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You are here: Articles > Sacred Music > Post Vatican II "La La La" Music: Unworthy of the Catholic Church  Back one page.
Post Vatican II "La La La" Music: Unworthy of the Catholic Church
(New Oxford Review) May 1998

William J. Abbott

We're 30 years into the post-Vatican II revolution and we're still asking ourselves the basic question that in pre-revolutionary times few even wondered about: "Why do we go to Mass?" Some people go to commune with their fellow man. (As for me, that's what I do on the other six days of the week.) Some go because it makes them feel good. (But how long do the good feelings last?)

It's odd, given our vast archives of sacred music, but I never encounter anyone who goes to Mass to hear the music, even though Sunday after Sunday for the lion's share of the time during Mass we have the singers performing, not the priest praying. As someone who goes to Mass to communicate with God, I, for one, find these performances annoyingly intrusive.

I say "performance" because rarely does one hear the vast majority of the congregation joining in -despite the frantic hand signals from the cantor or music director. Is this because, as they say, "Catholics don't sing"? Or is it because the music is just plain unsingable?

I would love to have been a fly on the wall when the powers responsible for this deplorable state of affairs were deciding what the musical future of Catholicism would sound like. It seems obvious that these people had little or no creative talent. Hearing the results of their efforts, one is forced to conclude that they were doing little except seeking change for the sake of change - and hang the results.

In order to accomplish their mundane end, these folks seem to have employed two basic techniques. In one they start with lyrics and seek some tune to accommodate them. In the other they find some music they think appealing and then make up lyrics to fit. Both yield results that are puerile.

Children playing instruments As an example of the first, we have the butchery of the Lord's Prayer. Now, this is admittedly a difficult set of words to put to music because it is not poetic verse; its phrases don't flow rhythmically like those of a poem but kind of wander around. It's uniform and okay from the first line down to "Forgive us our trespasses." After that it's a composer's nightmare. You can't fit "As we forgive those who trespass against us" into a neat musical phrase. In the traditional rendition composed many years ago they did about as well as one could with this tonguetwister. But the new guys have made a mess of it, and they seemingly refuse to give up and let us sing the good old one. There are at least five versions of the Our Father floating around nowadays: the jumpy one, the slow, slow one, and assorted other undistinguished ones. None has beauty or grace, but I suppose they'll keep trying until we rise in protest. I sometimes fear that if the Lord had any idea of what was to become of His Eternal Words, He might have kept them to Himself.

Then there are the words pasted onto preexisting music. At Mass a while back I was shocked out of my prayerful reverie by a rendition of "Edelweiss" from the Rodgers and Hammerstein play The Sound of Music. A young woman stood at the podium howling, "Jeezuz Kri-ist, Jeezuz Kri-ist," la la la la la la la. I don't recall the remainder of the words because, frankly, I kept silently repeating the first four - a fact for which I found myself in the confessional because of the profane inflection with which they ran through my head.

I try to visualize whence this musical abomination sprang. The guys are sitting around trying to come up with some new songs for inclusion in what must be an ever-expanding repertoire. One says, "Hey, how about 'Edelweiss,' that's a nifty tune. Let's figure out how we can fit it in." The way these folks adopt as church music any tune they find appealing, we Catolicos had better pray that no one ever gets appointed to the music commission who thinks "You Ain't Nothin' but a Hound Dog" might be really cool with new words, like "You Ain't Nothin' but my Savior."

The inanity reaches its zenith when, in my parish, a young woman with a pleasant voice that might serve well for "Happy Birthday to You," starts warbling "Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee" to the tune of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." As she wobbles through the forced and synthetic lyrics, she waves her arms at her audience (I mean the congregation), exhorting them to join in. But just about everyone in the crowd shows more sense. We stand there with our mouths agape, wondering how anyone could have the nerve to attempt to render this most complex of choral works without a philharmonic orchestra, great soloists, and a magnificent chorus - and who had the gall to replace Schiller's great lyrics with inanities.

For my part, I'm embarrassed - embarrassed for the Catholic Church and the tinny and treacly sounds with which she has chosen to announce herself to the world.

The glory and vitality of any organization are reflected in its creative accomplishments. Great organizations, like great civilizations, create great works of art. And great organizations remain great by not losing acquaintance with the enduring greatnesses of the past. The passion of our faith has fueled the machinery of creativity and driven it to supreme achievements. How do we know Michelangelo believed? If he didn't, the Sistine Chapel's ceiling might still be covered with sparkly stars on a blue ground -nice in its way - instead of with the grand narrative of salvation history.

Analogous to the Sistine ceiling in art is the Gregorian chant in music, expressive of the faith of the creative souls who bequeathed it to us. Original and supremely great Catholic music is now replaced by third-rate adaptations of music mostly shallow to begin with. The Church seems to be choosing to represent herself to the world - and to her worried children like me - as in decline not just artistically, but liturgically and inspirationally. The Catholic Church - for the first time in history - seems to have gone tone-deaf.

William J. Abbott, of Oyster Bay, New York, has spent 35 years as a writer and magazine publisher and is a long-time Catholic and long-suffering lover of music.

Copyright © 1998 New Oxford Review. Reprinted with permission from the New Oxford Review (1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA

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