The Best Musical Foot

In his post at NLM today, Jeffrey Tucker offers an interesting comment with regard to contemporary composers revising popular settings of the Mass for the new Roman Missal:

I know some of these song writers, and I know that they are not entirely pleased by what they are doing here. None of them consider these settings to be their best work.

This is an insight a few church musicians realize. But not many. And publishers seem to be oblivious to the reality that they are probably not putting out the very best music being written. The composers, to a person, probably all know it.

I met Don Reagan at the Rensselaer Program of Church Music and Liturgy in the mid-80’s. He was gracious with his time with many of us young composers there. And while I knew him from his contributions to Glory & Praise volume 2, it was his unpublished stuff that was so interesting. NPM ventured into the publishing sphere with his Mass in a Jazz Style.  The weakest pieces in that collection were certainly better than most of the oeuvre in G&P. And a few, including the Lamb of God, were simply sublime. It’s still my favorite setting for the Agnus Dei. Too bad I loaned my book out many years ago and the whole project is now out of print.

Ralph Verdi was another composer with stacks of excellent music on mimeos and copies. His experimental music was quite singable for a congregation, yet totally “unprofitable” according to GIA and other outlets. We shrugged on that one at summer school: it was interesting, solidly liturgical, and superior to most of what we were seeing in Worship and the People’s Mass Book.

Not a surprise to me that composers are of mixed feelings in returning to twenty, thirty-year-old Mass settings. I’d strike out into the new rather than revise. But no doubt, royalties can come in handy when you’re thinking about putting a kid through college. Or paying medical bills.

That composers’ “best foot forward” is not always considered “marketable” would, by itself, be an interesting topic to explore. NLM, were it less of an obtuse and ornery operation, might actually get composers to talk about this phenomenon. I’ve had a peek into the private files of people like Marty Haugen and Bob Hurd. I’ve seen unpublished music from a number of published and unpublished composers. There’s a mountain of good stuff in filing cabinets and on computers that few to none of us are seeing, I assure you.

Unfortunately, my friend had to clutter up his post with a half-dozen or so pet peeves:

Parishes will have to replace the pew books with all new books.

Really? We’re not.

Above all else, there is the core principle, said to be derived from “the documents,” which must never be violated and which must serve as the guiding force: it must inspire vigorous singing among the people.

Really? People will sing or not as their faith inspires. Church musicians we have little control over the final result. We provide singable music. My parishes have always sung. With some vigor when the faith was being expressed. Sometimes with something less. But my sense is that the congregations I see sing with more vigor than will be likely from reverts sending the propers back to the choir loft and serenading the assembly with polyphonic Mass settings.

Getting back to point, what sorts of music have you seen off the main roads of publishers?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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8 Responses to The Best Musical Foot

  1. Randolph Nichols says:

    Another take: I wonder whether the major Catholic music publishers have the editorial resources to sift through stacks of submissions from composers – young or old – to flesh out talent with real potential. That is, do they have the comparable abilities of the top-selling literary publishing houses? Back in the 1970s, I submitted a collection of acclamations to a major Catholic music publisher for consideration. I knew the works were singable because they were part of the favored repertoire in a couple of local parishes and, being on a university music faculty, I had the wherewithal to know they were at least reasonably well-crafted. Yet, they were all summarily rejected. Nor was there a note saying “nicely done, but to suit our purposes you would need to do this and this.”

    Of the more traditional liturgical composers, I think the works of Theodore Marier are among the best to remain largely unknown. Back in the 60s he probably thought his hymnal- which includes the bulk of his liturgical compositions- would become widely adopted, but he failed to take into consideration the capabilities of the typical Catholic parish music personnel. He would have needed to compile a simplified alternative to be really successful. (The reluctance of the copyright holder, the Boston Archdiocese Choir School, to release this material into the public domain hasn’t helped; I continue to be puzzled and frustrated by this foot dragging.)

    • Liam says:

      Ditto, Randolph. I don’t think that foot-dragging has resulted in any increased revenue to the BACS, but a creative commons license approach in the next edition of the hymnal (particularly making service music, psalter and parish-owned/public domain hymn modules available electronically in that model) would serve Dr Marier’s vision much more effectively and thoroughly. But I’ve made my views known on this point before. I am not sure how new leadership would grasp it, though.

      • RP Burke says:

        Some background from an old St. Paul’s member:

        One of the major problems faced in the publication of HPSC was that much of Marier’s music was published by McLaughlin and Reilly, which owned the copyright and was bought out by Summy-Birchard, a large publisher who saw McL & R to be a cash cow. Marier himself could not extract any special treatment on the items that he himself produced, and for which his hymnal was the only real market, from Summy-Birchard, which held out for maximum financial benefit for itself. S-B publishes mostly music pedagogy.

      • Liam says:


        That’s more true for his hymnody that was included in the Pius X Hymnal.

        I recently acquired an SATB version of Cantus Populi, the hymnal of Ted’s that just predates the Council. Very interesting as a marker for the goals for congregational singing and participation in the very early 1960s.

  2. Tony Barr says:

    As a composer of Catholic liturgical music, my predominant concern is text, always text. The text must always have its own intrinsic rhythm and be worthy of the people (assembly) who are expected to perform it.

    With the NAB psalter, I stumbled across so many road blocks that I had to conclude that these ‘translations’ were, on the whole, unsingable.

    I have been faced with a similar dilemma over the final editions of the newly-ammended texts of the latinized Roman Missal that, quite frankly, I don’t want to invest my time in new compositions. I know that this is short-sighted arrogance on my part, but when non-musicians whose primary language is not English, whose cultural backgrounds are not anglo-phonic, whose work methods are exclusively non-collaborative, I have little desire to be enmeshed in their impositional nightmares. I do not intend to empower them by struggling with what I regard as their textual travesties. (How’s that for a declaration of war!)

    I feel/know that my time is better spent on seeking/writing texts of poetic beauty, scriptual integrity, and heart-to-heart resonance. I know I have earned a reputation of being somewhat ‘intersesting’
    even ‘unique’, but I have yet to present lyrics of any kind which are unsingable or not immediately challenging.

    The post-Vatican 2 mandate required a revision of all liturgical books once every 25 years. In accordance with this mandate, the new Missal began its re-generation in the mid-eighties and has taken over 20 years to be subsquently finalized. As of this writing, in faithful compliance to the Council, we should be almost ready to implement the next generational revision rather than the scandalous delays we have been enduring over this one.

    • Liam says:

      Fortunately, GIRM 61 allows more options for sung settings of the psalm than spoken; you may use any authorized translation that has been approved, et cet. That’s one reason licit sung settings of the psalter vary in text choices. Ted Marier was very particular in which translations he used for which psalms because of this very problem.

    • Actually, the people who produced the forthcoming translation are native English-speakers.

  3. Adam Wood says:

    Is there some contractual agreement barring the “big names” from releasing their “unmarketable” music through another publisher or on their own.
    The world of printing, publishing, and distribution has changed so dramatically that no one needs the resources of a major publishing house to make their music available to those who want it.

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