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...