ENERALLY SPEAKING, to keep silence is a mark of wisdom. Contrariwise, someone who cannot refrain from talking (or from publishing loquacious online articles) is quite often immature. Nevertheless, sometimes long articles are necessary—and today is such a day. The topic deals with the current state of church music.
I realized it was time for this “manifesto” when I visited the Kansas Capitol building, which recently underwent a $350 million renovation, restoring it to its original 1902 condition. Construction required thirty-seven years of work: stacking thousands of limestone rocks, building massive columns, and creating a dome even taller than the Capitol in Washington DC. The various chambers—house, senate, and supreme court—contain magnificent woodcarvings and paintings. Any student of history knows that life in 1866 was not easy. They had tons of serious concerns in those days, but none of our modern conveniences. (The iPhone was 141 years away.) Yet, they launched this tremendous plan to have a beautiful Capitol building—hardly a necessity!—and executed their idea with utter perfection. They didn’t mess around. 1
Considering this, it struck me: it’s time to get serious about church music. If Kansans could create a structure like that in 1866, surely we can make progress, too—and today I’ll outline a stratagem I’ve pondered for many years. Think of this article as a “trial balloon.”
Please remain calm when reading the below. You won’t agree with everything. I do not speak for the other CCW contributors; I speak for myself—and my views are not set in stone. Nor I am infallible; each day I learn and grow.
Problems That Must Be Addressed
People these days agree upon almost nothing. Yet, there is broad consensus that church music in America could not be worse. What are the problems? Well, where should I begin? So-called “contemporary” church music often lacks dignity, sounding more suitable for a toothpaste commercial than the holy sacrifice at the Altar. Too often, it lacks inspiration; instead of being composed melodically, it’s usually derived from rhythmic patterns, while the musical tones seem an afterthought. Scottish composer James MacMillan described “mind-numbingly depressing banality” when he spoke of modern church music in a 2013 interview:
A lot of the favoured new settings are musically illiterate, almost is if they were written by semi-trained teenagers, getting to grips with musical rudiments. The style is stodgy and sentimental, tonally and rhythmically stilted, melodically inane and adored by Catholic clergy “of a certain age.” […] It is a scandal. People with hardly any training and experience of even the basic building blocks of music have been convinced that there is a place for their puerile stumblings and fumblings in the modern Catholic Church because real musicians are elitist and off-putting.
One of today’s most popular Mass settings replicates the My Little Pony theme song. Sometimes, modern composers mimic the ancient modality of church music—especially by a “Flat-Seven” chord—but only in the cheapest, most superficial way. Indeed, too often the melodies are downright goofy, and men in particular are embarrassed to hear them, much less sing them. I have in mind the type of men I grew up with in the Midwest, who have an “innate sense” of what is unseemly. These men love God, their families, sports, hunting, being outdoors, and their country—and it’s ridiculous to expect them to sing uninspired, goofy melodies at Mass. 2
OCP is hardly alone in this arena. Consider a recent collection of “Entrance and Communion Antiphons” by GIA, approved by the USCCB Committee on Divine Worship in 2016:
Modern music doesn’t have to sound like that! For example, my own compositions are modeled after the work of Msgr. Jules Van Nuffel, who uses 20th-century techniques—in terms of dissonance, voice-leading, and so forth—but whose style is very Catholic. Listen to his polyphonic “Our Father” (recorded at Sacred Music Symposium 2018) and see if you agree.
What about the texts? The translations in the Ordinary Form seem to change every few years—and certain parties have done a fabulous job hiding the fact that older translations are fully approved for use (to say nothing of Latin versions). Serious composers realize this, and therefore have no interest in composing something that will only be “allowed” for a few years. Even worse is when composers take a pre-existing composition and force a new translation into the music, producing a result so horrific I feel like laughing—but I’m too busy crying.
The Second Vatican Council attempted to restore and elevate the Mass Propers, but this didn’t happen; less than 1% of Catholics who attend Mass each Sunday realize the Propers exist. Incredibly, it has become standard practice to replace the Propers with every manner of song: I’ve even heard rap at Mass! In this situation, people have come to believe Protestant hymnody to be the best church music. In particular, some now think of Episcopal texts as the supreme form of Catholic liturgical music. While I admit they’re often better than the drivel sung in certain churches, how far we’ve sunk as Catholics if such hymns are considered our ultimate goal. Indeed, the Brébeuf Hymnal could not have come at a better time: we need it! Needless to say, the changes in the liturgy which occurred after Vatican II—and incidentally went much further than what the Council Fathers authorized—have caused great confusion, and the Consilium gave no thought to the musical implications of their alterations. This confusion is partially to blame for the misinformed belief that Episcopal hymns are the pinnacle of Catholic worship. The truth is that Roman Catholic hymns are far and away the greatest, most ancient, most beautiful, and most theologically rich songs for the liturgy: Full Stop.
There can be “no salvation from decrees.” That is, we cannot expect progress to be made by more legislation from the USCCB. I have a stack of papers on my desk, going all the way back to 2006, containing documents from the Committee on Divine Worship (United States) which give contradictory answers. Consider a straightforward example: Can we ignore the GIRM? The GIRM demands that any texts replacing Mass Propers must receive approval from the Conference of Bishops, but the USCCB committee has contradicted the GIRM over and over. Sometimes they say the GIRM is correct; at other times, they give explicit permission to ignore what the GIRM says about this issue. Folks, either we can ignore the GIRM or we can’t. I’ll accept either ruling; but I won’t accept a committee publishing contradictory material and then pretending this “clarifies” the matter. Certain bishops admit publicly that our liturgy requires fixing—but I’m waiting for one with enough courage to demand concrete answers to flagrant contradictions. Until one can be found, I repeat: There can be no salvation from decrees. 3
I could list many more problems, but rather than type too much, let me add one final problem to the list. Too often, church musicians are cheated out of a just salary. Too many priests fail to understand the importance of paying a music director—and the theology behind this goes back to the Old Testament! When a Pastor can be found who’s willing to pay a living wage, the musician will begin making excellent progress after a few years; until the priest is transferred. Within 2-3 months, a new Pastor will erase any progress that has been made. Sometimes, a priest is so desperate for good music he will appoint a non-Catholic (or someone who rejects certain teachings of the Church); but I don’t see how such actions can be justified, even though the priest has good intentions. In other cases, the right candidate is chosen and the salary is correct—but the priest cannot withstand complaints from certain members of the congregation who miss “the old songs.” Rather than simply doing what is right and realizing there will always be people who complain, the priest “caves” to complainers who don’t care about the Church documents on sacred music.
A Positive Way Forward
Mine is hardly the first article outlining some of these problems. Many Catholic bloggers incessantly publish articles complaining about church music, yet won’t lift a finger in real life to improve the situation. Rather than take this approach—which accomplishes nothing—today I wish to suggest a positive way forward.
Guild of Catholic Choirmasters • I believe we need a professional society of some sort, which would provide: (1) awesome resources; (2) training; and (3) certification for church musicians wishing to implement authentic Catholic music. Perhaps it could be called the Guild of Catholic Choirmasters (GCC). Some will immediately declare such an idea impossible, but I disagree. According to Dr. Lucas Tappan, new statistics show that 85% of Catholics in the United States stop practicing their faith after high school. Indeed, parishes in many dioceses are “combining”—meaning two or more parishes merge together. Friends, we must boldly take action, similar to the Kansans who decided to build that Capitol building (which took 37 years). The current model is not working!
Young Priests Are Coming! • The Church in America seems destined to grow significantly smaller. The only strong sources of priestly vocations are the young, orthodox priests who bravely enter the seminary in spite of the “stigma” of the abuse crisis. These priests love the Catholic Church, and they desire authentic Catholic music. They don’t want Praise and Worship, they don’t want Pseudo-Jazz, they don’t want Episcopal music. The famous 1980s theory said: “Musical styles cannot be sacred or Catholic; every style is sacred.” But these young priests reject that, and rightly so. They want Catholic music, but where can they “get” it? Certainly, they can hire a youngster who graduated with a music degree (and these often possess great musical skill), but being a church musician requires so much more. The “GCC” (if that name is found acceptable) could be the answer! Priests could go to the GCC to hear examples—not ideas, but real-life examples—of the program. Then they could hire someone certified by the society, knowing this person is qualified.
What kind of training could be given?
The training church musicians often lack isn’t “rocket science.”
Let’s explore several concepts:
Balance of Voices • A choirmaster should love and appreciate the choral sound, which is addictive only when experienced “live”—no microphone can capture a true choral sound. A choirmaster’s ear should be able to discern when an SATB choir is balanced; too often SATB singing is attempted with a deficient balance. Pretty basic, right? Yet it’s often lacking! When SATB is used (rather than unison), the result should improve, not deteriorate. Launching into SATB should make the piece sound brighter and stronger; if the result is sadder and weaker, go back to unison!
Organ and Voices • The choirmaster must be able to determine the proper balance between organ and voices. I have been in far too many major cathedrals where the balance is disgraceful. Often, the organ is too loud. Frequently, congregational singing is non-existent and the choir sound is weak. (By the way, choosing a really excellent hymn tune is a good first step to get them singing…but I digress.)
Teaching the Congregation • Too many choirmasters cultivate “pretend congregational singing.” That occurs when choirmasters make-believe the congregation is singing—when they’re actually not. This happens in 90% of the churches I have visited. Years ago, I spent several weeks at a major cathedral with huge choirs. If you watched the televised version, you could see beyond a shadow of a doubt that nobody in the congregation to be singing. However, because the organ and choir were so loud, the bishop erroneously believed the congregation was singing. Some might say: “Well, perhaps the congregation would learn the music with the passage of time”—But that’s wrong, because these same pieces have been sung there since before I was born! (Three decades is more than sufficient to learn a brief little melody with only a few notes.) The reason the congregation never sang was complicated, and I won’t describe it at this time.
Not Too Much • Having a strong choir—not a weak choir—sing unfamiliar melodies before the congregation is allowed to join is an excellent way to teach new repertoire. We often sing the hymn tunes in Latin (trebles only, or alternating with the men) to allow the congregation to become familiar; then, when we use that melody in English, everybody already knows the tune! By the way, the congregation must never be asked to sing everything. Mass should be a peaceful experience for the congregation, not an opportunity to be harassed. There should be certain pieces—e.g. the KYRIE, the SANCTUS, the Responses, the Communion hymn—which the congregation sings, but forcing them to sing too much is both wrong and foolish. The Mass is designed for everyone to sing different parts: the congregation, the deacon, the priest, the cantor, the choir, and so forth. Organ interludes are also a crucial part of making sure there is not too much singing. And, yes…there can be “too much” singing.
A Thin Choral Sound • When one studies choral methods in college, one learns that the minimum for a “choral sound” is three (3) singers on each part. In other words, until you have a minimum of three singers for each part, you don’t have a choral sound. (With just two voices, one voice will always dominate the other.) Contrariwise, one voice on each part is basically a quartet of soloists, which can be very beautiful—but that’s not a choral sound. My preference is no fewer than four singers on each part. Each singer is aiming for the same pitch, but there is slight variation—which produces that rich choral sound. For special movements, such as the BENEDICTUS, we switch to one-voice-per-part. Then, we bring in the full choir for the HOSANNA—and it’s glorious.
Reality vs. “Pretend” Organ Playing • The organ is a difficult instrument, and (as Paul Hume repeated over and over) is quite different than piano. Proper registration is crucial; and this cannot be emphasized enough. Something I detest is when an organist can’t add pedals unless the tempo is considerably slower. Organists should practice until they can play at the correct tempo; otherwise, the pedals should be omitted. Hymns played at a slow tempo sound dreary, like a funeral. Some organists, when confronted, will begin to explain how important the pedal sound is. Your reply must be: “Leaving off the pedals is terrible; but even worse is when you slow down the tempo because your skills are lacking.” How marvelous it is to find a good organist! In Los Angeles, we had Dr. Meaghan King and Ethan Hamman—truly excellent players who taught me so much.
The Art of Being Human • The choirmaster must be personable. That is, the choirmaster must know how to deal with human beings—how to speak to them and make them feel comfortable. Sometimes, a choirmaster who is not very skilled gets better results than a musical genius, because the “genius” behaves rudely toward people. Volunteer singers don’t come back when they are mistreated. I don’t care how talented certain people think they are; if they can’t recruit singers, they won’t last in this business. I once knew an organist who could play very well, and spent all week preparing fantastic postludes, spending very little time training the volunteer singers. On Sunday, the entire Mass was terrible, but the postlude was glorious—and my friend was soon fired. By the way, being friendly towards singers does not mean acting unprofessional; one must be professional at all times.
Teaching Every Day • Choirmasters have a job that is virtually impossible. To get the proper results, we must find singers—in spite of the fact that very few people receive choral training these days. Successful choirmasters teach constantly and give of themselves constantly. It is crucial to teach members of the congregation each day; accepting them at whatever level. If they have very poor musical skills, they can still learn hymns and psalm tones; and you’ll be surprised the progress some will make with training…but it’s a thankless job. The efforts must be offered to God. Remember the bishop who visited an island where a nun was caring for those with leprosy? The bishop said, “Sister, I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars.” The nun replied: “Neither would I.” Her reward was in Heaven.
Letting Them Prove Themselves • A bad choirmaster will take all the solo opportunities for himself. A wise choirmaster will constantly look for opportunities to let volunteer choir members “shine”—especially for a solo. Sometimes they won’t sing it perfectly, but which of us has never made a mistake? Letting them have opportunities is so crucial, because the singers look forward to those opportunities; never doubt this. You will be amazed to sing the singers “rise to the occasion.” Yesterday, for example, we only had a very small number of ladies show up for Vespers. But they wanted to sing, without any help. Therefore, I trained them, and gave them a shot—and they did better than I would have guessed. They welcomed the challenge!
A Trap To Avoid • One easy alternative would be to sing into a microphone and accompany oneself on the organ; and many fall into this trap. In Texas, I met a musician who directed for a parish with 8,000 families, yet she never formed a choir! Instead, she sang all seven Masses each Sunday, and accompanied herself on the organ. When I asked her why she never formed a choir, she replied: “Many of our families are lower middle class, so nobody knows how to sing.” Such a statement is unconscionable. She had an obligation to form at least one choir, in fulfillment of the Church’s vision for the sacred liturgy. But directing a choir is hard work; while accompanying oneself is a lot easier! (All of us have sung Mass alone at one time or another—and I do that for certain weekday Masses—but this is not the ideal.)
Be Firm on Vibrato • Never accept into the choir anyone whom you have not auditioned. You can do this over the phone, if necessary, by having them repeat Solfège pitches to you. Furthermore, never allow into your choir someone who cannot control excessive vibrato. Singers will assure you they understand what a “choral voice” is, claiming they are capable of controlling their vibrato. You must not believe them! Audition them, so you can be sure they know the difference between an operatic voice and a choral voice. It’s hard to be firm, but you must be—or you will be utterly miserable as a choir director. My experience has been that young voices are usually the most pure; but perhaps an expert like Dr. Calabrese could address this question at some point. Roger Wagner once wrote: “Soloists are dangerous in any church choir! Their voices frequently do not blend with those of the other singers to form a rich, integrated tone.”
The World We Inhabit • Choirmasters always sing in college choirs, but once they begin directing music for the Catholic Church, they quickly discover the “reality” of the situation. If college students skip too many rehearsals, they receive a failing grade. When volunteers skip rehearsal, nothing happens. The choirmaster must never become angry when volunteers skip. (Alas! Easier said than done…) Nevertheless, attendance records must be diligently kept, and excessive truancy taken seriously. Moreover, choirmasters must do whatever is necessary to make life easy for the volunteers. For example, I hate text messages; but my choir members only respond to text messages. Therefore, I had to adjust to their preference; because that’s my job.
Accepting the Second Vatican Council • The liturgical reforms have caused great confusion, and I truly believe it’s more challenging to run an Ordinary Form musical program than an Extraordinary Form musical program. Notice I didn’t say impossible—I said “more challenging.” Regardless, it’s crucial to realize that there must be positive congregational participation in the OF. (In the EF Mass, I think there can be less—although a certain amount is good.) When I say “positive,” I’m referring to quality. We’ve already discussed this somewhat (see above), so I won’t repeat all that. I truly believe the “kiss of death” for OF Masses is trying to force the congregation to sing too many items. By the way, the absolute best is when men and women sing antiphonally, which can be done with assistance from a nice choir.
Choir Rituals • The priest who hires a choirmaster must realize there are many rituals associated with singing Mass, and these cannot be skipped. There must be time for choral warmups, receiving Holy Communion, getting water, gathering music, placing binders, placing hymnals, placing Propers books, receiving instructions, and so forth and so on. The priest must support the choirmaster when it comes to encouraging singers to take such rituals seriously. One ritual I believe to be essential is thanking the choir members after they sing—when Mass has ended—shaking hands with each singer. (We do this outside Church, out of respect for the Sanctissimum.)
Bring Several Plans! • No matter what your “plan” is, you must be prepared to adapt like crazy once rehearsal begins. This is especially true when certain singers are absent (e.g. due to sickness). I have multiple plans for each rehearsal, because adaptions must be made based on the singers. How I wish this were not the case! How I wish that I could simply draw up a plan at home and stick to it no matter what. However, based on my experiences directing in Kansas, Texas, and Los Angeles, that’s not reality.
Nerves of Steel • When planning and directing a Mass, countless details must be anticipated, carefully choreographed, and rehearsed. Those who serve at Mass—and I was an M.C. for many years—have no idea how complicated it is to prepare music for Mass. Even in the most “high profile” Masses, you will see servers whispering instructions; but this cannot be done with a choir of thirty singers! Let’s say you want to change an E-flat to an E-natural. How can you? It’s impossible. Start a whispering campaign in the middle of singing a piece? Nope. But when you are serving at the Altar, one can quietly whisper directions even as the actions are being performed. Moreover, the choirmaster must constantly make important “spur of the moment” decisions which can have disastrous consequences. Consider just one example: At the last moment, the choirmaster receives word that several crucial singers may be absent. Should the program be changed? But changing the program at the last moment can be hazardous… The choirmaster must have nerves of steel and remain calm at all times—again, easier said than done!
Repertoire is Crucial • A competent choirmaster must be able to look at a piece of music and know whether the singers will be able to execute it properly. The GCC could publish a journal containing accessible repertoire choices edited with skill. The range of the Tenor should not go too high. The range of the Bass should not go too low. The selection should not be too long. There ought to be Psalm Verses available, to make sure the length of the piece matches the liturgical action. And so forth.
Catholic Hymns Are Key • Some situations are quite difficult. To understand “difficult,” think of a parish that has never experienced authentic sacred music, never heard a choir, and (perhaps) celebrates Mass in an ugly church with poor acoustics. Without question, I would recommend beginning the necessary reform by singing Catholic hymns in addition to simple English plainsong antiphons. Polyphony is wonderful, but it requires musical skill and sensitivity. If one has established a choir capable of singing hymns well, the transition to polyphony will be seemless. Gregorian chant is also magnificent, but Latin can be a stumbling block if the parish is not accustomed to it. Until recently, I could not enthusiastically recommend any hymnals because too many of them were lacking in solid Catholic hymns and most contained a good amount of garbage. But all that changed when the Brébeuf Hymnal was released in December of 2018. Every page of the Brébeuf Hymnal contains a dignified, solid melody paired with a phenomenal Catholic text. Indeed, the Brébeuf is unique among hymnals published over the last fifty years, because it does not mimic or “build upon” Protestant models—it is Catholic to the core. Choirmasters can, therefore, use this book with utter confidence. 4
Why This Has Never Been Done • If my idea is a good one, why hasn’t it been done? One reason is that musicians tend to be intolerant. If another musician has a different opinion, we consider this a personal assault on our character—and we never forgive. Even on our death bed, we’ll remember disagreements over composer X or interpretation Y. We really can’t help it—we musicians are super passionate! Such intolerance, in my humble opinion, has caused Catholic choirmasters to become isolated and miserable. This extends not only to music, but also to the liturgy. For example, I prefer Mass to be either entirely in English or entirely in Latin. From an aesthetic point of view, I don’t like mixing Latin and English (even though Vatican II called for this). It’s important for people like me to realize that my personal preference cannot exclude other approaches. However, I do believe that certain things are black and white—such as what I said earlier about “pretend congregational singing” or poorly balanced voices. If the GCC becomes a reality, it will require us to overcome our natural inclinations and become a little more tolerant. Friends don’t have to agree about everything!
Many Will Reject the GCC • Furthermore, it is foolish to think that Gregorian chant is going to instantly be accepted by the majority of Catholic parishes, where Pseudo-Jazz, Rock, Polka, Broadway, and many other styles constitute the status quo. I’ve even seen Rap Masses! The most common is “sacro-pop,” a genre that seems to have arisen in the 1980s. The GCC would only be welcomed by priests who desire authentic (“traditional”) Catholic music. As I mentioned earlier, more and more are being ordained each year. I personally believe a musician cannot make any real progress without the support of his priest. Music is difficult enough without having to “justify one’s existence” to the boss.
HE IDEA I HAVE PUT FORTH today is certainly bold; yet we cannot delay any longer. We must begin the process of creating a reliable source for priests in search of professional musicians. The Catholic Church has tolerated a bad situation for too long.
What is our first move? I don’t know—and whether this idea becomes a reality is ultimately in the hands of Almighty God. It’s all a bit scary: but we really have no choice. One thing I know for sure: We must stop worrying about pleasing everyone. Not everyone deserves to be pleased! For instance, I was recently on a long plane ride and people were watching movies. Some of the movies available were immoral, and I assumed nobody would choose them, because everyone else on the plane could see what they’re watching. Incredibly, many people were not embarrassed to watch filthy stuff—feeling no shame! Why do we feel that everyone deserves to be pleased? Let us worry about pleasing God, not man. If a priest implements a program of authentic sacred music, let him not fear complaints. If confronted, let him reply: “We are doing serious music called for by the Church documents; are you suggesting we stop doing that?”
Every choirmaster has probably considered “throwing in the towel” at one time or another. As Fr. Robert Skeris says: “The life of a choirmaster is a life of sacrifice.” But along the way, we often experience moments that keep us going, and keep us fighting. Let me close by sharing a such a moment. Last Sunday, four pieces sent shivers down my spine: (1) the middle section of a J.S. Bach SANCTUS; (2) the way the ladies sang part of the CREDO; (3) a dissonance in a piece by Peter Lejeune; and (4) the Alto line in the KYRIE (Missa Ave Maris Stella) by Father Victoria.
If anything I’ve written today resonates with you, I hope you’ll let me know!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 This is often the case when it comes to government. For example, consider the way power lines are installed in Kansas. Entire forests are plowed and they install enormous, 90-foot metal structures. They don’t pussyfoot around; they mean business.
2 Thanks to new scrutiny (as a result of the abuse crisis) it has been revealed that many of these melodies were written by composers who led immoral lives—and some have been arrested. We must eradicate these songs. By inserting them into the Mass, we are playing with fire. We must never become complicit in the abuse crisis. I was too young to know any better in the 1990s when I was forced to sing such songs, but I still feel violated. Moreover, there is no need for this—because the Catholic Church has no shortage of truly great music.
3 And this is to say nothing of the scandalous relationship the USCCB maintains with certain big publishers who shall remain nameless. Long ago, somebody discovered that millions of dollars could be made each year selling Biblical texts already in the public domain (at least, major sections of them). Someday this immoral arrangement will be revealed for all the world to see; but it will take a group of attorneys working with some really brave bishops, because this illicit scheme has grown into a massive cash cow.
4 I realize some claim that hymns “should never be used at Mass.” I cannot subscribe to such a view. For one thing, certain hymns—such as the Crux Fidelis and Vexilla Regis for Good Friday and the Pange Lingua for Holy Thursday—are part of the Mass whether we like it or not. More importantly, hymns have become a part of the liturgy; and the Brébeuf Hymnal reveals manuscripts of Roman Catholic vernacular hymnody that go back all the way to 1599AD. For centuries, the congregation rarely received Holy Communion during Mass (only the priest did), but now that things have changed, I have no problem with hymns being sung for the distribution of the Sanctissimum.