Complain, Complain!

There Are Reasons for Poor Music at Mass

Professor Anthony Esolen, writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, recently wrote an essay for the Catholic magazine Crisis in which he complained about the quality of music at Mass.

He’s certainly not alone in his feelings. Many people share them. The issue is raised frequently in Catholic media. It shows up often in my Facebook news feed. Heck, I complain myself.

Professor Esolen’s main gripe is about the particular songs selected, from which, he says, he suffers great pain:

pain mingled with frustration and disappointment, that well-meaning people should give their talents and energies to stuff that is so worthless, and sometimes worse than worthless. For sometimes it is flat heresy.1

He chalks up the use of such songs to what he calls “liturgical lassitude.” But there are other reasons for many of the deficiencies he notes — reasons that may not be obvious and have mainly to do with priorities and resources, both human and financial. I have written before that

limitations of talent and budget . . . are the facts of life in your average parish. Hiring an accomplished music director and building a first-rate choir take money.2

Parish budgets — always stretched — are more readily directed toward facilities, religious education, and other needs seen as essential and pressing. Money goes first where the need is most urgent, and that’s usually not to music.

The realities of modern family life also impinge. Choirs are staffed primarily by middle-aged and older folks whose voices may be fading, but who are free from wrestling squirmy children in the pews. Both household and work demands make it difficult for younger adults to set aside an hour for rehearsals or to commit to showing up on time before the choir’s Mass.

Getting teens to participate is a special challenge. Except for the occasional youth worship band or the talented kid who feels driven to sing and has limited opportunities to do so elsewhere, one rarely hears young voices in church.

Professor Esolen bemoans the dearth of polyphonic music by such great composers as “Palestrina, Tallis, and Gregorio.” But, alas, gone are the days when churches had wealthy patrons who would underwrite resident organist/composers of caliber and renown, or support intensive vocal scholae.

Today, many parishes soldier on without a professional music director at all, budgeting money only for accompanists. Vocalists (aside from those in the largest churches) are mainly untrained and mostly volunteers. Even when there is a professional director on staff, stipends are tight. My son is a parish music director. He supplements his income through teaching, playing local gigs, and leading a youth ensemble on Sunday nights at another church.

Parishes typically draw repertoire from the various publishers of contemporary hymnals and missalette/music-supplement systems. And here is the real source of the professor’s complaints about songs he describes as “chloroform for the brain.” As I have also written before:

The post-Vatican period saw a movement of liturgical simplification in which the musical motifs of the then-popular Urban Folk Revival were adapted to religious ends.3

The modern “folk” style that emerged has gained in sophistication over the years. In fact, along with those formless, rhymeless, “heretical” ditties for which it is justly derided, this genre has brought forth some quite good works. The problem, however, lies in the song collections on which most parish music ministries depend and that serve as the common resource from which a congregation sings.

There are hymnals that focus on post-Vatican, “Guitar Mass” standards. Then there are compendia that mix in a few classic hymns with “updated” lyrics intended to sound more current, avoid references to God as male, and smooth off other politically sensitive edges.

There’s one hymnal, designed for traditionalist tastes, that features mostly older hymns with time-honored language (lots of thees and thous). It includes only a few of the most widely accepted contemporary songs, and so might seem an attractive alternative for those weary of the post-Vatican repertoire. But this folio also has numerous entries that are listed as separate songs but are in fact only different sets of lyrics applied to a limited assortment of melodies. Granted, this practice has deep roots in the world of hymnody, but it makes for a high degree of repetitiveness.

There are hymnals that don’t include the weekly readings, and there are volumes that incorporate the readings but stint on the songs. I know of a very comprehensive hymnal that is rich in both readings and songs, but it’s expensive.

The point is, all the various collections have their trade-offs and limitations. For instance, the hymnal we use in our parish mixes both classic and contemporary songs, but it omits some of the best known in either category.

Professor Esolen complains that:

if the choristers or the lady at the piano or the tenor at the organ likes it, you may be singing [a particular song] twenty times a year. The hymns are chosen by the musicians for the same reason why there are cartoon-like banners on the wall. Somebody who has wangled his way into the works likes them.

That may be how things look — and it sometimes might actually be the case — but more commonly, whoever makes the selections must choose from among limited options. As a song leader, I try to pick hymns that are at least vaguely related, thematically, to the week’s readings. This can be hard to do when I can’t find anything in our hymnal that’s relevant. And, of course, I must stick to the book, or the people won’t have any words to follow and I’ll be singing solo.

Some parishes address this problem by using more than one hymnal. Others compile their own music collections that incorporate a broad enough range of content and style to satisfy everyone’s preferences (at least some of the time). In either instance, it’s a matter of money.

Especially so with private songbook development, which requires paying licensing fees to music publishers, demands graphic-design service (if the book is going to look decent), and generates printing costs. It’s also a matter of time and effort. Somebody has to ascertain which songs people want to sing that aren’t in the regular hymnal; determine which have copyright restrictions, and acquire the necessary clearances; then put the book together, and oversee its production. This is the sort of project that should fall to a music director. If the parish doesn’t have one, who will be willing to take on such a task, or (more likely) serve on a committee to do so?

Perhaps the most vexing problem with Catholic music ministry is that it’s not always considered a high priority. We don’t have nearly as strong a singing tradition as Protestants do, and in some parishes there’s very little consensus that music is really important. Many people (men most prominently) are convinced they can’t sing, and so wind up wishing the choir or song leader would just hurry and get through all these songs and antiphons that leave them feeling self-conscious and make Mass run longer. Other people have reservations about the appropriateness of hymns and choral anthems, feeling that the only legitimate form of Catholic music is chant.

In addition, there are pastors who regard congregational singing as merely a liturgical add-on — or even an interference with the sacraments. It’s frequently the case that these priests struggle with serious musical disabilities themselves, having trouble intoning accurately or staying on pitch. To them, the less singing the better.

When such attitudes prevail it’s difficult to make a case for providing the resources needed to build an effective music ministry.

I should note that even in parishes where singing is expected and desired, music may still not be among the highest priorities. This fact is often evident in the selection of hymnals. Greater aesthetic judgment, theological sensitivity, and active research would surely aid in finding appropriate song collections. Yet, parishes tend to stick with the hymnal or worship music system that’s been in use for as long as anybody can remember. The key factors here are taste, habit, cost, and lack of awareness that there’s better stuff out there.

I appreciate the frustration which Professor Esolen and many others feel when they are subjected to mundane songs and less-than-inspiring performances week after week at Mass. We want church music to lift our hearts, and we’re disappointed when things just fall flat.

But there are reasons.

As someone who has volunteered for years toiling in the Lord’s musical vineyard, I can only say that I’m sorry for the pain. And I would hope that parishioners might maintain a spirit of charity toward their church musicians — those dedicated folks who invest effort and time to honor the musical material they must work with, edify the people who must listen, and give glory to God.

We don’t always succeed at that. But we try.

  1. Anthony Esolen, “Novus Quodlibet: The New Whatever Liturgy”, Crisis, crisismagazine.com/2018/novus-quodlibet-new-whatever-liturgy.
  2. Bill Kassell, “‘Post-Vatican Folk’ vs. ‘Reformist Retro’: Is There No Middle Ground?”, ChurchPOP, churchpop.com/2015/06/25/post-vatican-folk-vs-reformist-retro-is-there-no-middle-ground/.
  3. Ibid.
Bill Kassel About Bill Kassel

Bill Kassel, along with being a liturgical musician, created and hosted a series of comedy programs called Kassel & Company for Ave Maria Radio, the EWTN-affiliated Catholic program producer. He also created a 90-minute special spotlighting rising artists of the independent Catholic music movement, and released an album of his own original songs, titled On This Mountain. Kassel has been a journalist, copywriter, and public relations consultant. He’s held creative staff positions with Dow Jones and McGraw-Hill, and served as marketing director for Guitar Player Magazine. He was Director of Public Affairs for Hillsdale College, and Director of Communications for the Ave Maria Foundation. He has authored articles appearing in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Newsweek, National Catholic Register, American Legion Magazine, and other publications. His novel about the family of Jesus, My Brother’s Keeper — winner of the 2018 Catholic Arts and Letters Award — is available from Saint Joseph Communications. And his essays and random rants can be found online at his blog, “The Guy in the Next Pew” (www.billkassel.com).

Comments

  1. Hi Bill, you say you try to pick hymns that fit the readings, but this is not the tradition of the Chruch. What has been your experience using hymns to fit the actual entrance, offertory, or communion antiphonal, as given in the lectionary or Roman Gradual?

  2. Bruce Chadbourne says:

    Having struggled with this for many years, one thing I’ve learned more recently is the problem of ego. The worship leader who selects the song has certain ego-driven notions, just as the contemporary artist who wrote the song. So does the one leading or performing the music. So do those in the congregation who struggle with how enthusiastically to join in the singing, or who evaluate “this song (or music) isn’t meeting my expectations…”. Ego keeps us from the main point – Christ-centered worship.
    A friend in an Orthodox church helped me to learn this – their worship order is predetermined – no one has the burden or the privilege of selecting and designing. They simply, obediently and joyfully participate. How liberating.

  3. Christopher Manion says:

    I worked my way through grad school as a musician in the early 70s. The Folkies who failed at real music somehow captured a captive customer in the USCCB – and the faithful have paid untold millions for this third-rate swill over the years – nobody ever asked us, we just pay and pay.

    Parricide is the murder of a father. What is the murder of beauty? Well, they’re guilty, whatever you call it.

    Let’s take a ten-year break from any compositions that require royalties. There are thousands of them. With the resulting savings, we can make nice hymnals and recruit real musicians who’d love to play beautiful music, and leave their banjo at home.

    Yes, the banjo is a beautiful instrument – I’ve played it for over 50 years – but it belongs in Poe’s garage, where my bluegrass buddies gather every Thursday night since 1957. Not at mass.

  4. Young Catholic adult and former pro musician here. If churches are so strapped, who says there has to be a choir? One voice that’s conducive to undistracted worship seems better to me than 50 that aren’t. Who says there have to be hymnals? In many churches they are gathering dust anyway because there’s a unique printout every week, which can’t be too cheap. But really, do a lot of people not know how the songs go (especially at Christmas)?

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