The Decline and Fall of Catholic Church Music
What Can We Do to Stop the Downward Inertia?
This article appeared in the April 2008 edition of Adoremus Bulletin, published by the Adoremus Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy.
It is reprinted with the kind permission of Helen Hull Hitchcock, Editor
Comics are rather popular among young people and have been for many decades.
But let’s imagine a world in which people never really went beyond them.
No novels, no poetry, no non-fiction.
Maybe not even words.
Who would be surprised when the generation turned out to be illiterate?
Let this situation run for three or four generations, and you would suddenly wake up to a world in which no one could really read and, more shockingly, no one could teach people to read either.
At this point, you might expect people to suddenly realize what they have done.
A major part of the foundation of civilization had been inadvertently smashed.
If we could easily do a before/after analysis, we would be shocked more so than if we live in the midst of transition.
While it is happening, each generation knows less than the previous generation and increasingly there are fewer and fewer people around to even notice that there is a problem.
People do not even know what they do not know, nor even that the problem needs to be corrected.
This, I fear, is pretty much what has happened in the area of Catholic music — not entirely, but we have approached that fate and perhaps might be saved from it with massive efforts today.
Church Music As Easy Entertainment
The problem essentially began in the middle 1960s, when the idea of entertaining music came to dominate the impulse to strive for beauty and excellence in liturgy.
It was as if people said: down with skill, down with all these standards, let’s just sing whatever comes to mind and makes us feel good.
Although Catholic music before this was not perfect, and plenty of bad music was still around, there had been an effort to improve it for decades, and results were beginning to appear.
Many Protestant churches seem to have had a delayed reaction to the new trend in music for worship, plunging into “praise music” by sometime in the early and mid-1970s.
Three decades later, my Protestant friends are despairing at what has happened.
They grew up in a world in which hymnals were usually written in four-part harmony, and congregations often sang the hymns in parts.
Even when they weren’t in the choir, people identified themselves as altos or tenors or basses.
Choirs in medium-sized city parishes often had 50-80 members, and they weren’t distinguished so much by their ability to read and sing (most everyone could) but rather by their willingness to commit a huge amount of time to learning difficult music, like cantatas, for performance during holiday seasons.
(Catholics were never that well-off chorally speaking.
Nonetheless, there were singers and choir members and parishioners who did know the repertoire, could read music, and recognized true ideals of sacred music.)
But now, my Protestant friends tell me, several generations have been raised on “praise” choruses, which might be compared to musical comic books.
There is a role for this music, to be sure, and no one wants a world without them completely.
The problem is that they came to set the standard, and now my friends are worried.
Not only are there fewer and fewer singers left; there are fewer and fewer people around who can even teach or play musical instruments.
Music That Does Not Inspire
One might name a thousand factors that led to this situation (how convenient to blame recorded music and popular media!); but the most obvious reason is rarely stated: the music people were offered and embraced as the core repertoire for worship did not inspire them to acquire the skill needed to produce beautiful music.
Where was the challenge?
When triviality dominates, ideals disappear; the result is a universal dumbing-down of aesthetic sensibility, and then also of religious culture.
When I hear my Protestant friends describe their situation, it is especially painful to realize that Catholics are now about five or ten years “ahead” of them in the musical decline.
We can tell them a thing or two about what it is like to worship in parishes where there are only a handful of musicians for every several hundred worshippers.
It’s not just that “Catholics don’t sing” — many apparently can’t.
There is a pervasive lack of ability to sing, of the capacity to hit a pitch and hold it, of knowing what it means to read notes going up and down, of rudimentary knowledge of rhythm — all of this musical ability has been seriously undermined by several decades of artistic decline.
Musically, it’s like living in a world without readers; where the great works of literature sit on the shelves unread, and no one knows what to do about it.
Different Music for Different Times?
Of course one way to deal with this problem in music for worship is to change the ideals, which then permits us to deny the problem.
Who cares about all this old Palestrina stuff anyway?
Was it really any good or was it just the best they could do at the time?
Wasn’t this just music for the elites?
Who has time for this stuff anymore anyway?
It was fine in an age of faith and ignorance, but our world of reason and prosperity demands something else entirely.
As for chant, that stuff is fine for a world of poverty, sickness, and the Black Death, but we live in gleaming cities and spend our leisure hours at modern health clubs. Different times call for different music.
But how different are the times really?
The externals are obviously different.
But the internals, to which the liturgy must speak most directly, are the same now as in all times — a universal (everywhere and timeless) faith addressing and accounting for a universal human nature with the assistance of a universal art form, all directed toward universal adoration of God.
I’m inclined to think that many attacks on the historic treasure of sacred music amount to fancy rationalizations.
Something can be done about this, but we must first realize that we have a problem.
Then we can set about fixing it.
Overcoming Musical Illiteracy
What is the most important factor in overcoming massive musical illiteracy?
Do we need training before we take on the serious music, or do we need to see and hear and hold this music first, in the hope that it will inspire us to improve our own skills? The relationship between these two factors — external and internal resources — is complicated.
The metaphor of comic-book culture may shed some light on where to begin.
How can we change from comic books to real literature without having high-quality books — even if we don’t yet know how to read them?
We need worthy, beautiful books as inspirations to challenge us.
We need to have the ideal and goal always before us.
We need to learn to value those who can read and ask them to read for us — and to teach us to read.
The point is that we need to confront the problem of musical illiteracy head-on.
Those who are thinking: “I’m part of the problem; I know nothing about music,” should know that this isn’t necessarily true.
Not everyone can be an accomplished singer or instrumentalist, nor should everyone strive to be.
I like the idea of universal musical literacy, but there is a role for non-musicians as well — as truly engaged and thoughtful listeners.
At the same time, I’m inclined to think that people tend to underestimate their musical potential rather than to overestimate it.
To anyone who wants to learn about Catholic sacred music, I would suggest the Square Notes Workbook — available at Aquinas and More — and some recordings of simple chants as a useful way of getting started.
I think the best foundation for music education of any sort is chant, for chant teaches us the vocal navigation of whole steps and half steps in a musical scale, and it teaches pitch and rhythm, as well as other basic aspects of music theory.
The series of books written by Justine Ward was premised on this idea of chant as fundamental to musical learning.
The goal of her books was not so much Catholic music education but music education in general.
(Mrs. Ward’s books were recently republished by the Church Music Association of America and are accessible online at MusicaSacra.com.)
To be a great Catholic artist one must first become an artist.
Let us not forget the unparalleled contribution of the Catholic Church — and Catholic musicians — to the musical culture of the West.
We can take the lead again.
First we must adopt high musical standards ourselves; and then we can show others the way.