Here We Are, Again

MR3 must be settling in, and clearly the unwashed masses are still smudged and in want of a shower, for a political blog to be commenting about the sorry state of liturgical music.

Do they know that Peter Jeffery, hero-critic, was also a critic of Liturgiam Authenticam, and by extension, the whole translation process even before Fr Anthony Ruff bailed on the mess? (Dr Jeffery, if you’re reading this, sorry to shatter your bona fides with the conservative crew.)

It’s not like the pop hit machines of NALR and GIA were cranking out tunes that topped the charts just weeks after release. Mark Misulia at First Thoughts singles out some top-25 songs, but I think the Right is still reeling from the 70’s, because I don’t think any of them really gained traction (or composition, in one case) until the following decade.

Gather Us In. Copyright 1982. First appearance in a hardcover hymnal, Worship 3rd in 1986. I don’t think this hymn started sinking in until about 1984. That might be ominous enough for its critics. I don’t find there’s all that much to criticize about it. Every church musician who hates having the plug pulled after verse two loves the midpoint of the text. It’s about as close to the sneer of Steely Dan as we get in liturgical music. It’s much more fun to poke at people who don’t like it. And even though complaints roll in about its ubiquity, you think they’d be able to accurately quote it.

On Eagles Wings. Copyright 1979. When NALR trotted out Glory and Praise 2 the following year, this song caught on. I have to admit I found the original recording off-putting. Strings and chorus is not what college student folk groups think they can reproduce. And an accompaniment book full of piano arrangements. Who is this Mike Joncas, anyway? Where does he come up with this Bible-study material in the notes?

One Bread, One Body. Copyright 1978. Another GP2 feature. Mr Misulia counts himself in a group “still confused by the odd theological twists and turns.” While true that John Foley takes a few New Testament passages and ties it all together with a piece of The Didache, I don’t find apostolic Christianity to be very confusing. The piece is about unity. It might be less confusing–or more, depending on the extremity of your ideology–to sing about Left and Right. But there’s nothing wrong with delving a little deeper into a first century reference.

I’m not a subscriber to The Chronicle, so I can’t comment on what the Peter Jeffery and Margot Fassler actually said. I do find it curious that scholars wouldn’t bother to read the fine print at the bottom of the page. These three pieces mentioned above are, for all practical purposes, songs of the 1980’s, the settling-in period after Vatican II. They all have staying power. And their critics might do well to wonder why that is.

And if these three songs do need an update, it won’t be accomplished by a hermeneutic of subtraction. People are just going to have to find better pieces. I’m sure that’s possible in each of these cases. But the challenge is that it is a lot easier to upgrade “Here We Are” and “On This Day, O Beautiful Mother.”

All that said, there is a need for a serious upgrade in liturgical music. But the locus of change is more in the performance of music leaders in parishes, and less these days the composers. It is possible to have an uninspired arrangement of “One Bread, One Body.” And it is also possible to move even beyond the printed parts on the published page. If people love a worthy piece, it will be worthwhile to return the craft and attention. And if church musicians are unable to give that, I don’t think Vatican II is to blame for it.

I think one can argue against “On Eagles Wings” as a matter of personal taste. But I don’t think you can listen to the recording or read the scripture analysis in the book and come away thinking this is not serious music by intent.

Like Dr Jeffery and Dr Fassler at Notre Dame, I enjoy being in a university place where I have far better than average musical resources at hand. But maybe I don’t get out to the hinterlands as much as they do. Musical formation and imagination are where we have the most serious room for improvement in the Catholic Church these days. I suspect it was so thirty, fifty, eighty years ago. It was probably true in medieval times as well, though that fact probably doesn’t present itself as obvious to historians. So where does that leave us? Here we are, gathered in the same space, heaven light years away, again.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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