One of the present conundrums of the secular music world is its inability to reject once and for all what is inferior in music and elevate what is superior.
It has been pointed out by writers like R.H. Bottum in The Christian Science Monitor that this is due to the existence of recording technology: New music of any kind goes into an ever-growing pool of recordings in which bad music is never really discarded in favor of music that supersedes it.
In this environment, there is no way for a better style to evolve — there is instead a pool of recorded musical styles that can be shelved and unshelved at will.
One result of this process is that good music can be devalued, being buried in an unsifted heap of recorded music.
Let us hope that the best music of the Catholic Church (including its great treasury of music) does not fall prey to this loss of memory.
The danger for Church music comes not so much from a pool of recordings — as is the case in the secular music world — but from an ever-growing pool of new compositions for Mass that are published by reason of possible popularity and not by expert evaluation for musical quality.
To contradict this loss of memory, it should be valuable to recall two high points in new Catholic music of the last few decades. The first is the music of Spiritan Father Lucien Deiss (1921-2007). His was the Gospel acclamation, “Keep in mind ...”
Deiss wrote many good pieces, and there was a volume of them published by World Library Publications. There is therefore enough of his music to use it often at Mass and still have variety.
This is music that should not be forgotten, since it is musically superior to much music written only a few years later. Deiss’ music has fallen into disuse and inferior pieces are now in favor.
In my view, his pieces should become standard, for the time being — at least until the giant heap of newly written Catholic music can be sifted.
In addition, there is a particular piece of music important to revive: the hymn “Gift of Finest Wheat,” which was written by Robert Kreutz for the International Eucharistic Congress in 1976 in Philadelphia. (First lines: “You satisfy the hungry heart — with gift of finest wheat.”)
This is one of the better new Catholic hymns written in recent decades. It has a good melody and sets excellent words. It ought to be used as often as possible, especially given the present musical environment.
One might worry that any new piece of music becoming standardized for use at Mass might bore parishioners — and yet there is evidence to the contrary. There are certain new pieces used at Mass that have become absolutely standard through a process of common usage.
There was a “Gloria” that originated in New York that had the rhythm of a victory march. The reader may recall it. It made this writer think of Christians marching down a city street in a Hollywood scene.
In any serious composition class at a university or conservatory, it would have been criticized for errors in text setting and compositional technique. Yet it has gained a standard position in many churches of America.
Almost by luck, this poor piece of music gained a nearly indestructible position.
A congregation’s will to memorize goes only so far. Once even a poor piece like this is learned, there is inertia to learn more repertoire. The piece has become standard, but not through any process of musical evaluation — only through being introduced and becoming known to parishioners.
Thus it is that some pieces are used constantly regardless of quality — in some cases every Sunday — and no other word than standard applies.
If certain poor pieces have become standard by usage and are used over and over again, then better music which was once popular, like that of Lucien Deiss, could be made standard, replacing the poorer music.
The music of Lucien Deiss and the hymn “Gift of Finest Wheat” have faded from view, lost in a sea of uncritiqued newer music.
Let us hope that the Catholic music world does not develop the inability to sift for the good and winnow out the bad in new music.
That, for the present, is the problem of the secular music world.
Webster Young is a
classical music composer.