Music at Mass: 1/31/2016 – a Tale of Two Children’s Choirs

From yesterday’s Epistle:

When I was a child, I used to talk as a child,
think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things.

After Mass, the principle of the parish school stated, in reference to this passage, that one main goal of Catholic schools is to help bring kids into adulthood.

This is National Catholic School Week, so the choir from the parish school sang at Mass. After the manner of their kind, they were quite good – they really sang, followed the director’s directing with clear, on-pitch voices. The kids were attentive and enthusiastic. Inevitably, it seems, they sang all third-rate modern music, mostly songs written under the assumption, evidently, that children don’t actually like music. (1)

Compare and contrast this children’s choir:

and:

The kids at Boys Town were not any more special than the kids at any parish. In other words, the kids at your local parish school could sing like the Boys Town Choir, if the adults in charge were willing and able to put in the work.

Now very few parishes have a Fr. Francis Schmitt to direct its children’s choir. The difference is that, 60 years ago, the director of a parish children’s choir (did they even have those back then? And let them sing at Mass?)  would hear the Boys Town Choir and hear something to be aspired to. Now, the harried part-timer in charge not only falls far short of any fraction of Fr. Schmitt’s  musicianship and erudition, but doesn’t even want their kids to sound like that, singing great music. They, themselves, have probably learned to despise all that classical-type music as totally snobby, that having a good choir sing beautifully from the loft is just another way the mean old Church cut the people out of Mass.(2) Any attempt to have the kids do real music is met with grave suspicion.

Thus, the quality of music coming out of parish children’s choirs is roughly that of a grade-school talent show. Yesterday’s choir was better than that, for which I am thankful. The real damaging thing here is two-fold: to the people involved, it is a *virtue* that their kids march into the sanctuary and sing weakly along to goofy recorded music while some adult waves her arms like a stork and gives them cues – and then get a round of applause from the people in the pews. This would be called, I suppose, keeping it real. Second, this childish music and childish presentation and need for instant affirmation is not seen as one of those childish things St. Paul was talking about as needing to be set aside once we reach adulthood. On the contrary, from the adults’ perspective, not only would it be a real step back (on The Wrong Side of History, no doubt) to have the kiddies sing real music really well from someplace not distracting to the Mass itself,  it would be bad if the putative adults did it.

I had the honor of meeting Fr. Schmitt back in the early 80’s, even attending little classes wherein he attempted to beat a little music into our thick skulls. He really was a great man, one of a few people where I, now that it’s too late, wish I had just done whatever I could to just sit at his feet and learn whatever he wanted to tell me.

The sad thing: Fr. Schmitt had despaired of the church ever returning to good music as the standard. He had seen not merely neglect of good music, but concerted efforts to crush it out of existence (having people throw copies of the liber usealis straight into the dumpster or furnace, for example – sort of like that scene in That Hideous Strength, where Frost tries to get Studdock to desecrate sacred symbols as a way of breaking him down). If I could talk to him now, I’d tell him that, not only are there a growing number of chant and polyphony choirs springing up, we even get to sing at Tridentine Masses in, like, regular parishes without apology.

So, while the situation liturgically and musically is still borderline dire, it is not at all hopeless. Cheer up, Fr. Schmitt!

  1. When he was still little, introduced eldest son to Bach’s Little G-Minor Fugue. It became one of his favorite bits of music, despite (because?) being all intricate and grown up. I don’t think this outcome all that unusual.
  2. The typical behind in the pews may not think this on any conscious level, but I’ve almost exactly this said on more than one occasion, usually by some aged ex-hippy deacon or ex-nun. Even some of the better younger priests seem to be afraid to stick their heads into this particular lion’s mouth. Oh well: perhaps church music, like science, advances one funeral at a time.
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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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