Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Cultural Obstacles to Sacred Music

If you’re serious about sacred music in your parish, there’s a great article entitle “The Blueprint: Sacred Music in Your Parish”,  by Arlene Oost-Zinner and Jeffrey Tucker which is a must-read (thanks to Wendi for pointing it out).

The authors begin with this statement:

Every parish can be the home for chant and sacred music. No situation is desperate or hopeless. Musicians who care need only do the necessary work and take the necessary steps.

In other words, put your excuses away, and look for paths that will lead to the successful introduction of sacred music in your parish!

Of particular importance for us in the Diocese of Baker, I think, is this comment the authors make on “cultural obstacles”.

In seeking to introduce sacred Catholic music into parishes, one must first deal with the stark reality that our heritage in music and Latin language has evaporated in practice.  Three generations have been raised in the faith without the sounds of chant, and very few people under a certain age can conjure up the first notes of any popular chant from the past. In many parishes, thirty plus Pentecosts have come and gone without the “Veni Creator,” and thirty plus Lents without a single “Parce Domine.” The “Ubi Caritas” is unfamiliar, unknown to most. The Marian plainsongs of “Ave Maria,” “Regina Caeli,” and “Salve Regina” have no meaning, musically or textually. Not even the “Tantum Ergo” has made it into the hymnbooks in most common use.

Now, if the chants listed in that paragraph are unfamiliar to you, you will definitely have a long row to hoe! I know that in the Cathedral parish, at least a couple of them would be vaguely familiar to parishioners, but they are being used less and less as the years go by. In another parish, the choir has been resistant to Latin for decades, it seems, and so these chants are not at all familiar. But, regardless, the authors insist that this obstacle can be overcome, and they provide some practical advice later in the article.

It is important, though, to have some understanding of the history of sacred music in our parishes and in our diocese in general. I think that especially in the eastern part of the Diocese of Baker, the impoverished musical state is due to the fact that we’re a long way from anywhere, and it’s unlikely that there were ever too many musicians available to sing and train others in singing chant. The title of a book by Monsignor William S. Stone published in 1993 is quite telling: The Cross in the Middle of Nowhere: A History of the Catholic Church in Eastern Oregon.

Oost-Zinner and Tucker continue:

When the St. Anthony Messenger surveyed its readers in 1996 on their favorite Catholic hymns, the top three answers were startling: 1. “Be Not Afraid” (contemporary song and the bane of all who seek traditional music);  2. “Amazing Grace” (protestant traditional); 3. and “How Great Thou Art” (protestant traditional). Of the top twelve picks among readers, only two were traditional Catholic (“Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” and “Panis Angelicus”). It is not that the survey takers were rejecting traditional Catholic music; most likely, it is just not known to them.

I suspect this is especially true for our Diocese. The Diocese of Baker is one of the largest geographically in the US, but with one of the smallest populations of Catholics. It’s not too surprising that we’ve been susceptible to the influx of Protestant hymns in our liturgies.

The authors go on to point out that:

Not having exposure to solemn music at Mass, a common reaction among people is to regard it as depressing and exclusivist. This is, once again, a reflection of the reigning pattern of liturgical socialization that has taken place for so many decades. The purpose of most Catholic music written since about 1970 has not been to draw from the chant tradition but to break from it with the goal of bringing people together in a spirit of community praise. Under the right conditions, chant can accomplish the same, but that is not its primary purpose, and so long as people are looking for community uplift as versus holiness, chant will not win out. It takes time to attract people into a new sense of what it means to worship and what Catholicism can and should sound like. (my emphasis)

This article was written in 2003. Now we have had the “new translation” of the Roman Missal introduced at Mass, so at least people are starting to get a taste of that “new sense of what it means to worship”. However, without a change in the music, the more accurate translation will eventually fade into the background. The time is ripe to sing the chants indicated in the Missal itself.

There’s a lot more in this article. Please read it here

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