Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Impossible Task

Throughout most of the year, arguing for traditional Catholic liturgical music, chant, is a difficult task. You have to contend with indifference, ignorance, philistinism, and, most fiercely, the inertia of the status quo. Yet Advent inertia is a whole different beast from the habits of the rest of the year. Advent is not like Lent, when you might be able to slip a solemn tone in amongst the usual assortment of dour hymns, or Ordinary Time when dropping On Eagle's Wings one week won't ruffle anyone's feathers. No, during Advent people have expectations, namely that of yuletide cheer peppered with a few minor thirds. Never mind the miracle and implications of incarnatus est et homo factus est, one must serve up the usual sweet fodder. The details don't seem to matter too much, as long as you serve the following courses:
  • twelve toe-tappers
  • eleven pop tunes
  • ten minor melodies
  • nine cheery carols
  • eight bobbing ballads
  • seven gooey lullabies
  • six wintry airs
  • five golden oldies
  • four rhyming refrains
  • two merry rounds
  • one Old Testament anthem
  • and Handel's Hallelujah chorus
You'll know you've pleased everyone if you see Fezziwig come jiggering out of the sacristy.

Now I'm not usually persuaded by the claim that parishioners want the music that's played at church. I don't think people would miss the Mass of Creation were it suddenly to disappear. Many people expect some kind of music, not unreasonably, but they don't care too much about style or content. Yet during Advent and on Christmas. . . So what to do? How does one finagle a sacred mass without a yuletide revolt in the pews? I have a few suggestions.

The first is to stay calm. There's a place in the world for people who have no musical taste (Arctic penal colonies), so don't get apoplectic because they prefer The First Noel to Puer Natus Est or some bird's nest from Rutter to a Byrd Gloria. This isn't the time to give lectures about textual primacy or voice leading to such parishioners. Just tie them up and leave them somewhere for the winter.

Second, be practical. This is also not the time to push your ideas, however beautifully developed and presented, on choir directors. They tend to be busy and frazzled during December. By now you're probably out of time to persuade them, so instead just throw away all the music you don't like. They're not organized enough to have extras.

Third, if you manage to incorporate proper music into a mass but expect Occupy Schola to show up demanding Go Tell It on the Mountain, consider ending the mass with something popular. If you give them what they want at the end, they might forget about what came earlier. A compromise.

Fourth, try offloading the cheesy music to a Lessons and Carols concert. You might not want to yield this occasion to the philistines, but better it than mass.

Lastly, people slip back into old habits, so you'll probably never improve things once and for all.

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