Owen Alstott, I once heard, scribbled the first notes to his Heritage Mass on a paper napkin in response to the need for simple, serviceable music that anybody could sing, and most basically competent musicians could lead. Say what you like about the setting, but it works. Maybe the story is apocryphal but it isn’t out of character for the can-do attitude of liturgical music people in the heady 1970s.
Mr Alstott and OCP Publications wanted to make church music easier and accessible for musicians a cut or more below the level of the conservatory-trained professional. These would be ordinary singers before karaoke become a Thing, guitar players who knew the basic chords, and piano players-turned-organists who only played manuals, and usually on electronic imitations of pipe organs.
Criticize amateur musicians if you must, but remember that pastors of the 70s were setting budgets. And a woman religious friend once told me her convent got a $3 donation at every funeral she played. Were you sure, I was tempted to ask, but I didn’t want to open another rift in the Church.
When I was an eighth grader, the principal got word I “played” the organ, and asked if I would want to play in church. My parents had gifted me with a three-octave push-button chord keyboard, which I soon discovered had a limited range to play the two-staff music in one of my music books. I lasted fifteen months on the “instrument” and four books of lead sheets. The big pipe organ in the back of church intimidated the heck out of me. I didn’t even go up to the loft to look around. Maybe I didn’t appear enthusiastic about music, but nobody suggested real lessons either.
This is more or less the state of things when Owen Alstott first published Respond & Acclaim. That 1980-81 accompaniment book was less than $3. To get one for Sister’s glory days and one for her cantor would have only cost two funerals. Maybe there would be something left over for a cup of coffee on the side.
I suspect that this single publishing effort did more to jolt the average parish into singing the psalm after the first reading than any single guru, liturgical theologian, or bishop did.
Are these settings musically wonderful? Mostly no. Do people sing them three years after three years? Yes, pretty much. This is simple, serviceable, liturgical music faithful to the letter of the Lectionary text (99+% of the time) with which few clergy find an issue. Years before the Mass of Creation popularized bridging the gap between the organ and guitar, Owen Alstott did it every Sunday and major feast of the year.
R&A still employs the same settings it printed thirteen liturgical cycles ago. People still use it. For some, it would be this or nothing, budgets being what they often are.
Personally, that might be a lament, because I think the Psalms should merit our very best musical output. For years, my psalmists and musicians have been skeptical. Maybe if I had better music, I could convince them. A pair of Minnesota composers wrote better music and did convince a lot of people in the 1980s. We’ll look at that effort in some detail soon.