Monthly Archives: June 2015

A Musical Diet

Several weeks ago, a friend of mine and I stood outside after Mass discussing literature and music. He is an English professor at the local university with an incredible grasp on the nature of a classical education and I am a musician who likes to talk. At one point, he asked me what kind of music I listen to in my down time, and I had to confess that I have so little love for pop culture that I am the freak who jogs listening to Viennese Masses and the like (there is nothing better for jogging than the Gloria from Haydn’s Heiligmesse). Outside of German folk music (it’s a family thing), my musical tastes gravitate toward classical music, including everything from chant to Taverner and MacMillan.

Such prodding made me curious to know if he read things like The Hunger Games, or if he kept strictly to the classics. He never gave me a direct answer, but he did tell me that literature is like food. Everyone’s diet should consist mostly of either good or great food (this was his tip of the hat to John Senior), otherwise one gets sick. At the same time, there is nothing wrong with a little junk food now and again (I assume he was talking about The Hunger Games), as long as one stays clear of anything poisonous (he gave the example of Fifty Shades of Gray). We eventually ended the conversation when our kids got restless, but I kept thinking about his analogy and how it applied to the music we hear every Sunday at Mass.

Ideally, one should enjoy a lot of good and great music, such as chant and polyphony, excellent hymns and beautiful Mass Ordinaries, either choral or congregational. At the same time, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to sing to some schlock every now and again. I find that each generation has music, not necessarily of high quality, they are attached to for various reasons. Unfortunately, most parishes get their musical diets backwards, providing their parishioners (and ultimately the good Lord) with nothing but junk food and poison. I had to cringe once when I found myself at St. So-and-so and the cantor announced the hymn for Holy Communion, Precious body, precious blood, here IN bread and wine. Yikes!!! I asked my wife if we ended up at the local Lutheran church by mistake.

I usually hear the argument that this is what a certain congregation is used to and to change would be pastorally insensitive, or perhaps the pastor has bigger problems than music to deal with. When I respectfully disagree with these points I get the response, “Okay, so what would YOU do?” All right, that’s a fair question. Here is my response as a musical dietitian.

If I were to find myself newly appointed to the musical helm of St. So-and-so, my first act would be to ask each organist, cantor, pianist, guitarist and choir member, you name it, to meet me for an hour at the local coffee shop in order to get to know them personally. I would find out about each one’s history at the parish, musical tastes, etc. I would ask if there were anything he or she felt they needed from me or from the parish to grow as a Christian or as a musician. Did they have any suggestions or hopes for music at the parish? Believe me, I know I would receive all kinds of answers. Someone would tell me that her favorite song was Precious body, precious blood. I would be prepared for anything, but I WOULD NOT try to convince them otherwise at that point. I would only get to know them. They would appreciate this more than I could ever imagine.

Secondly, I would go through my parish’s hymnal and strike out any hymns that were openly heretical (I WOULD NOT strike out the junk food yet–depending on the hymnal, I might not have anything left). I would work through this list with the pastor, since he needs to be involved in the process, and get his feedback. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t find more than half a dozen openly heretical heretical hymns, which I would simply stop scheduling, and I would not send a letter to the musicians bringing it to their attention. This would simply cause an uproar. Most people wouldn’t notice anyway, and I would deal with those who did on a person-to-person basis.

Thirdly, I would ask every group in the parish to start using the same singable setting of the Mass Ordinary for the next year. Proulx’s A Community Mass or The Heritage Mass come to mind (you might call me a traitor at this point, but if you think you can introduce even an English chant setting this early in your work, you are signing your own death warrant). If I were an average parishioner with no musical expertise,  two things would drive me batty. The first would consist of being forced to sing settings of the Mass that were overly syncopated and whose melodies jumped all over the place. The second would be having to learn a new setting of the Ordinary only six weeks after the last one had been introduced. No wonder Catholics don’t sing!

Fourthly, I would begin introducing one new piece of music every six months, either a new hymn or perhaps a chanted Kyrie, while at the same time indiscreetly removing another piece of schlock from the line-up.

Lastly, I would invite anyone willing to form a special group that I would teach to sing the Communio at one Mass each Sunday while father distributed Holy Communion to the army of Eucharistic Ministers (I would still begin the hymn as soon as father began distributing Communion to the rest of the congregation). After a couple of years I might even teach them to sing the Introit as a prelude. I have found that if I don’t subtract anything from the parish’s normal routine, I can usually get away with adding one thing.

I realize what I propose seems like moving forward at a snail’s pace, but considering how long the average parishioner has been in the liturgical and musical desert, anything more would cause the musical equivalent of refeeding syndrome, and you might as well hand in your resignation. You will slowing turn your congregation from arsonic and cyanide, chips and soda, to meat and potatoes. Who knows, you might even serve them a lobster one day!

Musical Green Eggs and Ham

Do you ever wonder why some very good and holy Catholics, ones who will enjoy much higher places in heaven than I could ever hope to attain, seem to enjoy and pine for the Church’s greatest hits from the 70s and 80s? I remember staying up late one night in high school to watch Mother Teresa’s funeral. Considering the great gift Mother had been to the world, I had to wonder why her sisters chose something as dubious as Shepherd Me, O God to be sung at her funeral?

I also think about my Grandma Schmidtberger and the music she chose for her funeral. She was a woman of incredible faith with an intellect to match. Christ was her life and daily prayer her food. She voraciously read First Things and Crisis and a number of other good Catholic periodicals. When she lay dying of cancer and the priest came to anoint her, she asked him if he would please give her the Apostolic Pardon, and when he said he hadn’t heard of it, she explained to him what it was. He expressed gratitude for having learned of it and readily gave it to her. Her funeral was held in her parish church of decades upon decades, St. Fidelis (pictured above), a church whose beauty is a testament to the faith of the farmers who literally built it. I served for the funeral, and as I carried the crucifix and lead the procession down the aisle, the choir director announced the “Opening Hymn,” none other than The Old Rugged Cross. As I thought of my grandmother’s legacy and looked at the saints and angels surrounding me, my heart sank. I don’t know if it was out of hurt or out of love (probably a bit of both), but I started humming to myself… Requiem aeternam, dona eis Domine

I firmly believe most Catholics love the music they do because it is what they know, which is why On Eagle’s Wings has become the de facto funeral Introit at every progressively leaning parish and why one can’t get away from On This Day O Beautiful Mother during the month of May in the more traditionally leaning parish. It is all very much like Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham! We like what we know.

There are several ways we can reverse the trend. First, parents can add some of the Church’s musical patrimony to family prayers, perhaps singing the Lord’s Prayer or ending night prayers with the appropriate Marian antiphon. If parents have to hit the play button on a YouTube version of the Salve Regina so the family can sing along until everyone learns the music, so be it. Pastors, make sure the children in your school can sing the hymns for Benediction, the Marian antiphons (you could sing these as the recessional hymn at daily Mass) as well as a few chants and some good hymns. If you are the director of music for your parish, choose two good hymns to teach the congregation over the course of the next year and then fail to schedule two of your more questionable hymns. That is already four steps forward. Then, ask your pastor if he, as the father of your parish family, wouldn’t mind leading by example and singing the Preface. I would be thankful to encounter such a parish on vacation!