Sep 15, 2001

A Musical Shock

Online Edition – Vol. VII, No. 6: September 2001

A Musical Shock
Have we exchanged one style of music unsuitable for worship for another as bad or worse?

by Allen Brings

During the 1950s my father enjoyed attending Mass, occasionally, at Saint Paul’s in Manhattan, now just a block from Lincoln Center. My father was a fine amateur singer, whom I often accompanied at the piano, and I’m sure that the quality of the music at Saint Paul’s was the main reason he went there; perhaps it also reminded him of his days as a choirboy in his parish in Germany.

During a recent visit of two friends from Massachusetts, we agreed to meet there on a Sunday for 10 o’clock Mass. The board outside the church, a handsomely restored basilica, announced that the "Saint Paul Singers" would be singing.

Expressing our delight at the prospect of hearing beautiful liturgical music conscientiously prepared, we picked up copies of the Worship hymnal at the door and made our way down the aisle. No sooner had we settled in, however, when we noticed a piano to the right of the sanctuary, a grand piano, no less, with microphones.

From then until the congregation sang the familiar adaptation of the Gregorian Lord’s Prayer, unassisted by choir or instrument, we could not be certain that we had not wandered accidentally into one of the theaters on Broadway a few blocks away.

To begin, the response to the Psalm was sung by a chicly dressed young lady who sang admirably on pitch, but who sounded as if she were auditioning for a part in a revue.

There were other numbers as well, but the show stopper was a set piece for the ensemble (or is it "company"?), with an elaborate piano accompaniment that needed only the services of a pit band to make it complete. It scarcely mattered that the words were unintelligible; for all we could tell, they had been lifted directly from a recent Broadway show. Certainly, the music conformed in the minutest details to the highest standards of the Broadway musical. It conformed so well, in fact, to the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic characteristics that are associated with that genre, that it sounded like every show tune we had ever heard yet no one in particular. The music was masterful, and the company sang it like the best high school show chorus that you could ever hope to hear at a regional Music Educators National Conference. Perhaps the words did have some liturgical significance; the music, however, did not. When Mass was over, several members of the congregation applauded. They at least understood what it was all about.

During the homily I began to realize that we had not wandered into a Broadway theater so much as a summer camp and that the priest wasn’t so much the celebrant of the Eucharist as he was the head counselor and we the campers, aged somewhere between nine and fifteen. Everything he said was calculated to keep us in the cozy frame of mind that the music had already placed us in.

I’m not sure why hymnals were made available. The only music that we needed was printed on a music sheet that featured tunes that no congregation could follow unless it had been musically trained. But it didn’t really matter if we sang along or not, just as it doesn’t really matter that no one sings the National Anthem before World Series games when a celebrated entertainer performs it for us in a way guaranteed to focus attention on the singer rather than on what is sung. What did it matter then that we were unable to understand any of the words?

Furthermore, what did it matter that the amplification system obscured rather than clarified the words of Sacred Scripture during the readings, making them scarcely more intelligible than the announcements made on the notorious public address system of New York City’s subways? With a reverberation time that I estimated at about three seconds, this cavernous building with its hard, reflecting surfaces doesn’t need braces of loudspeakers hanging on either side, each sending its own compressions and rarefactions to interfere with all the others. What we did need were lectors and priests who knew how to speak in public. (One wonders how the early Christian communities ever heard the words of Paul’s letters without the aid of a microphone.)

I think I now understand better why some who go to see shows like Les Miserables believe that they have had a religious experience. It is as if they have heard Job with none of the hard sayings, none of the doubt, and at a cost no greater than a catch in the throat and a damp hanky. Perhaps for the same reason people now attend Mass expecting the profane rather than the sacred. In either case there is no perceptible difference; in either case there is no invitation to change habits or to alter responses.

I think I also understand better the suspicion that Thomas Day, author of Why Catholics Can’t Sing, once expressed in an article for the Catholic Commission for Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, titled "Raising and Humbling Pop Culture". He wrote that many in the Church are "deeply envious of … pop culture, especially its power" and would like to "use its energies to enliven Catholic worship".

But if, as Day suggests, some priests and music ministers are "envious" of the television celebrity who controls an adoring audience, isn’t it also true that congregations are often willing to become adoring audiences?

Responding to such abuses as the singing of operatic arias during the liturgy (even the playing of the William Tell overture on the organ!), Pope Saint Pius X’s motu proprio of 1903, Tra le sollecitudini, specified that music, if it is to be suitable for the Liturgy, must be "free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theater" and that the "employment of the piano is forbidden". The devils that were cast out by this document not so completely in our country it would seem have evidently been replaced by many more than before.

Unlike those who were cast out, their replacements believe with absolute certainty that they are in the right and will brook no dissent. They are, I’m afraid, far more resistant to exorcism than those quaint devils who gave us the pop tunes of our grandparents’ day. The principal difference may be that the operatic stage and the front parlor have been replaced by the Broadway stage, television, and the campfire.

Allen Brings, born in New York City in 1934, is Professor of Music at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College of the City University of New York and a director of the Weston Music Center and School of the Performing Arts in Weston, Connecticut. His published compositions include works for orchestra, band, chorus, chamber ensembles, piano, organ, harpsichord, guitar and voice, and have been recorded by Capstone, Centaur, Grenadilla, Contemporary Recording Studios and North/South Recordings. A pianist as well as a composer, Professor Brings has performed extensively both here and abroad. His essay, "About Making Music", appeared in the September 2000 issue of AB.



Allen Brings