Thursday, March 9, 2006


Faust: Ich bin’s, bin Faust, bin deinesgleichen!
Geist: Du gleichst dem Geist, den du begreifst,
Nicht mir!
Goethe, Faust I, 500, 512-513

Not an organization member myself, and therefore not entitled to receive it in print format, a few weeks ago, I was sent the PDF file of the article from the February-March 2006 edition of Pastoral Music, the journal of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, which reported on its recent poll. The poll sought to determine what religious “songs” were the most popular among American Roman Catholics. I had learned about the poll from colleagues and was happy to provide a few titles of anthems, motets, and congregational hymns which seemed to fulfill the NPM’s queries. This particular poll seemed quite interesting to me, mostly because I wondered who it was who would respond to it. Surely the membership of the NPM would, and that full-heartedly. But what of the others? (There are indeed others, mirabile dictu.) Judging from the red herring titles in the batch of poll results, I suppose that a number of us non-NPMer’s did indeed respond. It would have been foolish to assume that the majority of respondents were not members of that organization itself, and that ultimately, the poll results would have been any less predictable.
Eagerly, I read the report and reviewed the list of “songs” which made the NPM “A” list. No surprises. Even less surprising was the fact that no consequential conclusion had been drawn from the poll, for whatever reason, if nothing else than to see in print “On Eagle’s Wings” listed in the #1 spot. The points made in the preliminary material accompanying the results could just as easily have been made without a poll. The NPM found that the music mentioned by those polled reflected 1) a very wide variety of songs (just like our two-century treasury of Catholic vocal music – no poll required), 2) a variety of musical styles (again, like the treasury of Catholic vocal music. Also, exactly like the radio stations set on my car stereo – no poll required), 3) an association with significant events (I have yet to meet anyone for whom some music carries no connection with particular life-events. The entire CD of “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road”, for example, reminds me fiercely of my college days and of late-night thesis-writing – no poll required), and 4) an association with childhood experiences (really, this is the same as conclusion #3, but with a bit more nostalgia – poets throughout time have marveled at youth, longed for its return, and mourned its passing: A.E. Houseman, to cite just one example, makes that clear enough. “Schmücke Dich” still reminds this author of long waits while the communion rail filled and emptied, shifts of adults communing, returning to the pews – no poll required).
The poll is entitled “Songs That Make a Difference.” But honestly: a difference in what? In faith? In religious zeal? In devotion? And even further: what difference? Between worship styles? Between denominational liturgies? Between one musical selection and another? Between one composer and another? The article’s authors offer this insight:

Funeral celebrations were by far the most commonly cited occasions on which a
particular song made a lasting effect.

The death of a loved one is without question a most trying time: continuing to live without the physical presence of one departed. As Kübler-Ross outlined years ago in her famous study, we humans take time to re-adjust to this new circumstance, not necessarily physically, but emotionally. We naturally move through various stages, eventually to arrive, either on our own or with assistance, to accept the loss. The power of emotion is fierce. Likewise is the power of music. It takes no specialized knowledge other than a familiarity with the human condition to realize that when one is emotionally raw, one may find comfort in music. I am reminded here of the lyre cartouche which appears on the familiar yellow covers of G. Schirmer scores, which bears the motto that music is the “dulce lenimen”: the “sweet solace”. Emotion is clearly not the soundest foundation upon which to conclude anything, and certainly not proof of the popularity of musical works, either sacred or secular – since music cuts, as it were, “too close to the quick.” I beg the reader’s forgiveness at this point to indulge me the opportunity briefly to digress. I find attachment to two secular items which I associate with the death of my father: the song “La Paloma”, which, according to my mother, he had said was the “most beautiful song in the world” and to which he loved to dance with her. Also, the Toccata movement from the Widor Organ Symphony No. 5, which I played onto a tape along with a recording of La Paloma and some other items for my father to listen to as he lay dying. Even as I write, I grow teary with emotion at the memory of his stirring in the coma as the Spanish words of La Paloma drifted from the tape recorder, and especially in recalling when my mother said, “You hear the organ Toccata? It’s our little Jason playing for you.” (I had by then, of course, outgrown my littleness, although not in my mother’s eyes). Despite my emotional attachment to these two items, neither is more or less important or popular in the musical macrocosm. La Paloma remains a beautiful song to some, possibly unknown to others, and the Widor Fifth remains a composition of the French organ repertoire which many enjoy, which some dislike, which some have never heard or played.
In the final brief section of the actual poll commentary, the article’s authors make this statement:

…musicians and other pastoral leaders should be attentive to the many different
musical styles that nourish and support the faith of American Catholics, taking care
not merely to choose music from our own personal taste but to make selections
out of a pastoral concern [italics added] for the members of our communities.

I believe this to be very true, yet not in the context of the NPM report. Taking into account the importance placed indirectly on the role of emotion in musical selection and popularity earlier in the report, were a Church musician to take this statement in the NPM context, he would pastorally dupe his flock, exchanging with them an opportunity rightly to worship the Almighty in song, for an opportunity to prey upon their emotions. Allowing emotion to be guide in music selection discards the Almighty as the focus of worship and sets before the worshiping congregation a glass in which they may see themselves and their emotional states reflected. As the sacrificial species are elevated and transformed upon the altar of the Most High, the golden calf of Self is hoisted high amidst a frolicking and wreathed assembly drunk on emotion, whirling in narcissistic frenzy.
This emotion-based outlook is nothing new. One need only recall the Roman poet Catullus’ description of the initiation rites into the Cult of Cybele, during which, hypnotized by emotion (we would patronizingly term it “charismaticism” or “being spirit-filled” today), the spinning initiate, Attis by name, grasps in hand a razor-sharp flint and therewith castrates himself. (Catullus 63). Awakening from his stupor, he later bemoans the loss of his manhood.
Were one to base musical selection upon true pastoral concern, emotion should and must play no part in the decision-making. Rather, the liturgy itself and the lessons from Scripture must be the guides. That which fosters worship of the Almighty is the clear choice, “the music”, as Pope Benedict XVI states in Geist der Liturgie, “of the Sursum Corda, the lifting up of hearts.” Selecting music simply because “the assembly like it” is a very dangerous game which has but one outcome: a rendering impotent both of music director and of worship: the eunuch shepherd leads the flock to graze upon sand in the wasteland. As human beings, it is neighborly to be concerned about the emotional well-being of others, however as Church musicians (and, to join the trendy set, as “pastoral musicians”), we are to be most attentive to the worship of God by the faithful through music. The faithful must not sing or play instruments in a liturgical context in order to “feel good” about themselves, but to worship God. If all that Sunday morning means is “assembly” and “building community”, we may as well meet not in a church at all, but at a community center for coffee/donuts. Calvary was not necessary merely to build fellowship. The second table of the Decalogue, may we remind ourselves, deals with nothing else but love of neighbor. This we knew from Sinai, generations before the Cenacle, Gabbatha, and the Skull Place. Nor is fellowship something particularly Christian: the pagan Trimalchio certainly enjoyed more than a share of fellowship at his colorful assemblies. The Cliché is true: Holy Mass is not about what we “get out of it”, but what we “put into it”. I certainly am thankful that Christ the Lord in Gethsemane did not ask, “Father, what’s in it for me?”
Ironically, the NPM staff continue: “We should ask ourselves if these songs are able to bear the weight of inspiring and sustaining faith.” And this: “Are we introducing our children to repertoire that can last a lifetime?” These are indeed the correct questions to pose. As more and more youth and young adults smirk at the liturgo-pop of Landry, Haugen, Haas, and others, we are left to wonder also, how long will the popularity last? We stand before two altars, one of Baal and one of the God of Israel, waiting for the fire with the prophet of old. If use of the Bach B minor Mass at the recent World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany teaches us anything at all, we should already know the answers to the important questions posed by the NPM staff. Now I ask the NPM: are you ready to extricate your heads from the sand and to stand up to the challenge? Useful to know: the Bärenreiter score of the B minor is not available from OCP or GIA, but you can pick one up at your local music shop for about $20. See you at rehearsal, Mr. Funk.

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