Music At Mass Should Be A Delight, Not A Horror

Temptations To Good. Any thoughtful theologian will recognize the maxim: “Grace builds on nature.” One of my favorite saints, Father John Vianney, often echoed that idea in his sermons. The Curé of Ars would forcefully remind his congregation: “even the heathen admits the beauty of the Christian life.” Despite what we read in the newspapers (which celebrates each new bizarre perversion of our culture), I have observed a great number of “regular” Americans who still reverence Catholic things: a mother with young children, a man caring for a handicapped parent, or a priest entering the supermarket in his soutane. The bottom line: A normal, healthy person will be attracted by what is beautiful, good, and true. These are the “temptations to good” Fulton J. Sheen spoke of with such eloquence.

Those Who Dress Up. I once knew a young man who insisted he could never reside in Kansas (where I grew up). Specifically, he declared: “I’d never live among such uncultured hicks, three hours away from a decent symphony orchestra.” But alone in his room, this man constantly listened to “Death Metal” at a decibel level so high the windows shook. The very same man who claimed it was a requirement to live “near a decent symphony orchestra” had no interest in Mozart, Tchaikovsky, or Mendelssohn! Musicians refer to this as “DUS” (Dress Up Syndrome). People who suffer from DUS love to wear fancy clothes to the opera; but they don’t love opera. People with DUS dress up to attend a symphony concert; but they don’t appreciate symphonic music. People with DUS will even go to the theater with friends; yet they couldn’t care less about William Shakespeare. They love dressing up and acting “cultured,” but they derive no pleasure, joy, or delight from that which is “cultured.”

Honesty Is Key. It is foolish to pretend to appreciate something for the sole purpose of making others believe you are “cultured.” One should be honest about that which one loves. For example, I have listened to Bach’s Kunst der Fuge for twenty years, yet it keeps getting better and better! I want to share it with everyone I meet—because those who don’t appreciate this masterpiece are missing out on such joy!

Sitting At The Master’s Feet. I do not pretend that all masterpieces should be instantaneously accessible to every man, woman, and child. We must have the humility to “sit at the feet of the master” and learn. Indeed, one must approach the great composers with this attitude: “I may not immediately appreciate this, but I’m going to listen repeatedly for a period of time, and admiration for this music will grow.” It’s actually kind of fun! One is embarking upon a journey that will provide decades of delight. By the way, “classical music” is multifarious; it’s not all the same. For instance, certain composers lack depth. An example is Franz Liszt, who wrote pieces like Gnomenreigen, Mephisto Waltz, Feux Follets, and Fusées. These are thrilling pieces—yet they don’t have the musical depth of Bach, Guerrero, or Palestrina. To put it mildly, there are many different styles of music!

Church Music Today. Most Catholics never studied musicology at the university, yet they instinctively realize the music sung at Mass is inappropriate and wrong. It just “feels” secular, goofy, shallow, uninspired, sentimental, and unworthy. Sadly, they are correct! After Vatican II, church music entered an awful phase—and we must fix it. On EWTN, Dr. Robert Skeris (a very holy priest) famously asked the question: “Why does so much of our church music sound like a toothpaste commercial?” He then reminded us that Vatican II insisted that every liturgical celebration is an actio sacra praecellenter (“preeminently sacred action”).

Moving Forward. Complaining is easy; but how can we make progress? The celebration of Mass should be dignified and holy; it should never feel embarrassing and silly. I have been asked to write a series of articles explaining how we can fix the situation—and a theme I’ll come back to frequently is the beauty of choral singing. Most Catholic priests have never heard a decent choir directed by a qualified choirmaster. If only they could experience this, it would change everything! Professor William Mahrt of Stanford has observed that the sacred liturgy should be a source of “delight”—and he’s absolutely correct.

Image: Shutterstock/Thoom

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Jeffrey M. Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004) and has done graduate work in the fields of Musicology and Education. In February of 2011, Mr. Ostrowski was elected President of Watershed. His scholarship has focused on the historical performance of plainsong and polyphony of the High Renaissance, resulting in several early music CDs and an internationally broadcast television documentary. In 2002, he became the first to produce a compact disc using “multi-track” recordings for Renaissance polyphony. He has been frequently chosen as presenter for national musica sacra gatherings. He founded—and still oversees—the Sacred Music Symposium, which promotes authentic church music at the grass roots level. While serving as adjunct choirmaster at Corpus Christi Cathedral, he played the pipe organ for televised Masses on hundreds of occasions.

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