Presbyterians Do It. Why Don’t Catholics?


Recently, I sang a funeral at First Presbyterian in Evansville, IN. I was reminded of something which would have been easy for me to miss. The reminder came in the context of small-town Indiana, with about 60 people spread out in a Presbyterian church that could have easily sat 400. The funeral began. As it progressed, my ears perked up when I noticed that every hymn was being sung in 4-parts. By the young, the old, the educated, and the uneducated. They just did it. It’s part of what they do; it’s their living musical tradition.

There is nothing spectacular about these Indiana Presbyterians. Or about the Episcopalians and Baptists in the South who also sing their hymns in 4-parts. Or about the congregations all across the U.S.A. who sing in 4-parts. Singing in parts was just part of what they did and is still what they do. As new comers and young people came into the congregation, over time they picked it up.

So: what’s going on with the Catholics?

Open any popular Catholic hymnal, and the music is printed in one line. It’s the hymn melody, all on its own. I’ve been told by well-meaning people that “nobody can sing in parts anymore” and “we reach more people this way.” The first quip is demonstrably not true. The second quip is an ideological assumption. It’s an assumption that’s been put into practice for the last 50 years in America (I’m looking at you St. Louis Jesuits!). At this point we can ask: are we better off for it? Did stripping out the harmonies help anything? Did over-simplifying the score help congregations as a whole? American Catholic music is in a sorry state, in general, and in need of a great revival after 50 years of decline. The answer to this question is, unfortunately, too clear.

Instead of dumbing the music down, why not expect more of people than the lowest common denominator? Why not aspire to great music, instead of taking self-limiting approaches? Why not inspire, with great music, both printed and performed?

A lot of people already do these things, and the results are awesome. Actually, Catholics used to do these things. Why not get back to your amazing roots? I bet you won’t be disappointed.

Why should Catholics sing Gregorian chant?

Why should the Catholic Church use Gregorian chant at Mass? That question can be understood and answered, if we take a bullet train through history:

1300 B.C. to 33 A.D.: The Jewish traditions of music in worship are developed across generations, kingdoms, and temples. The Jewish traditions of chant, worship, and temple are at the core of the culture.

33 A.D. to 800: Musicians in the Catholic Church developed the most sophisticated system of chant in the world based on the Jewish traditions of chant and worship, and also based on the musical systems of Roman chant at the time of the early church.

850 A.D. to 1100: Musicians in the Catholic Church developed multi-voice polyphony and basic music theory which was distributed across Europe. Major treatises like the Musica enchriadis (c.850) and Ad Organum Faciendum (1100) are the texts which were read across Europe, laying out in simple terms how to add multiple voices to chant. All of the sacred music, no matter how many voices are added, is based on Gregorian chant.

1100 A.D. to 1200: Musicians in the Catholic Church developed the rhythmic systems which now all known Western music relies on. (It’s easy for us to think of rhythmic notation as obvious, but it didn’t exist in distributable, standardized written format until the musicians in the Catholic Church developed it.)

1285 A.D. to 1377: Major Catholic composers like Leonin, Perotin, and Guillaume de Machaut based in Notre Dame, France developed new polyphonic forms and compositions which are still performed today. They created new rhythmic notation, rhythmic modes, and all of the breakthroughs in notation that would lead to the flourishing of the Renaissance. Messe de Notre Dame (by Machaut) is still performed today.

1400 A.D. to 1525: The music in the Catholic Mass becames widely expanded through various forms of motets, organum (chant with an added voice), and polyphony.

1525 A.D. to 1600: Josquin des Prez and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina perfect the polyphonic form. Thomas Tallis and William Byrd wrote masterpieces during one of the most prolific and highly regarded periods of music history in England. Tomás Luis de Victoria created some of the finest sacred compositions ever written, and became the most famous musician in Spain during the 16th century. This period in time is considered the height of sacred music in the Renaissance, in both quality and output.

1600 A.D. to 1770: J.S. Bach, Purcell, Handel, Haydn, Buxtehude, Pachelbel, Couperin, Vivaldi, Walther, and Mozart output almost countless Baroque and Classical sacred compositions, while also creating sophisticated and adventurous forms of theory, counterpoint, and composition. Upon the foundation created by these composers, all Western tonal theory rests.

1770 A.D. to 1965: Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Messiaen…too many composers to name. The Romantic period of classical music gave rise of course to countless gems in the forms of symphonies, cantatas, concerti, and quartets. At the same time, the vast majority of these composers were drawn to the Catholic forms of music. Tenebrae, Requiem Masses, Mass settings of the ordinary, dramatic choral works based on chant, etc. As music and its endless forms flourished, so did Catholic sacred music. Until…

1965 A.D.: Vatican II finishes up. The council releases its completed documents which are either poorly understood or vague language is used as an excuse for an “anything goes” approach. Catholic sacred music, in the span of just 2 years, becomes dominated with reappropriation. Sacred music is no longer based on the chant of the early church (which was based on Jewish and Roman chant). It was based on what is popular at the time: folk, electric, and rock music. Catholic sacred music largely loses its identity, and its connection to the early Church. The living history of sacred music (that is, sacred music rooted in its incredibly vast tradition being performed regularly) almost completely dies out.

2015 A.D.: Today. 50 years from the conclusion of Vatican II.

So here we are again: why should the Catholic Church use Gregorian chant at Mass?

Simply put, because it is and always has been the musical language of the Catholic Church, and of all Christianity. (This fact has been obscured in the last 50 years, where Catholic sacred music looks and sounds like a poor imitation of what secular culture already does quite well.) Gregorian chant is the music which was sung by the apostles and martyrs of the early church, by St. Augustine, by St. Thomas Aquinas, by St. Francis of Assisi. It is the music which has seen the rise and fall of empires. It is the only music which is authentically Catholic in nature. Also: the Vatican II documents on sacred music tell churches to use Gregorian chant! But that is an unfortunately little known fact, and the instruction was almost uniformly ignored in the 1960s.

And last, but not least: the origin of music reveals its purpose. Music is written to move the emotions and soul of a human being, for some purpose (usually expression of an inner feeling of the composer, in modern times). Some music is written to excite you and make you want to party. Some music is written because the composer is sad, and wants to express it. Some music is written to express disgust with government or the status quo and move you to action. And some music, like Gregorian chant, was sung by Christians who witnessed Jesus’ Resurrection, who were tortured and executed for their faith, who were rounded up and killed until 313 A.D., who built beautiful cathedrals across Europe, and who sung from their hearts to express their faith and share it. Gregorian chant was, and is, sung to glorify God; to meditate on the texts of the Mass; and to lift up the soul in worship.

And it is for all of those reasons together why the Catholic Church should use Gregorian chant at Mass.

It’s Just Plain Old.


The following is a criticism about Gregorian chant I heard recently:

“Chant is just history. It’s just plain old.”

So is Beethoven.
So is Michelangelo.
So is the Bible.
So is Jesus.
…actually, so is everything in the Catholic Church!

Gregorian chant was born from the very first Christians who lived with Jesus and celebrated his resurrection. When Catholics sing Gregorian chant, they are singing music which comes directly from the very first Christians. Is there more fitting music for Catholics? Is there a more appropriate musical mode to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection, other than the music born from the tradition of those who actually witnessed the events?

Chant is where the Catholic Church gets something absolutely right. We may only truly understand the present and the future through the past. That is why every Mass includes Jesus’ words from the Last Supper. Why every Mass has Scripture. Why the Catholic Church has its tradition, and its Tradition (with a capital T).

If there is one strength the Catholic Church has above all other groups, organizations, and denominations, it is this: it’s just plain old.

And chant…well. It’s just plain old too.

Reflections on Valentinus Day

Valentinus was a Roman priest who performed Christian marriage ceremonies. Wait a second: yeah, those two don’t mix. So, the Emperor of the Moment (Claudius II), threw him in prison. (Christians in prison was all the rage in 269 A.D.) Claudius and Valentinus became buddies, and sent each other heart-themed cards once a year via secret messenger boys in togas. Debate continues as to whether crimson or flamingo pink was Claudius’s favorite color. However, scholarship is certain that emperor preferred the cute hearts with the long tails.

One day, Valentinus tried to convert Claudius. Not his smoothest move, but it became a memorable one. Claudius being Claudius (that is, a generally nice guy just ever so rarely prone to tyranny and bloodshed), he had his buddy Valentinus clubbed and stoned. That didn’t quite do the trick, so he had him beheaded.

Valentinus is the patron saint against fainting, of bee keepers, the plague, and epilepsy. Oh, and affianced couples and happy marriages.

“Sometimes the old ways are best.”


“Sometimes the old ways are the best.” – Eve (Skyfall)

In the Catholic Church’s Holy Week before 1965, there existed a liturgy of penitential majesty and sorrow. In this Good Friday service (called Tenebrae), lamentations are proclaimed, Psalms of a desparate people are sung, and the words by John Chrysostom (349 – 407) deliver a hits-you-in-the-gut reflection on Christ. Passages from St. Augustine are also read or sung.

The Tenebrae service occurs in darkness. The church is lit by only a few candles, each slowly extinguished as the many pieces of haunting music are sung, until only one flame remains. Its light, too, is eventually dimmed.

For centuries, the greatest composers around the world were drawn to set the texts of Tenebrae to music. And of course! How compelling it is for a composer, to have at their finger tips a set of texts that contain a breathless drama in every line.

Here is a stunning piece of Tenebrae music, composed by T. L. Victoria, which has been sung in churches around the world for centuries, the Eram quasi agnus innocens:

This piece represents maybe 1/30 of the service…! Can you imagine a church whose walls flicker with the light of just a dozen candles, slowly being extinguished, as the words of Christ on the cross are sung in the most haunting, arresting, beautiful arrangements? Music like this, reverberating in the church, for hours.

The Miserere mei, Deus is one of the crown jewels of the Renaissance, and one of the most often performed pieces of sacred music in history. This piece would never have been composed, if Tenebrae had not existed:

Today, unfortunately, Tenebrae as an ordered, laid-out, there’s-a-way-to-do-this-thing service was done away with in Vatican II. What an incredible loss! Most churches now sing a few hymns (drawn from the Protestant Germanic tradition) on Good Friday, and that’s it. That is a fine thing to do. But at the same time, it is sobering to realize how much beauty has been lost to the past. There are dozens and dozens of Tenebrae pieces, set by the most talented and inspired composers. However, no modern composer is drawn to Tenebrae today, or has been for decades, because it is almost never done in its full form.

There are indeed many practices that are best left in the past. But sometimes, the old ways are the best.

IBM The Latest To Try To Fix Email

→ IBM The Latest To Try To Fix Email

Mailbox came out a year ago, and introduced new tools for managing email that easily halved the time I spend in my inbox. Google just released Inbox a few weeks ago, their all-new Gmail app (which takes its cues mostly from Mailbox). So now IBM wants to fix email.

Tech is amazing, in what it can do to increase efficiency in our lives. But. How many of us use email, mobile phones, to do lists, and various apps for productivity…and still spend 4 hours a day glued to a screen? Is that really productivity? Is that true efficiency, freeing us up for better things in life?

I don’t think we need more tech to “productivity-ize” our lives. I think we need less.

Earlier this year, I decided to solve my own e-mail overload. I was fielding 75 to 200 email messages a day. I now subscribe to nothing (no newsletters, no deal websites, zilch). I reply to extremely few emails. I have committed to the principle that I do not need to be instantly available to everybody (meaning ignoring email every night and weekend). And I refuse to spend more than 40 minutes a day (tallied through a whole day) working through my inbox.

Email overload is likely more about humans being addicted to the dopamine that gets released from staring at glowing screens mixed with the infinite flow of new information, than it is about lack of software features.

The problem wasn’t ever the tech. It was me!

My answer is to do less. Get away from the inbox, and invest in real life (people, relationships, service, art, creativity, food!). I’m happier, do more fulfilling things with my time, and no longer experience the tyranny of the inbox.

Sorry, IBM. I could have saved you a few $100,000 in R&D.


Robin Williams 1951-2014


We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” – John Keating, Dead Poets Society (1989)

Rest in peace, Robin Williams.

Hiker sings opera to scare off mountain lion

Hiker sings opera to scare off mountain lion

Finally, she decided to try something different.

“I don’t know why, I just started singing opera really loud,” Koestonsky said. “It kind of put its ears down and just kept looking at me, and it sort of backed away. [...] “We’re glad this turned out to be nothing more than a frightening experience for the hiker,” Masters said in a press release.

And apparently a frightening experience for the lion.