ERNADETTE FARRELL once argued that Church musicians like James MacMillan should choose the “selfless path” and stop insisting upon our Church’s traditional music, but her argument was erroneous. Those of us who work in parishes know that nothing is easier than giving people “the music they want”—and I suspect many of us are guilty of playing inappropriate music to avoid conflict (especially at weddings).
On the other hand, standing up for music corresponding to the Church’s criteria requires bravery and strength. I’ve received hundreds of emails from our readers, and many have shared their heroic stories. They are trying to implement the music they feel called by God to implement, but often encounter fierce opposition. Many have burning questions:
“Why isn’t there a Schola Cantorum in each church? Why aren’t the Propers sung everywhere? Why do so many parishes allow such horrible music? Why am I persecuted for trying to follow Church teachings in this area? How did we lose the battle over good church music?”
My answer may shock you. I feel our movement HAS BEEN SUCCESSFUL BEYOND OUR WILDEST DREAMS. Now, let me explain why I say this.
WHILE IT’S TRUE THAT TOO MANY Catholic churches employ inappropriate music, the good news is that—against all odds—the traditional music still triumphs in one important area: parishes run by “no-nonsense” priests. Whenever I encounter serious parishes, I notice they choose authentic Sacred music without exception. 1 Moreover, new resources are added constantly. I recently mentioned eleven collections of Mass Propers, and we’ll soon be posting a review of the new English Gradual by Belmont Abbey.
Why don’t more churches choose authentic Sacred music? For one thing, it’s difficult; and we tend to avoid difficult things due to human nature. However, there are deeper reasons, and it’s crucial that we become aware of them. It’s imperative that we know “what we’re up against.”
Listen to this brief excerpt from Disney’s Lion King :
* * Mp3 Audio File: Lion King (Disney, 1994) — “Stampede” 2
The soundtrack here is absolutely superb. Perfectly composed, flawlessly performed, skillfully mastered—it fits this film like a glove. The director knew what music was suitable (to borrow Bugnini’s favorite word) and no one disputes this. Yet, when it comes to Church music, it has been forbidden over the past four decades to discuss what type of music is suitable for Mass. A drafter of the USCCB document on Church music even said publicly that Church music “need not sound Catholic.”
Now, consider an example from Barney & Friends :
* * Mp3 Audio File: Disgusting Sprechstimme (Barney & Friends) 3
Did you notice how the soloists spoke their lines, instead of singing true pitches? Such a technique can be acceptable on occasion—like when Rex Harrison does it—but it’s become a plague. In fact, this technique is abused so often, it has contributed to the erosion of our culture. Children no longer understand what it means to sing. By the way, the banal lyrics to that Barney song remind me of much contemporary Church music. 4
The next example dates back to 1999, when I was in 12th grade. At that time, I was rehearsing a Mozart concerto in a practice room:
* * Mp3 Audio File: Mozart Concerto No. 23 — Practice Session Excerpt (1999)
(Please excuse any errors. At that time, I lacked experience playing concerti.)
Mozart wrote that beautiful concerto for just one reason: the delight of the listener. I am so grateful that I had parents and teachers who taught me to value such music. I had disavowed by that time all the music I used to love—Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Green Day, Foo Fighters, and so forth—because I had found something better. In fact, I smashed all my rock’n’roll tapes with a hammer.
Pop music has done much to erode our culture. So many pop songs are obscenely simplistic and excessively repetitive. For instance, consider Viva la Vida (a wildly popular song by Coldplay). The entire piece is set over a four-bar phrase that repeats for the entire song. Should we really be shocked that good Catholic people have difficulty appreciating more sophisticated art forms like Gregorian chant & polyphony?
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 For the record, the same thing applies to the Catholic Church’s “hard” teachings. For instance, down the road from us, a young “traditional” priest was recently assigned as Pastor. He has refused to “water down” the Gospel. For example, they have glossy pamphlets at each door explaining Catholic teaching on artificial contraception. Yet, this doesn’t drive anyone away. The pews are packed each Sunday, tithing has more than quadrupled, and the free Bible study courses are packed. It seems people are hungry for the truth!
2 I’d prefer that you listen, but if you absolutely must watch, click this link.
3 You can see the video by clicking this link. For the record, this isn’t the best song for Barney, since his facial expression remains the same no matter what.
4 If you think I’m exaggerating, Google the lyrics to “Bread Of Friendship, Bread Of Love,” written by Owen Alstott (husband of Bernadette Farrell).