Liturgical Music Today: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times | Carl E. Olson | CWR
Joseph P. Swain, author of Sacred Treasure: Understanding Catholic Liturgical Music, with straight talk about sacred music.
CWR: Taking up Dickens' famous opening lines in A Tale of Two Cities, you open your book by stating that when it comes to Roman Catholic liturgical music, it is both the worst of times and the best of times. What are some examples of each? What is unique about this particular era as far as liturgical music is concerned?
Dr. Swain: At no time in history has the Church had to hand, in print music and recordings, such a wealth of liturgical music of amazing variety and of the highest quality. At no time have such numbers of highly trained church musicians been available to sing and play that music. At no time has there been such a pitch of interest in liturgy and its music on the part of everyday, churchgoing Catholics. These are the best of times.
At the same time, only a tiny fraction of the liturgical music thought by Catholics and non-Catholics alike to be among the most beautiful ever conceived is ever heard by everyday Catholics at mass. The fine professionals who want to contribute their services are often not allowed to perform it; they put aside their long training and look for other kinds of work. And the interest in liturgical music has apparently led only to strife within and between parishes, rather than healthy traditions of liturgical music, and there appears to be no end in sight.
Such paradoxes are what make our times unique in the history of liturgical music.
CWR: Sacred Treasure covers a tremendous amount of material—musical, theological, historical, and cultural—and you describe it, in the Preface, as "an exercise in pragmatic music criticism." What was your main goal in writing the book? How might, respectively, a liturgist, a musician, and an "average" lay person benefit from reading it?