Author Archives: Mary Jane Ballou

About Mary Jane Ballou

Mary Jane Ballou’s life in sacred music began in a children’s choir at the age of three. Instrumental music waited until her piano lessons started in primary school. And her music life remains a joyous pairing of sacred vocal music and the instrumental repertoire of Spain, Ireland, and Scotland.

London Christmas, Musical Moments

Back from a splendid holiday in London.  Yes, it was soggy and it did seem to get dark awfully early.  However, there were always museums to visit and pubs to warm up in.

The best part – three splendid liturgies and a wonderful carol service.  At Westminster Cathedral and the London Oratory, music is important.  And they obviously put their money were their mouths are (to use an odd phrase).  When you get the best in directors, singers, and organists and when you recognize that the Church’s treasury of sacred music actually belongs in the churches, the result is astonding.  And I felt that it was also appreciated.

One of the sad results of the gutting of both church music and music education in this country is the loss of repertoire and the loss of understanding.  Most churches are just fine with music that is mediocre at best.  And the congregations feel the same way.  Many music directors know little about sacred music beyond the boundaries of their hymnals and whatever the “Big Three” publishers promote.  (The latter will not, needless to say, be in the public domain.)  Catholics (or anyone else) who’ve never learned to read music or sang in a chorus or choir that “did parts” are often indifferent to the music at Mass.

What did I hear in London?  Among other things, I heard chant that moved with energy and sureness.  I heard wonderful intonation and diction.  The Haydn Missa Nicolai at midnight at the Cathedral; the Mozart “Sparrow Mass” at the Oratory the next day.  The carol service featured both old and new music, with all the good stuff for the congregations to join in on.  And join they did!  And a nice tune for “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” during Communion at Midnight Mass that I didn’t recognize.

And yes, “Once in royal David’s city” always makes me weep.

“Unplugged at the Wedding”

A few weeks ago I played for an outdoor wedding in St. Augustine. One of the staples of wedding ceremonies now is the officiant with a wireless, the assumption being that no one would be able to hear him without it. This wedding was an exception.

Think of Eric Clapton’s “Unplugged” album.In this case, the minister, a preacher in his 80s, was unplugged!

Would we hear anything he said? Would we just be watching his lips move?

Guess again —

Everyone had to pay attention and everyone listened. Everyone could hear him and he wasn’t shouting. We were listening and I was in the very back of the pavilion. Even more interesting was the fact that we could actually hear the exchange of vows between the couple. Normally my experience at weddings with a wired clergyman or notary goes somewhat as follows:

“Now Bob, repeat after me…”
Maybe a mumble.
“Now Suzy, repeat after me…”
Another mumble.

Instead here we heard everything. I believe was because our ears were already tuned in and balanced for natural speech volume.

And I think there’s more to this than simply determining how weddings should be conducted. Consider your experience at church on Sunday. The minister or priest has a wireless; the reader and lead singer have microphones. There’s no need to pay more than half of your attention because the sound is blasted from multiple speakers.

Further, everyone knows that the people with the microphones are the ones count – the ones who really have something to contribute. Consequently, you might conclude that your spoken or sung responses are not very important. You’re just there to be talked at. At best, you can join in on the choruses like a Pete Seeger concert.

Now I’m not saying that anyone consciously thinks this or that this was a planned outcome. And yes, I know that there are large gatherings where amplification is a gift. At the same time, it might be worth considering the extent to which that which is meant to make things easier to hear in fact makes it harder to listen.

What if we pulled the plug on the unnecessary ecclesiastical wireless?  What if singers learned to project properly?  What if we built spaces designed for active listening?  What if we valued paying attention, even if it took a little work?

Why Were They Wowed?

There was recently a special jubilee mass for the local diocesan religious order at our Cathedral in St. Augustine. I was unable to attend because of travel, but everyone was eager to tell me about it on my return. And their praise for the mass, for the music, for the preaching – for every aspect of the service was unrestrained and uniform. This was surprising because this praise came from all over the “liturgical spectrum.” It didn’t seem to matter whether they were Traditional Latin Mass diehards or somewhat warm and fuzzy 80s music fans. All reports were glowing. When I saw the program, I was even more surprised. The music was the usual “greatest hits” with an up-tempo, slightly jazzy mass setting and ballad-like hymns. It was definitely nothing special. The celebrant and the homilist were local – nice enough, but not distinguished.

So why were they all so excited?

After thinking long and hard, I decided there were two factors at play here. The first, and most important, is that everyone was there because it was a specific celebration. They shared a common purpose in their attendance, in their intention, in their focus. Another way of putting this would be to say that they were all looking in the same direction. The second factor served to amplify the first. The cathedral was packed. It was filled with people who were all there with a common purpose.

And therein lay the secret to the happiness: a common purpose and a critical mass (no pun intended).

Compare this to the average Sunday Mass in the parish. Even if the church is full, is the common purpose there? Despite over 40 years of exhortations to be joyful participants, recent surveys disclosed a wide range of reasons for those bodies in the pews. From “it’s just what we do” to “recharging my batteries,” it’s a mixed bag that’s very personal and subjective. But we can’t have a special event every week. And no, you can’t build unity of intention with “faux community” gestures such as warming up the crowd with a call and response opening or demanding that everyone introduce themselves to their near neighbors in the pews or raise their hands if they’re visiting from out of town.

Instead it’s about real liturgical catechesis – teaching about worship, transcendence, immanence, thanksgiving, and the power of salvation history. And it’s about a celebration of the Mass that by language, gesture and music reflects the depth of those mysteries. If we were all on board, all agreed that there was nothing to equal God’s remarkable redemption and the amazing gift of the Eucharist – every Mass would dazzle us.

All the Saints of Paris

This charming video from the Fraternities Monastiques de Jerusalem is a Paris-specific litany of the saints, accompanied by architecture, stained glass, and other splendors.  Enjoy it as a “warm-up” to the Solemnity of All Saints tomorrow.  And why not be a saint yourself?  Or at least enjoy the riches of FMJweb. Born out of the tumult of the late 60’s, the Fraternity has always appreciated and exercised the attractive power of beauty in music and art.  Deo gratias!

Oh, Those Rosary Ladies

 

We all remember them – even those of us who never saw them – those dear ladies who said the Rosary during Mass prior to 1970.  (I actually remember coveting their crystal and pearl rosaries.) Although they are nearly as extinct at dinosaurs, they will surface in every debate over the Extraordinary Form if the discussion goes on long enough.

New flash!  Their behavior was regarded as undesirable in its time and was fading by the mid-1960s.  The first generations of liturgical reformers struggled manfully against this and many other out-of-place devotional practices during Mass.  However, they didn’t believe the solution was the abolition of the Extraordinary Form.  Their goal was education that would progressively engage the worshippers with the liturgy.  Congregational chant, the dialog Mass, hand missals, and extensive lay education were all aimed at displacing the pious practices that were themselves a response to another abuse – the dead-silent Low Mass.

There is no reason to present the case that it’s “rosary ladies or the Novus Ordo.”  That’s the informal fallacy known as a false dilemma.  The Extraordinary Form is a rich ceremony that can demand the full participation of its worshippers, as can the Ordinary Form when it is well celebrated.  Let the poor Rosary Ladies rest in peace and pray for the repose of their souls.

(By the way, I still see the occasional rosary-reciter at masses in the Ordinary Form.  And you know what, I don’t care.)

The Last Bastion of ”Improv”

 

Slowly but surely, the liturgical practice of the Latin Rite has begun to improve.  The last General Instruction for the Roman Missal and the revised translation that went into effect in Advent 2011 have raised the level of practice in most parishes. 

But there’s still one hold-out from the 1970s everywhere I go:  the prayer of the faithful.

In many parishes, these prayers reflect the “causes de jour” – we plead for universal healthcare from our leaders, an end to bullying thanks to compassionate school personnel, improvement in the ground-water supply, employment, natural resource conservation, and selected disasters and addictions.  Every week is a new set of concerns.  If you’re really unlucky, there’s a surprise every day! 

Most of these petitions come from little books put out by liturgical publishers who found another income stream with these subscriptions.  And of course, liturgists, clergy, and choir directors find it hard to resist the urge to “tweak” them.

There’s the” improv.”  There’s the “me” part of the 1970s hanging on. There’s occasionally a scolding quality to the intercessions – as though we in the pews haven’t been working hard enough on these issues and better hop to it.  I thought that belonged in the homily. 

Not only are our requests specific, we tell God how He should fix the problem in case He can’t figure it out by Himself.  Maybe that’s a bit presumptuous?

If you want an all-purpose litany, simply do what the Anglicans did with Rite I. Steal the Orthodox great litany and make minor revisions (obviously they’re not interested in patriarchs, especially now).   It covers everything from weather and crops to civil disturbances, with all points in between and lets the Almighty work out the details.  Full coverage and no surprises.  Then I will no longer need to pray to be delivered from these prayers.

 

 

CS Lewis Nails It

“The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility, rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual.”
C.S. Lewis

For those of us who lived through the “improvisational 60s and 70s,” truer words were never spoken.  And we’re not just talking religion here.  Think of those weddings with odd readings and folks shuffling around, guessing what to do next. Or concerts where no one appeared to have a set list, so the band stopped to confer on each selection.