Monday, December 18, 2006

Ramblings on Sacred Music

Of course I understand the power music can have on someone. Being a musician I have participated in concerts and recitals which had the very purpose of touching the lives of the audience. But so often in the place where music is suppose to be present at the uniting heaven and earth we are subjected to banal little ditties and even some places where a band plays contemporary music while the words are put up on overhead projector.

If you read this blog regularly you might remember a recent post about a trip to a parish in which I called ahead to find out if it was going to be a high or low mass for Sunday morning. Well, it ended up being a low mass. I took a friend who I don't think appreciated the silent style. To boot, some parent in the back allowed his kid to play with the holy water font (metal) and bang it on the ground during mass. I did feel sort of disappointed though because the music was so painfully missed at a Sunday mass.

Where have all the musicians gone? For this generation church musicians of any denomination have been really hard to find. I recently got a call from a Methodist church in the area asking me to play Sunday mornings 45 minutes away. The pastor told me how hard it is to find anyone who can play piano for church these days. I know for a fact that in other churches I personally have replaced tape recorders and disc-drive organs for funerals and Sunday services.

I guess its just not cool anymore to learn how to sing or play piano? That may be part of it but its not the whole reason. The parents of kids who don't want their kids wasting time on something that won't bring in the money later in life. Playing piano probably won't pay you a good wage plus health benefits. But the benefits they receive will be the ability to give back to their communities over and over again and especially minister to people in a very important and albeit necessary way.

Here's an excellent example from personal experience. This past Sunday, "Gaudete Sunday" as it is called, during communion (which I cannot yet receive) I stayed kneeling as always. The choir descends from the loft and proceeds to the communion rail. However one or two always stay up there to sing chants until the rest come back and join in. Well, the one man (solo) began singing a chant mode of Alma Redemptoris Mater that nearly moved yours truly to tears. Just one man, one human being, had such an effect on my experience there at mass. Here I am in a little church in Scranton kneeling before Christ with one person singing above me and it feels like heaven. That chant was so beautiful that I doubt with all honesty that I was the only one moved by it. I can best describe it as a supernatural joy. Not the holy roller praise the lord and shout type, but that ultimately indescribable feeling of the presence of holiness. Its like getting butterflies in your stomach in a good way, if that makes sense.

And I believe this is the power of music which we need to promote for every congregation. There is no reason why a Latin Mass community should be ,even with the greatest and most admirable piety, ultimately relegated to celebrate a silent low mass on a Sunday. Chant is easy and it can be taught to anyone. I am not blaming anyone for anything, many TLM communities have it hard enough. I believe the musicians of the world need to help out and teach the congregations, and not just TLM ones, how to use music for the uplift of mankind.

This is the best use of our craft: to help the people of God better celebrate his divine mysteries. As the verse says "To whom much is given, much is expected." What more noble cause can music be used for?

Although it may not even be completely the musicians fault. When I was deciding my college major I was given the following advice by my band director, who meant well: "either go into music education or don't major in music at all." Performance was out of the question because there was no money in it and you had to be the absolute best or you had no shot at all. Performance degrees are oft thought of as a waste of money, and most of those who get them end up teaching at colleges anyway. Not once was I ever advised to major in sacred music, which is a field so desperately in need of musicians. And to be honest, thats exactly the way the musician culture is these days.

If you don't already realize it, here's the No Spin truth... For most musicians, Sacred Music, or rather "playing in church", is something high schoolers do before going to college. At best its a side job while teaching high school band or chorus later on. Sure there are some sacred music programs out there but certainly not enough.

Someday I would love to form a lay apostolate to spread the love and use of easy to learn and decent music for services. Many parishes and congregations simply use bad music because they can't afford professional musicians to come in for what amounts to low pay. I myself have turned down jobs because of that. Its unfortunate but it happens. Regardless, this apostolate would provide materials for teaching good traditional sacred music to non-professional musicians who could try their level best. Those parishes who are afraid of chant would be so no more. In fact I bet if you asked a congregation to try a chant mode they would probably find it enjoyable. The 4 part hymn could make its comeback. Goodbye drums and tambourine. Hello human voice.

Who knows, maybe someday I'll work on it. I know there are various ones out there with similar goals but I don't know if any of them have the same slant. Ok, enough rambling from me.


Moonshadow said...

"There is no reason why a Latin Mass community should be ,even with the greatest and most admirable piety, ultimately relegated to celebrate a silent low mass on a Sunday."

No, no, you're comin' at it all wrong.

Have you ever been on a silent retreat, either weekend or the 40-day kind?

Silence is a discipline and a gift, to ourselves and to others, developing with practice over time.

Don't put your own idea of aesthetics ahead of the Church's. The low mass meets a need ... and that need is not to give the musicians a Sunday off!

Don't try to turn the silence of the low mass into a "case for chant".

Matt said...

Hey Moonshadow,

Unfortunately no, I've never been on a silent retreat...although I would probably love it. I appreciate your comments about the low mass. During the summer the parish I'm at does all silent low masses so I've been to quite a few.

Unfortunately though, I still disagree. Perhaps its because I don't consider music merely an aesthetic. It is a tool that has been used for literally thousands of years to help mankind unite itself with heaven in one way or another. The same is with incense and language. On a Sunday morning, especially during this time of year, and especially if that is the only TLM mass available, I believe having music better serves the needs of people in the pews.

That is not to say though that you don't have a point. The silent mass can be great for meditation and prayers. Plus, if the music is, for lack of a better term "wrong" then it can be disruptive.

Case in point, at the end of most masses everyone kneels down at the end to make their thanksgivings, right? Well at my church it seems that the organ is too often blaring a loud piece when I'm just trying to get the words straight in my head for the St. Michael prayer!

So yes I do think you have a good point. Keep in mind too that I'm growing as a Catholic still and this blog reflects that. I appreciate your comments to help me through it. :-)

Travis said...

I can see where you are coming from with the emotion that comes from the music.

You must remember that music made to Glorify God is a good thing, but that the "movement to tears" is not the center of the mass.

See my post
on what Benedict speaks of on the liturgy.

Please don't think I am chastising you, for I too do enjoy to have music to accentuate the mass, but we both must keep focus that, this is not what the mass about.

It was probably no less than a year ago, that I would have been saying the same things that you are.

Instead of looking at low mass as a negative, find the positives in it. This gives you time to focus on Jesus in the Eucharist even more instead of trying to stay in sync with the choir.

If Mass where about the emotions, music and entertainment, we'd probably all be Protestants.

Matt said...

Its not that I view the low mass as a negative in itself. I also understand that emotional goodies are not the point of the mass, and yeah if it were then we'd all be protestants. That was a nice comment. :-)

But with all this how come our Eastern brothers require music in their liturgies?

I have had good experiences with low masses too, so I don't want to come across as disliking them because their are silent.

Here's where I'm coming from:

I prefer masses with (good) music, and yes I feel its unfortunate when the ONLY options are going to "folk music" mass or a silent low TLM.

My parish has a dialogue mass at 8 and then Solemn High mass at 10. I've been to both, and during the summer there is a dialogue at 8 and then silent at 10 to give the choir time off.

"The whole truth is generally the ally of virtue; a half-truth is always the ally of some vice." - G.K. Chesterton