The real reason most liturgical music is terrible

Numerous things liturgical have changed for the better since Vatican II. Should you have any doubt of the progress, plan a Tridentine Mass in your parish next Sunday. Turn the altar about and scout a copy of the Leonine prayers.

However, one cannot escape the dread feeling that the reforms have not made the grade.

Did something go awry?

Twenty years ago, and more, we had such great hope.

Everything was going to be bright and new and shining.

Every parish would feel the warmth of the newly risen sun and rejoice and be glad, praising and glorifying the Lord.

We had great hopes in those days for congregational participation that would fill our churches with a gorgeous sound.

It does not seem that the promise has been completely fulfilled.

Fatigue has settled over us. We do not succeed past a certain point. Some people have become frantic and are still carrying out bizarre experiments—called liturgical—to awaken interest.

Religious art is at an all-time low.

The only interest in this area seems to lie in producing banners proclaiming peace and happiness.

However, when we listen to and watch the celebration of the Eucharist, the mood we derive is grey, sombre and lifeless.

The banners shout “Joy,” but the healthy man does not talk about health.

We refer to grace as the seed of glory and can find only a cheerless and dismal atmosphere in most of our churches. There is a sameness and repetition and, inevitably, a lack of interest in the celebration of Sunday Mass.

There is one area in our liturgy that has been sadly neglected.

I speak of the music involved in the liturgy.

Music will save the situation.

Surely that is a strong statement, but it cannot be disproven empirically, because good liturgical music has never been given a chance in the United States.

Art reflects life.

Liturgical music reflects religious life.

What we hear at Mass certainly reflects a discouraged and confused church.

One cannot deny the drab, lonely, dull and hopeless atmosphere that liturgical music in American parishes provides.

If this is a prediction of the hope for future glory, I have serious questions about the contemporary American concept of heaven. It seems to be a dreary place.

Lex orandi, lex credendi. Prayer mirrors belief.

One reason for this musical dullness lies in the wordiness that currently burdens the ritual.

Some liturgists now are saying: “Too many words; too many words.”

Throughout history, it has been difficult to keep a classic balance between text and music.

Whenever the weight fell too strongly on the words, the music became deadly. As Pope John Paul put it: “Faith not only needs to be confessed and spoken; it also needs to be sung. And music indicates that the matter of faith is also a matter of joy, love, reverence and exuberance.”

Since music is vital to the liturgical reforms it shows the Achilles’ heel of the liturgists, who forgot to account for one thing here in the United States in reforming the ritual.

They did not count on the fact that American Catholic church music has always been in the hands of amateurs.

And it continues that way. Read more

  • David F. Gallagher is a member of the executive committee of the Boston chapter of the American Guild of Organists, is the music director of St Joseph’s Parish, Lynn, Mass.
  • This article originally appeared in America in 1982.
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