Saturday, October 19, 2019

Church Music

I first saved this post in April, and I think about it periodically but haven't found the motivation to type it all out until today when two tracks converged. First Mrs Darwin mentioned on Facebook the abysmal songcraft of modern hymns which is made evident when the instrumental accompaniment is stripped away. Second, the resident 2yo is running a mystery fever. She is sick enough to catnap, but not sleep deeply enough for me to move away and do something else. So here I sit. I may as well tell you about the church music.

I mentioned a time or two a few years ago my general displeasure with the music selection at church, and my lingering guilt about not participating except from the pews. In the interim, the situation declined from there. Our regular cantor left the parish. All of our piano players left. No one from the congregation stepped up to fill the void. We were left with a capella hippie songs, one decent guitar player who alternated with one terrible guitar player, a choir who couldn't sing their way out of bucket, and an occasional beginner piano player who plunked out a bunch of fail. It was a very sad state of affairs. Notably, it was also all volunteer. Nobody was paid for anything.

Up until about a year ago, my parish priest was a believing elderly man who was a good confessor, but honestly did not give a second thought to the niceties of liturgy. He did his best and didn't worry about the rest of it. His best included singing loudly, off key and out of rhythm, into his mike. It was all part of his charm, bless him. The fact that the music program was in shambles didn't phase him much. He figured if the Lord wanted a nice choir, someone would eventually show up to make it happen. He had faith, if nothing else.

However a year ago that priest retired, and the new pastor appointed in his place had a very different life history. He had been married and had a kid and got divorced and annulled and pursued a late in life vocation. But primarily of interest to the audience here is that his prior education is in music and he spent twenty years teaching it.

When he arrived, I wasn't sure how he would address the music situation but felt sure he would do something. At first nothing changed at all. The weekly disaster unfolded without comment. But when the Sanctus was so thoroughly mangled during the Christmas Vigil Mass that Father decided to repeat it verbally to make sure it was said, I knew it wouldn't be long until he acted.

By the end of January, he made his move. He hired a singer/pianist who had previously been a member of the parish years ago, but left for greener musical pastures at the parish in the next town. The music situation immediately improved. The choir stopped falling apart. They finally had a leader who could teach them how to sing the melody, follow the piano prompts, actually play the piano. The change was so stark, it became hard to remember how poor the prior offering were within a handful of weeks. The choir is actually good.

Since this new pianst was hired, the number of people attending Mass exploded. It's hard to miss the correlation. At the beginning of the year, it was the same group it had always been, but by Ash Wednesday, there were hundreds of more people attending. The only thing that significantly changed in that stretch of weeks was the music. The Ash Wednesday Mass was one of the most incredible events I have ever witnessed. Hundreds and hundreds of people present, standing room only, even all the way back to the far side of the Narthex. There were so many people, I was worried about the Fire Marshal showing up. There were an amazing number of people. And this increased attendance continued through the summer and now into the fall. This is all an unalloyed good.

Because this is good, I feel like a heel for my following complaint.

Yall. It's all Jesus Is My Boyfriend music.

The person who was hired is a name in the Catholic music scene. He's published in OCP. He plays concerts with the current Catholic pop stars. He programs a variety of his own music along with the current hits. He is a very nice guy. He loves syncopation. We emote. A lot. So many feelz. The Agnus Dei is now permanently the Matt Maher call and response version.

I haven't been Gathered In in months, for which I am incredibly grateful, but I admit I am disappointed in the direction the music has taken. On a positive note, they have also added both the entrance and communion antiphons, which I have never, ever heard regularly in a Mass. The cantor sings them solo before launching into the scheduled song. I appreciate that effort.

Even though I am disappointed, I can't be upset about this musical direction. I wish we had more traditional music or even some chant, but I cannot compare some version of perfection in my head to our current reality. I have to compare what was and what is. What was was incredibly bad. What is is just not to my taste. There is a world of difference in that distinction. While I can argue about what "should" be, I first have to accept what's possible and who is available. It was very apparent nobody with my vision of church music was going to appear and implement such a program. It so happens within our parish boundary is a gifted musician with publishing credits, and he is willing to serve us every weekend. He is good at what he does. This is very good for our parish.

But sigh, P&W is not my thing.

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