Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Bow, Bow, ye Lower Middle Classes!

I started my musings about art and truth prompted by the poor quality of liturgical music, and now I find that I have come full circle, thanks to a comment on Twitter by @cumlazaro, of the excellent Cum Lazaro blog.

He tweeted: ‘It’s perfectly clear that, objectively, a lot of Catholic music is extremely poor, both liturgically and aesthetically. And that matters.

Which made me reflect that there is something else I think worthy of comment. This is not directly about the quality of music, or art, but rather our (societal, and specifically ecclesiastical, and more specifically clerical) attitudes to that question.

My Parish Priest, for example, would not deny (I think) that most of the music perpetrated during liturgies at our church is pretty poor aesthetically, both in conception and in execution. However, he has little interest in changing that. Because his criterion of what is good liturgically is based on a different standard, one that over-rules all other considerations, and that is participation.

This widely misunderstood concept is the trump card: every other standard bows, when it is paraded.

Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes!
Bow, bow, ye tradesmen, bow, ye masses,
Blow the trumpets, bang the brasses,
Tantantara! Tzing, boom!

That is why we endure readers who cannot read out loud without mutilating the text with misreadings and misleading prosody. It is why the Mass must be disrupted so that the children back from their ‘children’s liturgy,’ may parade in the sanctuary with their drawings. It is why icons written by masters who have studied the tradition for decades are out, whereas felt banners produced by parishioners with more time than taste are in. It is also why we endure poor music, poorly performed.

The notion that we might participate better by experiencing beauty than by engaging in banality is completely incomprehensible to many priests educated since the Second Vatican Council.

The notion of training the laity, and particularly selecting those with aptitude, to use higher levels of skill, would be seen as elitism, and excluding. Anathema sit!

And of course, if they do put their toe in the water, and have one piece of chant at Mass, they get complaints from the usual suspects, and announce, ruefully, that they were right and that ‘the people’ don’t like that kind of thing. (My post on Junk food and junk music refers…)


Janet said...

Not just the music. Every single thing is wrong about the new mass. Your best bet is to get out. Come to SSPX. We participate, too. But we got the good music and the good, old doctrine.

Unknown said...

I almost never have to assist at new rite masses these days, but things weren't always so. And I often marvelled how, even in parishes led by sympathetic priests, the "readers" were chosen from among those parishioners who couldn't read.

Patricius said...

Much as I am inclined to agree with your drift here I fear that discussing the music used in aesthetic terms is unlikely to achieve the desired result. The focus needs to be upon the prayer dimension- in other words on the business of raising the heart and mind to God. It has been said before but bears- indeed needs- repeating that we should sing THE mass rather than sing AT mass. If every parish focused upon singing the liturgical texts rather than adding hymns of questionable merit then I believe that the aesthetic quality would shoot up from dire to "not bad" in very little time.
In our parish we have learned the new English chants of the Ordinary from the Missal and vary these with some of the basic Latin chants from time to time. These are sung by all. Proper texts can be set to simple psalm tones and, where a choir is unavailable, sung by a cantor. Of course, it helps to have a priest, as we have, who is willing to sing his parts.

Maureen said...

When is it going to dawn on Pastors and Bishops that ugly music, using people who cannot or will not give a decent reading and sloppy liturgy are driving people away from attending Mass?

Ben Trovato said...


You are quite possibly right.

This post, and those that preceded it, were not trying to 'achieve the desired result,' if by that you mean raising the standard of music.

Rather, they were my thinking aloud as I was seeking understanding. If I am a little nearer to a true understanding of the issue, and also if anyone else has been prompted to think more deeply about it, that is the desired result of this series of posts.

How one then turns understanding into action is stage two. But reaching a good understanding seems to me to be an essential starting point.

Patricius said...

I rather jumped the gun there- it's a subject rather close to my heart. I agree: one needs to form some sort of understanding. For my part, as one who was of school age when the reform of the liturgy was taking place, I think it has a lot to do with both broader cultural influences abroad in the 'sixties on the one hand and the "low mass culture" which was predominant in the Church immediately prior to the reform on the other.I have heard that clergy were desperate to get the laity to sing to such an extent that it almost didn't matter to them what was sung. Added to this there were clergy who were so obsessed with the notion of lay "active participation" that anything that required more than a minimum of minimum of expertise ( a polyphonic ordinary of the mass) as elitist and "excluding" the laity they wished to engage. I believe there were one or two church choirs whose members resigned en masse at the insult of having to conform to lower demands.(I have some recollection of stories in the Catholic press of the time) Understandably the imposition of unison mass settings and vernacular hymns hardly merited the effort of turning up for practices and a spiral of decline became established as the material "selected" the performers. So, that is part of my take on how we arrived at where we are today.
Then there is the role of a certain type of female person in Catholic secondary schools but I had better stop for fear of being accounted misogynist....

Ben Trovato said...


I have just been reading Christopher Booker's book on Story, and (whilst I disagree with his Jungian analysis) was struck by his tracing the decline of the novel and the play (and also the parallel decline in the visual and musical arts). In particular, his pointing out that the 1950s saw the production of Cage's 4;33, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Ad Reinhardt's black canvasses. This arid and nihilistic aesthetic culture was part of the context for what happened in the 1960s.