In my family we have three choir members, a pianist, some who have studied music history, a professional liturgist, a number of amateur liturgists, and a whole bunch of people who are just trying to pray during Mass. What that all boils down to is an ongoing discussion about church music. What is appropriate, what's bad, what instruments are welcome and which should be banned, what aides prayer and what distracts from it. What part does personal preference play in the discussion? Amateur musicians or professional? Organ or tambourine? Music we hear on Christian radio or music specifically set apart for liturgy?
This past week Fr. Longenecker has been posting thought-provoking essays on church music. If you're interested in this topic at all, please follow the links. I've only included a few snippets here; he presents a well-developed case.
In part one, he lists general criteria for choosing good hymns:
What people don't seem to realize is that there are actually some criteria for choosing good hymns. The fact that so many of the hymns in our Catholic hymnals are terrible musically, heterodox theologically, contain execrable poetry, maudlin sentiments and trashy pop psychology doesn't help. People need to learn that just because a hymn is published doesn't make it good. Furthermore, just because it's popular doesn't make it good.
In part two, Father explains the importance of the words in a hymn:
The reason a fully orthodox theology in hymns is so important is because so many Catholics receive little or no catechesis. The only place they are likely to confront Catholic theology is in the hymns they sing at Mass. If the hymns do not express Catholic eucharistic theology, if they emphasize the purely social justice ecclesiology, if they downplay orthodox doctrine and water down the faith by ignoring the supernatural elements, then we shouldn't be surprised when Catholics turn out to be so wishy washy and ignorant of their faith.Part three examines the music - is it accessible to a congregation? Does it lift the heart?
Modern hymn writers, in an attempt to be relevant, and in ignorance of the sacred tradition write hymns in all sorts of contemporary styles. I have heard hymns sung during communion that sounded like love songs from Broadway musicals. I have heard hymns that sound like protest marching anthems, Elton John numbers, songs by Abba, sound tracks from musical comedies or just bland muzak. I've heard gospel blues harmonies, polka, country Western, jazz riffs and rhythm and blues numbers. I've heard psalms sung in a sultry nightclub style, an Ethel Merman broadway style and even some sacred songs crooned through a hand held microphone. None of these styles evoke the sacred. They are entertainment based and are the absolute nadir of contemporary Catholic worship.Part four sums everything up and asks just what is suitable and should we have hymns at Mass at all? How can we meet most congregations where they are and move them closer to the ideal?
The setting and circumstances of the liturgy therefore matter. A small humble and down to earth parish should not attempt a cathedral standard organist and choir, but Gregorian chant based music will be suitable for both, one being adorned with finer aspects of classical music, while the other may be adorned with more simple music. All things should be done decently and in order and according to their proper status. Music at Mass should reflect the character and circumstances of the parish while at the same time aiming for the highest and holiest standards of beauty in worship.And finally, Father links to a video (also below) which quotes lots of documents and points us toward many free online resources.