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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Truly a Lenten desert

I know that I've written much about the state of music in liturgy, perhaps ad nauseum.  However, this is a very important topic, as sacred music constitutes an important component in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Sadly, I find that the notion of sacred music seems lost down here in the South Texas hinterland, at least in some parishes.  Part and parcel of the blame lies in the reliance of one music publisher which seems to impose its own standards, rather than the Church's.  Many of the contemporary musical pieces the publishing house offers tend to not be compatible with Musicam Sacram and Sacramentum Caritatis.  They sound like music that one would hear on the secular pop station than at the Mass.  Lamentably, in most cases, some of the music selections do not even relate to the particular seasons of the Church's liturgical year.  Week in and week out, the music I heard had little to do with the Lenten season.  It was as though the whole season was omitted in the book Spirit and Song, a book "geared" towards, as OCP markets it, "inviting them to pray and worship in  ways that feel natural to them."  What about "worshipping in the ways of the Sacred Tradition of the Church"?  I feel sorry for the younger generation that uses this book.  Somehow, the whole tradition of Sacred Music is lost on them.  When they grow out of this phase, then what is left for them?  Rather than merely "engaging them" in "spirit-filled worship", we should concentrate on handing down the Church's rich treasures, her Sacred Music.  It is sad that these young people are not exposed to the beauty of "Attende Domine", "Stabat Mater" and other rich Lenten music.

In my discouragement, I came upon this entry in Fr. Z's blog (What Does the Prayer Really Say).  It comes from the Catholic News Agency.  Evidently, a Grammy-winning musical director by the name of Joseph Cullen finds the current state of liturgical music deplorable.  Cullen's diagonosis hits the proverbial nail on the head:

"There is a glaring lack of sympathy for the heritage which should be the bedrock of worthy sacred music in today's Church...
“Low-quality material in both inspiration and facility is commonplace. Hymns are set to popular music (for example, "My God Loves Me" to the tune of "Plaisir d'amour") with little regard to the inappropriateness of the original and well-known words."
He also does not spare publishing houses, especially those run by dioceses and national episcopal conferences.  In a rather direct manner, he states that:

“The elected church music committees of the bishops' conferences cannot have vested interests in promoting their own music, or type of music. This would be regarded as corrupt in any other field.”

As Jeffrey Tucker noted in his article "The Hidden Hand behind Bad Catholic Music", these publishing houses do not carry any ecclesial authority.  All too often, when they do suggest music for use in the Mass, most of the time, the selections come from the publisher's compositions and not from the Church's treasury of sacred music.  Sadly, such is the case with Spirit and Song.

While musically, this year's Lenten season may have been somewhat barren, musically, perhaps there will be some hope with the coming subcommittee on Art and Music that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has established.


  1. “Low-quality material in both inspiration and facility is commonplace. Hymns are set to popular music (for example, "My God Loves Me" to the tune of "Plaisir d'amour") with little regard to the inappropriateness of the original and well-known words."
    This statement is a bit narrow-minded. In music science this is called "Kontrafaktur" which is quite similar to the english term "contrafaction" and it is not unusual.
    In earlier times (Renaissance) the contrafaction was common practice. Some of the best contrafacted hymns are still in use today, e.g. O sacred head now wounded (,_Now_Wounded) which was set to a contemporary love song around 1600.
    See also,_ich_muss_dich_lassen written by Heinrich Isaac.
    In my post you will find a beautiful motet of H. Isaac combining the melodies of the gregorian "Resurrexi" and "Christ ist erstanden" (a song tributary to the Easter sequence Victimae paschali laudes)
    The fact that the very best of these contrafactions are still in use today just means that many other trivial songs and contrafactions simply vanished over the time being. Given the lessons of history, this is also the most propable scenario for modern contrafactions. The fact that a hymn is set to popular music is no proof of low quality per se. Only time and forthgoing popularity of a hymn will proof that.

  2. True, but, if you were to listen to some of the compositions offered by one of the American publishing houses (OCP), you might find that they resemble something from the soft pop genre or a television show theme. Perhaps that is what Cullen also meant.