HEN I WAS ABOUT FIVE years old, I saw the Olympics on television. I remember jumping around doing somersaults, and proclaiming to the world: “Look, I’m an Olympic athlete!” But a child declaring something to be true doesn’t make it so. Only a raving lunatic would believe such nonsense; yet some in the Catholic Church suffer from this condition. Some believe that it’s acceptable to wake up one morning—without any serious study or expertise—and declare to the world: “I’m a composer of sacred music!” Consider the following Mass setting recently released by OCP:
This is not a “prank.” If you don’t believe me, click here.
Insulting To The People Of God: When Catholics sing authentic sacred music, they know they are needed. You cannot sing Palestrina’s Missa Jam Christus without the soprano line. You cannot sing Guerrero’s Missa Iste Sanctus without the bass line. The singers realize they are part of a team; the music can’t happen without them. But when it comes to Missa Back-To-The-Future, all you really need is a heavy beat track and one soloist. Want to add some harmony? …Eh, whatever. Want to add some brass? …Eh, whatever. Want to add piano? …Eh, whatever. They can participate if they like, but it’s all a farce.
Insulting To Vatican II: The composer—someone named Curtis Stephan—claims his priest came to him when he was “fresh out of college” and “challenged him” to write a Mass setting “really fitting for big feast days.” (!!!) …because nobody’s ever done that before, right? Such unbelievable arrogance! Is Mr. Stephan ignorant of Vatican II? He seems unaware Vatican II said “the musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art” (SC §112). Mr. Stephan also seems unaware Vatican II said “the treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care” (SC §114). Vatican II did not say: “Catholics don’t have a musical treasury of our own, so we’re at the mercy of well-intentioned amateurs.”
Insulting To Actual Artists: My friends, Vatican II is correct: The treasury of Catholic music is incomparable. What leads Mr. Stephan to believe his offerings are on the level of a Marenzio or a Palestrina? Does Mr. Stephan believe someone like myself—who is terrible at basketball—should play alongside Michael Jordan? Does Mr. Stephan believe there’s basically no difference between Sandro Botticelli and a teenager who struggles to draw stick figures? Does Mr. Stephan believe it’s acceptable to program his puerile attempts instead of teaching music by truly excellent composers? Indeed, 0.05% of the smallest piece by Guerrero has more musical value than the entirety of Missa Back-To-The-Future.
Insulting To God: The Mass is the (unbloody) reënactment of the Sacrifice of Calvary. The Church teaches we are supposed to give God the very best. Choirmasters are not supposed to teach garbage; we are supposed to teach Catholics music from the authentic treasury of sacred music. Has our society embraced pluralism to such an extent that we consider a teenager who’s never studied physics on a higher level than Albert Einstein? How else can one explain Mr. Stephan pretending that he’s the first one to come up with the idea of writing a Mass setting suitable for feasts? Why does he ignore the inexhaustible treasury written by skilled Catholic composers?
Eminently Forgettable: Curtis Stephan’s Missa Back-To-The-Future is mainly just a heavy beat track. The “melodies” are eminently forgettable; it’s completely and utterly rhythmically-driven and rhythmically-composed. The musical style is totally secular; similar to what one might hear on the radio. This composition by Mr. Stephan is fundamentally unserious. When my organization runs international sacred music gatherings, the emphasis has never been on making recordings—but perhaps we should start. Perhaps next time we have a major conference (once Covid-19 is over), we should hire some professional recording artists and give people a taste of what serious sacred music is all about. I repeat: Making recordings has never been our goal … but when I hear “Missa Back-To-The-Future” I think to myself: Perhaps we should make some recordings.
Depressing Banality: James MacMillan has written: “A lot of the favored 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.’ 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. A whole industry has grown up to promote this material…” A description used by Sir James (“mind-numbingly depressing banality”) certainly fits OCP’s Missa Back-To-The-Future.