Saturday, January 11, 2014

Music and Memory, Part 31: In Defense of the Folk Mass

When I came back to the Catholic Church a little more than ten years ago, I discovered something I'd been ignorant of as a child of the aggiornamento: that is, the division, fragmentation, and opposition among the multifarious branches of the faithful. In my few childhood years in the church, the idea of disunion was not on my mind, of course, and I loved everything about going to Mass and Sunday school. I loved the colorful vestments, I loved the felt banners, and most of all, I loved the music.

As a returning adult woman, however, I discovered that there was, in fact, some division within the Mystical Body. I discovered orthodoxy, and, not long after, the New York orthodox Catholic subculture, which included not a few cape-wearing, pipe-smoking, Chesterton-quoting, never-marrying-though-apparently-uncalled-to-religious-life-albeit-heterosexual Traditionalist men (there wasn't any female equivalent of this type that I could see; perhaps the young women of the cohort were all married with children, and thus didn't have time to spend cultivating a countercultural image). And I learned that I was supposed to scorn and deride the aesthetic trappings of the New Mass, while not entirely rejecting the Mass itself:  I was supposed to hate the vestments, the banners, and most of all, the music.

The young orthodox Catholics I was now encountering, though they were too young to have experienced the old rite, claimed to have discerned from early childhood that these aesthetic trappings were almost entirely lacking in merit. And their scorn was reserved in a special way for postconciliar liturgical music. It went without saying that Gregorian chant was the mode of sung worship par excellence; even polyphony was viewed with a soupçon of moral suspicion (as it had been, too, in the 1590s by a group of Italian composers and men of letters who wanted to be able to understand the words, and who, as a result, succeeded in inventing opera).

This surprised me, because -- perhaps very much unlike you, dear reader -- I loved that music.  My babysitter used to play her guitar in the sanctuary, her long braids hanging down over the body of the instrument, and sing liturgical folksongs, some of which I suspect were of her own composition. I loved her. I loved her long hair. I loved her singing, and I loved what she sang. In fact, it was in order to emulate her that I first wanted to become a singer myself (she also taught me how to say the rosary, and told me about the many miracles of healing at the Church of Saint Anne de Beaupré in Quebec. Maryann McCarthy, where are you now?).

I'm no chant specialist. Even among musicologists, the real chant specialists are few and far between. Chant is a whole musicological world unto itself, and the work of the vast majority of music scholars is focused not on chant, but on the music of the common practice period. And the fact that there are few chant authorities even among musicologists and musicians with doctorates, makes it safe to assume that that guy in the Tyrolean hat who took you out for coffee after Mass and, after reminiscing about the Habsburg dynasty, trashed the priest from southeast Asia who came out to help distribute Communion because he bowed before the tabernacle instead of genuflecting, is not one, either. This doesn't mean that I don't love Gregorian chant, of course. And I would venture to say that I actually do know more about it than that guy, though it wasn't the focus of my doctoral studies.

Whenever I'm told by orthodox, Traditionalist, or even serious-and-faithful Catholics who are not necessarily culture warriors, however, that postconciliar liturgical music is heretical or a desecration, I imagine that they're waiting for me, with my doctorate in music, to nod my head vigorously and offer some kind of musicological proof of their point. But I don't, because I love that music, and not just out of sentimentality or nostalgia for lost childhood. Some of that music is good and effective qua liturgical music, and I think that it's probably crappy execution of it that makes educated listeners think the repertoire itself is crap. This hymn is a particular favorite of mine; I love the coda in the chorus: "We will find an open door THERE; we will find an open door," where the word "there" lingers between doubt and hope on the fourth degree of the scale before resolving, consolingly, to the tonic. I'm not being ironic here. I couldn't find a decent performance of it on Youtube, which underlines my point -- though church music is not really performance. But I do not think the liturgical music of the 1970s and 1980s is monolithic crap; not at all. I've disappointed many people by saying so, but those many probably also don't love Michael Jackson or the music of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (composed by Fred Rogers himself) the way that I do, either. And they should. At the risk of sounding hopelessly middlebrow, I will assert here that some of the music of aggiornamento is both beautiful and consoling. As Duke Ellington said, "If it sounds good . . . it is good."

I know I'm supposed to love music that is beautiful and reverent and old and serious and could be suitably transferred from the organ loft to the concert hall. And I do. But what's wrong with worshipping God with the simplicity of musical expression which is the extent to which most people are capable of producing musical sound and meaning? Our hearts and our tongues don't customarily address God in the language of the psalms, after all. The liturgical music of the 1970s that you think you're supposed to hate, or at least to laugh at, can be as much an ancillary or an inducement to worship, I believe, as can chant and Palestrina. We approach God in the Holy of Holies, yes. But we also have an everyday relationship with Him in which we accept and embrace His presence in the least dignified and the most mundane parts of our lives. There is a place, I would argue, for the hymns you hate: "for God is the simplest of all."


BettyDuffy said...

I'm not sure whether I agree or disagree, but I love a good contrarian argument.

Thanks for providing one.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I love it, too! While I'm sympathetic to concerns about loss of reverence, I find arguments about which kinds of music are more Godly to be, frankly, very silly. But I've never met the kind of man you reference--they're thin on the ground in California, apparently. A shame. I'd love to see someone in a cape and a hat at the donut gathering--or is that too middlebrow for them?

Pentimento said...

I suppose it takes a special sort of Tradman to wear a cape and a Tyrolean hat in California. They're probably all at the SSPX parish. . . .

Enbrethiliel said...


Do you know The Last Psychiatrist blog, Pentimento? Your description of the chant lover in the Tyrolean hat reminds me of TLP's analysis of people who gush over Mad Men for being so authentic although they themselves were born after the 1960s and couldn't possibly know that. (They could say that it has gorgeous visuals and compelling writing, but apparently, they don't.)

In another column, TLP wrote: "America is obsessed with authenticity." The title of that column is When Was the Last Time You Got Your Ass Kicked?, because the point he is trying to make is that we don't have an objective standard for so-called "authenticity," but do have an objective standard for determining who has won a fight.

All of this is related to his central idea that attempting to construct an identity out of external things--be they capes, pipes and Chesterton quotes or rasta caps, bongs and Bob Marley lyrics--is actually disordered.

Finally, just to be fair, I wasn't married when I was in my twenties, and I was probably the female equivalent of those fellows you met in New York. If someone I thought was "cool" didn't like something, then I decided that I wouldn't like it, too. Although there is at least one Marty Haugen song out there that moves me deeply. These days, I figure that if I don't automatically hate something . . . or if it doesn't immediately fill me with dread . . . then I can live with it.

And yet there are heaps of things that I can't stand which make me wonder whether the Authentic Catholic tribe is my own after all.

Pentimento said...

I don't know that blog, E. It sounds worth reading. I think it's a good point about the American obsession with authenticity, an obsession that's historically been centered among the intellegentsia -- Greenwich Village Bohemians of the turn of the 20th century and folk-music revivalists, for instance -- reacting alternately against insincerity and kitsch. I watched three seasons of Mad Men but stopped because it seemed overwrought and formulaic, and it's an interesting paradox that the young intellegentsia would call authentic a show which was *about* insincerity.

Enbrethiliel said...


I definitely think it's worth reading, but TLP is slightly mad himself, so he's an acquired taste. ;-)

The historical context of the American obsession with authenticity is very unfamiliar to me, but your description reminds me a little of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, which you may remember Betty expertly skewering. I've read a bit of it, and agree that the externals which Gilbert found in Italy, India and Indonesia were truly beautiful . . . but she seemed to value them more for the way they let her brand herself than for themselves.

You mentioned Mad Men to me several years ago, but I confess that I never got around to watching it. On the other hand, I plan to get started on Breaking Bad soon. Did you like that show?

Pentimento said...

I've actually never watched Breaking Bad, E, but it seems to be very well-regarded. I just don't have time to fall down that rabbit-hole right now.

Thom said...

I love this.

Pentimento said...

Thanks, Thom.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I grew up in the Episcopal church during the 70s when the 1928 Book of
Common Prayer was being replaced at great loss. The 1928 Book was beautiful because of its archaic phrasing and Shakespearean cadences. Its replacement was weak and sometimes new-agey. Nonetheless, the die-hard defenders of the 1928 Book were not nearly as lovable as those beautiful prayers.

My mother was in the charismatic movement during most of her life (and remained involved after she became a Catholic), so I heard plenty of praise choruses and simple but singable tunes. As pretty as many hymns in the Episcopal hymnbook were (e.g., Watts and Wesley), many were unsingable.

When I became a Catholic, I embraced all of the Church and avoided its liturgical battles, not because I have no opinions, but because I didn't join the universal Church in order to circle the wagons. Similarly, I didn't became a Catholic to second-guess my bishops and their predecessors back to the apostles, though I love Church history, especially as told by Christopher Dawson.

My tastes tend to be traditional. I'd rather not hear an electric guitar or bass in Mass, but being a pompous ass is not in the Beatitudes. When we go to Mass, we must prepare ourselves to meet Jesus as He appears and not as we presume He should appear. TQ

Pentimento said...

Thanks, TQ. I agree. God is always confounding, and His beauty can be revealed in so many ways, including ways that are surprising and even shocking to our sensibilities.

Jane said...

I guess we will have to agree to disagree regarding fitting liturgical music. Last week, my principal handed me the packet of music for the Catholic Schools Week Mass (it's basically a Top 5 list of Catholic hits from 1991) and asked me to go over it with the little ones next Tuesday. My heart sinks at the thought of it.

That said, there is a significant difference between the Folk Mass music of the 1960s and 1970s and the music written in the '80s and '90s. Some of the earlier music is actually successful as folk music, and sounds like the music of popular secular groups of the era. The lyrics and music are simple and singable. A lot of the later music, on the other hand, is either frankly heretical, difficult to sing, or both. I haven't done a comprehensive study and couldn't pinpoint when the change occurred, but there's definitely a difference between Ray Repp and Marty Haugen, between Paul Quinlan and David Haas.

Pentimento said...

I'm sure you're right, Jane. My favorite song from that era is "I Want To Walk As A Child of the Light," which I looked up and saw was composed in 1970.

Otepoti said...

I just read this over again, P., and was convicted of a lot of bad attitudes. There's no doubt, though, that many of the newer hymns we sing at Mass, however undemanding on the ear, are in fact quite difficult to sing. I cried once at Mass when I was overwhelmed by the thought of learning a whole new repertoire, and that I'd probably never acquire the gut familiarity with it, that allows unselfconscious worship through song. :-( I don't regret entering the Church, of course, just entering it so late in life that I'll always be the sailor who doesn't know the ropes.


Pentimento said...

But O, you know the *meaning* of the ropes much better than so many of us cradle Catholics do.

And I have to agree with you about the unsingability of some of the New-Mass hymns. You know my singing, and I used to have a hard time vocally negotiating some of them when I was a cantor in NYC. Many of them were written by people who don't seem to have much knowledge of how the human voice works optimally (though the same complaint can be made about most of Beethoven's vocal music, for different reasons).

Elizabeth Aucoin said...

I wonder if all the interest in reality shows isn't just another way of obsessing over other people's sins instead of our own. Mad Men and Breaking Bad seem like celebrations of cynicism. As for the hymns, my favorite is "On Eagle's Wings" and that's from 1979. In many small churches, mine is one, there are no musicians available alot of the time and some who are senile can only play the chorus. We sing kind of badly, but I figure it's our sins that profane, the rest is just a distraction.

Pentimento said...

Well, Elizabeth, in a word -- yes.