EARS AGO, I TAUGHT at a Catholic High School, and I remember a drama performance by a visiting group. It was perhaps the worst performance I ever saw. They used a cassette player—remember cassette tapes?—and danced along trying to “lip sync” at various points. The libretto was ghastly. Even the teacher seemed to sense how offensive it was and uttered a comment I’ll never forget: “This is being performed at our local middle schools, so the script doesn’t have to be stellar.” Translation: They’re just children, so it’s okay to feed them garbage.
Frequently, I hear the same justifications made about “progressive” liturgical compositions. Many a disgusting composition has been dissected and exposed on the internet, only to have the composer himself enter the conversation claiming he “had children in mind” when he wrote it. Such recriminations fill me with rage.
AS FAR AS I’M CONCERNED, Vladimir Horowitz was correct. Horowitz maintained that children should be exposed to the highest quality music and must be “saturated with” such compositions at the earliest possible age. A student of Rosina Lhévinne, Garrick Ohlsson, put forth a similar notion during an interview. (I’m sorry I can’t provide the exact quote; many of my books were lost when we moved from Texas to Los Angeles.) Ohlsson basically said:
If you desire to improve your octaves, don’t learn the Czerny octave etude; learn the one by Chopin. If you want to study fugal technique, start with the Bach fugues, not those of Telemann. Life is short; too short to save the best music until one is “ready” for it.
That’s what is so wonderful about plainsong. Consider, for example, the “Hosanna Filio David” sung on Palm Sunday. This marvelous song is as appropriate for a 5-year-old as it would be for an octogenarian. The same goes for the “Tantum Ergo” sung on Holy Thursday. When we first encounter such pieces, we want to learn more; we want to sing them over and over again. (Our daughter, at age 5, can’t stop singing CREDO IV.) Decades later, these melodies are still revealing their secrets to us. Professor László Dobszay wrote in 2003:
As we read in St. Augustine’s Confessions: Cibus sum grandium; cresce, et manducabis me. Nec tu me mutabis in te, sicut cibum carnis tuae; sed tu mutaberis in me. “I am the food of adults; grow up and eat me; it is not you who will change me into yourself—as is true of bodily food—but you will be changed into me.” This is valid for liturgy and church music, as well as for teachings of faith and morals. When we say: “The people like this” we regard them as unable to develop, as animals rather than human beings, and we simply neglect our duties in helping them towards a true human existence—indeed, in this case, to truly Christian existence.
Let us therefore give our children—and everyone in the congregation—the most sublime, artistic, profound, heavenly, sophisticated (yet often quite simple) music: Gregorian chant. And let us add solemnity—when it is possible to do so properly—with other worthy choral works such as “classic polyphony of the Roman school,” which is closely related to plainsong and was exalted by the Second Vatican Council. 1
SOME OF YOU KNOW I HAVE BEEN afflicted by a serious & painful disease for more than two years. I’m happy to report that—at last!—I am beginning to recover…and you’ll never guess what has greatly improved my health: tons and tons of vegetables and fruits! Carrots, kale, avocados, oranges, apples, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and so forth have accomplished wonders. Because of this, I’ve been paying special attention to the astonishing beauties of God’s creation. Have you ever cut open an avocado and carefully examined the contents? The bright colors, the perfect shape, the ingenious way the seed is protected—breathtaking! It strikes me that these vegetables have the same qualities discussed above. They have “secrets” which are revealed upon contemplation year after year. I’ve known what an orange is since I was a toddler—just as I’ve known the “Vexilla Regis” plainsong for decades. Yet, my appreciation for an orange grows deeper with each passing year—just as my appreciation for the “Vexilla Regis” grows deeper every time I sing it.
Let us cease to tolerate the “lowest common denominator” attitude so prevalent in today’s discourse on liturgical music. Let us replace cheap, uninspired, ephemeral church music with the authentic music of the Catholic Church. Let us choose music which has great depth, especially when children are present.
A discussion about this post is underway.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 The first document to be approved by Vatican II (on 4 December 1963) was Sacrosanctum Concilium, which said in paragraph 116:
“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy. Therefore, under normal circumstances, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action…”