Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sorry, Sister, you're a bit late for the party....

I came across a link from Fr. Zed's place that he touted as a must read. So I poured through Rebuilding Catholic Culture: Church Music and the Fad of ‘Folk’ Style by Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J.

I was immediately struck, stunned even, at how melodramatic her article began and that in light of the fact that she seemed to be in a time warp, somewhat like the Dude in the film "The Big Lebowski" who "just dropped by to see what condition my condition was in." I think many musicians had their Chicken Little revelation moment quite some years ago, and yet another trad screed wasn't really going add anything new to the conversation. Well, anyways I've done what I do, parced and fisked it, and you can choose to take it or leave it. Some excerpts.

I will never forget that moment! Flinging off his eyeglasses, he glared at me, “Sister, what have you done to our music!” I froze. It was my first year at NYU as a graduate student of musicology, and I was enrolled in Professor Gustave Reese’s course, Medieval and Renaissance Music. He was the world’s leading authority on these two musical periods. An American Jew, a Renaissance Man, he loved the sacred music of the pre-conciliar Church. In a sense, he was its custodian.

No, in no sense was Professor Gustave a custodian of the pre-conciliar musical traditions and treasury of the Church. As we will see, the tautology of a “golden age” or a quantifiable “treasury” of sacred music as “kept intact” before the Second Vatican Council will be reinforced by the obvious dissonance between enjoyers of the aesthetic properties of those traditions, and the enjoiners or practicioners of that tradition in an era that only existed in the theoretical realm by the time the council convened. In fact, that two musicologists would cite St. Pius X’s motu proprio, Tra le sollectiduni, as evidence of musical integration in favor of the pre-conciliar art forms is nonsense.

On the day of John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963, Beethoven’s second movement of the “Eroica” Symphony accompanied the cortege on its way to Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral. Beethoven had dedicated the symphony “to the memory of a fallen hero.”

And this, again, is a detrimental, faulty example that somehow links the majesty of the symphonic art form to the mystical power of elevating the human spirit towards the ethereal. Well the Beethoven might have done that somber day, but my memory more recalls the Mozart Requiem in Boston that served as a more “authentic” prayer for the repose of the soul of a dead president.

According to Sing to the Lord, the musical judgment of sacred music requires musical competence, (and) only artistically sound music will be effective and endure over time. To admit to the Liturgy the cheap, trite, or the musical cliché often found in secular popular songs is to cheapen the Liturgy, to expose it to ridicule, and to invite failure.

Here is another misunderstanding that is constructed as a smart missle aimed at late 20th century sacropop, that unfortunately could be retroactively applied to art forms that sister and the professor would endorse as fundamental and sound. I’ll even overlook the presumption that “musical competence” to her is confined to composition (rather than including performance!) That said, were the collected melodies of R.V.Williams, Gustav Holst, C. V. Stanford (in the U.K. only) among all the romantic era symphonic collectors, not legitimizing what theretofore was relegated to the public houses and bawdy crowd? Was “KINGSFOLD” or “HYFRYDOL” some noble and ancient tunes that lofted up proud and majestic prose. Or might such hymn texts of the equally great writers Wesley, Vaughn, Hopkins et al have been successfully wedded to the now formalized “cheap musical clichés” of which some serve as even National Anthems for major countries of the world? Yes, failure is quite possible and is to be excoriated, such as the recent, unfortunate redux of misappropriating so-called Celtic tunes such as LONDONDERRY and SKYE BOAT SONG in order to impose a faux impressionism of mysticism upon a newly minted and sellable product..

Below is a sampling of songs from the OCP:1) Trite music to accompany texts with little or no theological import: #332, Let Us Break Bread Together; #449, How Can I Keep from Singing; #376, Here I Am, Lord; #616, They’ll Know We Are Christians.2) Romanticized, saccharine melodies: #476, You Are Mine; #331, Taste and See; #359, I Receive the Living God; #438, Be Not Afraid; #442, On Eagle’s Wings; #522, Earthen Vessels.3) Songs with jerky, heavy, frenzied rhythms, or dance rhythms found in popular culture: #302, Gather Us In; #374, City of God; #447, Though the Mountains May Fall; #452, Blest Be the Lord; #495, Let There Be Peace on Earth, the perfect song for Bette Midler; #548, Sing to the Mountains, Sing to the Sea; #578, Sing a New Song Unto the Lord; #548 and #578 are cast in the style of a brindisi, a drinking song similar to that sung in Verdi’s La Traviata.

Sister is to be commended for actually disclosing clearly titled examples of songs that contribute to the perceived malaise, most critics actually just lump all the stuff as if into a compacter bin and press “crush.” However, this should be the one area where her expertise as a musicologist should wipe any patina off the fresh faces of any of these malefactor songs, and she actually makes a few blunders (IMO, of course) with her one liner disses. The lack of theological import in “Let us break bread together” is no small matter, she should have questioned its inclusion to great lengths. And if were one inclined to easily find the remarks made by the cardinal archbishop of New York at Fordham University this last week, I’m sure she’d feel a bit of Irish rebuke for her crankiness over “How can I keep from singing.” (Not to mention from hymnologist Alice Parker, DMA.) “I received the living God” is hardly a saccharine hymn, its roots are in the French "utilitarian/peoples'" tradition of Deiss, Berthier and Gouzes, not at all to be included in the usual suspects she otherwise mentions in that category. The use of “jerky…frenzied rhythms….” as disqualifiers for the last lot is almost comical to me; bringing up images of old black and white Merrie Melodies portraying cartoon Sambas in celluloid jungle settings, really? And the sea chantey discourse was pretty much hammered over by Tom Day two decades ago. Her list of popular rhythms is woefully out of date. Maybe she should google Fr. Stan Fortuna. But whatever, do not take her to a GaGa or Nicki Minage, or JayZee/Kanye West concert if she wants to know what’s truly popular in rhythms this era.

The ‘folk’ style used in the liturgy is written for guitar or non-organ accompaniment, and free style, off-the cuff improvisation is to be expected. The guitar needs to be defended. It is a serious instrument, not to be trivialized. Belonging to the lute family, the guitar is first and foremost a solitary, gentle, soft-spoken plucked instrument with limited sonority.

This will be the last of my fisking the commentary sister advances. If sister had really done her homework, around 1976-78, at the advent of the St. Louis Jesuits, songwriters such as John Foley S.J. (it would be inaccurate to deem them composers at that point of their careers, none were studied in the art and rubrics) very clearly articulated in their book collections the very opposite instructions or implications. They made it clear that their melodies were to be accompanied by guitarists who would adhere to an emerging pedagogy similar to both basso continuo or figured bass of the baroque tradition, and the lead sheet chordal nomenclature used in jazz. Now, that is not to say there isn’t a ring of truth to what sister says in that a vast majority of guitar “strummers” who had command of a grand total of about six chords in their lifetime chose to ignore that new pedagogy of complex chords, assigned bass note movement that was meant to “go somewhere” or what we call “voice leading.” But that eventually became a standard to which successive generations of contemporary composers adopted and specified. But to wholesale declare that no one for decades exacted a method beyond struma diddy strum strum and “They’ll know we are Christians” is an extremely impoverished or lazy account. And she does get it quite right in her last statement. The guitar can be used very seriously in this era, as its forebears were used in Venice during Monteverdi’s time. To sum up, despite the endorsement of this article, I would admonish the readers to reach far beyond these summations to those of a more eminent musicologist and, and, and, practicioner, Professor William Mahrt of Stanford University, present president of the Church Music Association of America. His recently debuted book, “THE MUSICAL SHAPE OF THE LITURGY” is truly, what I believe, critics of the perceived decay of our musical treasury should use a criteria for evaluation. And for some measure of balance, but much weightier tome, I’d recommend Fr. Anthony Ruff’s “SACRED MUSIC AND THE LITURGICAL REFORM” which argues from more varied perspectives the paths we can choose to take to improve our dire straights.


Anonymous said...

I believe that I received the Living God was composed by Dom Clement Jacob, and rather than having "roots in Americana traditions," is French.

Mr. C said...

Thank you, Anon. I didn't do my homework and I've reattributed its genetic heritage above in the article.