When Benedict XVI was in his prime choirmasters quietly reintroduced chant and polyphony to Catholic parishes. But it may have been too little too late

“Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” says a character in a Noël Coward play. And it’s true. Even in church. A morbid Victorian hymn or a Christmas carol can reduce even the most cynical atheist to tears.

But even more potent, I’d argue, is church music that isn’t so much cheap as embarrassingly bad.

I can’t speak for other denominations, but I’m convinced that the distinctive awfulness of the music in many Catholic parishes helps explain why Mass attendance has fallen off a cliff since the 1970s.

I’m lucky. I live in a London parish where the priest can tell the difference between a good hymn and a bad one. The tragedy is that so many priests either can’t or, more likely, don’t want to upset the choir by banning the dispiriting rubbish written “in the spirit of Vatican II”.

The choice of music at Mass matters as much as the quality of the sermon. That’s always been my opinion, anyway, and recent experiences have only served to confirm it.

At the 9.30 Sunday Mass a few weeks ago we sang “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken”. The tune is by Joseph Haydn. He wrote it as an unofficial Austrian national anthem and was so proud of it that he used it as the basis for the slow movement of his “Emperor” String Quartet. It was the last music he played, falteringly on the piano, before he died. Later the Germans stole it and sang it to the words “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”. It’s still their national anthem, though funnily enough that particular verse has been dropped.

But I digress. The organist at this Mass was a professional musician who revealed the lovely proportions of this apparently simple hymn, on which Haydn worked extremely hard.

And people sang – not lustily, exactly, but loud enough to be heard. It’s a congregation of many nationalities; I doubt they knew the words (I certainly didn’t); but they recognised the tune and liked it. Hearing it made my day.

Then, a week later, I went to the Saturday evening Mass for the first time. The organ started up, but within seconds it was clear that the performer would be lucky to scrape through his Grade 1 piano exam. If you listened carefully you could hear the feeble strum of guitar chords.

The hymn, if you can call it that, was one of those numbers that puts the congregation in persona Christi by asking them to pretend that they’re Jesus – “I am the bread of life”, “Come follow me”, “I am the way”. I don’t think the parish priest enjoys this sort of thing and, judging by the squirming in the pews, neither did anyone else. Presumably it’s a legacy from a previous era – when I visited the parish back in the Nineties that was the only style of music on offer.

The folk hymn and the near-identical antiphons that kept breaking out at odd moments during the Mass were completely forgettable. But for me they were also potent. They brought back grim memories.

In the 1980s I was the organist of a parish in Reading. The little choir sang a bleak and tuneless vernacular setting of the Mass (it was the only one we had the music for) but the old PP had no objection to rousing Protestant hymns such as “All People That on Earth Do Dwell” and “Now Thank We All our God”.

Then a new man arrived, demolished the baldacchino in the sanctuary and ordered that every hymn must be folky garbage that made the organ sound as if it belonged in a fairground.

I resigned and for years afterwards I successfully avoided Bad Catholic Music (in my mind it’s always capitalised, like the Second Viennese School). My strategy involved not going to Mass at all. I don’t recommend it – but it worked, because the only place you encounter those smug, gloopy songs is a modern Catholic church.

Bad Catholic Music (BCM for short) is uniquely inauthentic. It doesn’t sound like any other sort of music. Whether “inspired” by folk, jazz or chant, BCM has the knack of always sounding more or less the same.

There’s no precedent in the history of church music for such a clumsy cobbling together of musical ideas and styles.

It’s true that Gregorian chant didn’t resemble the music that worshippers heard in their everyday lives outside church. But it had evolved so gradually – we can trace it back to the psalms of anchorite communities in the late Roman Empire – that it had a timeless quality.

The intricate polyphonic Masses of the 16th century were “art music”, requiring expert performers; but they were rooted in Gregorian chant and when the composer wove in a popular tune it didn’t have the effect of secularising the music.

The greatest Anglican hymn book, the 1906 English Hymnal, was eclectic – but the hymns themselves weren’t. Their tunes came from early English, Nonconformist and Lutheran sources, together with gently adapted plainsong melodies (“O come, O come Emmanuel”). More recent hymns included Parry’s “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” and “For All the Saints” by Vaughan Williams, the English Hymnal’s musical editor.

Admittedly, English Catholics of the same era didn’t have the same riches to choose from. I remember my father telling me that, back in the 1940s, his local parish sang “Soul of my Saviour” every week and “dragged it out for ever”. When I was a child you could still hear those sentimental favourites and I was snooty about them. Hearing them today, however, they sound like Bach’s motets compared to the horrors that replaced them.

When Cardinal Basil Hume died, the choir of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, recorded 20 much-loved old Catholic hymns as a tribute. I bought the CD and it was a revelation. Even the octave leap in “Sweet Sacrament Divine”, traditionally a painful geriatric swoop, makes musical sense if the voices are fresh and someone is beating time.

Yes, the words of all the hymns are sentimental; but the sentiments themselves – adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, identification with the suffering of Calvary, devotion to Our Lady – reflect the ancient, self-effacing piety of medieval worship. They are authentically Catholic.

What a contrast with post-Vatican II Bad Catholic Music. The hymns or “worship songs” that accompany folk Masses reek of spiritual narcissism.

The first person to spot this was the American choirmaster Thomas Day, in his 1990 book Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste. In many hymns, he says, “the congregation plays the role of God, and a very laid-back God at that”. Day cites a psalm setting by Fr Michael Joncas, “On Eagle’s Wings”. The “moaning and self-caressing quality of the music”, writes Day, “indicates that the real topic of the words is not the comforting Lord but ‘me’ and the comforts of my personal faith”.

Joncas is one of the stars of contemporary Catholic liturgical music in America, along with Marty Haugen, best known for his Mass of Creation. Haugen isn’t actually a Catholic, belonging to the doctrine-lite United Church of Christ, but that doesn’t stop him tapping into the “spirit of Vatican II” as it’s understood by the BCM lobby.

And what a tight-knit lobby it is, on both sides of the Atlantic. To follow its manoeuvres, read a blog called “Pray, Tell”, whose prose is as moaning and self-caressing as Joncas’s music. Indeed, there are 165 posts by Fr Joncas, one of which announces a documentary about “On Eagle’s Wings” featuring a tribute by… Marty Haugen!

Another contributor reports from a meeting of Universa Laus, an international group of BCM liturgists. They sang from the Heritage Mass by Owen Alstott, which – like the music of his wife Bernadette Farrell, a big name in BCM circles – is pleasantly bland. Then it was time for a dose of Marty’s Mass of Creation, with harmonies straight out of a Donny and Marie Christmas Special.

The report, incidentally, was written by Paul Inwood, for my money England’s foremost composer of Bad Catholic Music, whose hymns I once described in The Daily Telegraph as Hildegard of Bingen meets Joan Baez in a 1970s cocktail lounge.

In that article I described how bishops’ liturgical advisers in Britain and the US were “shunting commissions in the direction of ageing trendies”, some of whom made a lot of money out of it.

That was in 2007, when Benedict XVI was in his prime. Anti-BCM choirmasters were reintroducing chant and polyphony to Catholic parishes – but quietly, because there was always the risk of being shopped to the diocesan authorities.

Eight years on, how much progress have they made? In the south-east of England and certain university towns, quite a lot. Young, middle-class practising Catholics take a counter-cultural delight in traditional worship. They’ll travel a long way to avoid what Thomas Day calls the “studied whimsy” of BCM, whose elevator-music harmonies sound quaint to anyone born after 1990. Some of them will join choirs to sing Byrd and Victoria; there are a surprising number on Facebook.

But, in the end, I’m sceptical of conservative musicians’ claims that Catholic music will recover as soon as congregations discover the simple joys of of plainchant, whether in Latin or English.

That’s because, in Britain and most of the West, we’ve lost the habit of communal singing. The only people required to sing together are primary school children, but it’s been decades since they were encouraged to stretch and develop their voices. As a music teacher told me the other day: “Modern adults just can’t reach the high notes that the old hymns demanded. So they don’t even try.”

All of which leaves the producers of Bad Catholic Music free to carry on selling material that few worshippers sing and even fewer actually like. They know that Pope Francis – in private, even more passionate about classical music than the Benedict XVI – does not interfere in matters liturgical.

This year there was a competition to write the music for Misericordes sicut Pater, “Merciful like the Father”, the official litany of the Year of Mercy. Given that the Catholic liturgy has inspired masterpieces from Josquin, Palestrina, Byrd, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Verdi, Britten and Messiaen, we might have expected something extraordinary. Instead, the winning entry was churchified musical wallpaper.

And the composer? Paul Inwood.

Damian Thompson is associate editor of The Spectator and editorial director of the Catholic Herald

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (06/11/15)

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