With contemporary music in seemingly terminal creative decline, the Church has a golden chance to lead the renewal of great music, argues W A Young
The concept of Beauty — with a capital "B" — has been central to all the great ages of fine art. From early times came the idea of the "line of beauty" (a series of feminine curves). Aristotle believed that for a work of art to be beautiful, its "parts had to integrate with the whole" — there had to be a harmony between the details and the overall form. In the Renaissance it was believed that geometry, balance and order in art reflected the Divine. And there was the idea that all music is essentially an arch in form, "taking off" to begin and "corning to a landing" at the end.
In Pope John Paul H's "Letter to Artists" the concept of Beauty is central. He said that "the theme of beauty is decisive for a discourse on art". The late pontiff argued that "In perceiving that all He had created was good, God saw that it was beautiful as well.
"The link between the good and beautiful stirs fruitful reflection... In a certain sense, beauty is the visible form of the good."
Later in the letter, John Paul asked: "The Church... needs art, but can it also be said that art needs the Church?"
Today's world of art may need the Church, because She is a natural haven for the good and, therefore, for beauty in art. Secular art, by implication, has lost this beauty.
If the answer to Pope John Paul's question is "yes, art in general needs the Church", that has profound ramifications for efforts being made in the Church. She may once again become a leader in the fine arts: not just adequate to Herself, but a leader and a light to the rest of the art world.
This in nun represents a huge opportunity for evangelisation. One has only to imagine what it would mean if the Church were the primary place in which one could find the serene or beautiful, the meaningful or dynamic, the harmonious or truly human in newly created, serious music and art.
The Church's values give Her the true ground for beautiful art. (This was another theme of John Paul's letter.) Catholicism's ethos makes it the natural patron of the most truly beautiful in art, especially in our times. Secular modernism in art, by contrast, has promoted other values: the rebellious, or the grotesque, the obscene, the obsessive, the static, the purely decorative and the meaningless. This is proving a dead end for the secular world and this is especially true in modern music. There has been, in the last 30 years, little more than a faint breath of change, in the form of minimalism.
One of the worst aspects of the problem of art in the secular world is that there seems to be no way out.
Given this, the present beginnings of a reform of Catholic music could go beyond house-cleaning and a reining in of abuses that have occurred since the Second Vatican Council.
A movement to reform Catholic music is just beginning. It is being put in motion by the Church hierarchy with the restoration of traditional Catholic music as a standard.
The Vatican now recognises that the so-called "spirit of Vatican II" resulted in a catalogue of musical malpractices, which manifested themselves in different ways and degrees in various countries. Doubtless many readers will have experienced them firsthand.
Many musical experiments in the liturgy have been disturbing, especially in America.
I will not try here to enumerate all the abuses going on. Suffice to say that translations of chants that were in Latin and the subsequent arranging of the music — such as has occurred with the Pater Noster — are so bad that they provide good examples of how to set text to music incorrectly.
Some newly composed Mass music sounds like a Hollywood movie caricature of medieval music.
In many places, the soft rock beat has become the only rhythmic accompaniment guitarists know how to use with new hymns.
Criticism has been growing . An American book, Why Catholics Can Sing, a friendly critique by a Catholic layman, has become standard evidence of the dissatisfaction.
Many young people don't like the music of the once popular modern liturgical composer Marty Haugen: a website now exists that serves as a "chat room" for people to complain about it. However, if the music of the Catholic Church has been in some decline, the fine art music of the secular world has been in worse trouble. The creative world of secular fine art music is a discouraging scene.
I have been a conservatory-trained and a professional neo-Classical composer for some 30 years.
I do not here refer to the world of performers and recordings of the classics, etc. There are many wonderful performers, orchestras, opera companies and singers on the music scene today.
It is the creative side that is in deep trouble. Finding a workable style for new music has been nearly impossible. Without a new aesthetic, the music world cannot move forward.
In the arena of the popular, music has become obsessive and uncreative. It has been roundly criticised for feeding an escapist culture and for being only rarely able to produce anything beautiful, such as a real melody. It is often little more than a mechanical drum beat.
For a decade or so, books and articles have been . appearing about the stagnation of popular music. Flowers in the Dustbin was one of several works that outlined the lack of creativity. What is often missing from both serious and popular music is Beauty and meaningfulness.
It is interesting, therefore, that the winds of musical change in the Church are beginning to blow at a time when there is no fresh breeze in the secular music world.
Could it be, as Pope John Paul suggested, that the Catholic Church has the right values to foster progressin art?
The man now sitting in the chair of Peter is beginning to be called "the musical Pope". Pope Benedict XVI is a literate musician: he reads music, knows the literature of music
from Gregorian Chant to the Classics and plays Mozart at the piano. His statements on music make it clear that he believes that the touchstone for judging the appropriateness of sacred music is Gregorian Chant and sacred vocal polyphony: the great treasury of Catholic music from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Rumours say that he was already working on musical reform before becoming Pope and that he has now privately appointed a person to carry out this task.
Cardinal Francis Annie has recently made strong comments about Church music and the urgent need for reform. He identified the practice of using inappropriate music at Mass, music that is poorly written, poor translations of text, poor text setting in new works and so on.
To make real progress, in my view, the Church will need further development in both thought about music and in the institutions con cerned with it.
An aesthetic of Catholic music should be developed once again. The growth of Catholic music criticism in the Press is needed for music used in church.
In terms of institutions, the Church will need to reconnect its musical standards with those of the university and music conservatory. Catholic music should be respected for its merit by these institutions.
To accomplish all of the above, the Church may need the help of lay musical societies to aid growth.
There is obviously much to be done to restore Catholic music to even a small proportion of its former glory — as in the days of Palestina and the High Renaissance.
One might wonder about whether or not the Church has the necessary will to carry Out a reform that cannot be implemented without money, labour and enlightened guidance. However, if the curia can recognise that a
great opportunity exists because of the aesthetic impoverishment of the arts in the secular world, they should gain more than enough determination, because musical reform can become a matter of evangelisation.
The High Renaissance holds a key for all serious music to find its way forward again. As a composer, I could write a convincing treatise that this is so — and I would not be the first composer to think so. (To give a hint for musicians as to why this is the case: Renaissance music was "modal". It was not based on the system which has now run its course and decayed.)
The music of the High Middle Ages — the music that could lead all music forward — is the very music that Pope Benedict XVI is holding up as the model for change in the Church.
It is not therefore a pipe dream that the Church could find a way forward in Beauty for the music world.
It has been eight years since the "Letter to Artists" was written. There is a great new Pope in the Chair of Peter and the richness of John Paul H's gifts to the Church are just beginning to be understood.
The Polish pope's actions seem to have planted seeds for long-term growth in many areas. It is possible that his concern for Beauty and wonder in Christian art even had a prophetic side.
In the end, successful musical reform may not be simply a matter of the Church having nice music for Herself — it may become a matter of Her becoming the haven for all that is beautiful in music and art. She can thus restore a great gift to humankind.
For this, the world will be immensely grateful and, in return, people will come to the Church in large numbers, instinctively seeking a refuge from art and music without Beauty.