Music at Mass Review: Polyphony as Catholic

The music at Saturday’s Mass prior to the Walk for Life was good to excellent, sung by a good choir, some chant, some polyphony, English, Latin and Spanish.

I am grateful. The mass, with a dozen bishops, dozens of clergy, processions, incense, candles – the whole smells and bells routine – was beautiful. The homily edifying. One interesting aside: in a congregation made up of pro-life people, the songs get sung, the responses get said, and everybody kneels for the Domine, non sum dignus (it has somehow become customary in our neck of the woods to stand). It’s almost like believing in what is going on makes one more inclined to fully and actively participate, at least in the ways that can be seen.

That was Saturday, at the Cathedral in San Francisco. But then, as you may have heard, Sunday kicked off Catholic Schools Week. This had failed to register until we showed up for the 10:30 mass at our parish 5 minutes early as is our custom and found the church in general and, more important to us, the areas set aside for people with mobility issues (grandma uses a walker) already all but filled up. I will generously assume that all those kids and their families usually go to another mass, and the crowd at the 10:30 was offset by lighter-than-usual turnout at the other masses. Not easy, but I will assume this.

Here’s the obligatory note: these are some good and dedicated people, doing their best to the best of their understanding. It’s that understanding that I’m criticizing here, not the people, who have been formed over their lifetimes in a way not of their choosing. There may well be some personal blame to be laid somewhere, but not at the feet of these good people. My goal is to try to elevate the understanding.

Thus is came to pass that the music was provided by a children’s choir. Somehow, by some unwritten but iron law, music sung by children in Mass must evidently be infantile both musically and theologically. This is done, presumably, because the little dears are not up to singing good music with theologically sophisticated lyrics. The only theological messages their little brains can process are along the lines of let’s be nice to each other, Love is God and, for the more advanced, ‘alle alle allelooooia’.

One suspects there might be a little bit of that soft bigotry of low expectations, at the very least, going on here. One would not want to suppose the kids are purposely being dumbed down, despite Catholic Schools Week being, essentially, a celebration of how our parish schools are kinder, gentler public schools with a little optional Jesus thrown in. Those public schools, after which true Progressive American Catholics have long pined and to which they have aspired, exist to dumb as down, as has been discussed and documented here over the years. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

What should we expect? For context, here are a bunch of young ruffians, orphans even, *boys* even! doing a bit of light singing under the direction of meddlesome adults:

I had the honor, 40 years ago, to hang out for a week with Monsignor Francis Schmitt, founding director of the Boys Town Choir, may he rest in peace, and have also read about him. He was an imposing man, radiating a manly strength, yet warm and easy to talk with. Two things became clear: he was an unapologetic taskmaster, insisting young boys learn some moderately complex music. He also loved the boys and was greatly beloved in return.

It’s as if boys like to be challenged, especially by men they can look up to and who care about them. It certainly is clear that these boys responded gloriously to Msgr. Schmitt’s challenge.

A subsection of the same law mentioned above requires, at least in local usage, the children to gather in front of the altar (backs to it and the tabernacle, naturally) and sing a pre-dismissal song after which all are expected to clap. And so it happened.

As the unruly gaggle of adorable kids congealed around the altar, my 14 year old, wise beyond his years, nudged me and pointed at his Padre Pio wrist band: Pray, Hope, and Don’t Worry. I smiled sheepishly, and whispered: “count how often God gets mentioned in this song”. By my count, zero times. Lots of talk about Love, which, assuming some degree of theological understanding, could reference God. But the song failed to remove all doubt.

The teacher ‘leading’ the singing sang loud, as did a few of the kids. I’d say about 90% were whispering, mouthing the words, or engaged in pulling the hair of the kid in front of them or some similar kid activity. But they were adorable, up in front of the altar, in their little school outfits.

Finally, after the kids had dispersed, the congregation started to do likewise – while the priest was still at the altar. In their defense, the Mass + the extracurricular activities had run almost 90 minutes, some people were getting antsy. He and the acolytes then made their way through the milling crowd. Seems the people’s sense of order had been disrupted.

On to the songs: I didn’t know most of what might generously be called ‘tunes’ and there was mercifully not a program, so I can’t comment on most except to say they were simplistic and insipid. No self-respecting kid would be caught dead humming such tripe on their own time – they’re rappin’ or singing pop tunes, which by comparison are freaking Mozart.

I guess the memo that went out with the new translations a few years back about how these are the words, use them as is, no freestyling does not apply to the clap clap Gloria, the text of which is only loosely based on the liturgical text.

And so on and so forth. It hardly needs mentioning that that most sacred and feverishly pursued goal of active participation, beat into our heads over the last 5 decades, which here might be thought to include singing the songs, was jettisoned without comment. The kids choir was performing more egregious than any aloof and aloft choir loft dwellers of yore, which we were told was bad when we were chased out of that loft.

There was effectively zero singing by anyone except the children and their keepers. I’d never heard most of the tunes before, or my brain’s self defence mechanisms purged all memories of them. In any case, nobody but the kids and teachers sang them.

One exception was the old chestnut ‘One Bread, One Body,’ a song older than the grandparents of some of these kids, sung as a communion song. I learned this song in high school, and learned the harmony part – very minimal, Row Row Row Your Boat level musical skill is required to sing it. So, here was an opportunity: a music director could kick the kid’s musical experiences up a small but critical notch just by having the boys, say, sing one part while the girls sang the other. They could have a small taste of the thrill and glory of singing in parts, where you do your best on one thing, others do their best on another, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. But it didn’t happen.

One underappreciated glory of the ancient Catholic liturgical music is the way it mirrors the structure of the Body of Christ. Chant, especially sung antiphonally, requires real cooperation and focus. There are parts for you, parts for others, and parts for everybody. Some chants are easy, some a difficult, and a few are quite challenging.

The better everyone does his part, the better the whole. It is in each accepting and executing his part to the best of his abilities that the whole comes to its fullest expression.

Polyphony has the same logic, but in a greatly enhanced form. Those kids at Boys Town learned to not only sing their part, but to *listen* very carefully to all the other parts, and to follow the director, the blend and and balance and stay together. As with the chant, each had to learn how to confidently execute his role and make it fit. But the result – the harmonies created by the blending of several independent and independently beautiful parts – far exceeds their sum.

And this is the lesson learned:

If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?
If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?
But as it is, God placed the parts,
each one of them, in the body as he intended.

Sometimes this truth – that it is by doing our part to the best of our ability that we most belong to God, and that we must always respect and encourage all other parts – is hard to see. A great piece of polyphony teaches us that sometimes, we are front and center, sometimes we move tightly with others and sometimes seem to be going it alone. Most often, we are supporting others, who in turn support us. It is a great blessing, and not at all hard to see how each is differently blessed for good of all, when singing great music in a good choir for the glory of God.

Author: Joseph Moore

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

One thought on “Music at Mass Review: Polyphony as Catholic”

  1. I used to go to a “Children’s Mass” years ago (because the time was convenient), and honestly it seemed to me that the woman directing them was trying to make their singing sound as “charming” as possible, which to her meant the kids singing loud and out of tune and not practicing at all whatsoever. In other words, they’re little kids so they can’t possibly sing well; the next best thing is for them to sing cute, and cute, in the case of kids, means badly.

    St. Monica Academy (which you’ve mentioned here before), on the other hand, has all students participating in choir, from first grade through twelfth, and challenges them at every level to sing well. Obviously the first graders don’t sing as well as the twelfth graders, but for first graders they sing darn well. At least it’s clear to anyone watching that they’ve been working at it, and didn’t hear the song for the first time just this morning.

    As you said, not meaning to be critical of people’s motives, just their understanding.

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