Loving You and music, music, music…

That, my friend, is what we call irony. Using a pop tune to criticize the pop-tune evolution of modern sacred music is a bit tongue-in-cheek. I am in need for mass music that doesn’t make me feel like I’m trying out for a rag-tag production of a middle-school musical. It shatters the peace and beauty that comes from the mass itself, and can even clash with the celebrant’s presentation. Imagine a sudden vision of the Sharks and the Jets bursting into song while you are building up to the Eucharist… This was in one of the better parishes I’ve visited.

I am not sure what it is about the Archdiocese of Gary in particular that seems so fond of the guitar mass. For those who don’t know, a guitar mass is one which the production of mass is so focused on being modern and relevant that it ceases to be both… dated to the ears of youth (and young adults) and watered down to the point of essential meaninglessness. Basically, it’s what (I believe) inspired Tom Lehrer to write “the Vatican Rag”. He went to a snazzy modern mass, said, “WTF?” and started humming. [Hat tip to Mark Russel]

By Tantó (Own work) [GFDL CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately, the difficulties that a certain curmudgeon experiences on (at least) a weekly basis are rare. At local parish, while the homily aren’t usually quite up to my standard.

My standard is high… when I can I attend Our Lady of the Angels where one priest has a whopping 30 years experience at homily composition, and the other is famous for his apologetics and inspirational speaking. The ritual is infused with reverence and adherence to the “Say the red, do the black” philosophy that one can gather meaning and come away with the feeling that Something has Happened.

I am aware that this is not what the mass is for. But if one is under the constant impression that something sacrilegious is going on… well, that violently opposes the point of the mass as well.  Now, I will admit you don’t have to always pick Pre-Vatican II music to be reverent… but it sure makes the odds higher.

I admit I am a music snob. Music is one of my primary gateways into an awareness of God.  It is how I recognize the essence of the Divine in the World. This matter is very personal and dear to my heart. My first exposure to the very best that music has to offer as well as my first exposure to Catholicism was through my piano teacher as a young child. She had a profound impact on my life, and I pray I shall have the honor to thank her some day.

I was fed a healthy dose of Bach and a number of other prolific and brilliant creators of sacred music, and I miss it a great deal. Primarily, the extreme beauty of the music convinced me that God exists. I can’t explain it any other way. Humans just… can’t make something that awesome.

It was so long ago I’ve forgotten the names, but I will never forget the music. I try to bring it with me to church and play it in my head when the sing-alongs start sounding too much like Kum-by-ya. Alas, if my Jedi skills are not sufficient, the badness of the music overwhelms the grace of the moment. Shortly I am unsettled, and sometimes, robbed of something intangible and desperately important. If it gets bad enough, it can rob me of the ability to put myself into the proper frame of mind to receive Our Lord. It has happened while traveling, and also before we found our Reasonably Reverent Indiana Parish[tm].

Some would say that liturgical music is supposed to be an act of sharing. Beauty is hard! Wouldn’t you rather that people be together, “making a joyful noise” unifying their voice in praise, imperfect though it may be?

My problem isn’t just with the fact that it sounds bad, or that it’s too modern. I don’t care when it was written. It should sound (at least in theory) like something sacred is happening, and if you want the entire congregation to sing it, it better be designed well. We should all give our best to God. If it is sung off-key, or rushed, obviously people are still trying to do their best. That is not my problem.

My rejoinder goes something like this: It is eminently possible to write beauty simply. (Silent Night anyone?) If you look, there’s lots of beauty that wasn’t composed by Orf, the Beetles, or Leonard Bernstein.

Much of this much-maligned badness is written and presented by people who seem unaware of how challenging it is to sing well… even by people who do this stuff for a living. Especially if you don’t have a lot of lead time. So whatever happened to “music for the people”? The crowning irony is that most of this modern music is not as well designed for the average congregation singer either, though that was their initial argument/excuse to punish us with it in the first place.

The reason for this, is because the music field is now dominated by experts who do nothing but sing. It used to be, back when the old music was written, that everybody sang. They did not always sing well, but it was entertainment, a charity, and the equivalent of listening to your favorite song on an mp3 player– except a lot more DIY. In those days people even memorized hymns for fun and sang them to pass the time. So, those old codgers knew more about how to sing for the less skilled, because there were more of them,and they were exposed to them day in and day out.  And the average layman in those days were more skilled than those who only ever sing for mass today.

Also, in those days, music did not pay very well, so you tended to have other work. So only those who were exceptionally famous (much rarer in those days) could afford to do it full time– therefore you had more people who weren’t up to the modern standard as a professional writing the music.   People tend to write to their strengths– so you can argue that even the codgy old music (though possessing trills and frills) is easier to sing, at least in most part, than what is found today.

These modern folks suffer from the erroneous notion that if you can hum it easily, you can sing it easily. Wrong. Breathing while humming is a trivial operation done in the nose while you vibrate your vocal chords. With singing, your lungs are the bellows for the phrasing of the piece: get it wrong and newbies will run out of breath, breathe in the wrong place, get more notes sharp and flat, get the timing wrong or get completely disorganized from an over complex rhythm. Those supposedly easier modern tunes seem to love exotic and shifting time frames, odd pauses and un-foreshadowed syncope.

These traitorous music arrangers (and by extension, music directors) not only chose insipid melodies scammed from musicals and pop tunes, but also force the words onto the melody and rhythm with a pile driver. If the words don’t scan with the melody and/or rhythm, even ardent and skilled practice will sound like amateur hour. Newbies can’t sing this stuff well any more than someone with training might… and how do I know? I have an extensive background in music, including singing, piano playing and music composition stretching for more than 10 years of my life.

So, fine, use modern music if you must. But do it right. Make sure the melody and the words scan together, please. If all these songs sound fine to you, then hire your aunt Tillie to sing it without much time to practice. [Kudos if she’s not a professional musician] Give her 10 minutes to look at the music before charging through it faster than intended on a piano– and you get about what your average parish sounds like– if you are lucky. IF she can do justice the sweet sweet song that you have just written with minimal lead time, you have successfully created a piece worthy of low mass.

Don’t assume familiarity with modern tunes– mostly because the fashions change faster than the poor parish can pay up for new hymn books– or even mini-missals. Not to mention that there are many different tastes and musical niches. So you can’t count on the top 40 to be known– and honestly, why would you want to use it? If the melody is popular for being about something else, especially something inappropriate for a church setting, one should not use it at all.

It is not the recital of the music that bothers me, but the nature of the music itself. After school specials do not a sacred moment make. So let’s elevate the quality of our communion and the mystery of our faith by elevating the quality of our music.

I’ll start by praying that the people at OSP (the publishing house) gain grace and true understanding of the transformative power of music… and use it with constancy in their works. They do get it right occasionally, so there is hope. Please, let this happen soon. This is perhaps better than wishing that a certain other publishing house be consumed in a wrathful firestorm and banished from the earth…

I try to be more charitable than that. In this case, I really, really try. (Yoda! Shut up! Is it not trying when one partially succeeds?) Alas he is silent! A wise master he is!

By Ciro Duran from Caracas, Venezuela (Master Yoda) [CC-BY-2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

-cc-By Ciro Duran

Alas, the best way to handle this is a return to plain chant. It is indeed possible that we are at this state of affairs because we wanted fancy music for regular Sunday mass in the first place. We got what we have now because folks were miffed that they weren’t represented by the choices that were made, and they bid their time until the changes were made– and now you have a tug of war using the liturgy to make a point.

If we only did chants, then neither side could complain– after all it’s not there to be aesthetically appealing to human ears.  Then both sides of the issue would be equally unhappy, and Pope Benedict would have once again divided the baby without shedding a single drop of blood.

Granted, Ultra Fancy Masses would still be in dispute, but at least the assault would not be a weekly phenomenon.  Of course, only the viciously fair-minded would ever support this solution, so it is highly unlikely to happen. After all, Christians aren’t supposed to be vicious. *looks innocent*  Alas…


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