Liturgical Singing vs. "Sung Prayer"
  • David AndrewDavid Andrew
    Posts: 1,204
    I came into my office and found a copy of an article by David Haas stuck under the door, with the words "What do you think of this, David?" scrawled across the top and signed by our parochial vicar. While I have no doubt he did it in a spirit of jest, it truly has sent my blood pressure up beyond healthy limits.

    The title is "Sung Prayer: All God's critters got a place in the choir." I can summarize the whole thing in about three sentences. Haas first recounts the heart-rending (or as he calls it, with no hyperbole of course, "horrific") story of a man (who he calls Nathan) who is sent packing from a choir because he was "tone deaf." Then he lambastes all professional choir directors in the field who think that aesthetics have anything to do with singing in a church choir ("But musical aesthetics is not the goal of communal sung prayer,") and of course draws poorly-argued parallels between church choirs and the local oratorio society. Finally he leaves us with his vast wealth of wisdom, that everyone has a place in the choir because they bring joy and faith.

    It's really unfortunate that Mr. Haas has missed a key point: the choir doesn't engage in "communal sung prayer." "Sung prayer" is a fabrication of the NPM "spirit of Vatican II" types who don't understand that liturgical singing is a very different "critter" (to borrow Haas' rather cutesy term). Anyone who has read the many documents (curial, conciliar and even those of the USCCB) know that the choir serves a specific liturgical role. Even the USCCB document, equivocal as it is, makes an attempt to spell out the distinctions, albeit couched in fuzzy, politically correct language.

    I also take great exception to Haas' veiled claim that those of us who are concerned with aesthetics lack joy or faith. I seem to recall reading somewhere that while "Good music may transfigure ones' faith, bad music never does."

    Theologians who easily eclipse Mr. Haas' intellect have written far more compelling theses on the subject of the role of aesthetics in the formation and elevation of one's faith (von Balthazaar and our own Holy Father come to mind). It's as if Haas never read (or bothered to read) anything relevant to his position. Rather, in typical elitist fashion, Haas spews his unqualified venom at anyone who has actually taken the time to study and learn the craft, pouring scorn and contempt on them for attempting to preserve a sense of beauty and reverence to the Divine Liturgy.

    I have to wonder how he goes about selecting the backup singers for his many professionally recorded CD's. Do you suppose the "tone deaf" Nathan was given a place in that choir?
  • David Haas has been self-delusional for quite some time. Let him remain squatted, cross-legged on his guru mountaintop and out of sight of those workers who are actually IN THE VINEYARDS.
    "Intellect" and "Haas" in the same sentence? Never been part of the equation. It's always been about....
    "Feelings, nothing more than feelings....."
    Smarmy, but still civil.
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    Ironically to all of this, you need years of conservatory piano training to even ATTEMPT any of Haas's "songs" or the Gloria from the Mass of Light...

    Actually I have come to side with Haas here a bit more than I used to. I wouldn't hesitate from kicking out the tone-deaf; in fact I had a developmentally disabled woman attempt to join the choir that I sadly had to remove when even matching the priest's sung collect was a difficulty. But I think the nature of the liturgy almost makes the quality of the singing of secondary importance.

    My experience comes from my visit to the new local Antiochian Orthodox mission, also my first visit to an Eastern Divine Liturgy. It's run by a former Lutheran and consists of a congregation of mostly the same. Their liturgy was, without fear of overstatement, enough to convince me that there IS an objective beauty and I was witnessing it. And yet there was nothing going on to make it beautiful: the congregation was mostly in jeans, the liturgy was held in a banquet hall of a charity center, the liturgy was in English, and the choir was BAD. When I say bad, I mean embarrassingly bad bad bad: all women, some off pitch, most with shrill nasal voices, and some with a heavy vibrato mockery of Eastern singing. And the congregation sang along in a country/folk style voice with some making up parts. And yet that is the most beautiful music I had ever heard. Why? Because the beauty was entirely in the liturgy.

    Look at our western liturgy now. We have that beauty in the antiphons of Mass! The more I do chant the more I realize that which is proper to the liturgy is crying out to be sung at Mass, and yet so often I've refused to do propers because everything was "too hard" or psalm tones/recto tono are just boring. But there's the beauty of the liturgy - not in how we sing, but what! This Sunday, due to not lining up a cantor, I had to cantor for our early Mass. We had "The Strife is Over", and split up "O Fili et Filiae" for offertory and closing, and then at Communion I sang exactly what the Church told me to, what my title demands of me: "Put your hand into my side Thomas, Alleluia...." I sang it to tone VI, and for those 20 seconds, the liturgy was being done. Did it matter that I mangled the Alleluias? Well, yes, BUT it didn't detract from the liturgy being done. I could have (in a perfect world) done the Byrd Haec Dies with an octet of boys and men perfectly done, but it wouldn't beat the pure beauty that the liturgy provides.

    I'm reminded of when I had my choir sing "Laetare, Jerusalem". One of them was fretting and going on about how terrible it is and how bad it will sound. We wound up roughly note-perfect in the end, but I kept telling her, "It doesn't matter. What does matter is that we are doing the music of the liturgy, not something foreign. It's good music and we're going to show to the congregation that it's good music by letting the music speak for itself." I have no doubt that all you on this board would s**t (that says "spit" and nothing else) all over our performance. You would probably even call my direction inept, stupid, and overly rhythmic. But I can tell you that we sang what the liturgy commanded of us, and didn't dare to think ourselves "above" that.

    In short, there's a role to be played in Mass by the musicians. And anything keeping you from fulfilling that role is just an excuse.
  • Jevoro
    Posts: 108
    Did you sing "Put your hand.." in an english version? Or Mitte manum tuam??? (GR 218)
  • "I have no doubt that all you on this board would s**t (that says "spit" and nothing else) all over our performance. You would probably even call my direction inept, stupid, and overly rhythmic. But I can tell you that we sang what the liturgy commanded of us, and didn't dare to think ourselves "above" that."

    Gavin, dude! Speaking for myself, I'd wager (and GregP will attest that I DON'T gamble) that the exact opposite sentiments would be offered you if we had the honor of hearing your singers perform by "all of" us. The reason I joined CMAA at Colloquium is precisely because of the evident humility and unprejudiced demeanor of the folks gathered there to garner wisdom and practicum from equally enthused and experienced mentors. There ain't no preening of peacock feathers among the various levels of artistic and academic practicioners at CMAA. And that's why this ain't no NPM or, for that matter, ACDA.
    Regarding inclusiveness, we're generations removed from the old anecdote about "Sister told me to just mouth the words, mommy!" and the lifelong stigma. We've all faced that, most certainly in church choirs, and many of us in secondary and university academic choirs. Deo Gratias we have the benefit of folks like Richard Miller and James C. McKinney who help us understand that: first-tone deafness is greatly exaggerated; two- those who have such issues can, with dedication, be guided into remediating those issues. Haas' citing of that sort of injustice is likely based upon stereotypes culled from anecdotes confided to his own experiences.
    His "feel good" mentality is likely premised upon entirely different criteria than the "feel good" sense of accomplishment you and your choirs, however technically capable they may be, know as a result of offering your best efforts in realizing the best efforts of sacred composers in service to God and His Faithful.
    Dude, we're with you! (Sorry for the Lebowski-speak!) In the words of JPII first spoken as pontiff: do not be a-fret.
    Oops, my bad!;-)
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    Well by all means I don't intend to support Haas. Probably should have put that as a disclaimer. I just have drifted more towards his viewpoint (which is a 4 letter word BESIDES "spit") in the past months and more away from my old "If it doesn't sound like Westminster Cathedral, it doesn't belong at Mass" viewpoint. As usual, after my monster post I'll sum up my point in a sentence or two: Good music well done is all well and good, but I'm far more impressed and moved by a group who, for better or worse, has the cahones to step up to the plate and just do the liturgy as it's supposed to be done. Often I think the "cult of quality" interferes with that (particularly I've been occasionally ordered NOT to sing the propers and to "pick some hymns" instead).
  • Jeffrey TuckerJeffrey Tucker
    Posts: 3,624
    It's long been my suspicion that the praise music crowd doesn't like quality. Certainly the ubiquity of their music has demoralized serious musicians from being involved in a choir. Interesting to see that openly admitted.

    I spoke with a person in Tennessee whose parish has two Masses, in a fairly large parish. Both are crowded. The music is 100% haugen/haas etc. The morning Mass has one person playing piano and singing the melody to four songs. The mid-morning Mass has one person playing piano and three people singing the melody to four songs. That's the whole parish music program. The pastor knows it is awful and so does everyone else, but no one even knows where to begin fixing this. There is no joy here. It's very sad.
  • I'm not prepared to agree with the generalization in your suspicion, Jeffrey. I tend to believe that the mediocrity encountered (as cited anecdotally on our blogs) in St.Average's is the result of simple laziness at any number of personnel levels.
    If you examine some "motherships" of the "praise music crowd," especially those of our Protestant/Evangelical brethren such as Hillsongs Ministry, Brooklyn Tabernacle and such, the quality of their "product" is stunningly beautiful. I'm sure there are any number of such cross-over versions in various LifeTeen parish praise "teams" floating around somewhere in the Arizona suburbs. However, here's where the paradigm of the Prot modality of that worship fails when crossing over to RC worship- the professionalism and showmanship of those megachurch groups is part and parcel of how they attract "worshippers" via that music's appeal to the more emotional aspects of praising God and acknowledging one's relationship to God. When you try to overlay that and imitate that within the structure of the Divine Liturgy, or the celebration of Eucharist, or ....Mass, the emotional satisfaction of a hyper-polished performance of catholic praise music can't help but call attention to itself.
    "Wow, that Offertory song rocked!" "Don't you just love that song 'Sanctuary' or 'Awesome God?'"
    Uh, yeah, that was almost as cool as RECEIVING THE BODY AND BLOOD OF THE LIVING CHRIST!
    So, between laziness and envy, we find a lot of pastors and their assigned music personnel pleased to just maintain a stagnant status quo.
    Or, I could have just typed: what Mary Jane Ballou said in the Winter SM issue!
  • Jeffrey TuckerJeffrey Tucker
    Posts: 3,624
    Well, the problem is unusually acute in Catholic congregations. We were thin on talent to begin with. Then when music came along that required next to nothing of the choir and even dramatically diminished the role of choir, it was all over. The rebuilding is going to take a long while, and there is no shortcut.

    I can recall that I sang for a conventional parish choir for about 8 months, just to sort of pay my dues. I was just embarrassed at the infantile nature of this music. It makes anyone with actual training feel ridiculous.

    Just luring existing musicians back to the Catholic Church is a struggle. People with ability have been burned very badly in modern times in the parish setting. I recall trying to talk to an ex-Catholic alto about singing for us. She used to direct music at a Catholic parish before there was a praise-music upheaval. I told her that we were doing chant and polyphony, good music. Her response was deeply cynical: "Yeah sure, and how long will that last? Until the new pastor comes along and tosses you all out." She was so bitter that she could hardly even speak about the subject.
  • francis
    Posts: 10,667

    Tis a sad thing to see the state of our glorious liturgy and Church. The praise crowd likes to 'get excited'--pure emotionalism mixed with egoism. (They don't want much to do with the cross though. They would rather have the 'prosperity that God wants for them'. Well, God may want them prosperous, true, but the devil surely don't, and he is permitted (yes, even by God) to mess with their mittens.) And I don't think they know what excellence is. I think they have been robbed of any sense of excellence. As for the slick stuff of motherships, well, Capitalism is real good at making something 'appear' to be so much better than it really is. I mean, lets take a Whopper for instance. It is stunningly beautiful to my eyes, but whenever I eat one, the spirit of death is not far off! And Gavin, yes. Excellence can never be an end unto itself. MANY are caught in that slippery trap. Jesus said so: (see his homily on whitewashed tombs.)

    Give me three or four for a schola willing to learn chant that have half a voice, and I will be ready to go.
  • Very interesting... At a workshop some years ago, Haas berated the gathered liturgical musicians for many lapses in musical precision. I didn't care much for the guy then and this notice hasn't changed my mind. His music is just plain inappropriate for the Mass IMO.
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    Jeff, on a technicality, I don't believe the Catholic talent pool is or has been that low. I think it's largely unused and uncared-for because the attitude always has been "let's do the bare minimum to get by." Why bother training good musicians and choral directors in the '50s if you can have Left-foot Lucy play and sing Nicholas A. Montanni's Greatest Hits for $5 a week? That just naturally transitioned to the folk model after the council.

    Being in both Catholic and Protestant circles at differing times, I can attest that Catholics, for some reason, ARE more talented than protestants. The difference is that protestants are brought up to use their talents, and Catholics (in America) are told that developing talent is a waste of time and money. In my Catholic high school, out of 1000 students about 300 were in the choir. This was due to choir being a way out of theology courses (and this is how I got hooked on Church Music myself!) but still there were auditions and the choir did hard work and sounded pretty good. Imagine having 1/3 of ANY size parish be active in the music ministry. Yet this is what our high school PROVED Catholics are capable of.
  • Jeffrey TuckerJeffrey Tucker
    Posts: 3,624
    Well, I guess perceptions are dictated by experiences. And the truth is that I was raised in the midst of the most music-crazed protestant environment imaginable, so that nearly everyone in the church could read music, and singing was beyond belief. I recall a music summer camp in New Mexico for Baptists (Glorieta) that was higher-level that nearly any musical experience I've ever had, even at the university level. Then I look at now in the Catholic parishes I know, and I see nearly 100% musical illiteracy. Well, I'll stop writing on this now, since I wrote about it at length in the Sacred Music newly posted online. Essentially what I pointed out is that the world I grew up in has collapsed too. Glorieta once did Brahms and Mendelssohn. Now it is P&W and the quality is gone--as confirmed by many people who remember the old days. Anyway, the point is the future, not the past.
  • gregpgregp
    Posts: 632
    Jeffrey, speaking of the latest Sacred Music issue, could you post that little anecdote you had at the end of the article about the Workshop you just had? The one about the 'chant jock'. I'd love to forward that on to my schola.
  • Jeffrey TuckerJeffrey Tucker
    Posts: 3,624
    oh hmmm. The article with Arlene about the Advent thing. Ok. After a bit.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,933
    Haas is at best a know-nothing when it comes to the function of music in the liturgy. In another time, he would have been laughed out of the Church. But every time he accomplishes a newer and lower level of mediocrity, look at what happens. NPM honors him for his contributions to the liturgy.
  • I'm more or less with Gavin on the talent pool being weak contention, Jeffrey. In fifteen years I could have picked any Sunday morning, walked up each of our aisles and pointed out high school/college kids who have/had been members of the Concert or Chamber Choruses of any of our four extraordinary high school choral programs; their parents who were known to me as former collegiate singers as well as instrumentalists, including many of the professionals in our symphony. Here's the deal: they're unwilling for a number of understandable reasons to make a 1.5 hour rehearsal commitment on a weeknight and an equal time commitment on Sunday mornings. Many of them are already booked solid doing other parish activities at night, or athletics, civic clubs and whatnot.
    The weird factor is that when a parish choir manages to achieve, maintain and improve its artistic abilities over a consistent number of years, you don't have folks beating on your door to join in the fun. On the contrary, they think "Hey, they're doing okay, they don't need me." Mostly it's a matter of not wanting to make a time commitment, not a lack of actual musical or vocal talent in most places, I would speculate.
  • Jeffrey TuckerJeffrey Tucker
    Posts: 3,624
    I've sometimes seen that too. Some guy I bumped into at the grocery asked if he could sing with us on Good Friday. This was Monday of holy week. i said, no, but he could come for a trial period to rehearsal the following week. He said, no, no time. So there you go: wants the fame, not the work.
  • tdunbar
    Posts: 120
    Some of the criticisms of praise bands I read here sound like hearsay. At any rate, in the setting they're meant for, they make very good use of resources..a good sound system, four skilled musicians with an empathetic leader can be very effective at moving the congregation, to the cross, to rejoicing, or whatever. However, the problem of leaving the congregation behind becomes even worse then and worship becomes ghettoized.

    Plainchant is, ironically perhaps, better suited at building up the entire congregation in the use of their own voices, provided the schola doesn't take the congregation as a dumb lump of thugs and instead maintains an attitude of adoration to God and encouragement to neighbor.

    That's my newbie perception anyway.
  • mjballoumjballou
    Posts: 993
    "Or, I could have just typed: what Mary Jane Ballou said in the Winter SM issue!"

    Thanks, Charles in CenCA. I also agree with the observation that a good choir doesn't seem to attract new singers in Catholic Churches. People seem to believe that the need is met and they can do something else. A couple of thoughts. One from a colleague of mine - she realized all the chairs in the choir area down on the front right side of the church were full. Well, why would you want to join a choir that doesn't even have room for you? The second is my own. The people in the pews don't see the choir doing anything but singing at Mass (and that "Christmas Eve thing you do"). Do they know that the choir has some semblance of social interactions? Maybe there's a choir retreat (OK, make it a half-day one)? Catholic choirs never seem to go to choir festivals in this part of the country. Is there more about the choir in the bulletin than the announcement of the Wednesday evening rehearsal? These are random thoughts and in no way imply criticism. And I'm sure we've tried them all with varying degrees of success.

    Oh yes, don't forget those folks who only want to sing for the big events but can't even come to the rehearsals immediately prior. Don't forget them because they'll blind-side you after Mass on the 4th Sunday in Advent and Palm Sunday. (Of course, no one sneaks up on Jeffrey.)
  • tdunbar
    Posts: 120
    Perhaps, in some settings anyway, it might be more useful for a schola to be a "new evangelization" group rather than a parish choir?