What We Have Lost (And Maybe Getting Back): Decent Music

I have no musical training.  My friend Father Justin once said I have a "good natural instrument," but I think he was just trying to be nice.  Nevertheless, I make a point to sing all of the songs in Church--active participation in the Liturgy and all that.  So, I feel qualified to pass judgment on the music that is the staple of most Catholic Masses.  And the judgment is simple--it's mostly terrible.

I am certainly not the first person to complain about the music, but this is my blog so I will vent.  The music is terrible for two reasons.  First, much of it is bizarrely hard to sing.  Take for example the "old" standard "On Eagle's Wings."  Now, I have a soft spot in my heart for this song, but it is very tough for men to sing, since so much of it is in the high registers.  Don't believe me?  Listen to this rendition, focusing on the ends of the verses.

Now, these guys are exactly Andrea Bocelli, but there are giving it the old college try, and the song is not doing them any favors.  There are other hymns with weird time changes and other odd flourishes that make it hard to follow along unless you really read music and know what you are doing.  And, almost by definition, the people in the congregation don't know what they are doing.

The other terrible thing about some of the hymns is that they range from insipid, to theologically dubious, to full-on heretical.  My personal pet peeve is the song "Gather Us In," which has the following verse:

Not in the dark of buildings confining
Not in some Heaven light-years away
But here in this place, the new light is shining
Now is the Kingdom, Now is the Day

In other words, don't go to Church, and don't worry about Heaven, because you are already in Heaven, I guess.  This song should be banned from Catholic Masses.  Equally bad is the weirdly self-congratulatory "Anthem":

We are called, We are chosen
We are Christ for one another
We are promised to tomorrow
While we are for Him today
We are sign, We are wonder
We are sower, We are seed
We are harvest, We are hunger
We are question, We are creed

At a certain point, you sort of get the feeling the songwriter just picked words that rhymed without a thought to the meaning, like a bad rap song (what does "We are creed" mean?).  Last Ash Wednesday, someone pointed out to me the dubious theology underlying the song "Ashes," which you will probably hear in every Catholic Church on that day.  It contains the lines "we rise again from ashes, to create ourselves anew" (really? how do we do that?) and "an offering of ashes, an offering to you" (to whom? to God? Why are we offering God ashes?)

In a year, we are going to get a new translation of the Mass, along with a renewed emphasis on Gregorian Chant in English.  The general consensus is that this will discourage participation in the Mass, but I think that's wrong.  The great secret of chant is that you can fake your way through it without knowing what you are doing or how to sing and it still sounds OK.  I spent an entire year faking my way through chant as a Dominican, and no one knew the difference.  It's much, much easier to sing than "On Eagle's Wings."

Plus, when it is done by people who know what they are doing, its really great.  Here's a small choir at a Church in Jackson, Mississippi

If they can do it, everyone can do it.


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