National Catholic Register


On Vatican II and the Music of the People


August 12-18, 2007 Issue | Posted 8/7/07 at 3:08 PM


In the documents of the Second Vatican Council is a mandate for an encouragement of the popular in music — the “music of the people” at Mass.

This is an aspect of Vatican II that lovers of fine music hope will not always be understood as it has been by many parishes — for several reasons.

For one, it could not be foreseen at the time of the council how “music of the people” outside the church would evolve — that is, American pop music was just then beginning a conquest of the entire world. By the 1980s, it would inundate it, in all forms of media.

Today in America, up to 90 million people have muzak forced upon them daily — and it ranges from trivial pop music to the most debased forms of rap music. Musical ignorance is on the rise among the populace, and musical taste is in decline.

Where once musical amateurs used to play the piano and sing, some amateurs today beat on tribal drums. Under these circumstances, would the framers of the Vatican II documents want this kind of “music of the people” to be brought into church?

I use the word debased mostly from a musical standpoint and not a moral one, although the moral is also relevant. Popular music is debased from a musical point of view. It is weak and unaccomplished when compared to finer music. Moreover, there are many forms of folk music in the world that are superior musically to pop and rock music.

In spite of this fact, every country in the world today has come under the dominance of rock and pop music and is arranging its ancestral folk music to the rock beat.

Today it is possible to hear a mild rock beat (such as might have been found in the Everly Brothers, for example) in almost every kind of music in the world — even in new church songs. Folk guitar players, too often, don’t know what to do but strum their guitars in mild rock rhythm.

Many new songs have the typical three- and four-chord harmonies of pop songs and melodies that do not reach the level of the mediocre when compared to disciplined music, the great hymns, Gregorian chant or classical melody.

From a technical-musical point of view, most pop music is unaccomplished as music. However, there can be no question that this is now “the music of the people.”

The participants of Vatican II could not know that “the people’s music” would soon mirror, all over the world, the juggernaut of American popular music — one of the weakest folk music forms in music history, and yet a superpower in music.

It is unlikely that a classical composer can also be an expert on the history, politics or theology of Vatican II — and I am not. But as a practicing musician and Catholic, music lovers can observe the resulting musical system and its musical fruits. There is a lack of thought, organization and resourcefulness in Catholic church music and its publication.

One fact of my own experience serves as a telling sign of the weakness of the volunteer system in church music. As a published composer of symphonies, ballets and operas (and I am a pianist, violinist, and guitarist) — I have never once been spontaneously asked for advice by anyone — priests and lay musicians alike — in the whole of my life as a Catholic in America. I am invariably asked, quite casually, to sing in choirs and play at Mass — and to work under a volunteer little qualified for his or her position.

It is remarkable that no one has ever asked me to do something — not even in a single question — worthy of my expertise in music. I do not raise this point because of sour grapes — I am content in my work as a classical composer; I raise it as a first-hand example of the lack of interest in musical improvement in the volunteer system.

I am not an authority on Vatican II, but I do know — with the professional musician’s authority — that today music in the Church is mostly disordered. As a student in music school and conservatory, I found that the music of the current Catholic Church was considered laughable by my professors and fellow music students. And still today, most serious musicians consider it so.

One may well suspect that today’s lack of planning reflects a lack of foresight, planning and consultation of qualified musicians present (or omitted) in our parishes. One wonders what, if musical scholars and professional musicians were consulted, might result from the encouragement of the “music of the people” at Mass.

If they were consulted, competent classical musicians would have given caution on many subjects. For example, they would have warned that Gregorian chant and old hymns are not ever likely to be translated well into another language. Chants like the Pater Noster would never be as beautiful when translated. Only with the utmost in expert care can a translation be successfully done — and even then the result will always be inferior to the original.

Webster Young is a

classical music composer.