What Contemporary?

A musical friend forwarded me this piece from last week’s America. I don’t know my friend’s take, really. Surprise that the organ-guitar wars are still waging in some minds a half-century later? She asked for my opinion.

Journalist Addison del Mastro hits the nail here:

A lot of the criticism leveled against more recent sacred music, unfortunately, can be snide and uncharitable. Some of it relies on quasi-conspiracy theories about the Oregon Catholic Press; some of it takes reasonable critiques and expands them too much.

“More recent” in most people’s minds is yesterday or, at a stretch, last year. Publication dates cited in the article includes 1979, 1988, 1982, 1981, and 1992. In the long run of time’s arrow, that may well be contemporary as history goes. But it doesn’t address how out-of-date both songs and complaints can be.

Of the two serious considerations in the article, and the first doesn’t wash with me.

The first (consideration) is those hymns whose lyrics are simply straight or slightly modified passages of Scripture (like “On Eagle’s Wings,” lightly adapted from Psalm 91). There’s nothing wrong with that, of course …

(W)e expect that the church will do most of the theological heavy lifting for us, and sacred music should be part of this.

I think sacred music can be a part of it. I just don’t think many Catholics are ready for it. The magisterium has always endorsed theologians over composers. I think people in the pews want various things from their music, not the least of which might be the talky tendencies of many liturgies. Many believers want to express their devotion to God. Others want to join in an act of worship on some level, contemporary or otherwise. 

On the other side, few composers are inspired by setting the catechism to music. And if we look to great theologians, it’s more the mystical expressions of Thomas Aquinas or Cardinal Newman.

Number two isn’t bad, but it’s rather narrow:

The second substantive shortcoming is lyrics so of-the-moment or theologically vague that they convey very little beyond generic benevolent sentiment. 

Again, “of the moment” lyrics apply in any moment. We have remnants of pre-conciliar hymnody that express what people expected–love and devotion. The Mass didn’t do the heavy lifting for the laity on most levels before Vatican II. It’s a reality we live with more than “On This Day, O Beautiful Mother.”

The “real problem,” in the author’s term persists. I’d say the problem is fairly wide-ranging, more so than songs from the 70s and 80s. The Church doesn’t have a single agenda. It lacks a widespread professionalism in music ministry. Parish volunteers might be doing more heavy lifting today than they did in pre-conciliar days when Father contributed $2 to the Sister’s fund for playing the organ on weekends. 

The false problem is the quality of church music, however that is measured. Bad music tends to sort itself out. We can look back on the previous centuries and its quality of song as evidence that things do get sifted out. 

As for me, I try to program the best music I have available for people to sing. Can’t do better than that.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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