From Why Catholics Can’t Sing: the Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste by Thomas Day, pp. 28-31. Reprinted with permission of Crossroad Publishing.
The Last Sung Hurrah
On September 12, 1953, Jacqueline Bouvier and Senator John F. Kennedy were married. The music for the sumptuous society event had to be nothing but the best. A tenor, up in the choir loft, sang Mother, at Your Feet is Kneeling, To Jesus’ Heart All Burning, O Lord, I Am Not Worthy (with the barbershop-quartet tune by Burns), and Schubert’s Ave Maria.
Ten years later, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A grief-stricken nation watched the President’s funeral on television, and many non-Catholic viewers wondered what type of ceremony this would be. Here was a great religion with an impressive legacy of religious music; here was the funeral of the first Roman Catholic president of the United States, and heads of state from all over the world would be in the congregation. The music had to be nothing but the best. While Cardinal Cushing barked his way through the Low Mass, up in the choir loft the same tenor from President Kennedy’s wedding sang the same old parlor ballads heard at the 1953 Nuptial Mass.
In 1953, the American Catholic church had at its disposal the St. Gregory Hymnal. By 1963 the Pius X Hymnal was also in most choir lofts. Yet, for the Kennedy wedding and funeral, the tenor did not sing any music at all from these two excellent volumes. As far as most parishes were concerned, religious music began and ended with Mother, at Your Feet is Kneeling, To Jesus’ Heart All Burning, O Lord, I Am Not Worthy, and (the only gem) Schubert’s Ave Maria. Organists who were around at the time will remember that it was almost impossible to break the “tyranny” of those pieces. You could not easily convince laity or clergy (even those with Polish or Italian last names) that other vernacular religious music existed. Three old Victorian saloon ballads (I refer to the music only) – with Schubert’s elegant Ave Maria added to this shabby trio – were held up as genuine, traditional examples of “real Catholic music.” All other liturgical music had to be adjusted to sound like it. Even Schubert’s immortal song had to be “liturgically corrected” to make is sound more like its musical partners – which meant that the glittering accompaniment he had composed to offset the simple melody of the Ave Maria was routinely omitted and replaced with throbbing, vibrato chords.
If you look at the words of these maudlin songs which were associated for so long with “Irish-American” Catholicism (for example, the vernacular hymns sung at President Kennedy’s wedding and funeral), you will notice that a few basic ideas keep returning: the congregation as a gathering of poor children, Mary as a source of consolation for the poor children, Jesus as the private savior for me alone, frailty, and weakness. The kind of music may have served well for private devotions, such as novenas, but using it at Mass is a little like studying yourself in a mirror while everyone else is standing at attention for the national anthem. Nevertheless, by the 1960s those three “real Catholic hymns” were setting the standards for what was considered to be the right kind of “tone” for all liturgical services, including nuptials and funerals.
On January 19, 1964, Richard Cardinal Cushing celebrated a Solemn Pontifical Mass for the late President Kennedy in Boston’s Holy Cross Cathedral. This was to be a Mass for the repose of the president’s soul and a civic occasion, where the people of Boston could express their condolences. Across the United States people tuned in their television sets to watch this liturgy. Non-Catholic were curious. (What do these Catholics do in church?) American Roman Catholics, however, knew exactly what to expect. The Mass began predictably enough. Cardinal Cushing processed into the huge barn of a church. The organ played. A schola cantorum, made up of seminarians, was there to take care of some of the choral chanting. It would all be very old and very familiar.
And then came the shock. Near the front of the cathedral, Maestro Erich Lainsdorf (and him not even Catholic!) lifted his hands and began to conduct an ensemble consisting of musicians from the Boston Symphony and singers from Harvard, Radcliffe, and the New England Conservatory of Music. (No one was paid. All the musicians, including the conductor, volunteered their services.) The music was Mozart’s Requiem. As soon as Mozart’s deeply moving music for the words Requiem aeternam was carried across the airways, strange things began to happen from one end of the United States to the other. In rectory parlors, convents, and Catholic households, eyes widened; jaws dropped; some members of the Catholic community watched their television sets with sputtering incomprehension. Wasn’t the religious music of Mozart officially banned in some church document somewhere? Wasn’t it against canon law to have any instrument in church except the organ? That Introit! The energetic drive in that Kyrie! That majestic Dies Irae! Wasn’t church music supposed to sound frail and debilitated, like Mother, at Your Feet is Kneeling? Everybody knew that the Second Vatican Council had loosened things up a bit, but, really, Cardinal Cushing was going too far.
The Requiem Mass in Boston was indeed shocking to many American Catholics; it represented the beginning of a new era. After that singing of the Mozart Requiem in Holy Cross Cathedral, I never heard Mother, at Your Feet is Kneeling in a Catholic church again (although I am told that it is not dead yet). Of course I never heard Mozart’s Requiem again either.
In 1964 it took courage for Cardinal Cushing to break ranks with his American colleagues. At that time, nearly all the bishops in the United States would have rejected outright the suggestion that a great outpouring of public grief could be expressed in the singing of Mozart’s Requiem at a Mass. (Most of their nineteenth-century predecessors, however, and certainly their colleagues on the European Continent would have had no problem at all with this kind of music, for unusual occasions.) By allowing Mozart’s Requiem in his cathedral, Cardinal Cushing was, as it were, opening up the doors of the bombshelter and letting the sunlight pour in; he was also letting everyone know that Roman Catholicism in Boston was now ready to take on everything in this wide world of ours, even the liturgical music that belonged to his church.
For the sake of completeness, we should move ahead four years to 1968 and yet another tragedy in the Kennedy family: the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy. This time the method of expressing sorrow and hope took a form that would have been considered absolute madness just a few years earlier. Hosanna, hallelujahs, and hymns shook the pillars of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Members of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, played an excerpt from a symphony by Mahler. Richard Tucker, a famous opera star and also a Jewish cantor, sang Franck’s Panis Angelicus. It was quite an event – and the congregation did not hear any of the old Gay Nineties sob songs that were, just four years earlier, thought to be essential for the Catholic wedding and funeral.