The following comes from a November 5 Catholic Herald article by Damian Thompson:
“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” says a character in a Noël Coward play. And it’s true. Even in church. A morbid Victorian hymn or a Christmas carol can reduce even the most cynical atheist to tears.
But even more potent, I’d argue, is church music that isn’t so much cheap as embarrassingly bad.
I can’t speak for other denominations, but I’m convinced that the distinctive awfulness of the music in many Catholic parishes helps explain why Mass attendance has fallen off a cliff since the 1970s.
I’m lucky. I live in a London parish where the priest can tell the difference between a good hymn and a bad one. The tragedy is that so many priests either can’t or, more likely, don’t want to upset the choir by banning the dispiriting rubbish written “in the spirit of Vatican II”.
The choice of music at Mass matters as much as the quality of the sermon. That’s always been my opinion, anyway, and recent experiences have only served to confirm it.
Bad Catholic Music (BCM for short) is uniquely inauthentic. It doesn’t sound like any other sort of music. Whether “inspired” by folk, jazz or chant, BCM has the knack of always sounding more or less the same.
There’s no precedent in the history of church music for such a clumsy cobbling together of musical ideas and styles.
When Cardinal Basil Hume died, the choir of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, recorded 20 much-loved old Catholic hymns as a tribute. I bought the CD and it was a revelation. Even the octave leap in “Sweet Sacrament Divine”, traditionally a painful geriatric swoop, makes musical sense if the voices are fresh and someone is beating time.
Yes, the words of all the hymns are sentimental; but the sentiments themselves – adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, identification with the suffering of Calvary, devotion to Our Lady – reflect the ancient, self-effacing piety of medieval worship. They are authentically Catholic.
What a contrast with post-Vatican II Bad Catholic Music. The hymns or “worship songs” that accompany folk Masses reek of spiritual narcissism.
The first person to spot this was the American choirmaster Thomas Day, in his 1990 book Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste. In many hymns, he says, “the congregation plays the role of God, and a very laid-back God at that”. Day cites a psalm setting by Father Michael Joncas, “On Eagle’s Wings”. The “moaning and self-caressing quality of the music”, writes Day, “indicates that the real topic of the words is not the comforting Lord but ‘me’ and the comforts of my personal faith”.
I’m sceptical of conservative musicians’ claims that Catholic music will recover as soon as congregations discover the simple joys of of plainchant, whether in Latin or English.
That’s because, in Britain and most of the West, we’ve lost the habit of communal singing. The only people required to sing together are primary school children, but it’s been decades since they were encouraged to stretch and develop their voices. As a music teacher told me the other day: “Modern adults just can’t reach the high notes that the old hymns demanded. So they don’t even try.”
All of which leaves the producers of Bad Catholic Music free to carry on selling material that few worshippers sing and even fewer actually like. They know that Pope Francis – in private, even more passionate about classical music than the Benedict XVI – does not interfere in matters liturgical.
This year there was a competition to write the music for Misericordes sicut Pater, “Merciful like the Father”, the official litany of the Year of Mercy. Given that the Catholic liturgy has inspired masterpieces from Josquin, Palestrina, Byrd, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Verdi, Britten and Messiaen, we might have expected something extraordinary. Instead, the winning entry was churchified musical wallpaper.
And the composer? Paul Inwood.