Now the Catholics start cutting music

Now the Catholics start cutting music


norman lebrecht

March 21, 2018

The Catholic University of America, in Washington DC, is proposing to merge its music department with media and visual arts in order to save $3.5 million in academic salaries. Some 35 jobs will go.

Read here.



  • Sharon says:

    When I was a graduate student at the State University of New York at Albany in the early nineteen eighties there had recently started a department and a degree called Rhetoric and Communications. It did not work since the rhetoric professors and the communications professors could not agree on what the requirements should be for the degree. Now they want to merge media and visual arts with music??? Sheesh!! I doubt it will work if this corresponds to a combined media/visual arts/music major.
    Actually I am quite surprised that this is happening at Catholic University. I believe that it is the only pontifical university in the United States under the direct supervision of the Vatican (and I assume that it receives some funding from it) and it has the National Catholic cathedral on its campus. The university educates a lot of clergy and lay people for roles in the Catholic church. In fact, I understand that at one time all the US Catholic religious did their graduate work at Catholic University.
    Now, where will the advanced classes come from to train students to perform/sing/conduct sacred Catholic music? You would think that a pontifical university would take music more seriously.

    • JBB says:

      A small point: The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is not a cathedral. The cathedral of the Archdiocese of Washington is St. Matthew, several miles away.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    “Now, where will the advanced classes come from to train students to perform/sing/conduct sacred Catholic music? You would think that a pontifical university would take music more seriously.”

    Have you been to a Catholic Church lately – music seems to be the lowest priority of all in most American dioceses. The great liturgical music heritage has given way to wimpy, pop-inspired pablum. Mass is too often celebrated with a guitar or badly played piano. Many churches have turned off or even removed the venerable pipe organ and replaced it with a keyboard and the ubiquitous rock n’ roll drum set close by. It’s really quite sad, but then this has been going on since Vatican II with little resistance. There’s a great book by Thomas Day, “Why Catholics Can’t Sing” that explains it all. So why should CU retain a program that obviously has no impact?

  • Alex Davies says:

    I can’t comment on the situation in the US, but here in England/Wales music is clearly a very low priority for the Catholic Church and the quality is largely poor. There are a handful of churches in upmarket neighbourhoods of central London, notably Westminster Cathedral, the Brompton Oratory, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, St Etheldreda’s, Ely Place, St Patrick’s, Soho, and St James’s, Spanish Place, which employ professional choirs performing from the classical repertoire, but these are very much the exception (Holy Name, Oxford Road, Manchester is also worth a mention, attracting intellectual and aesthetic types from far afield). In most parishes the norm seems to be folk music accompanied by a guitar and a random assortment of available musical instruments or a choir that doesn’t actually perform any choral music, but essentially comprises the few members of the congregation who can sing in tune and possibly can read music. An organist is rarely capable of doing more than accompanying the hymns. One Easter I attended Mass at St George’s Cathedral, the cathedral for the Archdiocese of Southwark. I have to admit that it was the family Mass, not the solemn Mass, but the repertoire performed and the quality of the performance was disappointing. The music at the solemn Mass is probably better. But compare St George’s to the corresponding Anglican cathedral, Southwark Cathedral. Southwark is a relatively new cathedral, has no choir school, scarce financial resources, and is located in a deprived area of southeast London. Yet it boasts five choirs, four organists, and at least six (often more) choral services per week. The quality of music is superb, and the professional choir has performed at the Proms, tours internationally, makes recordings, and broadcasts on TV and radio.

    In short, the Catholic Church, at least where I live, does have a cultural problem with religious music. Resources may be a part of the problem, but in the Church of England many parish church choirs (and some of the newer cathedrals) survive on limited resources. The problem seems to be the loss of a traditional of choral and organ music. Also, I wonder whether there is a sense that the quality of worship is not particularly important. I remember a priest remarking, “The liturgy may sometimes be done badly, but it’s still the Mass”. There is little sense that the liturgy is not just about the Mass itself, but about the quality of the preaching and the music. And with the exception of a small number of Catholics who will travel far from home to hear really good music (not uncommonly combined with Mass in Latin), I suspect that most attend their parish church and would little think of worshipping outside the parish, let alone worshipping at a non-Catholic church (given Catholic teaching on Protestant ecclesiology and sacraments).

    One hope that I have for the Church is that it will rediscover the potential beauty of the liturgy and its rich musical heritage, and if it can do so, I suspect that church attendance would go up, as people began to discover that going to church can be a real pleasure and not just an obligation.

    • Derek says:

      Thank you for the interesting summary.

      I would add that at the Birmingham Oratory there is a choir and very good organist who do combine music with the Latin mass and other services periodically. There is something special about church organ music and a good choir.

      • Alex Davies says:

        Of course! I haven’t been to Birmingham for years, but I’m sure such places do exist in major cities such as Birmingham, and no doubt the Oratory is at the forefront. I remember once going to a Mass at the Oxford Oratory. It’s done with considerable dignity, although I must admit I’m somewhat too Vatican II in my outlook to be particularly fond of lace cottas and birettas.

        • Una says:

          Leeds Catholic Diocese is wonderful. It has English liturgy and plenty of good music whilst living in the 21st century so quality modern music as well as quality performance, in the Cathedral and in the schools – so thinking forwards not backwards and yet sings every period of music and fine organists but they’re not all Catholics but Christians. Even the bishop is a convert to Catholicism and brings a freshness from his London evangelical background to the north.

    • V.Lind says:

      I doubt many real Catholics would attend non-Catholic services (as a substitute for the Mass; ecumenism means that they can attend non-Catholic services with respect but without discharging their obligation of weekly Mass).

      On the wider, if slightly off-topic, theme, the argument seems to rest on the notion — widely but wrongly attributed to St. Augustine — that to sing is to pray twice. it is a lovely thought. But both Augustine and the Church Magisterium would doubtless argue that the embellishment of music is not necessary to the mystery or sanctity of the Mass. And you seem to be arguing for the aesthetic rather than the holy experience. While many churches use music to attract interest, a true Catholic is not at Mass to savour a great concert. Music is there to support the sacrament, when it is used properly. But its point is not to give aesthetic satisfaction but to enhance the glorification of God through a more intense response to the liturgy.

      • Cubs Fan says:

        I agree, but…when the music is really bad it doesn’t enhance, but really distracts from the experience. It ruins it. We used to have early morning “quiet mass” with no singing – it was great! Then the Bishop decided every mass had to have music. So they got some dimwit who can’t tune, or play, guitar and she sings horribly out of tune. It becomes laughable and ultimately irritating, annoying, frustrating and makes people angry. I don’t want canned, recorded music, and there isn’t the money or musicians to have high quality at each mass, but something needs to be done.

        • Alex Davies says:

          Well, quite. There’s nothing wrong with a Mass without music or a Mass with a decent organist and a congregation enthusiastically singing good hymns. The only thing I don’t like is a Mass with dreadful modern worship songs like The Servant King accompanied by a random selection of instruments often including a guitar and a flute. Oh, and I’m not a fan of Taizé chants either. When I was at university we used to sing the Credo in Latin to a plainsong setting, which didn’t require much in the way of resources or ability but nonetheless had real dignity about it and a sense that this was the way that Christians throughout western and central Europe had expressed their faith at least since the Middle Ages. And given that most Catholics where I live now speak English at best as a second language there may be some sense in returning to the use of Latin for part of the liturgy. Certainly there is merit in returning to the old musical traditions. If I wanted to sing Graham Kendrick songs (or similar) I’m sure the evangelical churches do them—and better.

        • Una says:

          Enough to turn away the intelligent and insult the almighty!

      • Alex Davies says:

        You are, of course, quite correct, and that was, in fact, the very point that I was trying to make. There is, for want of a better term, little in the way of competition for Catholic worshippers. One cannot attend Protestant Holy Communion services because we are taught that their apostolic succession and sacraments are invalid. One cannot attend Eastern or Oriental Orthodox, Church of the East, or other Catholic (e.g. Polish National) liturgies, because while their apostolic succession and sacraments are valid they are not in communion with the Holy Father (and most, though not all, will not admit Catholics to the sacraments anyway). Which leaves as the main option the largely unfeasible alternative (for reasons of geography and language) of joining one of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

        I am not, however, entirely convinced by the notion that the aesthetic aspects of the liturgy are of no importance. Of course, if the pope can celebrate Mass at a football stadium or an airport, then the sacrifice of the Mass can be validly offered in a warehouse or a carpark, and yet it rarely is. Since the earliest days of the Church, Christians have worshipped in ways that are not only holy, but beautiful. If the aesthetics of the liturgy are unimportant, it proposes the question of why the Church has throughout most of its history built beautiful buildings, produced beautiful paintings, sculptures, metalwork, and embroidery, and patronised the finest composers, from Palestrina and Byrd to Mozart and Haydn to Vierne and Langlais. If music is not an important part of the liturgy, why do any churches maintain choirs and organs and sometimes even orchestras?

        No, the liturgy isn’t intended to be a concert performance, but for many people there is some spiritual benefit to be gained from hearing God’s praises sung not in some simplistic, unison setting of the Mass accompanied on a piano, but to the magnificent music of Schubert’s Mass in G or Mozart’s Sparrow Mass with organ or even a small orchestra, or receiving the body and blood of Christ not to the sound of a Graham Kendrick song with chords strummed on a guitar but to an Ave Verum Corpus by Mozart or Elgar or Messiaen’s sublime O Sacrum Convivium.

        • V.Lind says:

          I don’t disagree with anything you say — I vastly prefer the Catholic composers to the happy-clappy stuff that you get all over the place today. I was disputing the notion expressed above that Catholics would just go to non-Catholic churches as if that satisfied their obligations, just because the music was better. I love the Anglican hymns, and tend to think they have a wonderful musical tradition. And I enjoy their services, and take them seriously when I attend. But as a Catholic, I am just a visitor at these services, not a participant.

          • Una says:

            Plenty of Catholics in Anglican churches these days with some of the priests having been Catholic and jumped the fence the other way.

  • Bill says:

    I think that some of the commenters are under the impression that Catholic University’s music department only teaches Catholic and Sacred Music. In fact, they are a large university style department that teaches a wide variety of musical styles, from conservatory style orchestral training to academic musical study and popular styles.

    • Sharon Beth Long says:

      But are there other Catholic universities that teach sacred music? I blogged as I did because so much of classical music has its origin in the Catholic church
      With regard to the importance of music in worship I am Jewish and I understand both arguments. I have found that in some some synagogues professional music, or at least a rehearsed congregational choir, tends to distance the worshipper by discouraging congregant participation (how can I sing off key in front of a choir?) or by the aesthetic overwhelming the personal spirituality (what we call kavanah) which sometimes happens in the wealthier Reform synagogues. In other cases however, when I feel comfortable enough to sing in my awful off key voice, it encourages spirituality, if not to G*d then at least a sense of connection, I guess one could use the word fellowship, with other congregants.

  • Chris Walsh says:

    Lazy headline. “The Catholics” aren’t doing anything – the Catholic University of America is.

  • George G. Valandingham says:

    The Benjamin T. Rome School does not teach only church music. Actually, its church music department is quite small. It is a music school with composition, musicology, music education, conducting, choral conducting, instrumental and vocal performance and musical theatre departments.

    I was a graduate performance student at the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music of The Catholic University of America in DC, but I withdrew before graduating. Coming from a major conservatory, I decided to attend the CUA school attracted by an excellent professor. I left because:

    1 – the school is incredibly expensive, and they do not have resources for real substantial scholarships.
    2 – the facilities are terrible. The music building is old, infested with mice (some of them living inside the pianos), furniture is old and in disrepair, there are not enough quality performance spaces etc.
    3 – because of the lack of scholarships and limited financial help the most talented students do not apply, and the school of ten takes music student who are not performing at a reasonable college level.
    4 – the school’s orchestra (made of college, graduate, and doctoral students) is playing at a level not adequate for university-level.
    5 – there used to be an OK music library, but I understand it was moved to the central library last year.
    6 – I found there that with the exception of my major professor and four other honorable teachers (the other four being an accompanist, a musicology professor, a musical theatre director, and a lyric diction coach) the school did not have major music teachers.
    7 – there is no real leadership in the school. Obviously the university senior officers did not care about the school of music and made no effort in raising money to modernize the facilities and turn the Benjamin T. Rome School into a good music school, the only one in the District of Columbia.

    I left, I moved to another big-name conservatory, and I am not looking back. So sad the Catholic University of America’s leaders are so shortsighted.

  • Don Hohoho says:

    It doesn’t matter that much if the positions lost are administrative, it’s the teaching positions that matter. It is sad that the nation’s capital cannot support a national conservatory of music. For Juilliard to claim that title by default is wrong. Especially for the attitude it gives everyone who goes there. But I guess people who care most about power, care least about arts. That kind of makes sense, though it is certainly not that way in Europe, or was not.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    Sir James MacMillan has composed interesting sacred music, but I wonder how many local R C church parishes have the knowledge of it or the capabilities to perform any of it.

  • La Verita says:

    I’m glad that some commentators here have acknowledged the pitiful status of music in the Catholic Church – the end result of the dumbing down of the church after Vatican Two, when all the precious Gregorian chant was tossed out in favor of pop music. One wonders why they didn’t also just paint over the ceiling & walls of the Sistine Chapel, and trash Michelangelo’s statues – which would have been no less criminal.

    • Alex Davies says:

      Notwithstanding the present quality of liturgical music, the reforms of Vatican II were much needed, long overdue, and of overwhelming benefit to the Church and the wider world. Far from dumbing down, Vatican II afforded the Church the opportunity to engage with the modern world in a way that has resulted in formerly unimaginable advances theologically, intellectually, and culturally.

      • La Verita says:

        Advances? The Catholic Church remains more backwards than ever, as its subservience to rigid dogma continues to dominate over reason, and overall denial reigns above facts.

        • Sue says:

          Oh, you’re talking about the Catholic Church are you? Not a political party, after all. My mistake.

        • Alex Davies says:

          While the Catholic Church certainly has not fully embraced a secular, liberal worldview, it seems perverse to argue that it “remains more backwards than ever”. Certain elements within the British media remain touchingly surprised that Pope Francis has not yet overturned the Church’s teaching on abortion. Nor is the Church likely to jettison its core theological teachings such as the existence of God, the immaculate conception, the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, and the assumption and coronation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. On the other hand, I for one think it quite possible that within the foreseeable future the Church may move towards the ordination of women to the permanent diaconate, the appointment of women to the College of Cardinals, the abolition of mandatory celibacy for secular clergy, admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion, and overturning the ban on artificial birth control.

          As for the achievements of Vatican II, I find myself perplexed by your point of view. On the one hand, you apparently see Vatican II as “dumbing down” (I half expected you to admit to being a member of the Society of St Pius X!), while on the other hand you seem to feel that liberalisation has not yet gone far enough.

          It’s not the purpose of this thread to enter into an apologia for Vatican II, but in summary I’d say that its main achievement was opening up a dialogue between the Church and the modern world. While not explicitly an outcome of Vatican II, the abolition of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum followed around six months after the conclusion of the Council. Until 1966 Catholics were supposed not to read key works of essential figures in European intellectual history such as Hobbes, Pascal, Descartes, Berkeley, Locke, Hume, Bentham, Mill, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Kant (among many others). Since Vatican II Catholic biblical scholars no longer depend upon the various editions of the Vulgate, but, rather, now study the most reliable scholarly editions of the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts, often using editions produced by non-Catholic, and even non-Christian, scholars. Vernacular translations, such as the New Jerusalem Bible, are made from these authoritative texts. Furthermore, Catholic scholars no longer distrust the contributions of non-Catholic and non-Christian scholarship. The Council also led to respectful dialogue between the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations, other religions (notably Judaism), and non-religious worldviews. Huge advances have been made in Christian ecumenism and Christian-Jewish relations. The state funeral of Ireland’s first president, Douglas Hyde (a member of the Anglican, and formerly established, Church of Ireland), makes for a useful case in point: at the time of his death (1949) Catholics were prohibited from attending any Protestant worship, and consequently a majority of Irish statesmen who attended his funeral did so by standing outside the grounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral!

          • V.Lind says:

            What are secular clergy?

            Not sure I share your optimism about forthcoming changes, and not sure I hope for all of them equally. I would like to see contraception permitted, and for divorced/remarried Catholics to be cut some more slack.

          • Sharon says:

            I know in the United States the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the state conferences of Catholic Bishops, which do political lobbying, are left of center in virtually all issues of foreign and economic policy. They support increased government welfare spending, were against the invasion of Iraq, etc.

          • Alex Davies says:

            Secular clergy: men who are ordained to serve a diocese or archdiocese as deacons and priests living in the world, mainly as parish priests or parish permanent deacons. Distinct from regular clergy, i.e. deacons and priests ordained for the service of a religious order such as Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, etc. With regard to celibacy, secular clergy (such as parish priests) are not celibate as the result of a religious vow as such, but through adherence to the canon law of the Church. Therefore there is no doctrinal reason for secular clergy to be celibate; it’s a matter of Church discipline. Catholic priests received from other Christian denominations and priests of the various Eastern Catholic Churches (which are fully a part of the Catholic Church) are routinely married men, as are priests of other ancient Churches such as the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Church of the East.

  • Marc says:

    I have to (figuratively) cover my ears when I go to Mass, alas. In the first place there is an electronic amplification system in use that must be one of the favorite toys of the evil one. Second, there is a cantor who imagines that all other voices are simply accompaniment to his, although doubtless that is not his own estimation of his perspective. I concentrate on the Latin propers etc in my missal and often can forget for a few second 1o and 2o supra.

    There are islands of excellence in a sea of desolation, sure, but I can’t drive two hours to the cathedral city for Sunday Mass on a regular basis.

    (Honestly, Alex Davies– and, you must underestand, I don’t doubt your sincerity here–, I have no idea what ‘advances’ you can be writing about, but am not going to engage in a discussion about the condition of the Church here.)