Back when I was in seminary (24+ years ago), I was an organist, and Music Director of the Seminary. And in those years I learned an important, albeit, frustrating reality, namely that many did not always appreciate what I considered to be the finer things of Church Music.
I remember one November having the Seminary Choir Sing a rather elegant piece by Palestrina. It was a difficult piece to master, but oh how wonderful it was, sung in four parts, acapella. Yes! The high water mark of Catholic music. I was so sure the men would love to hear it sung. And we sang it beautifully. That same feast day of all saints we also happened to chant the Litany of Saints. We used the simple tone. We rehearsed it only once and sang it with little effort.
After the Mass I awaited the accolades that would certainly come! And sure enough they did. On the way over to dinner some of the seminarians walked up and said in different ways,
Wow, that piece you sang was really beautiful….so moving….We need to do more of that!
Ah, yes! I replied, Palestrina is the best!
To which they all responded, Pala..who? I was talking about the litany.
Oh! said I, Well what did you think of the piece we sang at offertory?
Looking puzzled, as if they were trying to remember it, came the answer,
Oh that was pretty good too…, What was it?
And thus I learned that sometimes the glory of finer things escapes the average listener. The Litany was beautiful, but, for a trained musician, its simplicity made it seem insignificant. And yet, sometimes, less is more, little things mean a lot, and the good is not the enemy of the better, it is its foundation.
At the end of the day, liturgists and Church musicians, do well to mix with simple and accessible with some of their more lofty offerings. While we might wish that everyone would appreciate the finer things instantly, frankly not everyone does. Some of the finer things are an acquired taste and require some background to appreciate.
I have found that certain types of music and art have grown on me over the years. I was not born appreciating Palestrina, or a Bach Fugue, or Gospel music for that matter. But over time I learned the intricate and internal moves of these sorts of music and came to appreciate them like fine wine.
That said, I still like a “good beer” every now and then too. My iPod has many offerings from 70s pop and rock, when I was in High School and College. Most of it is not high art, and lacks the intricacy of the Brandenburg Concertos, but I enjoy it. And frankly some of that music served as a foundation for my later appreciation of classical and Choral music.
One thing that Church liturgists and musicians should surely avoid is snobbery. Nothing can so slam the door on what they hope to inspire than snide remarks about what people clearly like. Snobbery is no way to inspire an openness to finer and more intricate things. Cheese snobs can sneer all they want at the rubbery plastic-wrapped Velveeta cheese all they want, but Americans eat it in abundance and with gusto. Sneering won’t get people to suddenly start liking Roquefort, or Gouda.
Once, I was drinking a glass of chillable red wine (the kind that comes from a box), and was rebuked by a wine connoisseur to the effect that what I was drinking was not even real wine. Frankly, I was less likely to try a “fine wine” with that sort of attitude. And my palate might not even be ready for some of the drier wines favored by connoisseur.
Work with me, don’t sneer at me. Perhaps my world of chillable red, boxed wine can be expanded. But my appreciation for it will likely grow in stages, rather than rushing to the dry red fine wine that, to me with my unrefined wine palate, currently tastes like liquid ashes going down.
It is the same with music and liturgy. Snobbery is highly to be avoided. I love the Traditional Latin Mass, but I do understand that appreciating it requires some history, some basic knowledge of Latin and so forth. I find that I can lead people in stages to it. But honestly, I wince every time on this blog or elsewhere, those who, like me appreciate the old, but sneer at those who like more modern forms, or simpler forms.
Snobbery wins few converts. I could listen to a Bach Fugue all day long, and enter deep prayer with Renaissance polyphony, but I do understand why not everyone is of the same mind, and I feel blessed to like what they like too. Perhaps, in stages and through friendship, rather than snobbery, I can open bigger worlds to others, and they to me.
Simple chanted Litanies are good! So is Victoria and Palestrina. Appreciation for fine things is built on an appreciation for other things. Life builds and expands, it need not narrow and become fussy. The Good is not the enemy of the better, it is its foundation.
This video illustrates these points well. A little girl sees in a baker’s window what she wants, a simple cherry. But the baker will have non of it! She must try this delicacy and that delicacy! But so fine is what he offers her that she barely recognizes it as food at all. It is really the simple red cherry she wants. At the end, the Baker finally meets her where she is, and presents her with the prettiest cherry she has ever seen! And thus, he builds on what she knows and likes. He shows her the finer things in stages, respecting the true and actual goodness of what she likes.
Pay attention liturgists and musicians, and all who appreciate the finer and more advanced things in many areas of life.