Contentions between liturgists and musicians: What to do?

guido mariniIt is too bad that, thanks to our fallen nature and the prodding of the Enemy of the soul, we have conflicts in the Church.  You will, however, note right back at me that we have had arguments since before Day One.  Consider, for example, the argument between the Apostles over who might be higher or the avaricious whine of Judas over the use of money.

Sometimes we have to have fights, however.  When the stakes are high, we mustn’t shy from conflicts just because they upset us.

I saw a story at CNS about a talk given by Msgr. Guido Marini (aka Good Marini), who is the Holy Father’s Master of Ceremonies.  He was brought in by Benedict XVI from Genoa and the umbral influence of the late, great Card. Siri, and remains in place even now.   He answered a question about conflicts over liturgy and music.

One of the things that I learned of early on in my time in the Church, first in theory and then in practice, was about the perennial tension that exists between liturgists and musicians. Msgr. Schuler, the long-time pastor of St. Agnes Church in St. Paul, who had been involved in the Consociatio Internationalis Musicae Sacrae before and after the Council, who had edited Sacred Music for decades, who had served in the infamous advisory board to the US Bishops… he tried to fend off the predations of the likes of Weakling… described many instances of his battles over music and liturgy.   Then in seminary and after, I found out on my own how difficult it can be to work as a musician with a “liturgist”, or on the liturgical side with a musician.   This is something repeated in parishes across the world, I’m sure.

Let’s look at what Msgr. Marini said, with my emphases and comments.

Fighting over liturgy distorts purpose of Mass, papal liturgist says

By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — When a choir director and parish priest differ over liturgical music, the choir should follow in good faith the wishes of the priest for the sake of unity, said the papal liturgist. [There really isn’t another way, is there?  Even when the priest is an ignorant boob, as so many of them are, he’s da man.]

When it comes to celebrating the liturgy, “we should never fight,” Msgr. Guido Marini told choir members, directors and priests. “Otherwise, we distort the very nature” of what the people of God should be doing during the Mass, which is seeking to be “one body before the Lord.” [There’s fighting and there’s fighting, respond I.  Some things are just plain wrong, and they should be resisted.]

The papal master of liturgical ceremonies spoke Oct. 21 at a conference opening a three-day jubilee for choirs. Hundreds of people involved in providing music for the liturgical celebrations in Italian dioceses and parishes — such as singers, organists and musicians — attended, as did directors of diocesan liturgy offices and schools of sacred music.

During a brief question-and-answer period after his talk [often the part of the talk that people enjoy the most] on the role of the choir, a participant asked Msgr. Marini what she termed “an uncomfortable, practical question.”

“Many times, in our parishes, the priest wants the choir to perform songs that are inappropriate, both because of the text” and because of the moment the song is to be performed during the service, she said.

“In these situations, must the choir master follow the wishes of the priest even with the knowledge that by doing so, the choir is no longer serving the liturgy, but the priest?” she said to applause.

Asked for his advice, Msgr. Marini smiled, cast his eyes upward and rubbed his chin signaling his awareness that it was a hot-button topic. He said he felt “sandwiched” “between two fires, between priests and choirs.” [Yep.  Been there.  Bought that shirt.]

Acknowledging the difficulty of such a situation, he said he sided with the priest. [Short of quitting, that’s it, isn’t it.]

There are situations where priests may not be giving completely correct guidance, he said, and there are directors that could be doing better. But in either case, conflict and division should be avoided and “humility and communion be truly safeguarded,” he said.

This, like with all disagreements, he said, requires that all sides be very patient with each other, sit down and talk, and explain the reasons behind their positions.  [Something else is needed, too.  More on that below.]

But if no conclusion or final point is reached, then “perhaps it is better also to come out of it momentarily defeated and wait for a better time rather than generate divisions and conflict that do no good,” he said to applause.

Live the path of communion and unity in the parish “with lots of goodness, cordiality and sometimes the ability to sacrifice something of oneself, too,” Msgr. Marini advised.

Just like the grain of wheat, he said, “sometimes all of us must die in something” knowing that it will bear future fruit.

Msgr. Marini responded to the question after delivering a 50-minute speech, in which he received a standing ovation.

Titled, “The Role of the Choir in Liturgical Celebrations,” the monsignor outlined five fundamental elements of the liturgy and how choirs should help serve each of those aspects.

The liturgy is the work of Christ and it should express the Savior’s living presence, he said. Choir members, therefore, must be people who have Christ present in their hearts.

While much care must be given to the artistic and technical aspects of liturgical music’s performance, the hearts of those who perform must be cared for as well so that they are men and women of faith who feel “a burning love for Christ” and find their life’s meaning in him, he said.

The liturgy also must evoke the church’s universality, where there is a harmonious union of diversity and continuity between tradition and newness, he said. This means that the choir must never be “front and center” or seem separate from the faithful because they are part of the assembly.

Pope Francis has insisted that liturgical music for papal liturgies “never go beyond the rite” and force celebrants and the assembly to wait for the singing to finish before proceeding on to the next moment of the Mass, he said. “Song integrates itself into the rite,” serving the ceremony and not itself. [Hmmmm… I’m going to disagree slightly at this point.  Msgr. Marini is surely looking at the question from the point of view of the liturgist.  Truly good, artistic sacred music which is appropriate for the rite at hand is not an add on.  It is prayer.  You can’t be distracted from prayer, by prayer.  Of course we also acknowledge the old adage, “Quidquid recipitur…“, etc.  Much depends on the capacity of the congregation, which ought to be, over time, brought to a greater and greater degree of “actual participation”, which involves as a sine qua non, the ability to listen, with active receptivity.]

He also asked that choirs help the liturgy in its purpose of gathering everyone together to conform themselves more closely to God and his will.

The Mass is about overcoming individual distinctions so that “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me,” he said. That means the choir should help everyone in the assembly be an active participant during the moments of song including by stirring people’s emotional or spiritual feelings. [Not to mention thoughts.]

Choirs must help the liturgy by inviting all of creation to lift its gaze toward God on high, he said. People should feel elevated and pulled out of the mundanity of the ordinary and everyday — not to escape from it, but so as to return renewed to one’s everyday life after Mass.

If song is not “a bridge over eternity” then it is not doing its job, he said. Song must not be worldly and unworthy, but must in some way be the “song of angels.” [And if it is that, then there shouldn’t be a problem with lingering in it, even waiting for it during the rite.  Of course there are moments when waiting is just what we are doing. I have a great memory of celebrating a solemn Mass with the music of Franz Josef Haydn.  We were halted, waiting for the Benedictus to conclude.  As it went on and on, “Qui venit… qui venit… qui venit venit veeeeeeenit…. qui venit venit veeeeeeeeeenit….”, my deacon, a distinguish Englishman, quiet said, “I wish he’d hurry up and get here.”]

Lastly, he said, choirs must be missionary like the church and the liturgy by way of attraction, which it does by revealing God’s beauty, wonder and infinite mercy. [That sounds, GASP, like proselytizing through music!  Of course that’s what first snagged my attention as a Lutheran/pagan and lead me into the Church.]

So many men come to the priesthood without the slightest idea about sacred music, or art or history or … lots of other things too.  We need to provide them with some basic tools.  They should have classes and workshops on sacred music, to learn about the development of chant and about different styles of sacred music through the centuries.  They need classes on art, etc.   There is, indeed, bad music and bad art.  I don’t accept without caveats that beauty is only in the eye of the beholder.  There are standards for beauty.

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18 Responses to Contentions between liturgists and musicians: What to do?

  1. tdhaller says:

    Hmm, same here. A Lutheran back then, a friend of mine took me to Catholic Mass in our local cathedral. It was not at all what I had expected, and what impressed me most was the music, in a way… so different from the guitars (in dire need of tuning) I was used to. I came back the next Sunday, and the next, and… eventually learned that there were other things the Lutherans didn’t get quite right. But the music, and the beautiful liturgy in general, was definitely what started it all for me.

  2. Matilda P says:

    Speaking of Msgr. Schuler — For anyone reading this who has the time and opportunity to make it to one of the Church Music Association of America’s summer Colloquia, it is a fantastic opportunity to be exposed to sacred music and to meet clergy and laypeople who work hard in parishes and seminaries to keep our sacred tradition of music alive. Beginners are more than welcome, and as a lay attendee it made me so, so happy to see especially priests and seminarians who had had little opportunity to be exposed to sacred music discover its beauty. Next year’s will be in St Paul, MN.

    If one is of a state of life such that they can donate some money to their scholarships for seminarians and students and their web hosting and digitisation costs, I’m sure they would appreciate it very much.

    I, for one, had gotten interested in Catholicism by singing sacred music in high school and then learning Latin. I was surprised to find that these were both Catholic things, as they bore little resemblance to my Catholic school experience, and I was surprised when I started RCIA and heard the Christ the Saviour Gloria. Thank God for all those who labour in sacred music–I imagine the lady who asked the question must feel some sadness.

  3. Joe in Canada says:

    Was it the missa brevis sancti johannis baptistae? I had a similar experience. As far as I can tell, that extension (and the musical improvisation between the Sanctus and the Benedictus) comes from a time when it was sung and played over the inaudible Eucharistic prayer. Anyways it was great fun watching the little bishop (this was at an ordination) slumping against the altar, not sure where to look. Another good reason for ad orientem!

  4. Denis Crnkovic says:

    While we all must agree, for the sake of Church discipline, that the pastor is “the man” and has the final say in what and how the liturgical music in his parish is performed, he must realise that his decision has its consequences and take responsibility for those consequences. The state of Catholic church music is so poor these days precisely because of most priests’ bad choices. When a priest in charge insists on, say, his personal favourite Dylan tune, or a doily ditty with seriously forced rhymes like “love=dove”, he alienates the very people who would provide truly beautiful music for the Mass. I emphasise “for” because the whole discussion about music vs. liturgy is falsely constructed: music is a part of the liturgical praxis, not a mere adjunct to it.The alienation of good and talented musicians by the clergy and lay liturgists has been a serious problem for over half a century. I am reminded of a quip from a fellow singer – one of those marvelously talented young men who could sit at a piano and extemporaneously imitate the style of any composer given a few random notes – who lamented that he could not find work as a choirmaster in Catholic church because he didn’t know how to play the guitar. For my own part, I have watched the Catholic church music scene pass me by, by choice. The bottom line is that when all of the pastors within driving distance insist on their poorly chosen musical favorites, people like me, with enough knowledge of sacred music to appreciate a good choir director’s expertise, people with good voices and with the willingness to work hard so as to sing well at Mass, people like me simply stop singing in Catholic choirs that are forced to bow to the bad taste of ignorant pastors and liturgists. And the result of that is the type of liturgical music that now predominates in our churches: mediocre music poorly or even abominably performed.

  5. Filipino Catholic says:

    As the spurious Augustine quote goes, “he prays twice who sings well”. This article brings to mind the distressing fact that despite the plethora of preposterously awful and sometimes downright banal liturgical music at hand, the treasury of music amassed over the centuries has been seemingly (deliberately?) passed over.

    Case in point, at a certain church I frequent, all the sung parts of the Ordinary were arranged in a modern setting. The entrance hymn was something that would’ve been at home in a non-Catholic church. The only time any of our own musical tradition was used was during the Holy Thursday Mass, with the terribly haunting Pange Lingua Gloriosi.

    Perhaps the 1974 Graduale Romanum (1961 for the Extraordinary Form) needs to enter wider circulation. Lamentably, despite apparently being one of the official liturgical books of the Latin Rite, it never did secure the pride of place reserved for our chant tradition.

  6. AnnTherese says:

    A cradle Catholic, it wasn’t until I became a liturgical musician that I developed an intimate understanding and appreciation of liturgy. In my experience, I’ve never worked for a priest who suggested inappropriate music, or really, was very invested in the music selections– though I believe they exist! Fortunately, there are so many wonderful educational resources about liturgical music, that, if you utilize them and grow your expertise and craft, it’s difficult to mess up. I agree– for any parish worker: when there is a strong disagreement with the priest or pastor– whether music/liturgy, education, etc. –hopefully you can work it out through respectful listening and discussion; you might have to compromise or give in, but after a good hashing-it-out, hopefully. If the priest is unwilling to do that, simply pulling out the “I’m the pastor and you’ll do what I say” card, then you do it, if you want to keep your job. If this is a common occurance, then for your own integrity and spiritual/emotional health, shake the sand from your sandals and find a new boss and parish home.

  7. greenlight says:

    We keep hearing about how the single most important thing we could do to restore a sense of reverence and sacredness to the liturgy is to return to ad orientem and while I suppose there’s a lot of truth to that, I must respectfully disagree. If there were a way to simply enforce some musical rules, perhaps even to restrict the musical choices, as painful as that would be for some, I think we’d begin to see results immediately. I don’t know how many NO’s I’ve sat through thinking “This Mass would be 70% better with no music at all and could be 90% better with different music.”

  8. capchoirgirl says:

    Greenlight: Yup. Totally agree.

  9. Ed the Roman says:

    There is a third element, the choristers themselves. In almost all cases they are purely volunteers, and if (father&&director) insist on things sufficiently objectionable to them, they will not be there any more.

    This effect is seen every time there is a change in director. Some singers will leave and different people will show up, often long time parishioners who just didn’t sing for the old director.

    Most choristers, though, only know what they enjoy singing, so they are rarely a clear influence for good liturgy.

  10. greenlight says:

    A further problem, at least in my own experience, is that choirmasters and choristers are rarely people who have some nefarious agenda of change. They’re just wonderful people giving selflessly of their time and talent. Who am I, as a no-talent schlub, to go saying that the music that they love is not appropriate for the sacred liturgy, when it’s right there in the hymnal that was approved by the bishop. If we’re just voting people’s preferences, the traditionalists will almost always lose.

  11. The Masked Chicken says:

    Msgr. Marini wrote:

    “But if no conclusion or final point is reached, then “perhaps it is better also to come out of it momentarily defeated and wait for a better time rather than generate divisions and conflict that do no good,” he said to applause.

    Live the path of communion and unity in the parish “with lots of goodness, cordiality and sometimes the ability to sacrifice something of oneself, too,” Msgr. Marini advised.

    Just like the grain of wheat, he said, “sometimes all of us must die in something” knowing that it will bear future fruit.”

    How can there be a path of unity and communion in the parish if the liturgy and music are not integrated, properly? Sometimes liturgy and music go together like a fashion model wearing scuba diving flippers to model an evening dress. Seriously, what path of unity is there when the Mass is celebrated to polka music? Granted, that is an extreme clash, but it does happen.

    Humility is truth. It is not humility to accept bad music – it is tolerance, which accepts an evil, for a time, in the hopes that conversion might take place. From, Redemptionis Sacramentum:

    “[57.] It is the right of the community of Christ’s faithful that especially in the Sunday celebration there should customarily be true and suitable sacred music, and that there should always be an altar, vestments and sacred linens that are dignified, proper, and clean, in accordance with the norms.”

    Who decides what is true and suitable sacred music? In theory, the priest should have some background in liturgical music. Is this a required course in seminary training? It ought to be. Given the disconnect that sometimes occurs between the solemnity of the Mass and the character of the music chosen, one can’t but doubt that it is. While it is humility for the laity to listen to the priest in matters of the liturgy, is it not, equally, a sign of humility for the priest to listen to the choir director, if the musician is properly trained? Humility cuts both ways.

    It is true that a valid Mass can be celebrated without music, but a valid Mass cannot be celebrated without a priest, so, there is a certain asymmetry inherent in any dialogue between musical and liturgical interests and, yet, how long, oh Lord, must the laity and the liturgy suffer at the hands of musically incompetent (or even agenda-driven) priests? Very few Masses are conducted with a choir composed exclusively of ordained clergy (nuns, I’ll give you). It used to be that liturgical music was almost exclusively in the hands of priests, because they were the only ones who could read the music, but after the Renaissance, the role of the laity, especially lay composers and writers, became greatly enhanced. Both Palestrina and Orlando di Lasso were married men. In calling the laity to be recognized as leading composers of sacred music (however, the legend about Palestrina influencing the Council of Trent is false), the Church has recognized at least an equality with the ordained clergy with regards to musical matters. In other words, priest and laity should work as a coordinated unit. When that breaks down, what can the laity do?

    I’ll be direct – priests are in charge of the music, ultimately, and they have the laity at a disadvantage because without the priest there is no Mass, In every way one can think of that matters, the reason that we have such poor music in Western NO Masses is, therefore, entirely the fault of the ordained clergy, especially bishops. Ultimately, in responding as he did, Msgr. Marini, inadvertently, gave poorly trained priests the right to continue foisting inferior music on the laity, because the laity must surrender to the priest or risk having no Mass.

    This is a sad state of affairs. If I worked at a seminary as a music professor (a position I am qualified for), I would, still, have to be subordinate to a priest I might have had in my class, even when I saw him doing something wrong with regards to the music at Mass. This is the state of disparity that exists in musical matters between clergy and the laity and is partially why the Church will not universally recover solid music for at least another fifty years.

    What can be done? Well, nothing can be done for the agenda-driven priest. He just won’t listen. For the more serious and orthodox priests, there is a crying need for a general-purpose textbook on liturgical music throughout history. There are many music history textbooks of which I am aware, but most of them cover Church music in broad overviews. Perhaps one has been written since I last looked, but when I was working on my doctorate, I specifically looked for such a book that covered Church music and its relation to liturgy throughout the centuries. I found none. Granted, there are Scared Music journals, but these are research-oriented and for the specialist.

    Does anyone know of such a text that covers Catholic music? If not, why isn’t there one? properly done and introduced into seminaries, it would go a long way towards righting the poor situation in liturgical music. If such a textbook became the de facto standard, it would, in effect, properly form priests and tie the hand of the experimenters. At that point, both the priest and the laity would have a common reference book. This would cut down on the numbers of disagreements between the laity and the clergy, between the music and the liturgy to almost nothing.

    That is my solution. That is what I see as the need. That is what was NOT done after Vatican II.

    The Chicken

  12. aliceinstpaul says:

    It doesn’t exist because you haven’t written it yet!

    Write the book! You are qualified to be a professor of music in a seminary. You are the perfect person!

  13. Grant M says:

    I remember as a freshly minted Catholic turning up to Mass in a new parish for the first time and experiencing a sinking feeling as I watched TEN guitarists take their seats to the right of the sanctuary. Worship to my ten guitars? I thought not and scurried off to an EF low Mass which had no music at all. Sixteen years later I have hardened up and can tolerate almost anything, having heard it all from the sublime to the ridiculous.
    I once saw a video of the FSSP offering a traditional requiem mass with Mozart’s setting. The first time I saw it I thought it was wonderful; the second time I felt that the music somewhat unbalanced the mass and made it a bit too much like a concert.
    Beethoven has a wonderful setting of the Benedictus in his Missa Solemnis which lasts about ten minutes – but I believe Beethoven was frankly composing for the concert hall rather than the church.

  14. John Nolan says:

    Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis was written for liturgical use (the consecration of the Archduke Rudolph, his friend and patron, as Archbishop of Olmütz in 1820) but wasn’t ready in time. The instrumental ‘Präludium’ which links the Sanctus and Benedictus was to accompany the Elevations. In early 19th century Austria it was forbidden to perform a Mass setting in the concert hall.

    The late, great Masses of Haydn, along with those of Hummel and Beethoven’s Mass in C, were written for the Esterhazy chapel. I understand that they would have been performed in the context of a Low Mass. The bicentenary of Haydn’s death (2009) coincided with Pentecost Sunday, and Benedict XVI celebrated Mass in St Peter’s using his last Mass, the Harmoniemesse. As it was a Novus Ordo Mass the Pope was unable to start the Canon until the Sanctus and Benedictus were sung, and had to remain standing at the altar for some considerable time (I don’t think he minded).

    The idea of the priest being anything other than a servant of the liturgy is a modern heresy. This applies a fortiori to the singers. This morning I sang for a Missa Cantata (XXIII after Pentecost) and we simply sang what was in the Liber Usualis, plus extra verses at the Offertory and Communion. ‘Green’ Sundays are usually Mass XI/Credo III so the congregation have the opportunity of joining in.

  15. surritter says:

    As a sometimes-organist for weekday Masses at my parish, there have been feast days or solemnities where the book calls for the Gloria, yet my pastor told me, “Nah, let’s not do the Gloria.” Clearly he was in the wrong, although I was tempted to just start playing the Gloria before he could start in with the Collect.
    I guess according to Msgr. Marini I was correct to comply with the priest’s disobedience. Shrug.

  16. jlduskey says:

    The priest-celebrant is in charge, for sure. If he is not the pastor, the celebrant should be aware of the pastor’s concerns about the liturgy; he should do nothing that contradicts the pastor.
    One should be aware that there are some conditions that exist, for the parish or for the priest-celebrant that may suggest choices that liturgists might not like.
    One possibility is that, on any particular Sunday, the priest might not be feeling well, and may want to minimize delays that could extend the amount of time for the mass. Not ideal, but this world of ours isn’t always ideal.
    There could also be a case where the pastor wants the mass to be over by a particular time, either because of some external parish/community event, or because of the starting time of the Mass or other church event that follows. There could be some reasons that are simply private, which the choir and the liturgist do not have the right to know.
    Ideally, the propers for an extraordinary form mass ought to be sung out of the Roman Gradual, however, if the parish choir does not have the skill (or the time to practice) to sing those properly, it may be better in particular situations to sing the easier and shorter versions, as from Rossini. Also, the priest is listening to the music: If he is disappointed in the quality of what he hears, he may suggest simpler and shorter choices. It is better to sing something simpler and sing it well.
    Life is much better for the liturgist and the choir director if they have a good working relationship with the priest. Discuss options with the priest, but in the end, just do what the priest says.

  17. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    “Pope Francis has insisted that liturgical music for papal liturgies ‘never go beyond the rite’ and force celebrants and the assembly to wait for the singing to finish before proceeding on to the next moment of the Mass”.

    When would something like this be a matter of concern? Only in a situation such as John Nolan describes, “a Novus Ordo Mass [when] the Pope [or other Celebrant] was unable to start the Canon until the Sanctus and Benedictus were sung”?

    “You can’t be distracted from prayer, by prayer” would seem to apply to long, elaborate Gloria and Credo settings (however ‘modus recipientis’ might in some sense be involved in practice).

  18. John Nolan says:

    In the Novus Ordo the celebrant is not at the altar for the first part of the Mass so the length of the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo (not to mention the Gradual/Tract, Alleluia and Sequence) is not an issue.
    In the Roman Rite the celebrant, having read these at the altar, normally sits. This even applies to chant settings of the Gloria and Credo, which are the shortest possible.

    The truncated Communion Rite of the post-1967 Ordo can present problems for the Agnus Dei but a more elaborate setting can be sung during the people’s Communion – a practice usually credited to Georg Ratzinger at Regensburg, although I suspect the London Oratory beat him to it.

    The Sanctus and Benedictus should be split in polyphonic settings. I have occasionally come across this in the Novus Ordo, with the celebrant reading most of the canon ‘silently’. Since it’s traditional to the Roman Rite it cannot be objected to, the GIRM with its often vague rubrics (which are descriptive rather than prescriptive) notwithstanding.