Is the Church Music Association Dead?

Author: Fr. Robert Skeris

SACRED MUSIC Volume 117, Number 1, Spring 1990 From The Editors


Monsignor Francis P. Schmitt thinks so, and says so in his address delivered at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on the occasion of the gift of the Boys Town music library to the university. He thinks the CMA is "as dead as Morley's ghost."

Definition of death, even human death, is under great discussion today medically and morally. Death of an organization is even harder to determine. All institutions pass through periods of greater and lesser activity. A good example of that is the history of the Caecilian movement in the United States, which flourished in the late nineteenth century, but almost disappeared in the early twentieth century.

So perhaps the Church Music Association is no more dead than its predecessors: The Society of St. Gregory of America and the American Cecilian Society. Except for initial gatherings, neither of these mounted large national meetings or sponsored impressive study weeks, chiefly for the reason that the costs of such activities made them impossible. And the same reasoning exists today.

National conventions of most educational or learned societies have been considerably curtailed because those who belong are unable to pay for hotels, dinners, air fares. Regional meetings have replaced many national gatherings; some societies simply gave up meetings. The remuneration of church musicians has never been generous. Experience in Detroit, Boston, Saint Paul and Pueblo showed clearly that the Catholic church musician could not afford such expenditures as those demanded by travel and lodging away from home.

Thus, for the past two decades, the chief activity (and activity does show life!) of the Church Music Association of America has been the publication of its journal, "Sacred Music". It has been a forum, and many have found in its pages a welcome expression of the ideals proclaimed by the Church for the liturgy. Interestingly, this fact of life (even an association's life!) was clearly grasped when the editing of "Sacred Music" was moved to Saint Paul, Minnesota, in 1975. At that time, an editorial expressed the purpose of the journal as a voice of the association. Today, even without any national meetings, the journal continues to express the purpose of the association. It is alive and functioning (chiefly because all its editors and contributors work without any remuneration). That editorial is reprinted here, fifteen years later:

The policy of "Sacred Music" cannot be described by the words conservative or liberal Rather it is Catholic--Roman Catholic--bound to the directions given by the Church. Nor can it be called traditionalist or progressivist, since it upholds the directives of the Second Vatican Council that the traditions of the past are to be maintained and fostered at the same time that new directions and styles are encouraged. Nor is it committed to the old and not the new, or the new and not the old in music.

In primacy of place always we put the Gregorian chant as it has been ordered by the council and re-issued in the latest Roman chant books. Likewise according to the direction of the council, we value and foster the polyphonic developments in music through the thousand years that the Roman "Missa cantata" has been the focus of great musical composition, both in the "a cappella" tradition and with organ and orchestral accompaniment. We heartily encourage the singing of our congregations as the council demands, but we just as energetically promote the activities of choirs as the council also ordered. Finally, as men of our own century, we welcome the great privilege extended by the Vatican Council for the use of the vernacular languages in the liturgy along side the Latin, and so we encourage the composition of true liturgical music in our own day in both Latin and the vernacular. We see no necessary conflict lbetween Latin and English, between the congregation and the choir, between new and old music; there cannot be, since the council has provided for both.

Knowledge of what the Church wishes and has decreed, both in the council and in the documents that have followed its close, is of the utmost importance to both composers and performers, to musicians and to the clergy. So much of the unhappy state of liturgy and "Sacred Music" in our day has come from a misunderstanding of what the Church in her authentic documents has ordered. Too much erroneous opinion, propaganda and even manipulation have been evident, bringing about a condition far different from that intended by the council fathers in their liturgical and musical reforms. "Sacred Music" will continue to publish and to repeat the authentic wishes of the Church, since the regulation of the liturgy (and music is an integral part of liturgy) belongs to the Holy See and to the bishops according to their role. No one else, not even a priest, can change liturgical rules or introduce innovations according to his own whims.

But beyond the positive directions of the Church for the proper implementation of her liturgy, there remains always the area of art where the competent musician can exercise his trained judgment and express his artistic opinions. While the Church gives us rules pertaining to the liturgical action, the determining of fittingness, style and beauty belongs to the realm of the artist, truly talented, inspired and properly trained. Pope Paul himself made a very useful distinction on April 15, 1971, when he addressed a thousand Religious who had participated in a convention of the Italian Society of Saint Caecilia in Rome. The Holy Father insisted that only "sacred" music may be used in God's temple, but not all music that might be termed "sacred" is fitting and worthy of that temple. Thus, while nothing profane must be brought into the service of the liturgy, just as truly nothing lacking in true art may be used either. (Cf. "Sacred Music", Vol. 98, No. 2 [Summer 1971], p. 3-5.)

To learn the decrees of the Church in matters of "Sacred Music" is not sufficient. Education in art--whether it be in music, architecture, painting or ceremonial--is also necessary. For the composer talent alone is not sufficient; he must also have inspiration rooted in faith and a sound training of his talents. When any one of these qualities is missing, true art is not forthcoming. So also the performer, in proportion to his role, must possess talent, training and inspiration.

A quarterly journal can never attempt to supply these requirements for true musicianship. It can only hope to direct and encourage the church musician who must possess his talents from his Creator, his training from a good school of music, and his inspiration in faith from God's grace given him through Catholic living. But through reading these pages, information on what is being accomplished throughout the Catholic world, directions from proper authorities, news of books and compositions can serve as an aid to all associated with the celebration of the sacred liturgy.

Hopefully, some day, more vigorous life may be found in the Church Music Association of America. Until that utopia arrives, our journal, "Sacred Music", must continue to bear the burden of the association. The journal can be found in libraries on all the continents; it brings a great volume of correspondence to its editors; it will remain an historical record of these troubled times. It is the spark that glows and from which a stronger and more vital society may some day emerge. Surely all blood transfusions, organ transplants and other life-sustaining procedures are most welcome.