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A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two children.
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“The scholar who lives only for his subject is but the fragment of a man; he lives in a shadow-world, mistaking means for ends.”
— Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888-1957)

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Gregorian Chant As A “Weapon” — Seriously?
published 17 March 2014 by Jeff Ostrowski

NCE UPON A TIME, a dictator asked a mother’s permission to murder her eight children. When she categorically refused, the dictator said, “OK, let’s compromise: I’ll only murder four.” Compromise and balance are not ipso facto admirable, in spite of what contemporary society tells us. I’ll return shortly to this notion of “false balance.”

Below are a few more observations about a lecture by one of the drafters of Sing to the Lord. Let me say once more that I like SttL very much, and that’s why I find this lecture so troubling.

By the way, this article is part of a series. You may wish to read Part 1 before continuing.


A FEW MINOR POINTS:

Throughout the lecture, Fr. Ruff creates mysterious “straw men” to attack. I remember being warned against doing this in undergraduate writing courses. Here are some examples:

(Pg 4)   “One of the critiques raised from some quarters …”
(Pg 5)   “Some have criticized …”
(Pg 5)   “Some folks now try to distinguish …”
(Pg 6)   “Some individuals and organizations seemingly …”
(Pg 7)   “Some individuals act as if …”
(Pg 8)   “Some have criticized …”
(Pg 9)   “Some traditionalist voices …”
(Pg 9)   “Some people are skeptical …”
(Pg 10)   “There is an idea growing in some quarters …”
(Pg 10)   “Some zealous but misinformed voices …”
(Pg 10)   “Some have begun to criticize …”

Also, I would have preferred a more irenic tone. For instance, he calls people who interpret certain conciliar statements 1 differently than he does “zealous but misinformed.” I found his comment about Helen Hull Hitchcock “encouraging disobedience” close to libel. 2 In general, I believe Sacred music is such a sensitive issue that inflammatory language should be avoided.


GREGORIAN CHANT AS A WEAPON:

Fr. Ruff refers to Gregorian chant several times as a “weapon.” For example:

Some individuals and organizations seemingly use chant as a weapon to advance their agenda and judge others.

I have to be completely honest here: I have no idea what he’s talking about!

In general, his lecture seems to be a subtle attack on Catholics who take certain conciliar statements seriously. This attack is justified by a alleged quest for “balance,” but actually it’s a false balance (as I mentioned earlier).

The fact is, Gregorian chant is almost never sung these days. When it is, it’s usually done badly. Probably less than 0.003% of Catholic churches truly give chant “first place” (as the Council mandated). What is the purpose of Fr. Ruff’s attack, then, when less than 1% of churches have any interest in chant or polyphony?


RACE AND THE CHURCH DOCUMENTS:

The question is not whether a particular piece sounds like chant or Palestrina or whether it sounds “Catholic.”   […]   STL does not assume that chant and polyphony are absolutely the highest models of sacred and Catholic music in all cultures, as if there were no need to take into account whether one is in the Midwest of the United States, or Africa, or Japan, or whether the assembly is predominantly European or Hispanic or Native American.

I find this statement extremely troubling. First of all, notice the straw man again: “as if there were no need to take into account …” I’ve never seen anyone make that precise argument. 3

But let’s consider his larger point: the notion that those of another culture can’t appreciate polyphony and chant in a meaningful way. I couldn’t disagree more! For one thing, the vast majority of classical musicians today are Asians. In summer music workshops I attended, more than 95% of the students were Asian. 4 Some of my best friends in the conservatory came from Thailand, China, Japan, and especially Singapore.

Frankly, I find his argument absurd. After all, 98% of Caucasian Catholics have never heard polyphony or chant sung well in a Catholic church. Asians are probably more likely to have heard such things! Besides, he doesn’t tell us what to do if 1/3 of the congregation is Asian, 1/3 Native American, and 1/3 Caucasian. Nor does he explain what happens to the “ideal” if 1/4 is Native American, 1/4 Caucasian, 1/4 Filippino, and 1/4 African.

The bottom line: Catholics aren’t dumb. We can learn. And I utterly reject the notion that “race” affects the ideal as presented by the Second Vatican Council.


A CRUCIAL QUESTION AVOIDED:

A crucial question Fr. Ruff should have addressed—but avoided at all costs—would be: “Are any musical styles forbidden for Mass? Is Mariachi music appropriate for Mass? What about samba, rock n’ roll, country, jazz, or rap?”

The good news is, churches honoring chant—such as Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio, St. John Cantius in Chicago, and so forth—tend to thrive. Many are bursting at the seams! Recently, I visited a parish which sang the polyphonic Joan Brudieu Kyrie with Mass XII, alternating with the congregation: I’ve never heard such participation! Every man, woman, and child sang with gusto! Bravo!

This article is part of a series:

Part 1   •   Part 2



NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:

1   For example, Sacrosanctum Concilium §116.

2   Full disclosure: I met Mrs. Hitchcock a few years ago and have great respect for her. In fairness to Fr. Ruff, the statement directed at her may have been “tongue-in-cheek,” since his own views on many issues (e.g. the indissolubility of marriage) are well known.

3   It is true the Council called for inculturation, “especially in mission lands,” but numerous provisos are required. Perhaps I should write an article examining these provisos, since they’re frequently ignored by those with a distorted view of inculturation. Incidentally, throughout the document, Fr. Ruff promotes legal positivism, which basically says that anything “allowed” is automatically good, by virtue of the fact that it’s permitted.

4   At one of them, held near my hometown in Kansas, all instructions were repeated in Mandarin Chinese.