“Post-Vatican Folk” vs. “Reformist Retro”: Is There No Middle Ground?

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The great Catholic music debate.

via theancientstar-song.com

“Brotherly Love” is under strain in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (the city that bears that name). The problem involves conflicts about music.

Organist John Romeri recently resigned as Archdiocesan Music Director, citing disagreements with Archbishop Charles Chaput over preferences in liturgical music. According to press reports, Romeri has been an advocate of the classical sacred canon, while the Archbishop has pushed for openness to contemporary music, presumably including the post-Vatican “folk” repertoire.

We may take this episode as the latest chapter in The Great Catholic Music Debate.

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Musical stylistic friction is a reality of church life — as was illustrated for me at a funeral I attended some weeks ago. Two women chanted a Latin prelude as mourners entered. The casket was wheeled in with family members processing to, “Here I Am, Lord.” The offertory song was “On Eagle’s Wings.” Two hymns of older pedigree, “Odoro te Devote” and “The Strife is O’er,” were sung during communion. There was an instrumental interlude: “Ave Maria,” played on what sounded like a hammered dulcimer. The final prayers of commendation were followed by another Latin chant. And the recessional hymn was “Be Not Afraid.”

The musicians did a fine job, though it can’t be said these disparate elements fit together all that well. But the music had been chosen by the family, and the selections demonstrated a fact of human nature: At times of emotional intensity and spiritual significance people like to hear familiar songs that comfort and uplift them.

This emotional dimension is often not top-of-mind among Catholics who think about liturgy, especially those of traditionalist sentiment. Such folks are drawn toward a more “sanctified” worship experience in which hymn preference skews to the time-honored, if indeed hymns are included at all. Many urge abandoning hymnody altogether in favor of singing the Mass propers.

It goes without saying that the “folk” repertoire is anathema, a flawed product of the worship form referred to contemptuously as “guitar Mass.” Countless articles and Facebook postings tell of wandering into some parish where the dreaded guitar group still prevails, and having to endure liturgical desecration.

Traditionalists also comment on the poor quality of this music — poor in both composition and performance. Their complaints are often justified. Who hasn’t sat through at least one teeth-grinding rendition of “I Received the Living God” offered by a slipshod, three-chord guitar ensemble?

What the tradition-minded have difficulty recognizing (and find dispiriting when they do) is that many Catholics like the “folk” stuff. After decades of hearing it at Mass and other faith-related events, they associate these songs with fond memories, moments of intense religious immersion, or family joy. Question their taste if you will, but for them this is what church sounds like.

Hopes had been raised that changes in Mass language made in 2011 would bring a wave of new Catholic hymns that are more conducive to the longed-for sense of sanctity. But while composers have developed new Mass settings and reworked old ones to fit the revised liturgical text, there has been disappointment on the song side. A few modern hymns have appeared that harken back to pre-Vatican forms or include Latin flourishes. And publishers have integrated more older pieces into their hymnals. On the whole, however, a new repertoire has not been forthcoming.

This is understandable if you consider the costs involved in publishing and the money tied up in established catalogues. It also reflects the reliance of publishers on songwriters of proven ability to write for “the market” (which accounts for the sameness of much contemporary material).

And so, worship music divides between “post-Vatican folk” and what might be called “reformist retro.” Generally, the preferences for these two genres find expression in different parishes or different Masses on the weekly schedule. But sometimes, contrasting styles bump up against each other, as at the funeral I attended.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if it does make for some musical awkwardness. One might hope for more careful attention to stylistic blending. It would also be a good idea to cull out those “folk”-style songs that, because of structural flaws or lyrical weaknesses, don’t lend themselves readily to congregational singing. There are many of those, sad to say.

More sensitive instrumental execution would also help, particularly when “folk” pieces are accompanied by piano or organ. It’s hard for keyboard instruments to convey the “feel” of a song written for guitar unless you’ve got an exceptionally good player (next to impossible for pipe organs, which pretty much blow away the “folk” sensibility under any circumstances).

Given these caveats, a mixed menu of songs does suggest an inclusiveness that reflects the universality of the Church. A liturgy that’s recognizable in wildly disparate cultural settings around the world surely can survive pairing “Panis Angelicus” with “Earthen Vessels.”

I was not always so accepting of “post-Vatican folk.” I had spent my childhood in and out of various Protestant congregations. Grand, anthemic, march-like hymns were what church sounded like to me (“Up from the grave He arose, with a mighty vict’ry o’er His foes…”). I’d also been exposed to gospel music, particularly gospel music slicked up for the mainstream audience by pop artists like Peter, Paul & Mary.

When I first encountered the “guitar Mass,” this music struck me as amateurish. I was highly critical of the genre, and put off by the boom-chinga-chinga strumming pattern typical of so many unrehearsed, limited-skill guitar players. But I discovered over time that, mixed in among all the sing-songy tunes and insipid lyrics, there were a few pieces that stood up respectably as musical works of faith expression.

Bernadette Farrell’s “Christ Be Our Light,” David Haas’ “Deep Within,” Tim Manion’s “I Lift Up My Soul,” and Roc O’Connor’s “Trust In the Lord” deserve special mention. These aren’t necessarily the greatest congregational pieces, but when presented properly, such songs draw from “folk” simplicity an evocative power that can actually be quite moving. There are many other examples too.

It’s often asserted by traditionalists that this music is too us-focused. The songs put human beings at the center, rather than emphasizing God. This is a “straw man” argument. Most church music is us-focused — and always has been. It is, after all, about the relationship between God and his creatures, i.e. us. (If you want to sing exclusively about God, take up Evangelical praise music: “Our God is an awesome God…”)

Another criticism is that many songs put words into God’s mouth which are often highly ideological. This complaint is valid. You do come across instances of trying to make God endorse trendy political, social or economic propositions. It’s been observed that “post-Vatican folk” is the Democratic Party platform set to music. There’s much truth in this.

One of the things that has hampered Catholic songwriting is a slavish literalism in rendering scriptural language into lyrics. This is why rhymes sound so forced (or are nonexistent) and melodies tend toward the wishy-washy. It’s a mistake which the great hymn writers of the past avoided; they took Biblical concepts and recast them artistically into coherent verse that was well structured and rhymed powerfully.

Also, you hear much about the “liturgical inappropriateness” of “post-Vatican folk.” But I think most of the discomfort with this genre comes down to the simple reality that a lot of these songs just flat-out stink and there are so many bad musicians playing in church.

The poverty of musicianship is accountable to limitations of talent and budget that are the facts of life in your average parish. Hiring an accomplished music director and building a first-rate choir take money.

Song quality is a different matter. The post-Vatican period saw a movement of liturgical simplification in which the musical motifs of the then-popular Urban Folk Revival were adapted to religious ends. The publishing ministries created during those years were able to enshrine this music as the common coin of “modern” worship mostly due to a lack of any competing stylistic vision that had a strong constituency. It’s hung on ever since.

The charge has been heard that this was an effort to “dumb-down” Catholic liturgy and weaken the Church. I suspect, however, that religious leaders were just groping — trying to find their way in a period of great social turmoil — with scant direction from Rome. They saw contemporary music as a tool for keeping young people, then under the sway of ’60s youth rebellion, within the Catholic fold.

That has had decidedly mixed results. It’s my view that the Church would have been better off embracing the musical conventions that were so well established in American Protestantism while bending them in a distinctively Catholic direction. When I was a young person, those noble Protestant hymns and rousing gospel tunes were the aspects of church life that had strongest appeal to me.

But all of this is water under the musical bridge.

Today, the so-called reform-of-the-reform is nudging “post-Vatican folk” out of its position of prominence, while “reformist retro” is on the rise. This may be a good thing in the long run — if revival of traditional forms prompts a recommitment to musical quality, and if we see greater resources devoted to good composition and solid professionalism in church musicianship.

Meanwhile, I would hate to see the whole post-Vatican musical baby thrown out with the liturgical bathwater. Even as fewer guitars are strummed at Mass, many small gems remain in the “folk” repertoire — songs that may be unsophisticated, even simplistic, but that continue to touch people’s hearts in a time when our Church is under varieties of stress that require faith, confidence and unity.

You could call that “Brotherly Love” — or, putting it in musical terms: harmony. And all the carping only destroys the harmony.

Perhaps that funeral I attended holds the key to our musical future: balance — albeit with less eclecticism, more discernment, and some charity for the sensitivities of others to minimize the stylistic friction. Whether your preference is for “post-Vatican folk” or “reformist retro,” there’s a place in God’s Church for all sounds.

We are instructed, after all, not to debate our music, but to make a “joyful noise.”

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Bill Kassel
An adult convert, Bill Kassel is a writer, communications consultant, and musician based in Michigan. During the 1980s he led a Catholic music ensemble called Company, which was a forerunner of today’s Independent Catholic Music Movement. Kassel’s essays and random rants can be found at his blog, “The Guy in the Next Pew.”