18 July 2018

Who chooses the music?

Anthony Esolen has again published on the subject of music and the liturgy, and the article is making the rounds and being cited and linked to here and there across the internet.  It is vintage Esolen, witty and well written, and, as someone I respect, I generally agree with him, except there are times when I don't.

On the whole, he is correct that the state of music in most of our churches is dead poor.  I know that.  I don't think our new hymnal will be a tremendous help to that situation (see the article below).  There are a few points of his that I would like to address.  Take this passage, for example:

I am not suggesting that laymen should become liturgists. Was that not one of the plagues of Egypt? Most people are not great artists, or even good artists. The work is already given, and the task of the priest, who alone should determine what the ancillary people are doing or not doing, is to conform the praying of the Mass, in word, gesture, and spirit, to that work.
Sometimes people suggest ideal solutions that will not work in practice.  Sometimes people suggest solutions that may work in practice, but which are less than ideal.  This is the rare idea that fails both ideally and practically.

In practice, I am extremely loath to write statements that begin with the words or sentiment "the priest should..."  for several reasons. First, priests are the poster children of the over worked and under appreciated society.  I do not wish to add to their burdens; it is better that I try and help them share their burdens, wherever possible.  Second, Esolen seems to think priests will be bulwarks of orthodoxy and great defenders against the heterodox, which, considering his earlier statement in the article about the situation in the diocese of Antigonish, is somewhat... overly optimistic. Sometimes yes, often no, sadly, they are not.  A priest who is not would in no way support the vision Esolen endorses.  Lastly, almost all the priests I have worked under have no musical training and little in the way of preference. They want their time as a priest to be as peaceful and quiet as possible.  What they want is a congregation that does not come to them complaining about the music.  If complaints start coming, then he will act.  If no one complains, neither will he.  If you are a chorister and you hear nothing from the priest, rejoice, for all is well.

It fails ideally, because, if we are going to invoke the ideal, then the priest pays no role in choosing the ideal music any more than does the choir.  It has already been chosen for us: the Propers of the Mass.  A later line of his article applies also to the priests: "The work comes first.  The feelings of the choristers do not come in second; they do not come in at all."  What he proposes here is neither flesh nor fowl, neither practical nor ideal.  

Then there is this: 

If someone objects that the choir does not know those hymns, I reply that the choristers should be dismissed, then, because hymns are not hard to learn or to sing.

Ideally, yes, that is true.  Practically, no.  Few people can read music these days.  Fewer still are adequately trained.  Most sing the way they hear singers on the radio sing, only worse.  Organists- as opposed to piano players who sit and play the organ from time to time- are rarer still.  The few that are out there want to be paid for their training and skill.  Few parishes have the funds to do so.  In most parishes, odds are the few people who are willing to sing are actually in the choir singing as best they can.  It isn't a choice between poor music and good music so much as it is a choice between poor music and nothing.  Many people may think nothing is preferable, and they may have their point. But thinking that you can simply replace a poor choir with a better one through mere fiat is wishful thinking.

Many people have written about the poor quality of music in our churches.  It is true, but in many ways they fail to grasp how bad it is.  When it comes to music, we really need to grasp and admit that we are at square one: the very beginning, all over again.  The music has already been written for us, it is true, and we have so much to choose from, or so much already chosen for us, but many Catholics do not know it exists, could not read it if they knew it, could not sing if they could read it, and could not play it on any instrument.  What is worst of all, I have the impression that the vast majority of Catholics, like many of the priests I have known, simply do not care, and that is the most difficult obstacle of all.

I wish I had a solution, even a wildly impossible one, that would help, but I don't.  I think we're about a hundred years away from good music, true music, appearing regularly in our churches again. 

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