Feb 15, 2008

Catholic Church Music

Online Edition:

February 2008

Vol. XIII, No. 10

Catholic Church Music

A Century of Progress?

by Helen Hull Hitchcock and Susan Benofy

“The particular fact staring us in the face at this moment is that our Church music is in anything but a satisfactory condition.… [O]n the everlasting ‘Church Music Question’ … the only point of agreement in these heated discussions would appear to be that abuses do exist, and that some reform is necessary”.

This timely observation was written by Richard Terry, director of the Choir of Westminster Cathedral in London in his book Catholic Church Music — published a just over century ago — in a chapter titled “The Present State of Music in Our Churches”.

“Opinions [on music suitable for worship] vary so greatly, and personal feeling runs so high, that it is difficult to find any common ground on which opposing factions can meet”, Mr. Terry observes. “Small wonder”, then, if a person “falls helplessly back on the dictum that, after all, so long as there is no great violation of liturgical laws, the whole thing is only a matter of opinion. Now that is just what I wish to deny most emphatically. It is not a matter of opinion: it is a question of principle” (p. 85 – Original emphasis).

Mr. Terry’s critical comments on the state of Catholic liturgical music in 1907 — the singing, the choirs, the organists, and the hymnody — still strike a too- familiar dissonant chord.

(The complete book, Catholic Church Music, is accessible on the Church Music Association of America’s web site, www.musicasacra.com).

The principles for selecting appropriate music for Mass that Mr. Terry outlines — observing liturgical rules; rejecting music with strong secular associations; fostering attitudes of reverence in the singers and the worshippers — also seem to resonate with serious Catholic musicians 100 years later.

Still a conflict? “Give the Church the benefit of the doubt”, the author urges.

In a later chapter, Mr. Terry observes, “It is not difficult to understand how even the most fatuous tunes can be beloved if they are in any way connected with hallowed associations of a pious life, and who is he who would ruthlessly deprive these good souls of things they hold dear? (pp. 122-123).

In a very recent web survey by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM), respondents gave precisely the equivalent of “hallowed associations” as their reason for selecting a particular “hymn that makes a difference”.

A century ago, Richard Terry expressed great hope for the influence of the then-recent Motu Proprio of Pope Pius X on Church music, Tra le sollecitudini (1903), which had restored Gregorian Chant to pride of place, and urged actuosa participatio of worshippers at Mass.

Mr. Terry’s comment: “The Holy Father has spoken, and matters which were regarded as subjects for discussion have been removed from the region of controversy to the region of obedience.… The day for individual comment and for individual expression of opinion has happily gone forever” (pp. 39-40).

The remedy for poor liturgical music, Mr. Terry suggested, is long term: forming children in the Church’s understanding of sacred music.

Half a century later, in a book also called Catholic Church Music, music critic Paul Hume protested “the fallacious nature of the idea that there are no objective standards for judging music, either in composition or in performance.” This book, subtitled “A Practical Guide for the Choir Loft”, was published in 1957 by Dodd, Mead & Co. Its author, who died in 2001, was music critic for The Washington Post, taught music history at Georgetown University from 1950 to 1977 and was a visiting professor at Yale University from 1975 to 1983.

Like Richard Terry, Paul Hume also insisted that Catholic Church music should not be subject to private opinion, but is a matter of principle — since, as Hume says, “Music is a science, a very exacting discipline, as well as an art”.

Like Mr. Terry, Mr. Hume also believes the solution is in proper music education of the young. He says: “Beyond the obvious need for more and more general music education, there is not a simple solution to all this.” (p. 13).

Mr. Hume put great stress on the training of seminarians:

Think what it would mean to the future of Church music in this country if in every seminary there were one real Church musician … if every student passing through on his way to Holy Orders were indoctrinated in Church music.… (p. 77)

And he also warned about the persistence of good memories of bad music:

There are plenty of the awful “old favorites” already in existence. There is no need for writing any “new favorites” cut of the same shoddy cloth. (p. 77).

Like Richard Terry, Paul Hume had great faith that improvement would soon come because of a recent papal document: in this case, the 1955 encyclical on Sacred Music of Pope Pius XII, Musicae Sacrae Disciplina. He writes:

the coup de grace has now surely been given to the old argument about hymns not having to conform to any standards as long as they’re only used in non-liturgical services. (p. 81).

Alas. The disputes of 1907 and 1957 persist in 2008.

The idea that Church music is just a matter of taste is so pervasive that large parishes often have assorted musical ensembles to suit different tastes. There may be a “youth group”, a “contemporary ensemble” and a “traditional choir”. (Though the last-named group is not ordinarily one dedicated to the Church’s tradition of chant and polyphony, but precisely to the “new favorites” of the mid-twentieth century, not unlike the older ones both Terry and Hume warned against.)

Why has the problem of bad hymns and defective liturgical music persisted for more than a century — despite radical changes in taste and style and repertoire?

One answer is that the serious, long-term remedies to defective Church music as outlined by these authors and in the papal documents they cited were rarely followed.

Notably, in 1963, the Vatican II Constitution on the Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, did require the formation in music that Hume and Terry advised:

Great importance is to be attached to the teaching and practice of music in seminaries, in the novitiates and houses of studies of religious of both sexes, and also in other Catholic institutions and schools. …

Composers and singers, especially boys, must also be given a genuine musical training. (§115)

But the Council’s mandate for “genuine musical training” has been mostly honored in the breach. How many Catholic schools give serious attention to teaching sacred music? How many seminarians are instructed in sacred music? How many parishes include sacred music in the topics for adult education?

Still we wait. And hope.


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Helen Hull Hitchcock Susan F. Benofy