Monday, July 23, 2007

Mediocrity--the Church's Music

Of COURSE I agree with this guy Michael Lawrence.

Here are only a few excerpts from what is a very good essay--but it's worth reading in its entirety.

Art indeed had its beginnings as an expression of religion--the expression of religion, probably in the days before languages were spoken. It is the way in which religion has become manifest in this world from time immemorial. And yet the idea that one should "sing artistically unto God" [the better translation of the verse in Ps. 47] is a stumbling block to many and a folly to others.

...This ecclesiastical suspicion of the arts [likely begun around the time of the 'Enlightenment'] is evidenced by the scourge of mediocrity that has descended upon sacred art in general--and perhaps upon sacred music in a most particular way. Contrary to the perceptions of some, this problem of musical mediocrity is not an issue stemming from the Second Vatican Council, for the examples of mediocre music go back at least to the 19th century.

...a rather lengthy directory of lukewarm Catholic music can be produced without even mentioning "On Eagles' Wings" or "Be Not Afraid," let alone "Mother at Your Feet is Kneeling" or "Bring Flowers of the Fairest." [Or as I have said: "From Tin Pan Alley to Broadway in only 100 years of evolution"]

...One of the excuses put forth by many of the apologists of mediocrity is that singing high falutin' art music is not as important as ministering to the pastoral-liturgical needs of the faithful. Generally this problem is falsely set up as an "either or." For one thing, how pastoral is it to feed the people with musical stones (whether they come from the 1860's, the 1940's or the 1970's) instead of bread? For another, what's wrong with bringing the people up to the level of the music, rather than bringing the music down to the level of the people? (This presumes a rather poor level of taste amongst the people which I'm not certain is always accurate. [Exactly the same "problem" as Latin. The presumption of stupidity is false; but the inclination to laziness or shirking one's duty as a teacher is profound.]

It seems to me, however, that it is our duty to be prophetic witnesses in our lay apostolate to the power that beauty has in bringing people to Christ and His Church. In order to do this, we must think always as musicians--as artists. The going will be tough, and resistance will be found in some very surprising (i.e. "conservative") places, but we must stay true to our vocation, to our duty.

...we musicians must cultivate a love of truly artistic music amongst the people. Most are quite receptive to this if they are approached as the intelligent people that they are. Your enthusiasm will rub off on them, and great fruit will come from this. The best way to put a stop to the culture of mediocrity is to make people aware of those things which are better than that to which they've been exposed heretofore.

What better thing have you to do as a musician and artist?


RAG said...

This is difficult because I vehemently agree with part of this and just as vehemently disagree with the rest.

A few years ago I had a conversation with then Archbishop Rembert Weakland who volunteered his frustration with the state of music in the contemporary church. He noted that one of the most prolific contemporary composers isn't Catholic and one of the main publishing houses isn't even owned by a Christian.

Precious little of worship music written in the last century could be accurately compared to the great artistic works of the past.

That said, we are seeing some renewed interest in sacred music performed by church choirs and some contemporary works of note.

As for other contemporary worship music, I think some of it isn't terribly compelling but most it nonetheless appropriate for contemporary worship. Scripture does not define one particular style of music to be used in worship.

I think some contemporary worship music gets a bad rap because it isn't perfomed well. "On Eagles Wings" (written by Minnesota priest Michael Joncas, who gave one of the most compelling homilies about Mary I ever heard) can be especially compelling in its simplicity but becomes pedestrian when poorly performed. In recent years I've heard some wonderful worship music coming from Latin-American, Carribean and even Hawaiian traditions.

Imagine how terrible one of the great sacred works would sound misperformed by a scant few musicians. Some would call it desecration of the music.

My sense is that the same can be said of much worship music that is misperformed. We all know the story of "Silent Night" composed to be played by a guitar because the church organ was broken. Amazing how much different it sounds when performed as it was written and how awful it can sound when accompanied by, of all things, a church organ!

Dad29 said...

Your comment that "Scripture does not define one style..." is peculiar--and irrelevant. As you know from Canon law, only Rome has authority over liturgical matters, including 'defining styles' of appropriate music for worship in the Roman Catholic church. That definition has always begun with "Gregorian Chant."

I have also heard Abp Weakland's complaints, which are ironic in the extreme; the Abp was intimately involved with the creation of the 'Pauline Rite' and, for that matter, he was the chairman of the music subcommittee which "authorized" much of the crap used since 1969 in the USA.

(I put "authorized" in quotes because Weakland's subcommittee did not have the authority to do what it did.)

In fact, "Eagle'swings" is directly comparable to "Music of the Night" from 'Phantom of the Opera'--as are many of the 'hit-parade-hymns' used in the Church these days. (Some others are comparable to 'factory bluegrass; still others are comparable to children's ditties.) It makes no difference that Joncas is devout, nor would it make a difference if he were Pope. Those styles of music are inappropriate for worship of God; they are, in fact, music for self-worship, (or 'horizontal' worship) which makes them VERY compatible with the 'style' of celebration of the Pauline Rite as most often done in this country and Western Europe.

And since Rembert Weakland was intimately involved in the creation of the Pauline Rite, and later was responsible for 'licensing' the musical styles used in the Rite, it is ironic that he complains. It's like the child who screeches that 'the stove is hot', after he decided to play with it and burned his fingers.

You identify "misperformance" as a serious problem, and we agree wholeheartedly on that point. I have often said that 'misperformed' Gregorian Chant is an excellent way to get people to leave the Church.

Far more important, however, is your comment that 'scripture does not define...'. That is a red-flag because typically that formulation is used by Fundamentalists who do not accept the authority of Rome.

Remember that the Magisterium consists of both Scripture AND Tradition for Catholics, and that formulation also holds for definition of liturgical principles. (An excellent example is the fact that the formula of Consecration is NOT "biblically accurate.")

Since Rembert Weakland ALSO resisted the authority of Rome on a number of matters great and small (including the matter of regulation of the liturgy), it is no surprise that you quote him with approval.

But you're approving the wrong guy.

B-16 is The Regulator--The Decider. You can look it up.