From the July/August, 2002 issue of Touchstone

Hitting the Wrong Note by Thomas Day

Hitting the Wrong Note

Thomas Day on Church Music

The telephone voice message, from a stranger, sounds desperate: “I must speak with you. Please call me as soon as possible. I need your help.” I return the call and listen to a long tale of anguish and emotional suffering that comes close to physical pain. The topic of the lament is liturgical music in a particular Roman Catholic parish.

About thirty years ago I began to scribble commentaries on the less-than-perfect state of music in Catholic parishes. Ever since then I have been receiving these distress calls with their requests for some kind of advice and consolation. Now these messages are also arriving by e-mail. The details of the complaint will vary. Musicians might give precise descriptions of things that are wrong, such as the parish’s musical repertory or organ pipes that do not function. Others are not as clear about what irks them and refer only to “the loss of the sacred” or “those people,” who are denounced as liberal or conservative or ignorant.

My response usually begins thus: “I have heard this same story before.” In fact, I have heard the same troubled complaint dozens of times. The details may differ, yet the complaints always seem to come down to one source of pain: the feeling of exile. My correspondents sense that they are being driven out of their spiritual home—exiled—by music. What the parish calls liturgical music seems to be part of a cultural cleansing program for the expulsion of undesirables: them. This is a troubling development, but in the history of Christianity it is, once again, a story that has been heard before.

A Display & A Signal

Christians, probably going back to the apostles, have always sensed that music during worship is not just pretty sounds. It is also a way of displaying orthodoxy, confidence, solidarity, and even a kind of territorial “ownership.” For example, the Russian Orthodox Church and Baptist Church have developed different creeds and theologies; at the same time, they have also developed different music to proclaim their uniqueness. The music of one of these churches might cause bewilderment or even anger if used for worship in the other. Unfortunately, Christians are also capable of interpreting the different varieties of church music as ways of signaling which socio-economic or ethnic group is in charge or which group does not belong.

I sometimes ask my troubled correspondents to ponder for a moment the music of youth culture. For generations, maybe centuries, youth culture has used certain music as an internal coded language that ratifies the values of that culture and establishes a territory where the uncomprehending outsiders do not belong. Then I ask my correspondents to ponder the shops and malls that play classical or old popular music in order to drive away loitering youths and drug dealers. After such pondering my distressed telephone correspondents begin to realize that they are not hallucinating; music can, indeed, be a method of expulsion.

Roman Catholicism, as James Joyce put it, might be described as, “Here comes everybody.” The Church has tried to make clear that worship is for everybody: rich, poor, and every ethnic group. In the past and in Western culture, the Church’s system for bringing in everybody was the Latin language and liturgical music that was not identified as the property of one particular ethnic group. It is true that Latin-rite congregations east of the Rhine had a long folk tradition of singing vernacular songs while the priest quietly celebrated what was called the Low Mass. But the Church of “Here comes everybody” could always claim that there was also a repertory of Latin liturgical music that belonged to this everybody.

That arrangement (praising God in a universal song but sometimes in a local vernacular song) began to break down centuries ago. Today, it is close to extinction in many parts of the world. My correspondents suffer because they are subjected to a liturgical music that seems to be militantly local, with a message that sounds like this: “Here comes us, we are the ascendant group—and if you are not us, go away.”

Who is this us? According to my correspondents, us can be found among the nicest people—from the fiercely conservative to the New Age Catholics who have drifted into a kind of Christian pantheism. When they assemble at prayer, they all have one thing in common: individuals who assume the role of strong leaders. These leaders will be members of the clergy or musicians who reassure, motivate, inspire, gather, and essentially control the assembled faithful (usually by means of excessive amplification of their voices).

A strong leader priest may be a very pleasant person who seems to be conducting the congregation on a tour of a stately mansion. Occasionally, he may be much more intrusive. (A correspondent told me about the priest who began a Liturgy by telling everyone to turn to the individuals around them and ask each one: “What is your favorite dessert?” And that was only the beginning.)

A strong leader musician might be classified as one of those sins that cry to heaven for vengeance. My correspondents tell me stories about these super-amplified soloists who make many souls in the congregation want to run for the exits.

My own recent story is about a middle-aged pop-style minister of music who crooned, at a Mass on Christmas day, one familiar carol after another into a microphone, while his back-up group moaned vowel sounds in harmony. A congregation of about 300, overpowered by this display of his heartfelt faith witness, remained absolutely silent during every song. (“Silent Night” was given new meaning.) I could not quite understand what the song dispenser wanted, but it was clear that, in his opinion, he represented strong leadership at its finest, and if you had a problem with that, you could go elsewhere.

Odd Complications

Some readers will interrupt at this point and admonish: We must return to Gregorian chant . . . We must restore the sacred . . . good taste. Others will insist that we must scrap everything and replace it with the contemporary music of X or Y or a hot new group.

It is not so simple. There are many odd complications that make it difficult to generalize about what encourages exile and what does not. For example, I have heard about surly adolescents who frown on all music except songs produced by their favorite group (perhaps named something like the Chain Saw Murder Gang) but who eagerly learnt to sing Gregorian chant or a Renaissance composition. Some of my musically sophisticated correspondents report feeling very much at home at a Liturgy with plain unaccompanied singing that had absolutely no artistic aspirations. Some Catholics who cannot understand a word of Spanish feel welcomed by liturgical music that has a Latino influence.

I may put this recorded message on my voice mail, just for callers who despair about the liturgical music they must endure: “The root cause of your complaint is probably not music but someone who believes that worship is a meeting of the like-minded who have come together to be molded by a strong leader. Perhaps the only solution (long range) is a rediscovery of worship that at least attempts—in our imperfect human way—to be universal, catholic, and for all kinds of people who have come together in joy.

“Wherever that is in place, those strong leaders, restrained by humility, will let the faithful alone; the liturgical music—whatever form it takes—will be organic, make sense, and cause minimum discontent. This is a recording. Thank you.”  

Thomas Day is chairman of the music department at Salve Regina University and the author of several books, including Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and Triumph of Bad Taste (Crossroad). “Hitting the Wrong Note” is reprinted with permission from The Tablet (The Tablet, 1 King Street Cloisters, Clifton Walk, London W6 OQZ Great Britain).

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