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September 19, 2012
Rebuilding Catholic Culture: Church Music and the Fad of ‘Folk’ Style
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

I will never forget that moment! Flinging off his eyeglasses, he glared at me, “Sister, what have you done to our music!”  I froze.

It was my first year at NYU as a graduate student of musicology, and I was enrolled in Professor Gustave Reese’s course, Medieval and Renaissance Music.  He was the world’s leading authority on these two musical periods. An American Jew, a Renaissance Man, he loved the sacred music of the pre-conciliar Church.  In a sense, he was its custodian.  For him, musical analysis was de rigueur except for the Ave maris stella, “a honey of a piece.” When Reese blurted out his question to me, it seemed as if he had been storing it up for years.  How could we have banished the church’s heritage of sacred music, the most consequential result of the post-conciliar Church?

Effect of Music on the Human Spirit

From ancient times, people of every race and color have held that music, more than any other art form, is the most intimate expression of human feeling.  According to the Ancients, music imitates the states of the soul and has the mysterious, even magical power, to influence a person’s behavior and to form moral character. We are affected by the kinds of music we experience. On the day of John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963, Beethoven’s second movement of the “Eroica” Symphony accompanied the cortege on its way to Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Beethoven had dedicated the symphony “to the memory of a fallen hero.”

The Fathers of the Church agree with the Ancients. Sacred music proposes to lift up the the whole person to Christ likeness. Throughout the centuries, men and women have become converts through the beauty of liturgical music.

The Decline of Quality

Common sense dictates that not all music qualifies as suitable for divine worship, for the chosen music sets the atmosphere for the liturgy. The music expresses, reflects, and mediates the saving mysteries of Jesus in symbolic ways. It is the locus where the human and sensory realities meet the divine and spiritual. According to Sing to the Lord, the musical judgment of sacred music “requires musical competence, (and) only artistically sound music will be effective and endure over time. To admit to the Liturgy the cheap, trite, or the musical cliché often found in secular popular songs is to cheapen the Liturgy, to expose it to ridicule, and to invite failure.” (USCCB, Sing to the Lord, #135)

The deciding factor about sacred music is its quality. Quality has two meanings: (1) Quality as the essential and objective character of something, and quality in man-made things, the condition for excellence; we value quality of life, quality time with family and friends, and quality of character; (2) Quality in man-made things, the condition for excellence; we choose quality in food and in clothing.  In a long but important comment by Barbara Tuchman writes:

“Quality is the investment of the best skill and effort to produce the finest and most admirable result possible. Its presence of absence in some degree characterizes every man-made object, service, skilled or unskilled–laying bricks, painting a picture, ironing shirts, practicing medicine, shoe making, scholarship, writing a book. You do it well or you do it half-well.  Materials are sound and durable or they are sleazy. The presence or absence of quality characterizes every man-made object and service, skilled or unskilled. Quality is achieving or reaching for the highest standard as against the sloppy or fraudulent. It is honesty of purpose as against catering to cheap or sentiment. It does not allow compromise with the second-rate but reaches for the highest standards. Quality can be attained without genius.” (“The Decline of Quality,” New York Times Magazine, November 2, 1980, 38-39)

Benedict XVI and the Decline of Quality

Of all the prominent church figures to comment on the state of today’s church music, Benedict XVI stands out as the most articulate. Describing a philistine mentality toward sacred music, he writes:  “It is strange that the postconciliar pluralism has created uniformity in one respect at least: it will not tolerate a high standard of expression.” (A New Song  for the Lord, 123)

Musicam Sacram (MS)

In 1967, Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler jointly published a commentary on “Sacred Music,” chapter six of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.  For them, the normal musical component of liturgy is not art music but functional music, accessible to a large public. Benedict disagrees: 

1. Sacred music can never be seen as primarily functional, “conceived in purely pragmatic terms; it grind(s) musica sacra down to dust.” (Lecture to the Church Music Department of the State Conservatory of Music at Stuttgart in 1977);

2. “A Church which only makes use of functional music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless.  She too becomes ineffectual.” The craze for function over goodness of form “leaves nothing but schmaltz for the general public.” (The Feast of Faith, 124) Summarizing his response to the utilitarian approach to sacred music, Benedict cites four translations of Psalm 48 (47), verse eight exhorting the Israelites to sing skillfully in their praise of the Lord:

(a) Sing an art song; play for God with all your art (with all your skill);
(b) Sing artistically;
(c) Sing with understanding,
(d) Sing the way the ars musicae teaches (A New Song for the Lord, 123-24).  

Functional Church Music: the ‘Folk’ Style

‘Folk’ style in church music is amply represented in The Music Missal (OCP), a flimsy, unattractive, and disposable handbook, which enjoys widespread use and influence. It contains other music like Ordinaries of the Mass, Reformed Protestant hymnody, and Gregorian chants. In no way does this ‘folk’ style, a misnomer, resemble authentic folk music. Whereas genuine folk songs were written by the community and were transmitted by the oral tradition, this material has been written by individuals. Genuine folk songs have a simple, limited melodic range as well as simple rhythm with little or no accompaniment.
A Closer Look at the ‘Folk’ Style from Music Missal, OCP (2011)

Below is a sampling of songs from the OCP:

1) Trite music to accompany texts with little or no theological import:  #332,  Let Us Break Bread Together; #449,  How Can I Keep from Singing; #376, Here I Am, Lord; #616, They’ll Know We Are Christians.

2) Romanticized, saccharine melodies: #476, You Are Mine;  #331,  Taste and See; #359, I Receive the Living God; #438, Be Not Afraid; #442, On Eagle’s Wings; #522, Earthen Vessels.

3) Songs with jerky, heavy, frenzied rhythms, or dance rhythms found in popular culture:  #302, Gather Us In; #374, City of God; #447, Though the Mountains May Fall; #452, Blest Be the Lord;  #495, Let There Be Peace on Earth, the perfect song for Bette Midler; #548, Sing to the Mountains, Sing to the Sea; #578, Sing a New Song Unto the Lord; #548 and #578 are cast in the style of a brindisi, a drinking song similar to that sung in Verdi’s “La Traviata.” 

The ‘folk’ style used in the liturgy is written for guitar or non-organ accompaniment, and free style, off-the cuff improvisation is to be expected.  

The Guitar and the Piano

The guitar needs to be defended.  It is a serious instrument, not to be trivialized. Belonging to the lute family, the guitar is first and foremost a solitary, gentle, soft-spoken plucked instrument with limited sonority. The lute and the lyra, the kithara and the harp are all related to the guitar (chitarra).  These string families were used in ancient and biblical times to sooth and console their listeners. They can foster meditation and can even mesmerize audiences, but they were not meant to rev them up to a frenzy, whether in a concert hall or in church. Whereas classical guitar is difficult to master, elementary guitar requires a minimum of formal training, and it thrives on basic chords, strumming, thumping, and pounding.

In many parishes, the modern piano has supplanted the pipe organ.  As a secular keyboard instrument, the piano delivers such an idiosyncratic tone that it is excluded from the symphony orchestra because it overpowers the sounds of other instruments. The modern piano succeeded the harpsichord and clavichord to support the heavy touch created by nineteenth-century compositions. With its percussive and sensual tone, sustained by the pedal, the piano functions best in a secular ambiance and has no place in the liturgy. Is all this music sung prayer? 

Evaluation of the Fad of ‘Folk’ Style

The ‘folk’ music in the Music Missal has many inherent deficiencies.  First, it lacks skilled workmanship.  In fact, many of its ‘composers’ do not read music; some even rejected the offer of formal lessons in composition. This “tripe” should disturb our musical taste, to quote Thomas Merton. This is precisely the kind of music which Sing to the Lord cites as cheap, trite or worn-out, found in secular popular songs.  They invite ridicule from many sectors of society. (Sing to the Lord, #135) 

Cacophony, whether from electric keyboard, piano, guitar, or anything that is struck, de-sacralizes, secularizes, trivializes, and even vulgarizes the service while at the same time creates the illusion of a renewed and sophisticated Church.

Noise, which differs from joy, agitates the spirit and creates a restless liturgy–a prayerless liturgy.  This material belongs at a hootenanny, a song-fest or a camp fire. It should be allowed to die a peaceful death and gently rubbed out of the American Church’s collective memory. Still, it holds a firm grip on many whose allegiance to it remains entrenched. In fact, with few exceptions, this material is a failed, worn-out project. The faithful deserve better.

The Poor-Banished Pipe Organ

Known as queen of the instruments, the pipe organ is a veritable orchestra and functions as a solo and accompanying instrument. Having been consistently used in the Church since the ninth century, the organ supports the classic hymn tradition which needs the strength of Baroque four-part harmony, perfected by J.S. Bach.

An unintended consequence of the post-conciliar liturgy minimized the role of the organist.  Many organists lost their positions to pastoral musicians.  This drastic, tragic change has deprived the faithful of experiencing a rich organ repertory despite official documents singling out the pipe organ as adding “a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies, powerfully lift(ing) up men's hearts and minds to God and to higher things.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #120)

Prayerlessness in the Liturgy

According to Franz Josef van Beeck, S.J. “The single most dangerous threat to the new liturgy is prayerlessness (whether of the authorized or the experimental) variety. This is not a theoretical observation but a practical one.  Prayerlessness in the liturgy, in fact, is so widespread as to be almost taken for granted.” (Catholic Identity after Vatican II, 67) Prayerlessness harms one’s faith, and the music under discussion is one factor responsible for this prayerlessness.

Disintegration: What the ‘Folk’ Style Hath Wrought 

Benedict XVI makes a startling observation in suggesting that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has produced an attitude of opposition within the Church–a partisan and opposing church tearing herself apart (A New Song for the Lord, 142).  The Matthean verse, “where two or three are gathered together in my name (Mt 18:20) is used to oppose the institution and every official program of the Church. This verse becomes the place of origin for the liturgy.  The group arises on the spot from the creativity of those gathered (Ibid, 145).  The institution and the clerical Orders represent a negative image of bondage, opposed to genuine freedom.  This new attitude is expressed through the new music by the people of God, and it is the music which gives identity to the group. 

The new music is the characteristic of the group’s identity, the emergence of another church.   For this group, the content of Pope St. Pius X’s motu proprio on church music is called a “culturally shortsighted and theologically worthless ideology of sacred music.” (Ibid., 144)  Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony symbolize the power of the institution and the clergy–the other church, which curtails the group’s freedom.  The pontiff writes that the “treasury of musica sacra, the  universality of Gregorian chant handed down through the ages, now appears as an outmoded and quaint practice of the pre-conciliar Church for the purpose of preserving a certain form of power.” (Ibid)

“(What) we are experiencing today,” laments Benedict, “is to a large extent due to the  disintegration of the liturgy which at times has even come to be conceived of etsi Deus non daretur, (that is, the liturgy has even come to be celebrated as if there were no God).”  (Milestones: Memoirs 1927-77, p. 149)

Disintegration is not a pretty word, but Benedict XVI uses it to capture the liturgical crisis in the Church today.  A thing deteriorates when its natural form is so disfigured that the purpose for which it was intended is no longer recognizable. It is not simply irreverent music. At issue is that the faithful have become ‘the church,’ an alternate church, and they are celebrating themselves through the folly of faddism. 

The second part of this essay will appear in next week’s CNA as “Sing to the Lord.”

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