Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Music is an Uncompromising Meritocracy

by Joseph P. Swain


This essay by Joseph P. Swain deals with the democratization of liturgical music and its ironic failure. This reform originated as a way to attract young people to the Church through popular music relevant to today's youth. In actuality it has had the opposite effect, sending the majority of the Catholic faithful into a frenzy anxious to rediscover the traditional treasure of beautiful, sacred, and thoroughly Catholic music.

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report


41 – 47

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, May 2007

Anyone paying attention to Catholic liturgical music knows that an astonishing variety of musical composition and liturgical practice exists in the United States and around the world. There is no need to belabor the point with lists of styles, except to emphasize that the variety is not merely international but intensely local as well. Neighboring parishes may have completely different ways of singing the mass. Now variety is not at all unprecedented in Church history, but its magnitude at the present moment certainly is.

Two explanations come readily to mind: the impetus of liturgical renewal after the Second Vatican Council (1962 - 1965) and the reach of Catholicism into African, Asian, and Latin American cultures with indigenous musical traditions.

The history of missions to the southern hemisphere and the Far East is a long one. In the early 16th century, Spanish explorers brought Catholic Christianity to what is now known as Central and Latin America. They brought the church's musical traditions too. By 1531, the choir of the cathedral in Mexico City won the praise of Bishop Juan de Zumarraga and in 1556 the same city saw the first music book printed in the new world, an Augustinian Ordinarium of plainchant.

In Peru, the Third Lima Council required missionaries to give musical instruction to indigenous Amerindians in 1583. By 1622, the European plainchant and polyphony of one settlement, Santiago del Cercado, was compared favorably to that of cathedrals in Spain.

The historical evidence indicates that indigenous populations of these lands learned the European musical languages very quickly and with enthusiasm. Amerindian musical culture did not make its own contribution to the repertory until very recently. Why not?

Regarding liturgical reform, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) emphasized the participatio actuosa of the people of God so that "the voices of the faithful may ring out" (Art. 118) and it allowed a "suitable place" in the liturgy for the native music of missionary peoples (Art. 119), but it also urged the preservation of "the treasure of sacred music" (Art. 114), particularly the Gregorian chant and polyphonic traditions.

Besides, active participation and a role for native music both occur in three major documents on liturgical music that preceded the Council (Tra le sollecitudini, Pope St. Pius X, 1903; Mediator Dei, Pope Pius XII, 1947; Musicae Sacrae, 1958). There was no explosion of musical variety after their appearances. Why, then, after the conciliar document? What was different that time?

Music after Vatican II

Missions and ecumenical councils, being human enterprises, albeit carried out with divine assistance, are subject to political and cultural forces of their times. As others have judged, the Second Vatican Council's views on liturgy were driven by many decades of historical research, both in liturgy and Scripture, that recorded the many incremental changes occurring over the centuries and saw many of them as so much tarnish to be scrubbed off to reveal the pure Grail of the liturgy.

Aidan Nichols, in Looking at the Liturgy (1996), has criticized this view as informed by an immature sociology that fails especially to take into account what we have learned about the importance of symbols and rituals in communities. But another cultural view, perhaps too obvious to be analyzed by scholars, affected thinking on liturgy and liturgical music even more: democratization. The Cold War made democratization seem particularly virtuous and the rise to power of autocracies in Africa and in the Islamic world after the Cold War has only increased its allure.

I use this term and its verbal parent "democratize" rather than "democracy" because they imply the making of something into a democracy which formerly did not have that character. To say that democratization is an important agent for change in the modern Church is an understatement, and in liturgy in particular it can explain many of the reforms, both lauded and lamented, of the past four decades.

Under this thinking, the perceived value of the individual has risen in comparison to central authority, even in comparison to God. Everyone has a right, even a responsibility, to some role in liturgy. Every individual is potentially important and deserving of attention, which means that everyone has access to a role in the liturgy almost regardless of qualification, in the same way that most everyone can vote.

The value of democratization is unquestioned, and it is true that some of its effects on the Church have been most salutary. Nevertheless, as Robert P. Kraynak argues in Christian Faith and Modern Democracy (2001), the reconciliation of democratic principles with Roman Catholicism, whose theology makes the Kingdom of God a central image and yet recognizes a freedom of conscience, is problematic to say the least. More problematic is the democratization of music.

Democratizing Music

Music and democracy do not get along very well. Music is the most communal of the fine arts, so this seems a paradox, but it is nonetheless true. When music aspires to anything greater than the pub song, democracy proves to be highly impractical, and the greater the number of people involved (usually a sign of a successful democracy) the greater the impracticality.

Symphony orchestras and large choruses, the two flagships of western music, are among the least democratic of human institutions. Here, highly skilled and artistically gifted men and women surrender precisely what democracy prizes most — individual opinions, interpretations, decision-making, improvisation, physical autonomy, and to a great extent, freedom of speech — to the absolute rule of the philosopher king who is the conductor.

Individualism of any kind is the enemy of such music.

The last thing a section violinist wants is to be heard as an individual, to have audible character. Rather, his goal is to blend into the group as much as possible, to become an anonymous supernumerary. And why do these intelligent people cede their rights so cheerfully? In order to create a work of high art, unique in all creation, whose being depends upon their total dedication and surrender to the communal action that is the orchestra or chorus. But the point of it all is not communal action itself, or communal spirit, togetherness, or any such thing. The point is the music itself, to make it as great as its potential allows. It is not a bad analogy for liturgy, when one thinks about it.

Because democracy and the making of sophisticated music are not compatible, liturgical reforms that attempt to democratize music have had serious effects. One effect is an open and uncritical engagement of popular music the world over. The commonly accepted notions of democracy naturally prize the arts of the commoners, so indigenous Peruvian songs that would never have been considered appropriate for liturgy in the 16th century are now the liturgical music of choice. Although there are plenty of precedents, the American folk mass in modern times is the most familiar exponent of this attitude.

The Guitar Idiom

Early efforts actually date from before the Second Vatican Council — Gerard Beaumont composed his 20th-Century Folk Mass in 1956 — but the council coincided perfectly with an American movement in popular music known as the "folk revival," epitomized by the music of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and similar figures. In the post-conciliar euphoria of the mid-1960s, this music seemed ready made to fill the vacuum of the "low mass," the quiet liturgy without any singing that the Sacred Constitution on the Liturgy wanted to upgrade. Most American parishes had no musical traditions to animate their congregations, and folk music quickly filled the vacuum.

The guitar idiom crossed the Atlantic to European parishes. American pop styles could be heard in the great Gothic and Baroque churches of Italy by the late 1980s if not sooner. But even if American culture had not been as popular as it was, cultivated among the European youth even if disdained by their elders, something similar would have happened anyway. In Latin America and Africa, local idioms became the basis of liturgical music.

It is an easy and attractive solution to the problem of what to sing in the liturgy, at least at first, and not without certain virtues, one of which certainly is that the music is not imposed from outside by a foreign tradition, but arises naturally from the people and therefore seems as democratic as music can be.

In most cases, the acceptance of folk idioms was and is entirely uncritical. That is, whether a composition, as music, is excellent or not, whether it is appropriate for liturgy or used properly within liturgy, are things rarely considered. In many places, anyone who suggested that a popular idiom would not do in the liturgy was branded a reactionary who rejected the spirit of the Council, a person no longer to be taken seriously. This refusal to judge music has proved a disastrous mistake, for in place of a liturgical repertory parishioners have a revolving door.

The Revolving Door of Forgettable Music

Anyone alive today who remembers the liturgical folk music of the 1960s knows the revolving door very well. In those days the music had the flavor of campfire songs: melodies in short, repetitive phrases, easy to learn, often enlivened with syncopated rhythms, and pedestrian harmony that could accommodate both the expert guitarist and the master of three chords. "Sons of God," "Allelu! Allelu! Everybody sing Allelu!" are titles that come to the mind chagrined and embarrassed that we actually sang such things at a divine liturgy. The 1970s brought the songs from the Weston Priory located in wholesome Vermont; the 1980s brought the St. Louis Jesuits; the 1990s a less centralized set of composers given to modal harmonies and melodies shorn of their rhythmic interest and difficulty.

The new music in each decade ushered out the old music of previous ones. And this is only the big picture. At the parochial level, music directors introduce new songs and even new Mass ordinaries — settings of the Mass prayers such as Kyrie eleison or "Lord, have mercy" — regularly, while those learned last year are forgotten, perhaps no longer printed in the latest issue of the disposable missalettes.

The revolving door of parochial repertory is one big reason why people are unhappy with current liturgical music: it never acquires, for most of the year, the status of Christmas carols, songs that we have known from the cradle, that provide a distinct and warm sense of return every time the year rolls around again. The parish that has carols like that for every liturgical season, as all should have, is a rare parish. Instead, worshippers feel a subliminal tension each week: "What will they throw at us now?"

Why is the turnover so high? One cause is the musician's desire to create, which is natural and ordinarily laudable but here uncontrolled, even if that creativity consists of no more than choosing a new song for the parish. But the principal cause is an uncritical attitude, a reluctance to judge music in a popular idiom, music that has an aura of democracy.

And so we spend a lot of time on music of poor quality. The reason why the door revolves so easily, why the song we worked hard to learn last year is forgotten this year, is that we can no longer stand to hear or sing it. It has failed, abysmally, the test of time. Once fresh and exciting, it has now become an embarrassment, often ridiculed by the youth it was supposed to attract. And so our Sissiphyean labor continues.

The popular conception of democracy is thoroughly egalitarian. Everyone's vote is equal in weight; therefore, by extension, everyone's voice is equal in influence. This is an ideal, of course, seldom realized except perhaps in the voting booth, but nonetheless taken seriously, if not consciously, by most westerners, especially Americans. Authority and expertise are suspect; the majority rules.

It is worth saying again: this conception is alien to the real world of music making, which, except where it is corrupt, is an uncompromising meritocracy. All men are definitely not created equal. Some musicians play better in tune than others. Some play more wrong notes than others. Some can play very fast. Some can sing so as to fill a large hall, with beautiful tone. Some can improvise and some cannot. There are better musicians and worse musicians and, when things are going well, the best ones are in charge.

Good Musicians Need Not Apply

A second and logical effect, then, of the democratization of liturgical music is that the professionally trained parish musician has been chased from the scene. In August of 1988, the Rev. M. Francis Mannion, an American authority on liturgy and liturgical music, wrote in the journal Liturgy:

There is a whole generation of mostly young Catholic musicians who are severely disillusioned with the state of church music in the United States and who feel thoroughly unrepresented by the nation's liturgical music establishments . . . They experience incredible frustration because their training is not taken seriously . . . They worry, with good cause, that the ministerial conception of liturgical music often involves a bias against professional excellence.

The city of Rochester, New York epitomizes Fr. Mannion's assessment. Rochester is home to the Eastman School of Music and one of the best graduate programs in organ in the world. Graduate students there earn money every weekend by taking local jobs in most every kind of church except Catholic ones. There they refuse to play, because they are made to feel like new inner-city schoolteachers who have been told to forget about standards and concentrate on social realities. Their advice about repertory is ignored.

Meanwhile, the Catholic parishes are dying for musical direction, starving in the midst of plenty. If a parish were to install a new heating system, or to replace the roof or a crumbling foundation, can anyone imagine that notices would be placed in the Sunday bulletin asking for volunteers? Of course not; the parish would hire an expert and then execute his prescription. But in the business of music, which is many times more complex than any heating system, the typical American parish shuns the professional and his advice.

This is quite unprecedented in the history of Catholic music. Josquin Desprez and Palestrina were widely admired both within and without professional circles and commanded high salaries. For centuries, in city cathedrals or well-endowed establishments, choristers were paid. All of this signaled the esteem for liturgical music, an excellence that was considered essential. Now the very topic elicits derision. Among the professional community, Roman Catholic liturgical music has become a laughing stock.

This perversity only makes sense in the context of democratization. "Excellence" evokes absolute standards of good and bad, judges of those standards, opinions and prerogatives of unequal weight, and other enemies of the democratic spirit. The fact is simple: professional musicians are an elite. Most of them train for 20 years and more to do their jobs, much more than in most any other profession. They have instincts and skills that set them apart. And that distinction is unwelcome.

A Catholic priest I once knew, who also happened to be a concert pianist and a highly skilled composer, remarked that all it took to compose liturgical music today (then, 1988) was someone who could play "three chords on a guitar," presumably the I, IV, and V of a key that taken together can harmonize any traditional melody. A hyperbole no doubt, but nonetheless indicative of the decline in standards of composition. In the western musical tradition of the last four centuries, to compose with such a limited harmonic vocabulary, without compensations from rhythm or improvisation such as we have in jazz, is like writing a novel using only the present tense, a technical limitation that yields mostly mediocrity.

The Collapse of Standards

This third effect of democratization in liturgical music — the collapse of standards in composition of the music itself — has two causes. One is the antipathy against musical professionalism already described; this is just a specific case of it. The other cause is a vicious cycle of underqualified church musicians creating a market for music within their reach. The problem of composing so that a congregation can sing along without sacrificing the integrity of the composition is as old as church music itself, but at least in times past composers could count on professional organists, if not vocal soloists and occasionally instrumentalists, to be involved as well. That professional foundation for composition is now gone. The new standards are imposed from below.

Democratization naturally favors local traditions and autonomy over catholicity, which is the ideal of universality in the church. If the parishioners of St. Mary's in Hamilton, New York prefer popular music and the good people of St. Malachy's, twelve miles south, prefer plainchant, then so be it. The votes for each parish are in and the majority rules. When every parish takes this attitude, a voluptuous variety of liturgical practices and music is the natural result.

In its extreme forms, democratization, once again, makes no attempt to evaluate the choices of music according to some standard of quality, because any such evaluation would make authorities out of those qualified to evaluate it, and their opinions would thus count more. But in a democratic election, the vote by someone who has carefully analyzed a candidate's platform counts no more than the vote by another who likes how the candidate dresses. In democratized liturgy, the parish chooses its music in quite the same way.

Democratization, by elevating the individual worshipper's personal identity, at the same time encourages local creativity, the idea that personal contributions to liturgy are more valuable than following any kind of standard practice, even if universal. Local creativity has innumerable expressions, some very good, and some very poor. When uncontrolled, it leads to the phenomena that author Thomas Day names as egotistical and narcissistic: the cantor who ensures his predominance by blaring into a microphone; the celebrant whose informal chatting from the altar takes up more time than the Eucharistic prayer; the lector who attracts more attention to his elocution than to the Word of God.

When an organist, on the other hand, quietly improvises on the melody of the Offertory hymn just sung by the congregation while the altar is incensed at a solemn mass, a creation of sometimes profound effect is placed in the service of the liturgy, and not vice versa.

Perhaps the most common complaint about the reformed liturgy, which indicts not the form of the liturgy but its performance, is the lack of solemnity. Like music itself, solemnity is not quite comfortable with democratic ideals. We are solemn in the face of awesome, infinite power, something far greater than ourselves. Solemnity restrains our behavior and makes us speak quietly, if at all, and sing otherworldly music. Solemnity implies attention to something other than ourselves, even other than our own families or community.

All such attitudes are dismissed in a democratized liturgy, which, in case we forget, is of, by, and for the people. Formality implies a social rank (witness the decline of the formal verb forms in French, Italian, German, and other European languages in the last 30 years and the ubiquitous use of first names in the United States). Natural, conversational speech, on the other hand, is for normal, regular guys, and that is why a democratized liturgy prefers uninhibited informality, improvised prayer, and all manner of expression emphasizing the importance of individual participants, and of the egalitarian community they constitute.

No less is true of the liturgy's music with its household instruments, casual beginnings and endings, and cheery invitations to sing from the microphone, the very picture of studied informality.

The ideology of relevance had its heyday in the 1960s, again coincident with the hothouse days of liturgical reform. It was most frequently heard on college campuses: traditional curriculum, particularly the classics, had to be either reformed or scrapped to make room for more relevant studies that would have direct impact on the lives and politics of students. Traditional requirements of the educated person, such as familiarity with literary classics and competence in a foreign language and mathematics, died in the 1970s. Fortunately, many were revived thereafter (to the vindication of some universities that never abandoned them) when it was discovered that history was not a dead letter and that Homer could say quite a lot about modern warfare after all.

Insofar as it must please the greatest number, relevance is an artifact of democratization. A sincere but misguided interest in encouraging participatio actuosa also plays a role here. In the extreme, relevance aims to connect everything with the concrete world here and now, and is in spirit completely opposed to liturgy, which by nature is our bridge to the transcendent, eternal world to come. Everything about it — language, rituals, music — had to be updated in order to make Catholicism relevant to Catholics. This would transform, inspire, and energize the Church.

In some respects this prediction came true, particularly when relevance came to mean putting into practice the social teachings of the Gospel. In this aspect, contact with the real, modern world is all to the good. But because symbols acquire their richness of allusion over time, often centuries, the attempt to make over all liturgical symbols into images and reflections of today's world robs them of almost all their symbolic properties and capacity to communicate ineffable things. Thus the banality of banners, invented rites, and much recent liturgical music.

The Burdens of Relevance

It is a curious thing that of all liturgical artifacts, music is chosen to bear by far the greatest burden of relevance. Celebrants still wear garments reminiscent of ancient Rome. The host is still the simplest unleavened bread. Despite an architectural blight in the 1950s and 1960s and a lot of self-indulgence since then, churches still do not look like the homes or banks or offices of everyday life. But music had to be relevant, particularly to "today's youth," who would certainly desert the church if anything other than their own brand of popular music were heard inside it.

It is hard to imagine a worse argument. For one thing, it assumes that contemporary church music in some popular style is really a youthful idiom. Perhaps in the 1960s it was close to some of the music that some young people enjoyed, but it certainly has not been since. Is there a commercial radio station out there that plays music anything like Marty Haugen's? If there were, would any self-respecting teenager listen to it? The notion that today's popular liturgical music appeals to youth is risible. The young people I know ridicule it mercilessly, as much of it deserves.

Of course the Catholics on college campuses do play it, but only because they have no choice. They belong to a lost generation born after 1965, and know nothing better.

Secondly, the premise that relevant music, whatever that might mean in practical terms, attracts converts and keeps our own faithful is a false premise. If everything about liturgy sounds like, feels like, looks like, and talks like the world we know everyday, why bother with it? They do such things much better on television. Much better pop music is to be heard in the stadium or in the jazz club.

Worshippers do not come to Mass to find the everyday world, but to have some experience, however fleeting and subliminal, of the next world, of the divine. How else do we explain the bizarre fashion for Gregorian chant begun by the Santo Domingo monks in the early 1990s, or the upsurge in small Catholic colleges that provide, or even require, participation in traditional sacred music such as Palestrina's? These forms of music are highly irrelevant, except to the basic human need for transcendent experience.

Who Wants this Music? Not the People

So we come at last to the irony of the democratization of liturgical music: it has alienated almost all of the people it was intended to attract. Anyone who can still believe that the new "relevant" liturgical music inspires the vast Catholic flocks need only be shown the revolving door. If it is so inspirational, why do we replace it so quickly? They need only hear the typical performance. Why can we only hear those in the band with the microphone while the congregants, for the most part, stand mute?

An article in the March 1999 issue of The American Organist celebrated the establishment of a choir school at the 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, describes 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 conciliar exhortations, "is at once active and attentive, with acclamations, hymnody, and antiphons, a duty they exercise enthusiastically" But then a single sentence overshadows this bright picture: "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."

This attitude, perhaps it should be emphasized, is hardly typical of the "common parishioner," who appreciates fine church music quite openly and honestly. And why shouldn't he? Professional athletes are not disdained as elitist, though they obviously are a very, very small and privileged group of people, as are test pilots, Hollywood actors, and any number of other kinds of highly trained professionals. No, the charges of elitism, unfortunately, come from those in charge, another irony of democratization. The authorities, schooled neither in musical professionalism nor Catholic musical traditions, but merely in a liturgical democracy of their own invention, impose their prescriptions for proper liturgical music from the top down upon the masses.

The last and saddest irony is how unnecessary it all has been. The aesthetics of a fine piece of sacred music and the ideals of participatio actuosa are in no way incompatible. Take a simple plainchant. For the typical congregant who is not a musician, it is easy enough to learn. For the music lover, still not a musician, it has a timeless sacred semantic that drives the growing revival of plainchant in Italy and other places. For the church musician, it poses more than enough challenges in performance and subtleties in appreciation.

And it doesn't even matter that everyone does not belt it out, for plainchant sounds better that way, rising mystically and anonymously from the people of God. Or take a good hymn, such as "O Sacred Head." Again, the tune is easy to learn. But the more accomplished choir singer knows more: there are actually four melodies (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), each beautiful in itself and yet made to sound together in glorious harmony. The professional organist finds it most satisfying to play them.

Most masterworks of liturgical music, indeed most masterworks in any art, have the power to appeal to nearly everyone on some level. That is one of the things that makes them masterworks. In this regard, they are true democratic art, far more so than the banalities that can satisfy, at best, the lowest common denominators of taste. If this is true, we may reasonably hope that the rediscovery of the treasure of the Catholic musical tradition is even inevitable. For after forty years of mediocrity, the people will demand it.

Joseph F. Swain is a professor of music at Colgate University.

© Ignatius Press

This item 7657 digitally provided courtesy of