Why Catholics Can’t Sing: Revised and Updated with New Grand Conclusions and Good Advice. Thomas Day, Crossroad Publishing Company, xvi + 256 pages, paperback, $24.95
This book caused a furore when it first appeared in 1991. The author, in biting prose, did a demolition job on what he saw as “the Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste” (that subtitle has now been dropped). With great gusto he aimed his barbs at Catholic musicians and clergy across the USA. He took a large tilt at Father Hank, with his casual lack of formality and propensity to behave like a game show host and a pathological need to be the center of attention, and at Mr Caruso, the parish song-leader who bawls Be Not Afraid into a microphone and silences the congregation with the sheer volume of his magnificent voice. Many other targets also came in for savage handling beneath his basilisk stare.
While his critiques (some would say caricatures) were largely accurate, Day made the mistake of taking a small number of limited experiences and elevating them to the status of universal truths. While he had undoubtedly had a number of unpleasant experiences, he assumed that these were the norm across the entire country. Operating out of Rhode Island, it was clear not only that many of the phenomena he was trashing were principally East Coast manifestations but that they occurred in city parishes. He had not visited a rural parish in deepest Montana, for example, nor a multi-ethnic parish on the West Coast. As far as we can tell from this revised edition, he still hasn’t.
In 1991, composers were almost lining up to be pilloried by Day. If you hadn’t been on the receiving end of one of his attacks you really hadn’t made it! At the same time, it was noted that the most recent collection mentioned was the 1984 edition of Glory and Praise, and the most recent composition to be given the Day treatment was Marty Haugen’s Gather Us In, which had also appeared in 1984. People started to ask where Day had been during the intervening seven years, during which there had been quite a revolution in the North American Catholic music scene. Yes, he quoted the Notre Dame Study of Parish Life (1984-9) and Francis Mannion writing in 1987, but did he really know anything of the repertoire since 1984? Was his book really a reflection of where the Church was now?
That question can still be asked, as not only is Day still vilifying the same old foes in this revised edition but there is some uncertainty about when it was completed. Although the copyright date is 2011, and although Day includes a critique based on experience of the new Missal texts and more especially the new Missal chants, and even toward the very end of the book seems to be citing something from 2013, it seems clear that a lot of repertoire developments since the turn of the millennium have once again passed him by.
In 1991, Day answered his own question by pointing primarily at the material Catholics were being asked to sing. His views have not changed a great deal, and it seems that his ideal form of assembly singing is a good foursquare hymn. He has relaxed a little, mentioning Marty Haugen in approving terms (for his hymn We Walk by Faith) and, incredibly, Jesse Manibusan’s Open My Eyes. But he still doesn’t enjoy Gather Us In, with what he describes as its “frolicking” melody. Evidently he never spotted that it is in fact a modal tune in the best traditions of old English and American folk music, with a flattened third and seventh; nor that it contains musically sensitive congregational diminuendi on long notes at the end of each half, cleverly created by people gradually running out of breath; nor that its initial chromatically descending bass line is borrowed from Baroque models… Frolicking depends on how you perform it ― a legato melody line and a steady tempo gives a very different effect.
In fact Day has mellowed considerably since 1991. The language has often been moderated, almost as if Day realized that his intemperate outbursts in the first edition had actually prevented some people from reading what he had to say. But this toning-down has resulted in an increasing lack of tautness. What was formerly a rant at full gallop is now more of a meandering moan, although some sections still retain the acidulous punch of the first edition.
One of the most notorious and unjustified attacks was on Bernard Huijbers, characterized as a “liturgical disciplinarian”. That was about the last thing he was. Since Huijbers is now no longer around to defend himself (he died in 2003), and since the section remains largely unaltered, it is worth saying that Day’s depiction of him is pretty much 180 degrees incorrect. Part of Day’s problem was that he misunderstood some of Huijbers’ terminology. The phrase musique élémentaire as used by Huijbers did not mean “elementary” music, but music that already exists in people’s subconscious ― even a primeval memory; nor did “popular music” mean what Day takes it to mean, but music “of the people”, something rather different.
But the revised edition still does not acknowledge that one of the primary reasons why some American Catholics do not sing was not so much the material being sung but attributable rather more to a lack of suitable song-leaders. Day rightly fulminates against Mr Caruso and his soloistic kinsfolk, but he has not realized that there are many other parish cantors who are not like that but who nevertheless fail in their task. I have said previously elsewhere that this is because the vast majority of cantors in the US, unlike their European counterparts, have not been trained in the art of eliciting participation from their assemblies, which one would have thought was an essential part of their formation. (They get plenty of help with voice, scripture, repertoire, liturgy… but until recent years little or nothing on how actually to get people singing.)
Although the text of the original edition has been revised and updated throughout, readers familiar with the first edition will turn eagerly to Chapter 10, “Grand Conclusions”, the only completely new chapter of the book. Here we hope to find Day’s remedies, a master plan to get assemblies opening their mouths; but in point of fact this is just another rambling rant in several sections, taking apart the various “culprits” as Day sees them. First up is “Dancing Alone”. Day’s point is that congregational singing is a tribal experience, but most churches (in his opinion) treat it as a collection of separate individuals participating. I seriously doubt that this is true. Although he still objects to music that is simply too loud for comfort (and I find myself sympathizing here: there are certainly bullying organists and over-amplified contemporary ensembles around), he does now extend the hand of friendship to some music that he would not have been caught dead espousing before.
His second culprit is “Putting everybody into the same tribe”. Here, it is more difficult to put one’s finger on exactly what Day is saying, as he roams from point to point. He’d like part of our tribal identity to be bound up with Gregorian Chant, polyphony and other music that people can enjoy listening to. And he’s very uncertain about the whole question of different identities and backgrounds in the same parish. Do they run in parallel, or should there be a common thread throughout? Do we, should we make the best use of everyone’s talents? As we reach the end of this section, we meet another vintage Day sideswipe as he opines that most of the music sung in United States parishes “was written after 1970 by fewer than a dozen composers”. (He does not specify who they all are, apart from the St Louis Jesuits and Marty Haugen, but here as elsewhere one can detect a kind of angry jealousy creeping in.)
Day’s third culprit is “The Cult of Enthusiasm”. Here he is on surer ground as he observes that “there are innumerable musicians and pastors who are obsessively focused on the idea that the purpose of liturgical music is to energize people and produce spiritual excitement.” Interestingly, he places the blame for this on a misinterpretation of paragraph 118 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, which called for the assembly not only to sing but for their voices to “ring out” (resonare). This would require what Day amusingly describes as “highly-caffeinated” music. (I suspect that the overwhelming majority of American pastoral musicians have never read Sacrosanctum Concilium, let alone para 118.) But he reserves further spleen for the way that Catholics have borrowed Protestant hymnody: at first, he seems to be taking up the unecumenical position that we have no right to sing it because it’s not who we are, we do not embody the tradition; but soon it becomes clear that his real objection is not so much to the repertoire itself as to the fact that (he thinks) congregations don’t sing it because they are being silenced once again by heavily-mic’d cantors, one of his pet hates that recurs again and again in the book.
Culprit #4 is “Total Indifference to Practicality”. Day starts by saying the obsession with energizing songs (and he targets OCP Publications especially in this regard) can be so overpowering that it can completely block out any considerations about what is practical for group singing and what does not work. For him, the problems are “clumsy melodies” (those with what he considers are awkward intervals), “overly ambitious moments” (melodies that jump around all over the place), and finally “rapturous melodies…for soloists”. Here, Day spends a large amount of time and space castigating composers for writing unsingable verses for assemblies. It does not seem to have struck him that those verses might actually have been written for solo cantor or schola, rather than for the assembly. He also doesn’t seem to realize that in practice many assemblies are now singing some verses that were never originally conceived as being sung by the congregation, however impractical he happens to think those verses are. It is also a fact that assemblies can do much more musically than he gives them credit for, if only they have a competent song-leader to form them.
From this, Day wanders off into a consideration of why musicians program music that is too difficult (as he sees it) for the people. His answer: because of the cult of the celebrity. Musicians like basking in the glow of the composers, and the music of those composers has become like must-have designer products. Therefore, and I quote:
(1) Hero worship of celebrities shuts down any practical consideration of what works and what does not work for congregational singing. Parishes thus pick a great portion of the music they sing [based] on the composer’s contemporary fame, not on the practical value of the music. (2) This music symbolizes what amounts to a new tribe or ethnic group whose defining characteristic is hostility to any music that attempts (in our imperfect human way) to be catholic (“universal,” for everybody) because such music does not ratify the superiority of the new tribe and their hero composers. (3) In this type of music, the heavily-amplified instruments and soloists often deliberately drown out the voice of a singing congregation. When this happens, the congregation’s visual impression of what is going on is this: “The celebrity music performed by the celebrity musicians up in front is for them, not us. We watch and have fun.”
While there are small grains of truth somewhere in the midst of all this, the impression once again is that Day is somehow jealous of the composers whose music is sung.
Day’s final chapter, Good Advice, has been substantially enlarged and rewritten. The former four pages of useful points have now expanded to no less than 31 by the simple expedient of adding further large tracts of meandering ranting to the practical suggestions, thus rendering them so diffuse that they are difficult to find. Here, Day rehashes his animadversion to all the previously-tilted-at windmills, throwing in a few more for good measure, including “Skip-pi-dy/Dip-pi-dy rhythms”, some of the new ICEL chants (“Ho-LEE”, etc), screens and large choirs in megachurches, people who only select music written after 1970, buildings with carpeted or dead acoustics, people who apparently describe the treasury of sacred music as “too Catholic”…
At a practical level, the endnotes have been retained from the first edition, but there is now no index ― a serious failing. The original edition was viii + 184 pages in length, so xvi + 256 might seem like a big addition, but this has been partly achieved by setting the text in a more elegant font that is lighter in weight with much more leading (white space) between the lines and thus taking up more room. The first edition had legible, black type. The revised edition, at least in the copy I received, has text so grey that I seriously wondered if the publisher was saving money by deliberately under-inking the plates. That, with the lighter weight of the font, makes the book actually quite difficult to read. The first edition was a sturdy hardback volume; the new edition is a paperback. The first edition had a striking abstract cover design on the dustjacket; the revised edition has a bizarre cover featuring a twee statue of two nuns with “music” spiralling out of their heads. The original edition had a brief preface by the author, which has become a longer introduction to the revised edition. In front of that, Jeffrey Tucker of the Church Music Association of America has contributed a eulogizatory preface.
So would I recommend that anyone read this revised edition? To be frank, no. The author made his name in the original edition by being extreme and by extrapolating exaggerated positions from insufficient data, and that continues unabated in the somewhat-toned-down revised edition. As has already been indicated, the author is not sufficiently well-informed, and what knowledge he does have about what is going on in our churches is already out of date. (To give just one example, you would have thought that the music of Taizé might have appealed to him. Not only was this repertoire never mentioned in the original edition, in the revised edition a solitary throwaway reference to a Taizé chant is all you get. Other significant repertoires are not mentioned at all in either the original or the revised edition.) Across the book there is a lot of repetition in the litany of complaints, and the rambling, ranting, anecdotal style becomes very wearing. One longs for concise, coherent argument. Perhaps to sum up, a charitable judgement would be that this is a book written by a man of passion but lacking a sense of perspective.