the given texts of the liturgy. We have options for the entrance, psalm, etc.. We don’t for the Sanctus, ot others. One can employ hymnody or other musical styles and still be singing the Mass.

    Looking at the repertoire for the DC Mass, I don’t see anything grossly inappropriate for Mass. It’s a bit of false logic to say that just because I would accept one or two things you don’t like, it means I would accept *everything” you dislike.

    Come back and argue the point better, and I think we can go somewhere with it. This personal taste stuff just bogs down an otherwise interesting discussion.

  4. jeffrey says:

    Did you just accuse me of spewing bile or am I misreading this? And speaking of context, I hope that your readers click through and read the rest of my comment on NLM.

  5. Todd says:

    “Did you just accuse me of spewing bile or am I misreading this?”

    Let me edit the post a bit, and give your second quote some separation. I thought the Curt Jester’s commentariat was rather rude about this.

    That said, I don’t see any problem with musical styles that were rooted in sacred music to begin with. I don’t see jazz as black music and I doubt that most black jazz musicians would see it that way either.

  6. jeffrey says:

    Todd, the point I was making is that the organizers THEMSELVES were saying that the music they chose was designed to appeal to group-identity-interests. It is not I who believes this but the people who made those selections, and this is precisely what I was complaining about. Do you see? I found this patronizing and said so. So I was a bit confused by what thoughts you were attributing to me but if I’ve clarified anything, please change the post. thank you.

    In any case, I speak as a guy who paid my way through college playing in a jazz band, so I am not unfamiliar with this genre.

  7. jeffrey says:

    Somehow I just can’t imagine anyone complaining about “non-white” instruments; ghastly if true, and the point has nothing to do with anything.

    Somehow I am struck by your claim that chant “failed as preconciliar music” — for a certain kind of music to be pervasive nearly all over the world for 1500 years is pretty impressive, so I’m entirely sure what you mean by success and failure here.

    Anyway, thank you for changing the post.

  8. Todd says:

    The comment in the NLM box about the drums and sax.

    I suspect that chant was far less pervasive, given the degree of experimentation over the past several hundred years: organum, polyphony, etc.. It always seemed as if people were looking to move beyond it.

    The failure would be its lack of staying power in parishes. Before the council, it lagged as second fiddle behind organ-accompanied devotional music.

  9. jatucker says:

    Well, I guess I don’t think of the saxophone as a liturgical instrument, given its associations with jazz in our times, but it surely beats the Crumhorn you sometimes hear on early music recordings. Wikipedia says that Praetorius suggested this for sacred music. Yikes.

  10. Todd says:

    Ever hear Jan Garbarek’s collaborations with the Hilliard Ensemble?

  11. RP Burke says:

    I don’t see anything grossly inappropriate for Mass.

    To have this be something other than a statement of “personal taste,” Todd needs to show how he interprets the church’s standard of appropriateness, as articulated by the USCCB, and then demonstrate that the music for the papal Mass in Washington did not violate that standard.

    If Todd doesn’t or can’t do this, he’s as guilty of evaluating music on the basis of “taste” as those he accuses of the same thing.

  12. Todd says:

    Point conceded.

    I didn’t watch the Mass, nor do I have much of a desire to do so. I saw the list of repertoire planned. I confess my unfamiliarity with some of the musical titles, and certainly the performing groups.

    My assumption would be that a professional of Tom Stehle’s reputation would not plan something inappropriate. But that doesn’t mean something slipped under his nose, or the actual performance of a piece was poor.

    Frankly, I think the whole idea of the mega-Mass is of questionable appropriateness. I’ve participated in one, as an orchestra member and planner, and I think once in a lifetime is enough.

    But I have no problem hanging my hat on either assertion here as my personal opinion.

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