National Catholic Register


What Happened to the Music at Mass?


June 25-July 1, 2006 Issue | Posted 6/26/06 at 10:00 AM


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 elevation.

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 II.

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.

Webster Young

is a classical composer.