Saturday, March 4, 2006


I have in front of me the March/April 1955 edition of the CAECILIA. And, sure enough, there is an article in here called "Good Old" Hymns Again in Controversy. This begins with an article written by the Rev. Clarence Brissette, OSM, that appeared in NOVENA NOTES, published by the Servite Fathers in Chicago.

"A common expression...'one can't be more Catholic than the Pope.' In one of his last syndicated columns, the late Father Lord, SJ, musician and composer in his own right...takes to task the 'fanatics' active in church music 'who seemed to think Church music ended with Gregory' and that all other music known through the centuries must now be valueless. We heartily endorse his 'Hurrah for the Pope,' requesting 'open doors to music which empoly modern forms of expression and technique.' Personally...we are worried about the traditional hymns that are being placed on the black list and the lack of decent hymns to take their place. In spite of Pope Pius XII's Mediator Dei and his latest statement referred to by Father Lord...we can't understand the attitude of church authorities permitting the destruction of the hymns people love without giving us worthy substitutes."

Sounds like some of today's debates, doesn't it? Like, why is Gregorian Chant, said to be required "pride of place" in the Mass, is vanished in many parishes in favor of the banal ditties found mainly in such songbooks (hymnals? sure, if they actually contained hymns) like Glory and Praise and Gather.

"Pastors laugh and comment freely on the fanatic zeal of extreme Liturgiest, but...isn't it about time these same rise in a body and protest against the definite conspiracy to destroy what so many of their parishioners hold sacred? In some dioceses...Schubert and Gounod's Ave Maria's are banned because Protestants have adopted the same songs. By the same argument...towers and stained glass windows should be forbidden because Protestant churches use stanined glass windows and towers. Some Protestants don't eat meat on Friday, so...Catholics should be different. The whole business is foolish and hurts. In San Antonio a priest told us there was a move on foot to forbid the singing of O Lord, I Am Not Worthy. It was not liturgical. We saw a nun organist weep when over her protest, the pastor insisted she play Good Night, Sweet Jesus on the opening night of the Novena."

Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur anima mea. Lord, I am not worthy that you enter under my roof, but speak the word and my soul shall be healed. Let's paraphrase that:
O Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come to me, but speak the word of comfort, my spirit healed shall be.
O Lord, I Am Not Worthy not liturgical? It's a paraphrase of an actual liturgical text. I've heard better melodies, but it's not totally outrageous. Now, I've had the misfortune of hearing Good Night, Sweet Jesus. Now, there's a song that is living proof that there was very bad, vapid, insipid, rancid, (and in Gerald Augustinus' words) stupid music before Vatican II. And it's far less liturgical than O Lord, I Am Not Worthy, in terms of the text.
BLOGGER'S NOTE: Doesn't it seem funny that most of the adjectives that end in "id" usually mean something pretty bad (at best)? "Rabid" is another one.

"We could tell you a lot more that would make blood boil. There is not much hope for the 'extremists' as from experience we have found they are a breed set apart and without knowledge of people and feelings. We wonder how they are allowed free rein in seminaries and so easily gain the ear of Chancery Offices. Their condemning opinions might be hilariously amusing...were the results not so disasterous. Our argument...until modern church musicians can give us something better...please, please don't ridicule and destroy traditional hymns the people love and sing with feeling. Church music is important to Catholic life. America is facing a crisis which won't be settled until Bishops and Pastors take a definite stand against the destruction of what we hold dear."

Funny, weren't we supposed to hold dear Gregorian Chant? Anyways, here's a reply from the Rev. Francis A. Brunner, C.SS.R., editor of the CAECILIA question box.

"It was with great surprise and even pain that I read your remarks in the March 4th Issue of Novena Notes. I do not fancy myself either an 'extremist' or 'fanatic,' but I do think some of your remarks were ill-advised. Although I do not consider myself qualified to pass judgement on those 'who seemed to think church music ended with (Pope St.) Gregory' -- never having met any such person among those competent in church music matters -- I do believe that I have had sufficient experience to question a statement you make that suggests a lack of worthy substitutes -- 'decent hymns', as you say -- for the many so-called 'traditional hymns' which are at present the norm for many of our people. In over fifteen years of teaching congregational singing I have never discovered a lack of such material; on the contrary, even a cursory examination of any of a dozen fine Catholic hymnals published in this country will disclose an over-abundant supply of pieces which are musically pleasing, sound and solid in content, and easily learned."

Well, you see, back then there were quite a few "fine Catholic hymnals" published in this country. Even as late as 1958, (reminder: the correspondence you're reading here is 1955, not far off) you had the New St. Basil Hymnal, Pius X Hymnal, St. Gregory Hymnal, just to name three. The World Library of Sacred Music (now known as World Library Publications) had emerged with the People's Hymnal (later editions became the People's Mass Book). Dare to find a dozen "fine Catholic hymnals" published in this country today (still in print, mind you). You won't!

"I am well aware that priests find it very puzzling that Chancery Offices should attempt to ban certain types of music; I have always ascribed this bewilderment not to ill-will but to a failure in their training. They never had an opportunity to study documents like the Motu Proprio of Pope St. Pius X, or for that matter the document you yourself mention, the great liturgical encyclical of Pius XII, Mediator Dei. Thus they think -- wrongly -- that music like Schubert and Gounod you cite is outlawed because it is Protestant. In fact these particular numbers are proscribed because they are not church music at all -- the Gounod piece being originally a love-song to which the words of the Ave Maria were afterwards clumsily fitted, and the Schubert a setting of the German translation of Sir Walter Scott's poem from Lady of the Lake. If the nun you describe wept, it was not because she had to play trash, but because her pastor did not recognize it for the trash it was."

That last sentence --- BAM! BINGO! BADDA-BING! Fr. Brunner hit the nail right on the head! Her pastor did not recognize Good Night Sweet Jesus for the trash that it was (and still is, believe me!). So, just like today, there is that mis-interpretation back and forth (some blindly, others blatantly).

"How chanceries are influenced I am in no position to say. But I venture the opinion that the practical and hard-headed business men who man these offices and direct their functioning are not easily swayed by foolish sentimentality or the pratlings of a 'breed set apart and without knowledge of people and feelings.' If, then, such chanceries have issued rulings that black-list certain hymns, you can be sure it is from very practical motives, the good of souls and the welfare of our people."

Back then, you didn't have guitar groups and "contemporary groups" spitting out records, tapes, and what not (not till about 12-15 years later). Now the "big three" publishers have their slew of CD's by many of the composers whose schlock is included in many of today's so-called "fine hymnals". Sell the CD's, and even sing the CD material in church. It's that simple. That almighty buck looks better than ever this day in age. Unfortunately these publishers don't have the ownership of the Chant CD's sung by the Monks of Santo Domingo de Silas (remember those guys?). So, what was supposed to have pride of place vanished.

"I am certain, dear Father Brissette, that if you had time to study the words and music of what you call 'traditional hymns' -- sometimes the tradition is of rather recent fracture! -- you would be the first to seek for something really worthwhile and worthy; you would as quickly try to enlighten our people regarding the shabbiness and ineptness of 'what we hold dear' in hymnody as you would dissuade them from falling into the pitfalls of a materialism that makes them account this world of greater worth than eternity. (Signed) Francis A. Brunner, C.SS.R.

And BAM! "What we hold dear". What do most of them hold dear these days? You can tell by what most people ask for at funeral Masses these days: Eagle's Wings, Be Not Afraid, Gentle Woman, Here I Am, Lord. Sure these are "held dear", but it doesn't mean that they are necessarily appropriate for Holy Mass. The same goes with the infamous "Songs that Make a Difference" survey that NPM put together last fall. Just because these were the "most popular" doesn't necessarily mean they're "most appropriate". J. Michael McMahon, the president of NPM even said that himself.

And I'm sure there was even heavy debate centuries ago, around the time of Trent and before that!



Dad29 said...

You aren't really trying to defend the musical worth of "O Lord I Am Not Worthy," are you?

Musically, it is dreck, at best. Tin Pan Alley dragged into a church with a 'text' pretext.

Brian Michael Page said...

Over "Good night sweet Jesus", yes, both textually and musically. I will acknowledge "O Lord I am not worthy" could have been written to a far better tune than CLARIBEL. The FULDA MELODY (later used with "O Sacrament Most Holy") would have been better. The text doesn't bother me. Over "Good night", it's the "lesser of the two evils".