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BY WEBSTER A. YOUNG
When the Second
Vatican Council called for the change of the liturgy from Latin into the
languages of the various nations — and encouraged the “music of the people” to
enter into liturgies — the event was, in effect, an order for one of the
greatest changes in church music and all music history.
Catholics of all nations would
have to begin translating hymns and chants into their own languages. New pieces
serving as hymns would be written by folk musicians of all languages and
musical backgrounds. Older folk music would be brought into church and secular
folk music would be given new words and used at Mass. It was a sea change, opening the
floodgates on what kinds of music would be used at Mass.
If there was a professional
association of Catholic musicians available for guidance on this shift in the
practices of music in the Church, I as an American never heard of it. Who would be relied upon for guidance and advice during
this crucial turning point in sacred music history?
The question of guidance and its
history — or lack of one — during a period of momentous change, must be set
aside for the moment, in deference to an examination of our present situation.
Thousands of new pieces of music — written by hundreds of musicians relatively
new to the composition of music — are currently published and in use at Mass
and other liturgical occasions.
New hymns, new pieces for the
ordinary of the Mass, pieces for the proper of the Mass, new translations and harmonizations of old chants, and new arrangements of old
hymns and other pieces are now in use constantly.
This efflorescence of music has
occurred without assessment from qualified critics. It has been produced on a
mostly volunteer basis and without the true professional and educational
involvement of the serious music world — that is, without any real relationship
to the university or conservatory.
I will leave for future writings
the detailed critical assessment of what has been produced. When I was a
student in music school and conservatory — both at undergraduate and graduate
levels — present-day Catholic music was regarded by professors and students
alike to be inferior. This was much to my chagrin as a Catholic convert during
my student years.
Now, many years later, as a
professional composer and opera company director, I have come to understand the
valuable function and contribution that healthy music criticism makes to
musical culture. Criticism is one of the disciplines that allow a culture to
understand and evaluate its products. It is, after all, only by critical
discussion that a culture is able to give a proper place to art worthy of
But in the present-day Church there
is no music criticism; there has been an unexamined and uncritiqued
rise of a huge number of new musical pieces. No Catholic newspaper carries
regular music criticism, while every major secular newspaper in America carries
it. This critical vacuum in the Church exists in an era — one of great change
in Catholic music — when criticism is most needed for the health of musical
culture in the Catholic Church.
Any new journalistic music
criticism to appear in Catholic newspapers ought to have the characteristics of
all good arts criticism if it is to be a help to Catholic music after Vatican
But what are the attributes of
good criticism in the arts?
That question is best answered, in
my opinion, by classic essays touching on this subject by Matthew Arnold —
essays such as On Literary Criticism,
Culture and Anarchy, etc. To put his thought in a nutshell, Arnold says that the
fundamental task of the critic is to uphold and encourage the highest standards
in the field to which his criticism applies. This encouragement has a good
purpose — to make sure that high standards are not lost, that great culture
goes on, that the highest standards will continue to be implemented as much
today as in the past.
The function of criticism is thus
both the preservation and the continual renewal of high standards. In that
sense its mission is always positive — even if it has to tear down some
structures in order to build better.
If the critic is upholding or
encouraging high standards, then it is likely he will have much reference to
great art of the past — to see if the modern era compares with the achievements
of our forebears. Because of this continual, if unspoken, reference to the
glories of the past, the critic often has not much innovative to say. Still,
his work is au courant because it is
always topical; it is mostly stimulated by current events in music.
Though the critic may not be
saying anything entirely new in theory, what he says may be new in that it is a
new perception of things current. The
critic has much to perceive. His worthy insight must serve as a reminder and
guide to others. Since he has no new theory to create, it often matters a great
deal how he says what he says.
The great music critics, like
George Bernard Shaw, have an inimitable literary style. For Catholic Church
music today, however, the critic might dispense with high literary style and
adopt a somewhat more sober, less witty tone than G.B. Shaw or Virgil Thompson.
There is much to be done in the
reform of Catholic music today, and a sober criticism appearing in Catholic
publications, well-written by qualified people, could do a great deal to help.
This new criticism of Church music
would have a grand mission in our time: to uphold high standards, instruct
where necessary and to remind the Church of its own glorious past in music.
is a classical composer.