Sunday, April 17, 2011

Liturgical Music

Some of you may know that I started out life a musician. I hold a bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire in vocal music and I started playing the organ in my parish church at the age of 13. My passion has always been sacred music and especially liturgical music. I have read pretty much all of the Church's legislation and teaching on sacred music and have wondered long about why we have so little that truly serves the liturgy well. I even "wasted" an hour the other day listening to GIA's offerings on settings for the new English translation of the Mass. I was starting to wonder if I wasn't getting too "old and stodgy" in my musical tastes when I spoke to a talented young organist from the Twin Cities (Minnesota) who confirmed what I was thinking: it really is difficult to find truly worthy music in English, especially for non-urban parishes.

So, it was with great delight that I read, this past week, the comments by Joseph Cullen, choral director of the London Symphony Orchestra. In the article found on CNA's website He said that since the 1960's there has been a "glaring lack of sympathy for worthy sacred music." He went on to say that "the rush to find new musical settings for the Novus Ordo mass in the 1960s led to little artistic scrutiny being applied to the process. As a result, he says, most parish Masses now have poorly composed hymns being used inappropriately as mere “filler” throughout the sacred liturgy." How right he is!!! He also commented on the inappropriate use of familiar melodies and what I call "the attack of the voice", aka: cantors. Check out the article in its entirety here. You won't be sorry.

I must say, I particularly like what he had to say regarding the faulty approach used by the sacred music organs within nation conferences of Catholic Bishops. Things about which I have grumbled for a good many years.

It was a delight also to see another article in which Scottish composer James MacMillan echoes Cullen's criticism in another CNA article. Is it too much to hope that somebody out there will listen during the reign of a pope with the refined tastes and experience of Pope Benedict XVI? We shall see....

As with many things in the Church, it is not a matter of needing the teaching and legislation on these issue clarified. It is a matter of truly competent people being put in place and given the exposure necessary to get good music out to the parishes. It is also a matter of composers giving us material that doesn't require a cathedral choir to present.

Of course, a new English chant tradition would certainly be of great help in applying the Church's rich tradition of psalm singing. Maybe the new Anglican use ordinariate will be of help in this regard? More hymnody with texts which serve the liturgy and reflect the given antiphons of the Church would also be most welcome.

Anyone have sources they'd like to share? Share away so that we can all benefit. I might make a start with the Church Music Association's website - Musica Sacra.


  1. I'll be passing this on to Ben. As you know, you and he are of one mind when it comes to liturgical music and its proper function. :)

  2. A book called "Why Catholics Can't Sing" was very influential on me and I think he makes the same points as Cullen does in the article.


Comments are most welcome! As always, be charitable and remember the 8th Commandment (Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor).