National Catholic Register


The Music Critic and Reform

BY Webster Young

July 22 - August 4, 2007 Issue | Posted 7/17/07 at 10:00 AM


Should a journalist writing on the current practice of Catholic music include practical suggestions for remedy and reform with his criticism?

The task of a critic is aesthetic, literary and sometimes scholarly in nature. His goal is to uphold high standards.

By contrast, the task of the reformer is political or ecclesiastical (and possibly theological where the Church is concerned). Yet practical experience — with music and its performance — must inform both the critic and the reformer.

To give an example of how a critic might get into deep water, one may show that it is better to have no music at Mass than bad music and that the flourishing undergrowth of volunteer music in the Church needs a pruning.

However, the practical question of how to implement this “pruning” leads quickly upward in Church administration, probably to the bishops. The critic would not be in over his head in the observation that this pruning needs to take place.

But should he step into the political realm and suggest that the U.S. Catholic bishops order this pruning?

If the critic suggests practical remedies — based upon practical experience — a danger still remains that he may be stepping into areas upon which he is less qualified to speak — political matters, ecclesiastical regulation and moral theology.

I have for my writing the following policy: If the critic (me) fears that his criticism in a given area is falling on deaf ears because of some practical situation, then he may suggest practical remedies in order to open the minds of his readers to the idea that solutions are possible — and thus open the minds of those same readers to the higher standards he is defending.

Where people have deaf ears to criticism because they think no remedy exists, I think it may be allowable to suggest remedies so that good criticism may be more easily taken to heart. The critic is not insisting that his are the only remedies and that he alone knows the way to reform; he is saying, “Don’t close your mind to improvement; reform is practical and possible. Here is an example of what can be done.”

There may be any number of musical issues where deaf ears to criticism exist because of a status quo. I will here name one that can be used to dismiss musical criticism: money restraints — the low budget (or no budget) for music that exists in American Catholic parishes everywhere (except in a precious few cathedrals where lack of money is not an excuse).

Criticism may be dismissed with, “What can you do when there is no money available for music?” Here are a few answers that I offer in order to encourage those worried about budgets.

Asking for better folk music at Mass requires no money, only better musical supervision. The same is true of the recognition that no music at Mass is better than bad music at Mass — it does not require money, only competent supervision.

To ask for better Hispanic music at Spanish-language Mass also would require only better supervision. To ask an existing choir to do better music and to reach into the literature of traditional Catholic music, again, is not budgetary — unless more rehearsal is required.

To ask that existing music publishers exercise higher standards in future publications is also not necessarily a budget question in publication.

In the above cases, what is needed is a more competent supervision. But, you ask, could not this competent musical supervision cost money? Again, not necessarily. Here are some ideas for competent supervision — short term and long term.

First of all, good Catholic music criticism could serve as free-of-charge supervision to any fairly competent musician already serving in a parish. Someone need only ask the musician to follow it. It might also serve as a guide to any parish council member with knowledge of music.

Other ideas: A non-profit Catholic music society might be quickly formed in a given region to provide a more competent guidance to more than one parish. Such a society might provide to many parishes — at low or no cost — the guidance needed to implement the no-cost improvements mentioned above.

Music publishers already seek out and hire editors whose job it is to make decisions on music. In their case, they need only to take heed to music criticism and higher standards.

I have just set forth a few practical remedies to the “low-budget, no-budget” problem. There are others, but today I content myself with the above.

My message in mentioning them is: Take heart — improvement is possible, even without money. Therefore, no one need fear to listen to music criticism and take to heart higher standards.

Webster Young is a

classical music composer.