Church Music

It is not well known that I once expressed myself on matters liturgical under my nom de plume, Mgr O’Connor. Well, not even under that nom to be honest, as I published the tract anonymously and circulated it privately. This was not so much from cowardice as prudence, for I had strong opinions which developed from as early as my days at school with the English Benedictines of St Edmund at Douai in Flanders. Both with the Fathers of St Benet and at the Venerabile in Rome, I read, studied and experienced things that have formed my liturgical, and indeed ecclesiastical, thinking. Yet I fear my bishop would not have been so patient as to hear my apologia. So Prudence took charge, bless her.

Yet, in these days, half a century now after yet another Vatican Council (as if the first were not trying enough!), I find that perhaps what I wrote might have been unwittingly, and ironically, prophetic. Next year I shall republish, publicly, that little tract because I think it has much to offer those assessing the status quo of the liturgy, both before and after this second Council at the Vatican.

What marks my liturgical thinking as being other than that of professional liturgists, as creatures are called, is my basic premise for liturgical reform:

What we are accustomed to call Low Mass is a very beautiful and singularly perfect thing in itself, and from Low Mass again must radiate the revival of the Liturgy.

Why Revive the Liturgy, and How? (1934), p.2

However, that starting point might not lead exactly where you think it does! This is for another day. The point at hand is Church Music…

Ah, Music! What crimes are committed in thy name!

Ibid., p.5

Music, I contend, entered the liturgy as a practical necessity. Once the Emperors stopped persecuting the Church, congregations emerged from the crooks and nannies, and gathered in larger numbers.

Here it was found that the public worship of a large crowd had to be sustained by some kind of monotone. The monotone itself requires to be tuned and kept together by an agreed change of note at the end of a phrase, and a bigger change at the end of a sentence.

Ibid.

Here we have the birth of the chant. On chant I have strong opinions too!

As a boy I learned the Mechlin version of Gregorian. All the bits I adored had ot be dropped when I learned the Ratisbon version. In due course I found that my darling Mechlin was bad music, and the Ratisbon variant (for the most part) scholarly and sound. But in the Solesmes or the Vatican version I found all the worse errors put back. I enquired of two first-rate scholars why this should be, and they both agreed that it was because the French monks ignored foreign sources.

Ibid., p.6

Actually, I go on at some length about the introduction of neums leading to the rise of specialists, and then after the advent of polyphony, specialists giving way to professionals.

Then the professional became the hireling; then the music with all its beauty perforce had to be abolished as being neither public worship nor private devotion.

Ibid., p.7

Undoubtedly I am happiest with the chant. However, in the parish one must adapt one’s ideal to the real. I imagine that my decision to sack my parish choir in Bradford en masse (but not during it, naturally) would horrify moderns. Well, some of them at least. For I find that what I experienced to be, shall we say, adolescent in my day has remained adolescent, even more frightfully, now in your day:

But there was worse to come, since the most vulgar composers of all wrote easy Masses for easy-going performers whose arrogance grew with their incompetence, until frightful scenes were enacted instead of public worship, and the Choir was variously named “The Cock-loft,” “The Hen-run” and “The Hullabaloo.” Many “Masses” composed for such are hopelessly bad music, intended for voices which cannot dwell in peace with any note, nor with ease on any note.

Ibid.

Animated by a degree of contrition, I began to wonder if perhaps I had been too harsh in my assessment, letting the aesthetic sense trump the pastoral. But having been to quite a few churches over the last few years, both here and abroad, I see, notable exceptions notwithstanding, that my judgment in 1934 remains ever more valid in these Last Days:

Church music is always growing to a semi-permanent atrocity…

Ibid., p.6

Thus, dear friends, I remain a devotee of the Low Mass and what Mr Browning called its “blessed mutter.”

But I must return to my bed, perhaps fortified with something liquid, warm and strong. After blessing the graves in the cold and rain this past All Souls, I have come down with a bad cold which keeps me not only from a sung Mass but any Mass. M. Flambeau thinks it folly for me to be exacerbating the affliction at the typewriter. He does ever worry so over me, but so often he is in the right. I should keep ever in mind what the prophet says, Qui cum sapientibus graditur sapiens erit; amicus stultorum efficietur similis. (Prov 13:20)

Amici, pax vobiscum.