Thursday, July 07, 2016


They Paved Paradise, but Look at This Beautiful Parking Lot!
This is the second part of an examination (fisking, actually) of an article authored by Michael Clayton in the July 5 2016 edition of "The New Liturgical Movement" about sacred music composition.
Benedict XVI’s book, A New Song for the Lord; Faith and Christ and Liturgy Today,
(tells) us that it is the mark of true creativity that an artist or composer can “break out of the esoteric circle” – i.e., the circle of their friends at dinner parties – and connect with “the many.”

Let’s just cut to the chase: the golden era of polyphony rests upon the bedrock of one of the most esoteric disciplines within music, namely species counterpoint. And its elegance depends to this day upon the idiomatic/idiosyncratic milieu under which it behaves. The reception great polyphony receives is more due to those vagaries than the theories, and that is precisely why the realization of the conciliar edicts for composers to inextricably ties their works to the attributes of chant and polyphony will seldom surpass the artistic merit of their forebears. For example, composer Kevin Allen (whom the author fails to cite) composes polyphony idiomatically with the inclusion of modern cluster harmonies (ala Lauridsen, Part, Whitacre and others) that cannot strictly observe species counterpoint. That is a whole new layer of….ESOTERICISM. Is it possible, perish the thought, that beloved Pope Ratzinger had a sort of Holy Grail notion of there being a music of the spheres that would appeal and “connect with the ‘many’?” Or worse, was he ratifying the very Germanic notion of Gebrauchsmusick, purposed if less aesthetically fashioned “music from need?” If the former, that’s to be heard in heaven I suppose. The latter found in many of the works of post-conciliar composers of all stripes.

This grave responsibility is one that thus far, it seems to me, the vast majority of Christian artists in almost every creative discipline have not been able to take on. That is not to say, however, that the task facing creative artists today is easy. Indeed, it may be so hard than it needs an inspired genius in any particular field to show us the way before it can happen.

This strikes me as a disingenuous comparison between patronage based art/sacred music composition of the 17-19th centuries and the disparate modern cultures of music generation. Somewhere along the line from Palestrina-Bach-Monteverdi-Haydn-Mozart-Bruckner-Faure (just a randomly chosen list) the borders of art and sacred expanded greatly, while the popular lines were being blurred in Salzburg and Vienna. The window of hope for an “inspired genius” to “show us the way” closed a long time ago. And another elephant in the room is the stark reality that the global village of the current century doesn’t define itself by, ahem, the colonial notion that Western aesthetics make the world turn ‘round. Yes, everyone knows they can sing Mozart in Ghana, Korea and moon even. That doesn’t mean everyone will appreciate an all-Mozart diet universally. Given that we’ve been broadcasting sound waves into space for over a century, it’s just as likely that alien civilizations prefer John Williams to Johann S. Bach.

The problem is that this sophistication is one that fragments rather than unifies. People today know what they like and dislike, and they are sensitive to even subtle changes in style, and will react strongly to them.

Can we say: “The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du Printemps)” Sensitive to change? Heck, they literally tore the place down. But now there’s likely more percussion heard in Life Teen Bands than in Stravinski’s work and no one blanches at the ballet anymore, while they rightly abhor the caged (as in John) drummer-kid up in the choir loft. Sophistication is inherently discriminatory. Elegance and beauty, not so much. But we can’t agree on whether Aquinas defended personal taste as a criteria for appreciating beauty. Is a coherent and flowing Celtic ballad as beautiful as Bach’s Air (for the G String)? Only if re-packaged by Vaughn Williams, Holst or Stanford maybe, according to musicologists and aesthetes. Every tongue that’s wagged upon “On eagles’ wings” is well aware that likely millions of catholics think that tune is absolutely fabulous. “Ah,” say the critics, “but it’s not beautiful.” They’d better duck as Aunt Sally’s right-cross is headed their way.

there is no form of secular music that I know of, classical or contemporary, that currently exists and will appeal to all people.

Oh, I dunno ‘bout that. It seems that everybody from Strauss to Rieu loves a good waltz, even space stations and floating monoliths. But a waltz is too sing-songy for serious consideration doncha know.

“so we’ll still have the music we’ve always had, especially my favorite traditional tune, On Eagles Wings.”

And yer honor, that’s when I shot her. “Case dismissed” says the traddy justice!


I do not know for certain if all, or indeed any of these composers are the trailblazers to whom the future will look back, as we today look back to Palestrina. Only time will tell.

So, again, what exactly was the purpose of this article’s screed? Move on, nothing to see hear here.

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