Suitable Music for Mass


Some readers may have read about a concert held in honour of Benedict XVI in the Sistine Chapel a few weeks ago. The concert, directed by Msgr Domenico Bartolucci, included a selection of motets composed by the permanent director of the Sistine Pontifical Musical Chapel, alternated with compositions by Giovanni Pierluigi of Palestrina (1525-1594).Comments made at the concert by the pope appeared in The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, Zenit and other news agencies. The pope is reported as saying:
An authentic updating of sacred music cannot occur except in line with the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant, and of sacred polyphony. Sacred polyphony, especially the so-called 'Roman school,' is a legacy that must be carefully conserved, maintained alive and made known.
This is why in the musical field, as well as in that of other artistic forms, the ecclesial community has always promoted and supported those who investigate new expressive ways without rejecting the past, the history of the human spirit, which is also the history of its dialogue with God.
I was rather annoyed by a response to these remarks that appeared in The Age. Leading Melbourne Catholic singer and songwriter Juliette Hughes sympathised with the Pope. "There's lots of dreadful guitar music that is a stumbling block to people who want to come back to church - that dreadful 'I want to have a beer with Jesus' music," she said.
I guess putting everyone into one of two completely opposite camps and suggesting that all music that is not polyphony or Gregorian chant belongs in the banal/inappropriate category it is a good way to get a reaction and start an argument. From my experience, music used in liturgy in Australia falls somewhere in the broad spectrum between these two extremes, and most of it a long way from Ms Hughes’ 'I want to have a beer with Jesus' extreme.
The event in the Sistine Chapel wasn’t liturgy; it was a concert. Such music used in the setting of liturgy would certainly inspire many - but not all - worshippers, but it would greatly limit participation for most of the faithful. Mass is NOT a concert! Besides, how many typical Catholic parishes could ever dream of being able to provide orchestral and choral music of this calibre at Sunday Mass?
When I go to Mass in some parishes and find that every piece of music being used is by Haas or Haugen, with nothing musically challenging or more than 20 years old, I sympathise somewhat with Juliette Hughes’ position. I wonder what is wrong with some of the more traditional hymns that have been sung with great gusto and strong emotion for decades; why did they suddenly become obsolete?
It seems that music no more than 10 years old is given preference in a misguided attempt to appeal to young people. But it’s a no-win situation. A piece of music from the 1970s/80s is no more appealing to young people than something from the 17th or 18th century.
Have liturgical musicians who toss out ‘old’ music ever listened to the club songs of AFL teams that are sung with full voice by young and old at every game? All of them are based on songs that were ‘old hat’ even when I was young!
I can understand people wanting more traditional, challenging or prayerful music than that which is sometimes used in parishes in the name of relevance. But polyphony and Gregorian chant, I suggest, are not the solution!
More next week

Elizabeth Harrington