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Offering Our Musical Best at Mass


By Joseph P. Swain | June 2000
Joseph P. Swain is Associate Professor of Music at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.

An article in the March 1999 issue of The American Organist celebrated the establishment of the Choir School at the (Catholic) Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah, in August 1996. Author James E. Frazier, former director of music for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, described how the school “draws on the Church’s rich legacy of choral music while remaining rigorously faithful to the conciliar reforms,” with a broad repertory of Renaissance polyphony, 20th-century French and American works, and several Gregorian Mass ordinaries, among other things. The congregation, in harmony with Vatican II exhortations, “is at once active and attentive, with acclamations, hymnody, and antiphons a duty they exercise enthusiastically.”

This bright picture of an oasis in the desert of contemporary liturgical music is nearly eclipsed, however, by a single sentence: “It will come as no surprise to readers of this journal that a significant and vocal outcry, with charges of elitism, came early on from employees of other Catholic schools and from pastors throughout the diocese who opposed the choir school.” In all the controversy on liturgy and music, this is the saddest thing I have ever read. Here are the shepherds who guide our spiritual lives impugning those who strive with their God-given talents and hard-won expertise for the highest fulfillment of liturgical music, those who try to impart the richness of Catholic musical tradition to the young, that it might live in future generations.

The Madeleine school is not elitist, just professional, and that is the real problem. The pastors’ attitude bespeaks a woefully common distrust of professionalism in liturgical music, an equation of professionalism with elitism that has retarded the progress of liturgical music since the new Sacramentary came out in 1969. Why is there such antipathy for the trained musician in church?

One wonders if it is a peculiarly American disease. Ours is a history of populist movements and we proclaim the ideal of equality. If the postconciliar liturgy demands musical participation from everyone, Americans would naturally presume that therefore everyone must have a voice in determining its character, musical and otherwise. The idea that liturgical music is a demanding art to be studied and practiced for years, the notion that musical values are in some sense absolute, discerned through tradition and experience and not through polling — these are inimical to American sensibilities. And so arises the view in many parishes that ministers of liturgical music should come “from the people” — that is, it is really best to have amateurs step forward and give freely of their talents. Music is just another lay ministry, and the laity are all equal, are they not?

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