This Weekend: Music And Liturgy After Vatican II

For those of you in the DC area interested in beautiful music, and particularly in the idea of having beautiful music as part of the liturgy – which, since the 1960’s, has been something of a foreign concept – I invite you to join us at St. Stephen Martyr in Foggy Bottom this weekend and next, for a two-part lecture on how the post-Conciliar Church should and could be using music in worship. The lectures will be given by our Music Director at St. Stephen’s, Neil Weston, and will be held at about 12:15 pm in the Parish Hall. Perhaps you will also consider joining us for the 11:00 am Mass upstairs beforehand, to hear Neil and our Parish Choir in action, since Catholic or not, you are very welcome.

Neil studied at Oxford, the University of London, and the Royal College of Music, and as a conductor and soloist has performed in many venues in Europe and America, including here at the National Cathedral, the Basilica of the National Shrine, and the Kennedy Center. Among other awards to date, he won the American Guild of Organists’ National Competition in Organ Improvisation, and has played on numerous solo and ensemble recordings. Every week at the 11am Sunday Mass, he and our choir help make the liturgy a truly beautiful, uplifting experience, enhancing rather than distracting from the worship of God by the use of their musical gifts.

At the risk of embarassing an Englishman, since they are not an effusive sort of people, I will say that every week I stay behind after the Recessional Hymn at Mass to hear what Neil is going to play, as people shuffle their way out. As you can hear in this example of his solo performance, recorded at St. Stephen’s and showing both Neil and the church, there is a joyful dexterity in his style and wonderful acoustics in the building itself. Neil plays and conducts an enormous variety of music, from the familiar to the unknown, the classical to the contempoary, but always with exceptional good taste and a sense of decorum as to what is suitable for the liturgy.

You can also hear a sample of Neil and our choir at St. Stephen’s performing together in this video, recorded during the Offertory at the 11:00 am Mass on January 10th of this year. I apologize for the quality of the recording which, since it was made on my phone, is not studio-grade. However more to the point of this post, as well as to the lectures which Neil will be giving, this was not music for a major feast day, like Christmas or Easter, but just a normal Sunday Mass. This of course begs the question, if as a rather small parish of only about 500 permanent members St. Stephen’s can make the effort to have a beautiful liturgy like this, every week, why cannot other, larger and welathier parishes do the same?

Hope to see you there this weekend and next, and if you spot me, please drop by and say hello!

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>Making the Minutes Fly Like Hours

>This past Friday The Courtier attended “An Evening with the Sacred Arts”, a fundraiser on behalf of The Foundation for the Sacred Arts, to whose Architecture Advisory Committee he was recently named. Thanks to the excellent efforts of many, particularly Executive Director Ann Marra, the turnout was excellent, and it was good to meet some new people supporting the goals of the foundation. And, naturally enough, it was also good to catch up with some familiar faces – in particular one gentleman with whom there was a very pleasant and thoughtful series of disagreements on subjects recently covered in this blog, including a certain painting in the National Gallery, whether Picasso could, in fact draw, and whether a certain structure was a good building but a bad church.

As Erik Bootsma, our Curator of Architecture, pointed out in his address to the group on Friday, the Foundation wants to be constructive. The FSA wants to help to encourage parishes and individuals to seek out and commission works of art, music, and architecture that are not only theologically sound and liturgically appropriate, but also works that are beautiful. By so doing, we can reflect the beauty of God’s creation and honor Him appropriately in our places of worship.

Regular readers of these scribblings know that The Courtier is not a trained or practicing artist or architect, nor is he a professional art or architecture critic. Why, then, should he seek to bore the reader to tears going on about things like old altarpieces or unusual churches? There is a great temptation within these virtual pages at times to be more Addison DeWitt than helpful, constructive critic, but in a sense this is only logical: if a painting or a building already exists, the construction, as it were, has already been completed, leaving little or no chance of correction.

However, one hope of organizations like The Foundation, and the reason why The Courtier felt he might prove to be of some small service to it, is that younger people who are interested in these subjects, as well as that of sacred music, will become more informed and engaged in their local parishes, when it comes to tasks like commissioning new projects. For the past several decades, such decisions have most often been made by persons with Commissariat opinions and taste, be they cleric or layman, simply because they happened to be louder than anyone else on the parish council, creating a mish-mash of bad kitsch and worse theology. [N.B. Yes, there is such a thing as “good” kitsch.] If no one speaks up while the choir director runs away with the music at mass, leaving the parishioners in a wake of drums, tambourines, and electric guitars to the tune of “Rain Down”; if no one questions why there are bizarre wall hangings which have suddenly appeared like drying Neapolitan laundry on the tympanum above the sanctuary; if no one suggests that Father’s approved design for the new church featuring a tabernacle shoved into a sort of closet out of the sight of the congregation might not be the best way to focus on the Eucharist, then such silent witnesses have likely forfeited their right to complain about such matters.

On an early episode of “The Simpsons”, Marge turned to her husband and said, “Homer, it’s easy to criticize,”; to which Homer responded with an acknowledging nod, “Fun, too.” The temptation to ramble on about things which one knows nothing about, or about which one is very poorly informed, is very great in the blogosphere; readers of this blog would no doubt have the grace to point out any errors that might be expostulated here. However, when it comes to subjects such as art and architecture, and particularly where these subjects cross with the sacred, it is more than merely expressing a matter of personal taste that is at stake. The decline in the cultural education of young people, who within the next ten to twenty years will be in a position to start making important decisions about the direction of the construction, decoration, and liturgical music of their parishes, is a deep concern. Hopefully some of the opinions expressed on blogs such as this one will encourage greater reflection and investigation, and thereby yield better-informed decisions.