Thursday, August 31, 2006

On Music and Learning

My daughter Clare, who is 16, has talked for a long time off and on about how she would like to see our church choir sing some more traditional songs. She joined the adult choir rather than the teen choir primarily because the teen choir tends to sing LifeTeen songs. With all due respect to contemporary Christian music, she has a lot to say about how it is not especially suitable for contemplation at Mass. Here's a summary of some of what Cardinal Ratzinger said on this; here's some things in his own words.

Unfortunately, she finds that even the adult choir prefers standard post-Vatican II Catholic fare -- which is, many agree, not exactly quality music.

So she's been planning to try to convince them to sing some of the old beautiful music -- something more like this. Last week she printed out Ave Verum Corpus by Mozart and pondered it wistfully, wondering how best to persuade a group of active, admirable post-Vatican II people 25 years her senior to try what appears to be called a motet with four parts, without sounding condescending or critical or just way too challenging. She spent several hours trying to pick out the soprano part on the piano while she simultaneously sang the alto. Challenging would be an apt word. She has never even sung an alto harmony before. But she persisted. I offered to try to sing the soprano so she could keep her whole attention on the alto.

I admit, it was about more than being a helpful mother. It was for me, too. Coming from a vibrant Protestant evangelical tradition, growing up whole-heartedly singing first-rate hymns like Fairest Lord Jesus and Holy, Holy, Holy, it has been a real mortification to get accustomed to a weekly half-hearted intoning of Ashes or I Am the Bread of Life. As to the latter, honestly, my Protestant sensibilities are offended by singing in persona Christi and hearing from my crade-Catholic husband and children, it is not just the Protestant that is outraged. And as to the former song, while it has a pretty melody, this "create ourselves anew" bit is simply not Catholic orthodoxy, and it is a bit banal and sappy even from a secular perspective.

So we tried this soprano-alto arrangement, and found that I was stretching beyond my range on the soprano while she was struggling with the alto. Her range is several notes higher than mine. So we ended up switching. I have never sung an alto harmony either. I make plenty of humbling mistakes, especially since I usually learn music FAST. THis learning process is not fast. But when we get it together for a few notes, it sounds beautiful.... so beautiful.

What's this post about? I don't think I have a point, really....

  • I could talk about John Holt "Learning All the Time" -- I'm 43 and JUST learning to sing a supporting part. And it is a good experience. Never too late. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly, as Chesterton says.
  • I could talk about teens in what Dorothy Sayers called the "Poetic" stage -- but in this context, it would probably be rather too patronizing about my daughter, who has gone beyond her family in understanding and love for beautiful old music.
  • I could talk about the importance of a hobby or vocational interest in the life of a teenager
  • I could talk about self-directed interests and where they come from and where they can lead. Where will it lead for Clare? She aspires to much and it is all unfolding under God's providence.
  • I could talk about how wonderful it is to TRY to sing in harmony, how it reminds me of a relationship, and how multi-part singing IS a relationship -- what Sandra Dodd called Leaning on a Truck or Parallel Play -- or CS Lewis talked about as friendship -- two people cooperating and working on something different from and in a way bigger than either of them.
  • And just look at the words of Ave Verum Corpus. Just reading or saying them is a prayer; and singing is praying twice; and singing in reverent, multi-part a capella seems to be something like what the angels might do. We are blessed to have such music in our Church treasure-house. Why do only a few people remember it is there, or value it as the treasure it is?
But I'll let it stand as it is. In 10 or 20 years it will be interesting to look back, and see where God has led the Catholic Church compared to where it is now, and what part my youngsters or yours have had in where it has gone to.


Tracy said...

I agree with you about contemporary "hymns". Have you seen this article by George Weigel? Good for your daughter for trying to effect change! I pray that she will be successful, and that there are many more like her among the Catholic youth!

Cindy said...

Beautiful post, Willa.

God Bless,

Cindy said...

And Willa, tell Clare I agree with her. But think I have just accepted what's what and love Easter and Christmas as the music does improve.

Also my 16yos does not care for Lifeteen. He is traditional, too and we stick to the more traditional Mass. Glad to know there are other young people who agree. :-)

Love2Learn Mom said...

Good for her! (and Mozart's Ave Verum is one of my favorites!) I'm involved in our parish youth choir (along with Ria) for the sake of possibly introducing some wonderful music back into the Church (wherever they'll let me sneak it in, basically). It can be trying and I end up helping out on some songs that I REALLY don't like, but the music director is at least somewhat interested, so we'll see what we can do.

Did you know that Ignatius Press has a set of audio CDs (4 CDs 14.95) connected with the Adoremus Hymnal? That might be a nice source for learning some of the music (I just ordered the CDs myself, so I don't know the details of what they include).

Best of luck to your daughter!

Carla said...

What a wonderful blog!

My life was changed as a student at the University of Dallas when I began singing in a Renaissance polyphony choir there. Until then, I had only heard the typical mediocre music of my parish. I can only imagine that what the angels sing in Heaven is something like polyphony--only better still. I agree that there must be a way to gently reintroduce such beauty into the Mass, but I don't know how. I suspect that most people would rejoice, but a few very loud people would not, as is typically the case.

If your daughter wants a good liberal arts education and the opportunity to sing wonderful Catholic music, she should consider UD.

Along with Mozart, your family might enjoy Palestrina and Vittoria.

Sandra Dodd said...

Oooh! I'm coming very late to this discussion (too late, I fear) but I found my name here and read it. (I was looking for commentary on a radio interview, and found other things instead).

In the late 1960's I organized the music for a guitar Mass, folk mass, at Santa Cruz church in northern New Mexico. I was Baptist, but my friends who wanted to play for this 9:30 Mass every Sunday asked me to help, and helping turned into doing.

BEAUTIFUL, big, old adobe church, usually standing-room-only for that timeslot, grandmothers/abuelitas in lace mantillas, but we were singing boom-ti-yada stuff like "Sons of God," and it wasn't dignified. Kum-ba-yah. Sheesh.

I taught them the Palestrina "alleluia" round, and a few other folky/Renaissance things, but there was a big move to do happy things written the other day by former nuns and priests (it seemed, to me, then).