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The Problem of Catholic
Musical Illiteracy

by Jeffrey Tucker

This article, which appeared in the November 7, 2007 online blog, New Liturgical Movement, is reprinted with the kind permission of the author.

Comics are rather fashionable 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. Just comics. Maybe not even words. Just pictures. 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 others 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, so that 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.

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. The problem essentially began in the middle 1960s, when the idea of a entertaining and serviceable music came to dominate the impulse to strive for beauty and excellence in liturgy. The Protestant churches seems to have had a delayed reaction, plunging into "praise music" by sometime in the early and mid 1970s.

Protestant friends of mine are now despairing. They grew up in a world in which all hymnals were written in four voices, and people in the congregation sang these parts. Regular people, even when they weren't singing in the choir, defined themselves as altos or tenors or basses. Choirs in medium-sized churches 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 fantastic amount of time to learning large cantatas for performance during holiday seasons.

Of course Catholics were never that well off — for special historical reasons. Nonetheless, there were singers and readers and people who knew the repertoire and looked to certain ideals.

But now, my Protestant friends tell me, they have several generations that have been raised on praise choruses, which might be compared to musical comic books. There is a role for them, 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 panicked. Not only are there fewer and fewer singers left; there are fewer and fewer people around who can teach or play at all.

You can name a thousand factors for this — how convenient to blame the very existence of recorded music — but the most obvious one is rarely stated: the music they embraced as the core repertoire requires no skills and inspires no striving for anything beautiful. When triviality dominates, ideals disappear; the result is a universal dumbing down of aesthetic and then religious culture.

When my friends describe this situation, it is especially painful to realize that Catholics are about 5-10 years "ahead" of them. We can tell them a thing or two about what it is like to worship in churches were there are only a few musicians for every several hundreds worshipers. They lack ability to sing, the capacity to hit a pitch and hold it, the cognitive understanding of what it means to read notes going up and down, the rudimentary knowledge of rhythm — all of this has been seriously undermined in the course of the decades of relentless artistic decline. Now, it's like living in a world without readers. The great works of literature sit on the shelves and no one knows what to do about them.

Of course one way to deal with this problem 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 anymore for this stuff anyway? It was fine in age of faith and poverty, 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 different. 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.

I'm inclined to think that many attacks on the historical treasure of sacred music are really just fancy rationalizations for our generation's laziness and lack of talent capital. Something can be done about this, however. We must first realize that we have a problem. Then we have to set about fixing it.

What is the most important factor in changing the problem of musical illiteracy? Do we need training before we take on the serious music or do we need to hold and see and hear the serious music and 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.

Light can again be shed through the metaphor of the comic-book culture. We can change it but not without having access to high-quality books, even before they can read them. We need them as inspirations. 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 point the way.

I hope this article is not seen as dreary. The point is that we need to confront the problem head on. As for those who read this and think: I'm part of the problem, know that this isn't necessarily true. Not everyone can be a singer, nor should everyone strive to be. I like the idea of universal musical literacy, but there is a role for the division of labor. At the same time, I'm inclined to think that people tend to underestimate their potential rather than overestimate it. To anyone who wants to learn, I would suggest the Square Notes Workbook and some recordings of simple chants as a way of getting started.

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