Sons of Salieri – the debasing of liturgical music

There is a very piece at The Paragraph Farmer (great name!) about liturgical music. 

You have all heard rotten music in churches, music which makes even the Campbell Soup jingle or the theme from Gilligan’s Island sound like Mahler.  Then there is the contemporary group who think their Boston. 

The Paragraph Farmer gets into "praise bands".  Read the whole piece at his place, but here is an excerpt.  (my emphases and comments.

In Catholic circles, praise band relocation off the grass and onto the carpet was aided and abetted by liturgists hell-bent on democratizing and de-clericalizing everything about the Mass "in the spirit of Vatican II," and never mind what the actual architects of Vatican II (such as a Polish prelate named Karol Wojtyla who later became Pope John Paul II) had to say. Some of those liturgists worked hand-in-glove with politically correct composers —sons of Salieri, every one of them — like the irksome Marty Haugen.

Now that praise bands are indoors, they have no intention of returning to the garages, basements, parking lots, and auditoriums from which they came.

As a result of the developments I’ve sketched above, and the fact that hymnody has fallen victim to the language wars, we now have a sorry situation indeed. But Anthony Esolen understands this phenomenon better than I do. Go read his comments at the link, and the classically literate followup to those comments. In brief, Esolen says that sentimentality, although valuable in its place, is neverthless destructive of genuine feeling. And there you have the problem put in yet another way: when power ballads intrude on the liturgy of heaven (which is what the Mass is), then what Esolen calls "the necessary hypocrisy of small talk" is wrongly raised to the status of a liturgical act.  [This puts it as well as anything I have ever read.  Sometimes we use the phrase "banalization".  This, however, introduces the concept of hypocrisy.   In ancient rhetoric, what was "apt" and "beautiful" (aptum et pulchrum) played a major role in communication.  These categories were also employed for theology and, therefore, prayer.  There is no room for hypocrisy in prayer.  The Roman style of liturgical prayer, in Latin, was not "small talk"however, concise it was.  There is not a trace of hypocrisy in any Latin oration I recall ever having read.  I cannot say the same for the lame-duck ICEL versions.]

Power ballad and praise band mediocrity is sometimes justified on the grounds that people need to be met "where they are" with lyrics to which they can relate. [Sound like the translation war and the Trautman proposal, "Trautmania".] This attitude is arrogant on two counts, in that praise band directors have abrogated to themselves an outreach task that properly belongs to the Holy Spirit, while also assuming that straightforward hymnody of the kind exemplified in, for example, "We walk by faith – and not by sight – No gracious words we hear – Of Him who spoke as none e’er spoke – Yet we believe Him near" is somehow less intelligible than what you hear in pop music. Mr. Tom Petty, if you please: "All the vampires – Walking through the Valley – Move west down – Ventura Boulevard – And the bad boys – Are standing in the shadows – While the good girls – Are home with broken hearts. "

Show of hands as to how many people outside California know that Petty is singing about the San Fernando Valley? And how about those vampires, hmmm….? (Bueller? Anyone?)

Like C.S. Lewis [and Fr. Z] wrote in a related context, we need meat, not just milk. Lewis wasn’t writing specifically to Catholics at the time, but that he should have to remind Christians whose faith lives are ordered around the eucharist of this fact is testimony to our own failures and the failures of some of our pastors.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in SESSIUNCULA. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Brian Crane says:

    Very thought provoking on the whole, but I have to confess that I really can’t understand the point he is trying to make in the paragraph containing “We Walk By Faith” and Tom Petty. Is he saying that “We Walk By Faith” is a good hymn? That one paragraph could use some more farming I think. Can someone clarify?

  2. Hammerbrecher says:

    Anyone else have trouble praying the Mass when the drums and band are there?

  3. bedwere says:

    Antonio Salieri does not deserve to be associated with today’s bad composers.

  4. jaykay says:

    Hammerbrecher said: Anyone else have trouble praying the Mass when the drums and band are there?

    Nope… ‘cos when they’re there, I’m not.

    But at least I have a choice. I would hate to be in a situation where the only available Mass was marred by those excresences. My main local church, glorious early Victorian Gothic, with retained altar rails and high altar, has one quite frequently. Am I alone in thinking that this sort of music, complete with its props i.e. drums, gee-tawrs, over-large amps etc. is all the more ugly in such a setting? That it almost does violence to the building? (and I don’t just mean the effect of overloud sound waves on delicate stained glass). Truly, my ancestors who paid for it and prayed in it – and physically built it in the case of one stonecutter great-great-whatever – would be appalled and horrified.

  5. Sid Cundiff says:

    Anything in 3/4 time should be utterly banned! Let’s keep the waltz in the Kaffeehaus, the Ländler in Oberbayern, the polka-mazurka in Poland.

    Hymns belong in the Divine Office, not the Mass, anyway.

    To rescript Twain, praise band music isn’t as bad as it sounds (snort, laugh).

    Salieri, by the way got, a bum-rap.

  6. Tim Ferguson says:


    I believe the point he’s making is that, while “We Walk by Faith” presents some very simple words, simple phrases and clear, unambiguous sentence structure, the end result lacks a good deal of clarity, whereas Tom Petty’s song, even though it uses imagery that is not immediately familiar (and therefore would fail Bp. Trautman’s “easy access” rule), presents a much clearer picture in the end. Simplicity of language does not necessarily equate with effective poetry, quite the opposite, in fact, particularly with a vocabulary-rich language like English.

  7. RBrown says:

    Anything in 3/4 time should be utterly banned! Let’s keep the waltz in the Kaffeehaus, the Ländler in Oberbayern, the polka-mazurka in Poland.

    Secular music, yes. But because of inflection Latin often is dactyl (a long syllable followed by two shorts), which produces a taste of waltz.

    NB: the dactyl:

    Super FLUmina Babylonis illic SEdimus et FLEVimus.

  8. Brian Crane says:

    Thanks, Tim.

  9. berenike says:

    Poor ole Salieri. Master to geniuses, composer of note in his own right …

    The polka is 2/4, no? The mazurka is 3/4, but the accent doesn’t fall on the first beat.

  10. Royce says:

    “praise band music isn’t as bad as it sounds”

    Right, it’s worse.

  11. AM says:

    “We walk by faith” was written in about 1840 by the same (C. of E.) guy who wrote “Come, ye thankful people come”, namely the Rev. Henry Alford.

    I think it’s a good hymn: certainly it’s orthodox.

  12. Adrienne says:

    Unfortunately, our church has three masses and two and a half “train wrecks” when it comes to music. Thankfully, Father has not allowed the praise bands in through the rat hole but our 10:30 music comes close.
    I find the horrible sounds emitting from the back of the church to be a HUGE distraction and it certainly doesn’t lift my heart or mind to the divine. I know, I know – if I was holier I would not be distracted.
    My husband is a master musician, teacher and music publisher and I will defend quality guitar played in church to my death. The operative word being “quality” NOT plunky, plunky, strum, strum.

  13. Argent says:

    In my parish, the all-encompassing goal for Mass is to ‘get people to sing’. So it matters not what style it is, ‘just get them singing.’ Therefore, amplification on individual choir members (which means the choir area, which is up front, becomes a forest of mics and mic stands..lovely, no?) is a must, even for the ‘quieter’ 8 AM Mass. In addition, we have a mish-mash of styles from traditional hymns to praise music to Haugen/Haas with a sprinkling of Gregorian to please everyone’s palate. Quite jarring. You see, if everyone is singing, then it means we’re actively participating. (/sarcasm)

    We had reintroduced chanting the Ordinary every other month or so. But there’s invariably the complaint…’Oh, the Credo took too long and people are looking at their watches’. Never mind that when “Taste and See’ is sung in place of the Psalm it lasts forever and made unbearable by the “Taaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayste and seeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee” ad nauseum.

  14. Red Cardigan says:

    I recently joined our parish choir, which means I now have to sing the dreadful songs as well as the wonderful ones (what a joy to hear my children beside me singing the Regina Coeli!)

    The more people there are in the choir who can and want to sing the “good stuff” the more the fluff will fade away like the nonsense it is, I think, unless you have a hardline choir director who is still singlemindedly trying to impose his interpretation of Vatican II on the parish.

    If you want to change the music at your church, if you can sing, and you prefer Latin, try joining the choir. It may not work, but at least you’ll know you tried!

  15. Cpt Tom says:

    I tried for a year to sing in one of the choirs in my parish. That was before it was decided we would move to contemporary music (Haugen & Hauss, et al), move the choir downstairs to the right of the altar, which required mic’ing the Choir because the acoustics are screwed up, and use keyboard, and electronic drums for accompanying music instead of the Organ. Gotta give the people what they want…What bunk!

  16. Tony Esolen says:

    Dear Father Zuhlsdorf,

    Hats off to you for exposing the non-translation of the Novus Ordo that we’ve had to put up with all these years!

    I’m afraid if you get me started on bad church music, I may never see my shadow again. Where to start? The human voice cannot find its note in a guitar chord. Microphones (especially on sopranos) block out the chance that non-sopranos will find their range easily. Music that overwhelms the Word defeats the purpose. Choirs that “perform” before mute congregations defeat their purpose. So-called hymns that emphasize me and us all over the place celebrate how wonderful WE are, and have no place in church. I could go on for a year…. Last Sunday we wandered into a country church in Canada and were blessed with a fine preacher (we knew him already) and, surprise of surprises, NO CHOIR. No Catholic Idol crooners. So the people sang “Morning Has Broken” (an old Celtic hymn, by the way, much older than Cat Stevens) and “All Creatures that on Earth Do Dwell” (Old Hundredth). Men sang, too. I have had the experience only a handful of times in my life, of being able to sing out with a full chest, baritone/bass, without seeming like Jethro Bodine in a class full of third graders. I guess a simple rule of charity ought to obtain: if you are getting in the way of people’s singing, get out of the way. That means you, showboating choirs, soprano leads, guitarists …

    By the way, I’ve been asked by Rev. Robert Crouse, whom I recently met at a theological conference, to give you his warm regards.

    Tony Esolen

  17. Tony: Thanks so very much for the greetings from Robert Crouse, a great man and wonderful gentleman. Greet him in turn, if you would be so kind. I would very much enjoy talking to him soon.

Comments are closed.