Thursday, October 11, 2007

Contemporary music

I was accused this summer in a personal correspondence of having a "disdain" for contemporary music. In the course of attempting to defend myself, I did realize (and which was confirmed by a colleague/reader of the blog) that if you only know me through my blog-writing, you could easily think that the initial statement was true.

I will admit that I have a much greater love for Palestrina/Lassus than for Haugen/Haas, and I'm very fortunate as to be in a position where I can do the former on a weekly basis. But I don't think I've ever called for the wholesale exclusion of the latter (or added my name to a site like this, which I see as being counter-productive), though I'm not shy about criticizing the shortcomings of the evolution of this music in general, and various flaws in specific pieces.

I like to think of my outlook on Catholic liturgical music as somewhat centrist, an idealist tempered by realism. Though I wouldn't be sad if every parish in the world turned to Gregorian chant and polypony, I'm astute enough to realize that that isn't going to happen anytime soon. Nor do I think it would be to the greater benefit to the Church Militant in this particular age.

I grew up in a pretty nominal Catholic household. We went to Church on Sundays, prayed before meals, and many of my moral values (though not all) were formed by Christian ethics. But to say I was a devout Catholic in high school would be highly inaccurate.

The first time I went to mass in college was pivotal for my life, no question. I remember going in with the attitude, "Well, I'll give this a try." I don't remember much about that mass except that I was enthralled with the music. No, not Byrd, Josquin, chant . . . Haugen. Haas. Joncas (well, OK, not Joncas--I've never liked his music). I joined the choir right after mass. From there, I participated in the various choirs at the Church over the next four years, slowly building my knowledge of the Faith and my relationship with the Lord.

It would be accurate to say that my knowledge, even after graduating, was lacking, especially in areas of liturgy. As I studied more after college and read more writings on the liturgy, my sensibilities definitely shifted, and I am now more firmly entrenched in the world of CMAA as opposed to NPM (my music studies played a role in this shift as well). But I am quick to add that if that first mass had been done by the traditional choir at the church (which I now direct!), there's a good chance that my life would have turned out much differently.

I'm in charge of six ensembles in my current position, ministering to college students with various music styles ranging from Gregorian chant to contemporary Praise and Worship with all the different gradations in between. And honestly, if my pastor approached me tomorrow and asked that I shift all the music to chant/polyphony, I'd fight it wholeheartedly (I don't foresee this happening BTW).

I'm a firm believer in the following:

1) College is a very transitional period in the faith life of a person.

2) Liturgy is vital to helping students retain and build upon their Catholic faith.

3) College students need a musical "entry-point" into the Liturgy.

I'm in this profession because I believe that music is vital to the Holy Mass, and I'm in a college setting because I believe that this is the time that young Catholics are most fully-formed. People are formed not only by the Mass itself, but also by the liturgical environment that we provide for them, including music.

Ideally, if freshman come in and prefer to attend one of the weekend masses with music in a more contemporary vein, hopefully, through adequate liturgical formation (which I don't feel we do enough of currently), they will wind up at the "traditional" mass by the time they graduate. We have to get them in the pews first though.

The problems I struggle with when addressing this issue, though, usually relate to many deficiencies I and many others see in the current repertoire of contemporary "folk" music. I think even the most hardened heart could agree that a lot of this music is trite, syrupy, poorly crafted in general. Where I differ from many in the blogosphere, is that I would like to analyze each piece individually as opposed to throwing everything out just because it was written after 1960 and seems to work with piano accompaniment.

So here's the question: what piece or pieces currently in existence exemplify a "model" for this music? Is there any piece out there (let's think congregational at this point) that has a quality melody, quality text, and just happens to be in the "folk" style?

Thumbing through my Ritualsong hymnal (the only one near me), I find the following to be noteworthy (Disclaimer: By no means do I believe all of the following to be beyond reproach; also, I left out anything I didn't feel was in the "folk" style):

*53 Ps. 25 (To You, O Lord--Haugen)

66 Ps. 33 (Let your mercy be on us--Haugen)

*69 Ps. 34 (The Cry of the Poor--Foley)

*70 Ps. 34 (Taste and See--Haugen)

*127 Ps 95 (If Today--Haas)

135 Ps. 98 (All the Ends of the Earth--Haas/Haugen)

152 Ps. 116 (The Name of God--Haas)

158 Ps. 118 (This is the Day--Haugen)

322, 323, 324 Sanctus/Mem. Accl./Amen (Mass of Creation--Haugen)

330, 331 Kyrie/Gloria (Mass of Light--Haas)

*341, 352 Kyrie/Lamb of God (Mass of Remembrance--Haugen)

*495 My Soul in Stillness Waits (Haugen)

516 Carol at the Manger (Haugen)

541 Tree of Life (Haugen)

555 Return to God (Haugen)

612 Send Us Your Spirit (Haas)

638 Canticle of the Sun (Haugen)

*697 Glory and Praise to Our God (Schutte)

*723 We Walk By Faith (Haugen)

758 Eye Has Not Seen (Haugen)

One more I would add that is not in this hymnal, but I just thought of:

*All the Earth (Deiss)

*Asterisks denote pieces that I think are good models for future compositions in this style. What do they have in common? Sturdy texts, singable melodies, conducive to variety in accompaniment and instrumentation . . . and well, IMO, appropriate for the House of God.


At Friday, October 12, 2007 10:12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I apologize that I have yet to thank you for your e-mails. To be honest I'm having a hard time drinking it all in, but it certainly will all come in handy at some point, so thank you!

Your (and Cantor's) blog is what inspired me to take up blogging back when I did; it's refreshing to read something about Catholic music that isn't steeped in polemic.

To the topic at hand, my opinion is similar to yours, although I make it my policy NOT to play music in that genre. I don't care if others do, but it isn't something I'll support. And my reasoning is that much of that music is good, as you mentioned, BUT it's severely overused. Like you at the college age, I too was once absolutely smitten with Mass of Creation. I thought it was the greatest work for the Church ever (seriously). Then, after 2-3 years of playing it, I got tired of it. For a variety of reasons, so much of that music loses its charm even for the enthusiastic musician. My attitude towards much of this music (and my "good list" would be much longer than yours) is "not again!", rather than any condemnation.

Let me propose to you also that what you were attracted to is the music well done. (You can tell me if this was the case) The overwhelming experience of many others with that music is that it is often poorly done. I need not list the cliches of the American performance practices. My high school would have Masses in the gym with a drumset, piano, soloists, the whole 9 yards. And, when it was done right, I enjoyed it. Still, looking back, I have to wonder how many kids it would reach to experience the Mozart Mass we had sung that fall in the context of a Mass.

So for pastoral reasons, I'm with you that much of the "Church Top 40" isn't ready to be put out to pasture just yet. But I will disagree that it has a greater value than the traditional repertoire in attracting youth to music. Rather, what's needed is an emphasis on the quality which is so lacking in churches (even before Vatican 2!) and THAT will attract people to church music.


At Friday, October 12, 2007 11:37:00 PM, Blogger Scelata said...

Thanks, I have linked to this on my blog.
Gavin, are you blogging again?
Care to make up "White List" of contemporary music (you set the cut off date, some have taken 1950, some, it seems, 1850...) that is Worthy of the Temple?

(save the Liturgy, Save the World)

At Saturday, October 13, 2007 8:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Let me propose to you also that what you were attracted to is the music well done."

This is the key point in a nutshell, as is the corollary that people were turned off to music done poorly. Before the council, when all we had was devotional hymnody with a dash of chant, I've no doubt that of the collective sigh of relief at the coming of the catechetical songs and their successors.


At Sunday, October 14, 2007 11:40:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...


I can attest that the sounds PT heard (i.e. the same ones I heard and that had the same effect on me) were of well-done Haugen/Haas.

I would point out, though, that overuse is not necessarily a liability for congregational music. About the time I am sick to death of something is when I think it becomes a deeper part of most people’s prayer. Moreover, it is the very overuse that gives Mass VIII, Mass of Creation, and other such pieces a particular value.

At Monday, October 15, 2007 10:15:00 AM, Blogger Jeffrey Tucker said...

Next in this series: Food I will eat if I'm starving...

At Monday, October 15, 2007 1:28:00 PM, Anonymous pdt said...

What an apt paradigm, Jeffrey!

Catholics have indeed been starved of what we might call "quality" music in their liturgies. But we don't want too abrupt a shift. The new diet might be far better, but it's foreign to them and likely to cause them to reject the music AND the liturgy with which it comes.

A slow but steady improvement to the musical diet may just help restore health to the people's and the Church's soul.

At Tuesday, October 16, 2007 7:32:00 AM, Blogger Jeffrey Tucker said...

Yes, I agree on the slow shift. To me there are two separate questions: 1) What music qualifies as good music worthy of liturgy? and 2) What music must we temporarily put up with while we progress toward the ideal?

At Tuesday, October 16, 2007 9:00:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...


I think you are misreading PT. He is, if I can presume to speak for him, not suggesting that Haugen “My Soul in Stillness Waits”, for example, is music whose only virtue is that it “must be tolerated” until we can excise it with all of its brethren. He is saying that this is music that has its own intrinsic worth.

I’m actually a bit surprised with some of these choices - “Canticle of the Sun” feels kitschy to me in a way that Haugen 25 doesn’t. Maybe because the lyrics of the former bring to mind images of aging hippies teaching kids how “hip” liturgical dance is. Maybe just me. :)

This, though, is the kind of article I would like to see in Sacred Music, Jeffrey - something that, rather than categorically dismissing all music written for guitar and piano, identifies some “shades of grey” in the field. Surely the Inwood “Alleluia Ch-Ch” is more objectionable than “We Walk By Faith”?

At Tuesday, October 16, 2007 2:09:00 PM, Blogger Mara Joy said...

great post! thought-provoking, as one of my big "life questions" at the moment IS this issue of how to pastorally reach people (through music,) who are not "ready" for hard-core chant...

At Thursday, October 18, 2007 9:30:00 AM, Blogger Alice said...

I would point out, though, that overuse is not necessarily a liability for congregational music. About the time I am sick to death of something is when I think it becomes a deeper part of most people’s prayer. Moreover, it is the very overuse that gives Mass VIII, Mass of Creation, and other such pieces a particular value.

Cantor, you stated it so much better than I could have. When I was in college, one of my religious studies professors (a priest) made an analogy between personal prayer lives and bedroom furnishings. You don't go and reorganize someone's bedroom and expect them to be happy with you and you don't try to reorganize someone else's prayer life (unless you have an extremely good reason to do so).

Am I going to plan "Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees" because someone loved it at their First Communion? No, my pastor and I have decided that as a Church, we are confused enough about transubstantiation without calling Jesus "bread" and "wine".

Am I going to use Mass of Creation for First Communion, Confirmation, Easter, and Christmas because visitors are most likely to know it? Yes, I can offer my annoyance up so that more of the congregation may more fully participate.

At Friday, October 19, 2007 5:51:00 PM, Anonymous moconnor said...

If I can interject, PT does have the luxury of being able to look more objectively at the, what I like to call, commercial Catholic music. He has at least one Mass where he can hear Byrd, Guerrero, or Josquin and chant. Some of us have little choice. All the churches in my new diocese use the same repertoire (OCP mostly). The ONLY place here that feature some chant and traditional hymns is the Newman Club Liturgies of the Word where I direct the music. For Sunday obligation I'm forced to hear more of the commercial ditties. I have to say, though, that it does give me energy to get my schola off the ground...


At Tuesday, October 23, 2007 9:58:00 AM, Anonymous Sam Schmitt said...

I don't deny that some of the music that is listed, maybe even most of it, has some intrinsic worth. However, the real question is its fittingness for the liturgy - is it really liturgical? Some music that is unquestionably of very high quality - by Bach, Mozart, etc.,- is not appropriate for the liturgy. This is not a judgment on its "intrinsic worth," just on its liturgical suitability. It is not enough that the music be of reasonable quality and that it have non-secular words. It must be liturgical in some way. Hymns and other songs at mass are, strictly speaking, not liturgical; so ideally at least, they should be done sparingly, even if they are of high quality.

Having said all this, PT offers a very reasonable way to proceed in the college environment. I would mention that the texts of some of the psalms is problematic (unauthorized inclusive language): Haas's Psalm 95 is a particularly egregious example.

At Sunday, October 28, 2007 6:28:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

I think this thread has stopped getting attention, but to respond to two of Sam’s points:

Hymns and other songs at mass are, strictly speaking, not liturgical; so ideally at least, they should be done sparingly, even if they are of high quality.

Many hymns are definitely liturgical. Sequences are hymns, as is the Gloria, as is Crux fidelis, ...

I think much clearer criteria are necessary to establish what is/isn’t “liturgical”. Otherwise it’s just my preferences rather than yours.

Having said all this, PT offers a very reasonable way to proceed in the college environment. I would mention that the texts of some of the psalms is problematic (unauthorized inclusive language): Haas's Psalm 95 is a particularly egregious example.

For one, I take issue with your term “inclusive language”. Read this post.

None of the language in that Haas 95 is “authorized”. Hardly any of the texts of the standard repertoire have any kind of episcopal approval - despite the GIRM’s mandate for precisely that approval of anything that is to be sung at Mass.

At Monday, October 29, 2007 11:54:00 PM, Anonymous Sam Schmitt said...

True, there are some hymns at mass scattered throughout the church year (Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, etc.), but these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The "Gloria" is a hymn, but naturally I was thinking of hymns as they are sung in 95% of the parishes in the US - modern strophic hymns or contemporary songs (often called "hymns"). These are not part of the the official liturgy (what is meant by "liturgical" - is there another meaning?); this is not my preference. Other "suitable songs" are OK, but they are not therefore part of the liturgy. If we admit that they are, then it seems that any sense of something being liturgical practically evaporates.

True, almost none of the texts of songs at mass are authorized. But surely, since the psalms are part of the liturgy of the word, their texts should be chosen with care. The fact that they're published in a hymnal doesn't mean they're OK. Most of the other psalms texts in Catholic hymnals, are, in fact, the official texts, but not all.

The term "gender neutral" rather than "inclusive" is fine by me. My point still stands.


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