NCE, TWICE, MAYBE, BUT NOW on three separate occasions people have got my goat referring to traditional Church music as “high brow”. Only three times! I hear you say. Perhaps this goes to show how much time I spend in my own little bubble, attending a Latin Mass and homeschooling my children, sheltered from mainstream society, but let me explain.
For the sake of argument I’ll include three classes of music in my idea of traditional Church music – Gregorian chant, metrical hymns and renaissance polyphony.
You can say that you find them dull. I would agree that at times I have heard this music sung in such a way that I would call the experience unpleasant. That’s not to say they are high brow, but capable of being sung badly. Today I had the opportunity to hear several pop music standards sung badly and I’m sure you would agree that being sung badly is not limited to traditional Church music.
That’s not to say they can’t be sung well. Gregorian chant, metrical hymns are not intrinsically more difficult to sing than pop music – in fact they can be easier as they lack the odd syncopation and quirks of particular famous pop artists. Polyphony requires a bit more skill in harmonizing, but again, there is no sliding up to a note as in much contemporary music.
High brow may refer to inaccessibility, or obscure references which render a piece incomprehensible. I guess the fact that much Church music is in Latin would fulfill that criteria straight out of the box. On the other hand, it is because we use Latin that this music is accessible in all times and all places. Our own English is subject to local variations and shifts in meanings over time. With Latin we can provide translations which accommodate the shifting local language.
High brow may refer to a lack of joy – now this is the point that matters most to me.
Once, no, twice I went to the opera, at Sydney’s famous Opera House. Both times were Christmas gifts from my husband’s employer. Having grown up with amateur theatrical society pantomimes and musicals, I was somewhat unprepared for the peculiarly joyless character of much of the audience. Both operas were comedies – Donizetti’s Elixir of Love and another famous one whose name escapes me right now (I think it was Mozart 1). The singers were awesome, everything was really well done, there was a great energy in the performance, but there was some sort of barrier which left much of the audience coldly polite. Maybe the Italian? Though there was some sort of subtitle mechanism going on at the bottom of the stage.
I think it was a puritan heresy. They were there because opera was a a laudable, cultural thing. They didn’t seem to get the whole funny side of it, because it was Opera.
We are not puritans. We are Catholics. We celebrate everything – we have more feast days than ferias in our calendar. There is a joy in our music, even if it isn’t the foot stomping, hand clapping style. There is a joy in looking up at a clear blue sky, even though it is peaceful, maybe even because of the peacefulness.
I think the barrier is not in the music, but in the audience. There is a self-imposed distance in place which prevents them from feeling the music.
So next time someone opines that a motet was too “high brow” for them, maybe it could be an opportunity to find out more exactly what they mean. Maybe some gentle questions could help them reflect on what they heard and what prejudices may be robbing them of the joy planted by musicians of earlier ages.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 I’m pretty sure it was the Marriage of Figaro.