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Caecilia Finale

The Very Rev. Msgr. Francis P. Schmitt

This article is excerpted from an editorial that appeared in the Winter 1965 edition of Caecilia: A Review of Catholic Church Music, which has been archived on the CMAA website. This issue was the last publication of the Society of Saint Cecilia, before it became the Church Music Association of America. Written by the editor, Msgr. Schmitt (who was also Director of Music at Boys Town), it shows from a sacred music standpoint the tension in the air at the close of Vatican Council II.

Exit: Gregorian Chant

Saint Cecilia I do not say that Gregorian is meat for everybody, but let no one say that it is meat for nobody. I am very sure that were it not for the general musical decline that has set in since the chant restoration, a decline that continues with a devastating thrust, the chant would not now be despised as something not pastoral. I am sure because even now, in my own milieu, I can teach it to the utterly unlettered, make it the basis of a whole musical structure. I am sure because in my own boyhood we were taught singing every day, not by specialists, but by whoever happened to be teaching anything. I never attended a high Mass when the Gregorian propers were not sung.

Enter: Almost Anything

The other-than-chant picture is possibly even more depressing. Here one wishes that he might reach those to whom chant has never made sense. He should dare to wish so because these people know nothing, care nothing about music; liturgical or otherwise. But they are mightily interested in congregational participation, as the saying goes. Our musicians, judging from the plethora of new Peoples' Masses "in English," ... "dedicated to Pope John XXIII," ... "for the People of God" (and the copyright owners), ... "for Unity," "To Saint Apoplexus," "In Honor of Vatican II," and God knows what, have finally given the lie to their own ineptitude which must always have been there, and which now, exposed, is more glaring than ever. I leave aside the few good craftsmen whose vernacular offerings compare favorably with their Latin settings. For the rest, one can only envision a compulsive contributor sitting at the piano with manuscript paper and the new text, trying to decide whether the next note should go up or down. But none of them, whatever the quality or price, make any contribution to congregational participation. In justice, I am not at all sure that such a contribution can be made. No lost tradition can be restored by fiat, however official. The better ordinaries deserve to be sung in controlled situations, say in schools and convents; but to expect a congregation to essay endless series of intervals, when music has not been an integral part of their education, is like asking a cage full of monkeys to read the arabic alphabet, form words, sentences, periods. Such, however, is the new task which the liturgical pundits require of the choirmaster. Better he resign and join the commentator's corps. He would know, more than most, when to tell the people to please sit and please stand, to please make a joyful noise and please shut up.

As a congregationalist I should, on the whole, be more inclined to look kindly on the fad of liturgical, hip-swinging pop-music. The trouble is that in the "world" the pop people know and expect their fate: idols of a generation of two year's life or less. Get them into church and they would likely be canonized if only because their music, paid for, would be on the shelves. Even such a state of affairs would not be especially deleterious except for the fact that today's pop folk inevitably become square and disgusting to tomorrow's. "Their own music" — let the youngsters and such of their religious mentors as have an incapacity to grow up have it. I think I know as much about these matters as most. My boys canvass the campus with transistors like anybody else. And they would die laughing if it were suggested to them that we manage some sort of Freudian sublimation in matters of worship. Having sung Father Daniel Lord's mission verses to all the old football songs in my own halcyon days, (there was that special one about the football nine crossing the goal line) I doubt whether the Church needs so to reach out to our youth, or any other social stratum. Let them and their clerical dance masters have it, and all they want — outside of worship.

When it comes to the total congregation — not just the elusive pop element — I suspect that once we have gotten it vocal, in the sense of a more or less vibrant recitation, the most we can hope to do is elevate the recitation to some sort of recitative, please God a consistent, national even, sort of recitative. That, at least, would involve a congregational commitment to the proper liturgical texts: something vastly superior to the para-liturgical, four-ring circus, symbol-destroying hymns which have less to do with participation than collected Hindu rosary beads. I suppose I seem fairly dismal. Well, I am. A Pandora's box has been let loose upon us which only a gigantic turning back of musical history could cope with. Quite in the same way the chant restoration at the turn of the century required, over all, a turning back of history. But history didn't turn back — not to the 10th century. And it will not now turn back to the 4th or 5th or 6th. From all sides, to all of us, the cry will rise: "You do something about it!'' Frankly, I can't. I admit only to some small competence which I can exercise in my own corner. Nothing more. It cannot be transferred by workshop or correspondence course. I thought so long ago, and have come, more often than not, to regret second thoughts.

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