Sunday, March 22, 2009

Something worse than praise music

I have been mercilessly lampooning praise music in this blog, to the point that regular readers might think that the sole purpose of starting the blog was to eradicate it from Anglican worship.

The excesses of CCM are certainly a major focus of this blog. I also argue (as has Episcopalian-gone-East Terry Mattingly) that most “contemporary” music has a transitory quality that will not be passed down through the generations — let alone through the centuries — the way that (say) a hymn by Thomas Aquinas has.

However, by studying praise music in its anthropological context, I realize that there is a variation in the quality of music, lyrics and performance. Most of it is sappy drek, and some of it event perpetuates millennially ancient heresies, but it is possible to see that some small subset might survive 20, 50, even 200 years hence.

Driving around today, I happened to tune to one of the Immaculate Heart Radio stations that dot the Western US. I caught a Catholic morning mass which gave me new respect (if only by comparison) for the Anglican praise bands.

From what I recall of occasional visits to Catholic services, this liturgical form seemed fairly representative for a California post-Vatican II parish. Services in English, modernized words that seem more Rite II than 1549 (or 1928) BCP, and late 20th century songs rather than hymns by the 19th century (or 16th century) masters.

First, the singing was dreadful. This seems so shallow, but clearly someone near the mike couldn’t sing in tune and this really dragged down the effectiveness of this nominally uplifting music. By comparison, the music selection for my first visit to St. Edwards (now St. James) was like fingernails on chalkboards, but it was clear that the band leader and his musicians know their stuff.

Trying to get beyond the musical performance, I realized what was also awful was the choice of songs. No, there wasn’t anything sappy like “On Eagles’ Wings,” that notorious contemporary Catholic composition.

But, overall, the hymn choices seemed to alternate between lounge singer and bad campfire music. So not timeless (as in the centuries of Catholic heritage), not chosen from the best of the past 50 years of modern Christian music, and not even the sort of professionally composed CCM that might be heard on a praise music radio station.

This gave me some new insights as to what makes effective liturgical music.

First, I realized that the problem of a weak choir is not specific to contemporary music parishes. However, when I go to a hymn church with a off-key choir I just belt out the hymns so I can’t hear them. If I had to sit and listen to them, it would certainly detract from even the most inspired choices.

Conversely, the choice of hymns — even from within a genre — are certainly important. When we were last church shopping, there was a very friendly 1928 BCP parish with a great rector, but the organists’ choice of hymns was so haphazard that I never knew what to expect and some obvious choices (e.g. on Easter Sunday) were completely overlooked.

I don’t know the CCM genre well enough yet (perhaps ever) to know which are the classics. However, within Hymnal 1982 are a few new hymns that I am convinced will survive to the 22nd century, including my all-time favorite, the 1966 “I Am the Bread of Life” by Sister Suzanne Toolan. So I have a newly-found respect for the importance of a music director (or musically literate pastor) who not only selects hymns appropriate for the season, but also chooses the best hymns, bypassing the weak offerings that will deservedly be forgotten.

Music has the potential to stir the soul, and to reinforce the message being conveyed by the readings, liturgy and sermon. However, it takes knowledge, skill and (frankly) good taste to do it right, and many parishes fall short in one or more areas.


Vicar Josh Osbun said...

"But, overall, the hymn choices seemed to alternate between lounge singer and bad campfire music."

That may very well be the quote of the century.

9.West said...

The century is young…plenty of time for it to be topped. :-)