Returning Real Music to Mass

A Treasure of Inestimable Value

In this case, the liturgy included a service for the catechumens who were to be baptized on Easter. After a procession, they were all presented with their sponsors at the altar. The solemnity of the occasion was somewhat undermined by the Hawaiian shirts and other sports apparel worn by the uninitiated. But the real clincher was the music. Where, I wondered, would I think I was if I took my bearings only from it? The answer is: anywhere but in a beautiful Spanish Baroque-style church where the most holy Mass was being celebrated.

The music was drenched in sentimentality and performed with great “feeling.” The performers, as performers do, faced the audience. They were not in the choir loft. It is harder to emote from up there. The distance from the congregation depersonalizes the performers, which is the whole point of a choir loft. Since the substance of the music was simple to the point of banality, one was left to concentrate on the feelings with which it was performed — in other words, on the people singing. This shift in the focus of modern liturgical music accounts for the horrible practice, so frequently encountered, of the congregation's clapping after the Mass.

Instrumentalists included a guitarist and a pianist. In case the Mass distracted anyone when the choir was not emoting, the pianist played a kind of liturgical lounge music throughout the rest of the service. The emotional tenor of the experience can be summarized as follows: We bring our neediness, and we leave feeling less needy. In other venues, this might not be a bad thing — say, during a slow dance at a high-school prom. But as a musical expression of the mystery of the Mass, it is horribly deficient and superficial. It is also unnecessary and contrary to what Vatican II intended.

In its document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council taught that “the musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.”

After Vatican II, at the same time that we had all somehow corporately “matured” as Catholics who could dispense with the traditional Lenten fasts and various holy days, we became the objects of tremendous condescension from the new liturgists. The entire liturgy was dumbed down so that the poor hod carriers in the pews could comprehend it. We became the children and the Church our village. Needless to say, the liturgical Luddites completely abandoned the great “musical tradition of the universal Church” and substituted musical pabulum. Bob Dylan has turned 60, but we are still singing folk Masses. Why?

Recovering Our Musical Heritage

Now, the good news. A reaction has arisen against this travesty, based on what Vatican II actually said. Some parishes are bravely and successfully struggling to invoke our great musical heritage. Here I offer examples from two very different churches that prove that any parish with the will and leadership can restore great liturgical music to its services.

Assumption Grotto Church in Detroit consists of a mere 800 families and is not numbered among the more prosperous parishes in its diocese. Yet it offers liturgical music at Mass the equal of that at the Brompton Oratory in London. The pastor, Rev. Eduard Perrone, having first thought his vocation was to be a conductor, formally studied music before entering the priesthood. Seven years ago, he decided to institute an extraordinary musical program at Assumption. When I asked him why, he responded, “If there is one complaint of American Catholics that is universal, it is that the music in church is terrible.”

Indeed, he remarked, “folk Masses are incongruous for the sacred liturgy.” The solution? “I sensed that music would be the key to the whole restoration of the liturgy and of parish life, since it involves so many people and concentrates our energies in divine worship.”

From the modest resources within his own parish, Father Perrone assembled a choir that was willing to practice twice a week. For orchestral Masses and Requiems, he hires professionals from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the city's opera orchestra. I have before me a list of the works presented at Assumption over the last several years, and it is staggering. The fruit of Father Perrone's effort includes performances of Masses by Beethoven, Bruckner, Gounod, Haydn, Mozart, Palestrina, Rheinberger, Schubert, and Stravinsky. Other liturgical works by Poulenc, Boulanger, Spohr, Elgar, Janacek, Mathias, and MartinĂ» have been performed there as well. On weekdays, the congregation sings a repertory of eleven Gregorian chant Masses in Latin from the Kyriale.

What is the result? Father Perrone says: “The music is in harmony with the whole spirit of the adoration of God. People are uplifted.” In fact, many people from far outside the parish boundaries make the effort to worship at Assumption. I can understand why, because I have heard recordings of several of these Masses. The most stunning is Paul Paray's Mass for the 500th Anniversary of the Death of Joan of Arc. In fact, this work, along with the American premiere of Paray's Jeanne d'Arc Oratorio, was Father Perrone's Easter offering to his lucky parishioners this year.

Rev. Winthrop Brainerd is the pastor of Epiphany Church in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. This parish, although growing, has only 200 members. (Epiphany, Father Brainerd tells me, was established in the 19th century by black Catholics who were not happy with their treatment at the white Jesuit parish, Trinity, adjacent to Georgetown University. Since then, many of Georgetown's black Catholics have moved away.) Despite meager resources, Father Brainerd feels impelled “to restore Church music from the disaster it is in.” He says, “Church music is like European railroads. You travel either first class or third.” He is intent on “recovering some of our heritage which has been thrown away.”

(This article courtesy of of CRISIS, America's fastest growing Catholic magazine.)

Time to Sing a New Song

How do you ride first class when, musically speaking, the railroad seems to be on strike? With the able assistance of his music director, Graham Down, Father Brainerd assembled a small, dedicated choir that has shown that relative poverty is no excuse for bad music. For Christmas, it performed Charpentier's Messe de Minuit Pour Noel; for New Year's, Byrd's Mass for Four Voices; for Twelfth Night, Handel's Dettingen Te Deum; and during Lent, Gounod's Seven Words. The Tenebrae service I attended on Wednesday of Holy Week this year included Herbert Howells's Nunc Dimittis and a Bruckner motet. As at Assumption, all the music at Epiphany is played, as intended by its composers, during the Mass or other liturgical services. These works, after all, were not written for musical museums or concert halls but to praise the living God in His presence. There is no mistaking where you are when you hear them.

Father Brainerd has another trick up his sleeve to help put his music program on the map and attract attention to the nonprofit foundation he has started to help finance it. He has the performance rights to a manuscript of a major religious oratorio, Orsula, by Alessandro Scarlatti that, as far as anyone knows, has never been performed. He is working on a world premiere in Washington that will benefit his new foundation, which will in turn offer assistance to other parishes wishing to restore great music to their liturgy.

Hearing is believing. Order one of the four CDs available at the Assumption Grotto Shrine Gift Shop (313-372-2064), or if you are in the Washington, area, visit Epiphany Church, 2712 Dumbarton Street NW.

There is a Gresham's Law of bad taste: Just as bad money drives good money from the market, bad taste drives out good taste. Build an ugly building next to a beautiful one, and soon someone will tear down the beautiful building. Yet this law can work in reverse as well. If given the chance, people will always trade in hard currency rather than fiat money. If more parishes attempt what Fathers Perrone and Brainerd are doing, beautiful liturgical music will drive the mawkish, sentimental tripe from our sanctuaries and choir lofts. It is time to sing a new song. Assumption Grotto and Epiphany prove that there are no excuses for not doing so.


Paul Paray's Mass for the 500th Anniversary of the Death of Joan of Arc and other works, performed by the Assumption Grotto Church Choir and Orchestra, directed by Rev. Eduard Perrone, Grotto Productions.

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Robert Reilly has worked in foreign policy, the military, and the arts. His most recent book is The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. This article courtesy of MercatorNet.

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