Stones Instead of Bread: Reflections on Contemporary Hymns: Part I

by Mary Oberle Hubley

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(Also included in Cum Angelis Canere: Essays on Sacred Music and Pastoral Liturgy in honour of Msgr. Richard J. Schuler. Edited by Rev. Dr. Robert A. Skeris, Saint Paul, MN 1990 (Catholic Church Music Associates): Section 5, pp. 29-63.

Forty years ago, and nearly within a year or two of the start of the liturgical reform, the musical landscapes of our Catholic parishes were transformed. Music and texts which had withstood the rigorous test of time were injudiciously and almost wholly replaced, often by mere doggerels and ditties. Much of this music had been hastily produced in answer to the major Catholic publishers' pleas for newly written hymns in the vernacular; for the illicit abandonment of Latin created a dearth of hymns. Simultaneously, songs were immediately needed to accommodate that exemplar of parish love, community and democracy, the guitar. The guitar was, in fact, a pre-eminent symbol of the protest movement during the sixties.

The pipe organ and its musically trained organists were preempted by musically illiterate strummers who managed, at best, to "chord" the puerile harmonies supplied by the musically illiterate songwriters. I personally knew two of the latter; they expressed good-humored chagrin at their success with a couple Chicago-based publishers, and this in spite of their acknowledged ignorance of music theory, harmony, form and history. A third and far more successful songwriter (an oxymoron?!) said that he did not even know how to tune his own guitar! The three would "come up with" melodies, graft then onto vaguely biblical texts, and with the help of their friends would manage to get the music written down for submission to the publisher. I then, and do now, feel a deep sadness, as well as embarrassment, at the lack of Catholic publishers' responsibility in this area. Ought we not to have expected some measure of responsibility, some upholding of musical standards at the very least, from firms with, no doubt, long, time-honored tradition of service to the Church?

But then, the "times they were a-changin'" in the sixties. Numerous pressing social changes (greater accessibility of higher education to the young, the specter of Vietnam, smug optimism brought about by expansive economic boom, the civil rights turmoil, etc.) seemed to dictate the need to make things "relevant" for the young people. They were riding high on the big baby boom and, candidly, were quite spoiled and gradually becoming aware of their "clout." Simultaneously, as reflected in their rapidly plummeting SAT scores, the beginnings of our current educational failure made themselves felt in unravelling academic, artistic and behavioral standards.

The rebellion of the young found its voice in folk music. The guitar became the young person's favorite instrument (much in the same way that the ukelele had been in the 1920s). Singing songs with folk themes to strumming guitar chords became a favored form of entertainment in college dorms, on the beach, and in pads from Greenwich Village to Haight-Ashbury. When they were not making folk music, the young were listening to it through the records of the Kingston Trio, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Limeliters, the New Christy Minstrels, all of whose best-selling records were of the folk variety. (Ewen, 1977)1


By the mid-sixties, America's rage with the guitar coincided with its adoption and that of the current soft-rock, "folk" type music in many Catholic churches.

In 1966, speaking at the Fifth International Church Music Congress2 held in Chicago-Milwaukee, the eminent musicologist from Columbia University, Paul Henry Lang, sounded an alarm:

Historians and sociologists cannot but be aware that the worst kind of pseudo-popular, "commercial" music is threatening to invade the Mass. Guitar, rock 'n' roll and jazz Masses do not represent the actuosa participatio envisaged by the Council. The music not only lacks the devotional quality but also the particular grace of art, because it gives us in the raw those cultural traits that were not influenced by Christian ethics.3

The reason for Mr. Lang's alarm is his witness to not just the departure from, but actual rejection of natural, organic development in Catholic church music. The occurence is synonymous to revolution.

As a matter of definition, "folk" music as commonly referred to in its use in Catholic churches is a misnomer. True folk music is that which is anonymous and unwritten, handed down from generation to generation. Again, Mr. Lang:

There is a distinction between "folk" and "popular" art, the one being popular in origin, that is, of communal growth, the other being popular by destination, e.g. containing elements drawn from common experience calculated to assure popular adoption. The first of these categories, true folk music, can be used to advantage in the Church; a good many of the fine hymns were based on such tunes. As to the second category, and this includes the commercial product commonly and erroneously called "folk music," its use would be a denial of everything our Catholic tradition and piety has stood for ever since the first songs rose in the catacombs.4

But perhaps many of the adults' inner convictions of the truth and eminence of their own Catholicity were not secure; for why else did they feel the overriding need to make the Church and its music "relevant" to their young? Why the frenetic desire to please and placate the youth, if not for a genuine lack of confidence on the part of the parents and, yes, the priests? It seems that the closing of the Council in 1964 did not coincide with, but rather only followed some serious weakening already apparent in the body of the Church in America.

At any rate, the radical newness of guitars and guitar music in Church might well provide the enticement to keep the kids in the Church and going to Mass, far away from the radicalism and drugs slowly inundating American society. "Do your own thing" was becoming a common tenet of these sixties; "don't think twice, it's all right" was another. The prevailing sentiments "blowin' in the wind" were directed to self; a whole jargon of popular psychology was adjuring the youth to "do your own thing" as true “flower children.”

The guitar and its kind of music flowed naturally out of these narcissistic impulses. It was a relatively inexpensive instrument, and, outside the percussive instruments, the easiest to begin playing. No exerted and continual amount of discipline was demanded of the player; it was not even necessary to know the rudiments of music reading, including rhythm. Being a soft instrument, it was a "natural" to accompany the human voice; one could sing and play simultaneously. Its portability, and that of the now ubiquitous microphone, therefore enabled the guitarist to lead the group or congregation, shifting the musicians' locus from the choir loft to the sanctuary.

In the frantic rush for "relevance" and self-expression through the use of the guitar, the traditional choirs were largely disbanded through lack of clerical support. Parenthetically, the question presents itself: Why? Were the priests, and especially the pastors, caught up in the confusion of the times? It seems that, in spite of (or because of?) their seminary training, when the seeds of theological and liturgical knowledge and formation were cultivated, the clerics were confused as much as the laity they were supposed to lead. It is hard to otherwise explain the near wholesale capitulation of the clergy to the secular din, and their intimidation by theologically and musically untrained parishioners.

Concurrent with the abandonment of the choir, the veneration and use of Latin, with its tradition of fine chant which stretched back to the halls of antiquity, overnight became passé. In the twinkling of an eye, Catholicism's unparalleled sacred music, the brilliant jewel wrought by centuries of development, was muffled: then silenced. Of course, it was not considered relevant.

The common sense and sensibilities of our Catholic faithful were systematically offended; their instincts that something was seriously amiss were, when articulated, often rebuffed in the name of the "spirit of Vatican II." Their observation that even the documents of Vatican II, when read, were also contrary to the spirit of Vatican II put an end to the dialogue.

 

 

1 Ewen, David. All the Years of American Popular Music. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: 1977

2 As described by Monsignor Johannes Overath in the preface to the Congress proceedings: "On November 22, 1963, with the chirograph Nobile subsidium liturgiæ, Pope Paul VI established the Consociato Internationalis Musicæ Sacræ. One of the tasks entrusted to the newly organized society was that of arranging for international meetings of church musicians, continuing the series of congresses begun in Rome in the Holy Year 1950, with the subsequent assemblies in Vienna in 1954, Paris in 1957, and Cologne in 1961. The Holy Father named the first officers of CIMS in 1964; Monsignor Johannes Overath of Cologne was appointed President.

In 1965, many conferences and discussions took place between the officers of CIMS and leading church musicians of the United States, especially Rt. Rev. Coadjutor Archabbot Rembert G. Weakland OSB, president of the newly organized Church Music Association of America and his colleagues in that society.

The 1966 Fifth International Church Music Congress opened with Catholic musicologists from the universities of Europe, American and the Orient present, along with many well-known Catholic composers and performers. As members of CIMS, they demonstrated a vital interest in sacred music and a sincere concern for preserving its precious heritage and solving its new problems. Several non-Catholic musicologists and artists also cooperated in the work."

3 Johannes Overath, ed. Sacred Music and Liturgy Reform after Vatican II (Proceedings of the Fifth International Church Music Congress, Chicago- Milwaukee, August 21-28, 1966) (Rome, Italy: Consociato Internationalis Musicæ Sacræ) (CIMS) 1969 (Printed by North Central Publishing Company, Saint Paul MN), p.246.

4 Ibid., p. 247.