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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Faith & Music

by Doug Stafford
Doug Stafford is business manager and a singer in the Deo Gratias Chorale, a Catholic schola based in Norman, Oklahoma. The choir's mission is: "To promote and foster the use of traditional, reverent, liturgical music in Catholic churches across Oklahoma, America and the world, through excellence in performance and education, giving particular emphasis to the Church's rich treasury of chant, polyphony and sacred hymnody."
We are firm believers in good music. We do our best to pass this belief along. God deserves nothing but the best. Sacred music should be separate from, and higher than, the modern world. The type of music used in most Catholic churches is secular in origin and style. In fact, the style that was stylish 20-30 years ago, ala Peter, Paul and Mary, or Cat Stevens (who's now a Muslim). So many churches have limited themselves to only that music created in the last 20 years, they ignore 1,970 years of musical heritage. Everything that defined the church for the past two millenia has been banished to the basement, together with altar rails, kneeling at consecration and any sense of reverence.

Much of what has been done to the Church in the years after Vatican II has been to increase the "entertainment value" of the Mass. While striving to keep people's attention and interest is laudable, there must be content behind it. Church as entertainment is a borrowing from modern Protestant churches; we don't come to see the show, we come to praise our Lord and participate in the miracle of the Eucharist.

Some may think that traditional hymns or chant are "too hard" for the choir or the congregation, when the exact opposite is true. Hymns are designed to be able to be sung by everyone; contemporary music has complex rhythms, requires broader vocal ranges, and depends more on individual abilities as singers. And chant is best when individual qualities are sublimated, providing a clear blending where no single voice stands above the rest.

So is there no place in the Church for contemporary music? Sure. It's a big church, with many functions. Contemporary music is best suited for micro-liturgies (retreats, seminars, small groups) as opposed to the macro-liturgy (the High Mass). The High Mass, in a large, echo-laden marble space with hundreds of faithful, requires a degree of solemnity not possible with amplified guitars. The Saint Louis Jesuits wrote their "folk" music with small groups in mind; one or two guitars, maybe Sunshine playing the flute, and Moonbeam making little ringlets of flowers for her hair. A group of ten disillusioned young adults holding hands, swaying to the hynotic rhythm of "Peace is Flowing up the River."

Macro vs. Micro -- big difference. You wouldn't drag a 50-rank pipe organ into a meadow for the benefit of 12 people, so why would you try to fill a space half the size of a football field with two guitars, a flute, and God forbid, a piano?

Here's a paragraph from Joseph P. Swain's article, "Offering Our Musical Best at Mass," from CanticaNOVA Publications' Musical Musings:
Then, too there is that curious historical coincidence of the "folk revival" in American popular music of the early 1960s with the Second Vatican Council. When the bishops posed the problem of how to involve the congregation in singing the new liturgy's music, America was Johnny-on-the-spot with an answer. When traditionally trained organists and choirmasters pointed out that an essentially solo songstyle could not form the basis of a congregational tradition, they were unfairly denigrated as reactionaries who opposed the spirit of renewal.
Often, the "spirit" of Vatican II is confused with what the Vatican II documents actually say. Gregorian chant is supposed to have "pride of place" in the liturgy.
The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Article 30.
This is the reason for Deo Gratias Chorale: to do what we can to restore a love and appreciation for the true musical heritage of the Roman Catholic Church. There is so much beauty, so much depth of spirit, so much power in a group of devout Catholics chanting the Ave Maria, that it can never be drowned out by all the banging guitars and honky-tonk pianos and electric basses in the world. It will soar above the din, lifting our souls closer to God.

This article first appeared on the website for Deo Gratias Chorale and is reprinted here with permission.

Doug Stafford
Norman OK

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