The Joy of Children

Children don’t have to be reminded to be joyful.  Children find joy everywhere, effortlessly.  Think of all the viral videos of babies laughing at everything from funny faces to paper tearing.  Too bad that we grow up and away from joy and into worry and distress.  Joy ceases to be an everyday thing.  It becomes something to be found in only the most extraordinary events–a wedding, the birth of a child.   And yet if the joy of the Lord is meant to be our strength, surely adults need it as much or more than children do?
Read more here.

Sunday Snippets: A Catholic Carnival

Linking up with This and That for the weekly roundup of Catholic bloggers.  Not much to round up for me this week though I am afraid . . .
Question of the week:  What is your favorite hymn or song you hear at Mass?
What a question!  Anyone who has been reading this blog for long knows that I am much more likely to be talking about the songs I didn’t like and the ones I didn’t hear.  Yesterday I was privileged to attend a Diocesan Mass for married couples, and the prelude included The Gift of Love, which was played at our wedding.  On the Feast of the Assumption, we sang Holy is Your Name, which I have loved since I first heard it at our parish’s Anniversary Mass several years ago.  But I didn’t hear either of these much-loved songs at my own church, sadly.  Although many consider the poetry bad and the tune overused, I do get happy when we sing Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.
As for the roundup part of this post . . . I’m not sure what I was doing this week, but it wasn’t blogging.  All I have to share this week is my Five Favorites posts, but it’s particularly appropriate for Sunday Snippets since I wrote about some favorite saints!
Thanks for reading and I will try to have more content this week.

Singing in the Rain . . . and Everywhere Else

That’s me!  I love to sing.
I frequently burst into song for no reason at all.  I am known in my family for my ability to do this with lyrics that are appropriate to whatever is going on around me at the time.
When I was a little girl, my sister and I used to sit outside and sing every song from our favorite albums at the top of our lungs.  We especially liked Carly Simon and the Captain and Tennille.  I loved singing in school pageants.  I loved singing at Mass, no matter how bad the songs were–and in the 70s, they were bad.
In college, I joined the 7 p.m. Mass choir and learned to read music instantly and sing in harmony.  I still remember and sing many of the songs I learned back then.
I sang for my babies for hours when they were little, both to put them to sleep and to amuse them when we were in the car.  (Teddy usually shouted no when I sang to him.  There were only two songs he would allow me to sing to him.)
When we go on long car trips, I sing to keep myself awake.  My favorites are the many, many church songs to which I know every single word.
People used to ask me why I didn’t sing in the church choir.  I had a good answer–I was needed in my pew to keep the children under control.  But these days Lorelei and William behave pretty well in Mass.  So a few weeks ago when a call went out for singers for a special choir (we hadn’t had a regular one for quite some time) I joined in and had so much fun.
Out of that a regular little choir is developing.  We are starting by singing only one Sunday each month, and only practicing on the two Wednesdays before we sing.  If we have enough interest we may start singing more often.  We had practice tonight.
As a choir member I can exercise a little influence to prevent our singing all those awful songs I hate!  But more important, I can be involved in a ministry which also feeds my own soul.

He who does not weep does not see

les mis poster
Y’all, I am OBSESSED with Les Miserables right now.   Searching Twitter and Tumblr tags, listening to every soundtrack I can find on Spotify pretty much nonstop, reading reviews and analyses online . . .  I cannot WAIT to see it again.  Let’s not call this a review, exactly–it’s more of a tribute (or a gush) because this movie is WONDERFUL.   It rose to the top of my favorite movie list like a rocket.
Here’s where I would normally tell you that if you aren’t interested in this movie and don’t plan to see it, you should move along.  But I won’t say that, because everyone should see this movie.  You just don’t know what you are missing.   Some are avoiding it because they think it is depressing.  No.  It’s sad.  Very, very sad. But SAD and DEPRESSING are different.  This movie–this story–is UPLIFTING.
I learned about catharsis in high school English, but I didn’t understand the point of it then.  Why seek out emotional experiences in fiction?  Aren’t our tears over the reality of life enough?  Now, though, I love me some catharsis and Les Miserables has been a source of it for me for many years.
I saw the musical on stage probably 20 years ago.  I purchased the soundtrack–on cassette–and when my big kids were little I was in the habit of listening to it regularly.  I remember clearly standing in my little yellow kitchen, chopping vegetables for supper, tears rolling down my face.  It was Fantine’s death scene that always got me then.  I only had to hear the opening line for the tears to start.
As for my kids, they grew to love the songs as well, especially “Master of the House” because of the bad words (okay to sing but not to say!).  I was so excited when almost 12 years ago the play came back to Knoxville.  I wanted the kids to see it, and we spent over 80 dollars we could ill afford then on the tickets.  My dream was squelched when I (nine months’ pregnant with #4) got put on bedrest for high blood pressure just days before the show.
John and the kids got to go, though, and in the years since we’ve kept the magic alive, frequently bursting into the initial sung conversation between Javert and Valjean. (Things like that happen around here a lot.)
I’ve never seen it since, and I was beyond excited for the movie, and especially to finally get to experience the story with the big kids. (They loved it too.)
You always wonder and worry a little about seeing an adaptation or a remake of a much-loved book or show or movie.  You know there are going to be changes.  And the newer version is going to stick in your head.  Will it spoil the old one?  If you haven’t seen this movie yet for those sorts of reasons, don’t let it hold you back.  Of necessity, a film is different from a play.  And there are some small changes.  But the changes add rather than detract.  Where additions are made they come from the book or reflect its spirit.  Here is the first of several blog posts I’ve been reading that explain this beautifully, along with quotations from the book.  Read them all.
Having experienced the story onstage and onscreen and through the music now over so many years, one thing that has interested me how my own reactions to the material have altered.  Part of that has to do with the differences in media but I also think it reflects where I am in my own my life.  As I said earlier I used to find Fantine’s death the most devastating part (it’s still sad!).  I think that was because I was empathasizing with her as we were both mothers of little children.  This time I was most moved by the death of the young men on the barricade.  Why?  Because I am now the mother of two almost grown up boys.  They reminded me of Jake and Teddy and their friends.
young rebels
One virtue of the movie format is that you get to know the minor characters so much better.  Even with the best seats in the house you can’t see individual faces at a play the way you can on a screen.  The young men on the barricade were humanized and individualized in the movie version.  The tragedy and waste of their deaths became personal.
Some reviews I read criticized what I saw as a strength:  the way the movie showed the characters in closeup while they were singing their big numbers, never leaving their faces for the duration of the song (which by the way were actually sung while filmed, not lip synched and added later).  Me, I thought it was amazing.  THEY were amazing.  No, they didn’t always belt out the tunes, Broadway fashion, because this was a different format, and not necessary in a film.  They ACTED the songs.  The feelings they showed were amazing.  They cried while singing.  Their voices broke with emotion.
Anne Hathaway should get an Oscar.  What everyone is talking about is The Song, and The Song is amazing, but to me her acting was just as moving in the small parts.  The way her lips trembled and her eyes filled when she knew she was about the lose her job.  The way she cried while her hair was being cut.
fantine hair cut
I’ve got nothing negative to say about the casting or the music, although plenty of people seem to.  I concede that Russell Crowe’s voice isn’t on the same level as the rest of the cast.  However, I liked his Javert very much and I think his softer singing shapes his depiction of the character.  His Javert was meditative, thoughtful, driven but not fanatical, trying to do what was right but getting it all wrong.  I understood this Javert.  I felt sorry for him.  I didn’t want him to die.
Hugh Jackman’s transformation from convict to Monsieur Madeleine was impressive.  We couldn’t figure out how they could possibly pretty him up!  I only knew of him before this movie.  If you’ve thought of him as an action hero he will surprise and delight you here.
I won’t go through all the characters because you can read about them anywhere.  But I will say that I am a critical person, trained to be that way as an English major, and I wouldn’t–couldn’t–criticize anyone’s performance in this movie.
I have more to say–especially about the music and the religious themes.  Because this is a profoundly Catholic movie–more than the play–and I loved it for that as well.  But I will leave that for another day and here end with a plea:  GO SEE THIS MOVIE.
P.S.  If you have a heart, you should approach Les Miserables prepared to weep.  Don’t see it with people you don’t want to cry in front of.   I had to stifle an actual sob at one point.  You’ll cry because it’s sad, and you’ll cry because it is beautiful.

That Liturgical Music Thing Again

Y’all, sometimes I just have to get things off my chest.  And I haven’t ranted about church music in a while.  So, for those of you who like such things, enjoy this mini-rant.
I sang in the choir at the 7 p.m. Mass at Georgetown all four years.  (We had Masses practically ’round the clock on Sunday, including a 30 minute one known as “[Father] Freeze’s Breeze” and a “last chance” one at 11:15 p.m.)
When I was a Freshman, the choir was student-led.  So when we were taken over by the University’s choir director the following year, we chafed a bit under her direction.  One of the things she did not like was our pianist’s habit of playing what she called “traveling music” at points where no talking was going on, like after the Offertory procession, for example.  We liked the pretty music and did not appreciate her point:  that there were times in the liturgy where silence is desirable.
Well, apparently the choir director at my parish doesn’t appreciate it either.  Because he’s instituted a bizarre practice of singing TWO Offertory songs.  As soon as we finish the first one, our cantor steals a quick look at the altar and if the preparation of the gifts is ongoing she quickly announces another song.  Which we dutifully begin to sing.
But there isn’t time for two songs at the Offertory, not really.  So one of two things happens.  We don’t sing the whole song (and y’all already know how I feel about THAT), or Father stands there twiddling his thumbs and frankly looking impatient to get on with things already while we finish.
This singing serves no liturgical purpose.  Especially since we never sing songs that are about offering our gifts or ourselves anyway.  It’s filler, pure and simple.  And why does the Mass demand filler?  When you run out of Offertory song, there are the optional prayers and responses:  “Blessed are You, Lord, God of all Creation . . . ” and “Blessed be God Forever.” (Did these get changed, I wonder?  In our parish, I’ll never find out.)  Then there are the quiet prayers as the priest washes his hands, which always fascinated me as a child: “Lord, wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sins.”
Everyone knows how much I love to sing.  Even when I can hardly stand the songs.  But can’t we just have some quiet time to pray?

Music and Memories

Humor me–listen to the song first.
I’ve spent the last couple of hours indulging in a rare occupation for me–listening to music.  I don’t own an iPod (well, I have an iPhone now but I don’t use it for that).  I usually don’t turn on the car radio.  My CDs, cassettes, and records are all gone.  If I want music, I usually sing.  And not surprisingly I suppose, what I really like to hear is SILENCE.
But I was feeling tired of my usual computer occupations, and it was too cold to go out, and our resident babysitters have their own social lives nowadays so going out on a date was out of the question anyway, so I decided to play with Spotify, which I was totally thrilled with when I first got it but forgot all about after a day or two because I just never think of listening to music.  I discovered Pandora before anyone else I knew and I don’t ever listen to it either.  But I digress.
I created a playlist with songs from my college days.  Now, I have a kick ass memory, at least when it comes to things that happened 20 years or more ago.  My high school friends know to call me if there is anything they want to know about the good old days.  Seriously, I can literally recall my entire high school class schedule, period by period, teacher by teacher, classroom by classroom.  So I don’t NEED music to remember.
But there’s nothing like a special song for taking you back to a particular moment in time.  I hear “St. Elmo’s Fire” and I’m a lonely homesick Freshman listening obsessively to the soundtrack of the last movie my friends and I saw together right before I left for Georgetown.  “How Will I Know?” comes on and I’m singing with my roommate and we are wondering how, with our complete lack of boyfriend experience, we WILL know?  Then it’s “Get into the Groove” and we’re dancing in our friend Tom’s room after saying the prayer to St. Jude, our pre-exam ritual certain to get us all passing grades.    The Georgia Satellites break out with “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” and I’m deep in the throes of first (and only) love, struggling to live up to previously untested ideals.  Love and anger, fear and joy, laughter and tears, hellos and good-byes–I feel them all again when I hear the songs.
I haven’t forgotten what HAPPENED when I was 18, 19, 20 . . . but sometimes I forget how it FELT.  But, as Trisha sings, the song remembers.

Bad Songs Revisited

Last time I wrote about bad church music I said there was another song I wanted to write about but I couldn’t remember what it was.  I knew it wouldn’t take long before we sang it again, and sure enough, last week, there it was.  I’m sorry, again this is a song that everyone else seems to love, for whatever reason.  But I think it is AWFUL.
The tune is pretty, I’ll grant that.  The sentiment is nice.  But . . . but . . . everything else!  It’s got the congregation singing as God, which every expert informs me is a big no no.  But I can get past that, obviously, since I like some songs that are written that way.  It’s the poetry, if you can call it that, that I cannot stand.  Here again the composer bends the words to fit the music.   The use of passive voice riles the English major in me:  “Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known, will you let my life be grown?”  Yuck yuck yuck!  It sounds whiny and weak.   If it were an essay it would have red pen all over it:  Will you show my life, teach my name, plant my life?  Well, that’s not a whole lot better, but at least it is stronger.
Here is a source for all the lyrics.  I could go through every line and complain but I will resist.   Just two more:  “Will you kiss the leper clean and do such as this unseen?”  My kids and I struggle not to laugh when we hear this line.  Besides just conjuring up a gross mental picture, this line is an example of poetry bending.  To stretch what should be “in secret” or “secretly” into “do such as this unseen”  would have Professor Strunk rolling over in his grave, frothing at the mouth and yelling “Omit needless words!”   And I don’t even know what to say about “Should your life attract or scare?”  I can’t sing it with a straight face, and believe it or not I really do try to sing every song at Mass, no matter how awful.
My advice to Catholic songwriters?  You are doing a lovely job with the tunes.  Go back to the Glory and Praise days and look for your lyrics in the Scriptures.  There’s no way you can go wrong with that.

Liturgical Music Redux: Bad Songs

You know, I think this blog is really good for me, because I get things off my chest here and then I don’t have to rant about them in real life anymore.  And I also think that’s why (aside from getting busy with the start of school) I lost steam on my Liturgical Music “Week.”  I vented my spleen and felt better and lost energy for writing more about it.
But I did promise two more posts, one about bad songs and one that explains what music at Mass is “supposed” to be like.  [edit: I never wrote that one, probably because it would have required actual research instead of ranting.] Bad Songs is more fun, so that is tonight’s topic.
I already wrote about songs that have been spoiled by being retrofitted with inclusive language, and about songs that are heretical, or poorly sung.  Today I write about songs that are just BAD.  And my number one bad song (and yes, I realize that it is a favorite of many people, including my own father) is The Servant Song.
Okay, now I feel mean.  I’m looking for links so you can experience the awfulness that is this song and here is the first one I found.  It’s the man who actually wrote the song performing it.  Does it make it better that I am giving him free exposure?  Actually, this version is interesting because the rhythm is not quite as annoying and he has made the song inclusive without diluting its meaning as the version we sing in my parish does.  Okay, here is a version with the words we use.  I am not really making my case here because this is the most beautiful rendition of this song I can imagine.  These people could make anything sound good.  I’d like to hear what they can do with some GOOD songs.
Here is a link to the lyrics as they are currently sung.  And really, the lyrics are my main problem with this song.  The first stanza is okay, although it was stronger as “Brother, let me be your servant,” or even as Mr. Gaillard himself has changed it to “Brother, Sister. let me serve you.”  And I understand and appreciate the sentiment.  The second stanza is okay in the original, but doesn’t make logical sense anymore.  “We are travelers on the road” implies no relationship among the travelers.  Here again Mr. Gaillard’s revision to  “We are family on the road” is better if you can get past the Sister Sledge vibe.
I cannot say enough how much I hate the third stanza.  It is nonsense from beginning to end.  Someone tell me what it is supposed to mean?  William used to have a dinosaur flashlight.  When you pressed a button it opened its mouth and roared and the light shone from its mouth.  Whenever I hear this verse I imagine a Christ light, very similar.  My grandmother used to have a nightlight in the shape of the Blessed Mother.  Do you think I could get a patent on my Christ light idea?
Fourth stanza, sappy and repetitive, and I hate the way the composer ignores the principle of parallel construction in order to bend his words to the music.  I hate poetry that has been bent to fit.
Fifth stanza, again, what does it mean?  It rhymes, it fits the music (sort of), but what is he trying to say?  And that a-a-aaa-go-ny is just odious.  That particular word, accompanied by that irritating arrangement of notes that probably has a certain name that a musician would know, just nauseates me.
So, there you have it.  Call me unreasonable.  I know a lot of people LOVE this song (just looking on YouTube confirmed this).  I am not one of them.
I had another Bad Song I wanted to write about but I can’t remember what it is right now.  We will probably sing it at Mass this week though so I’ll come back to it then.
[edit:  I remembered.  It’s The Summons and it is cringeworthy tripe, especially the line about kissing the leper clean.]

Liturgical Music V: Performance Issues

So I had to say it some time.  It’s not always the song’s fault.  The songs don’t pick themselves.  They don’t perform themselves.
No, I am not going to criticize individual choir members.  Not only would that be ugly, I don’t have the right to do that unless I am willing to go up there and sing myself. [edit: I did end up singing in the choir last time we had one–but I’m still not going to criticize anyone’s singing ability!] And besides the fact that I am needed in my pew to corral my smaller kids, right now I like to feel I am doing my part by actually singing (why do so many people–some of my family included–remain mute during the songs?).
But I am going to bring up in a general way some of my own pet peeves about the way music is chosen and performed in many Catholic churches I have visited.
We don’t sing the whole song.  I have been going on about this for years to anyone who would listen, including members of our choir at my parish.  I grew thinking this was normal, because we never sang the whole song except at Communion.  It was always the first two verses.  In fact, I know hundreds of hymns but lots of times I only know the first two verses (never knew all four verses of America the Beautiful, for example, until post 9/11, when suddenly singing the whole song was in vogue!).  But when I was in the choir at Georgetown we always sang all four verses of the final hymn, with a rousing “AMEN” at the end.  I realized that the songs were not just words, and that they made more sense when we sang the whole thing.  With some songs this is painfully obvious.    At Christmas, how much sense does it make to sing We Three Kings and just STOP after the verse of the first Wise Man?  Doesn’t it irritate anyone else when we are singing any of the many songs based on the Beatitudes and we only sing about four of them?  Am I the only one who feels a big let down when  we stop before the “I will give my Life to them” part of Here I Am, Lord?  Surely not.  And this leads us to . . .
We pick the wrong song.  Why do choir directors pick a song with two verses for Communion, and then have us sing the whole song three or four times (and then stop in the middle of it!)?  Why not pick a song with LOTS OF VERSES instead?  Why pick a LONG song for the Offertory and leave the priest up there twiddling his thumbs, or else stop without singing the whole thing? Why? Why? Why?  Why pick a song that is OBVIOUSLY meant for a certain part of the Mass and sing it somewhere else?  It might seem creative, but to me it just sounds stupid.  Hello, the songs are organized right there in the hymnal so that you can easily see when you should sing it.  One presumes the people who organized the songs had some idea of what they were doing.  Didn’t they?  They don’t just suggest that a song should be sung at Communion or Dismissal, they even provide thematic suggestions.  Which I think some choir directors need.  Because how often have you gone to a Mass and realized that the songs you sang had nothing whatsoever to do with the readings?  If you pay attention, you will see that the readings have all been picked to go together.  If your priest is a decent homilist he will also have directed your attention to this.  The songs should reinforce that further, and so often they just don’t!  Do choir directors choose songs they just like, or think the choir sings well, or what?  So often there are songs based directly on the Scripture for that Mass–they are practically crying out to be sung–and we don’t sing them! I cannot stand that!  Another thing–we MUST sing Joy to the World on Christmas and Jesus Christ Is Risen Today on Easter.  Music directors take note!
We sing the song wrong.  You know how when celebrities do a cover of someone else’s song, or sing the National Anthem, they feel like they need to put their personal stamp on it, so they hold some notes longer, and add extra notes, and fancy stuff like that?  Well, choir directors, you are NOT celebrities, and I don’t want you putting your personal stamps on the hymns.  I attended a Mass just recently (not at my parish!  I promise!) where the choir director was changing half notes to quarter notes at random.  It’s jarring if you already know how the song is supposed to be sung, and it’s irritating if you are trying to sing it by reading the music.  And if I had written the song I would find it very infuriating that a choir director assumes he can rewrite my music and make it better!
We sing the same songs.  Over and over and over.  And over.  There are SO MANY SONGS.  How many do you know?  I bet I can sing hundreds.  Maybe more.  Why not give us a chance to sing some of them?  Why not ask the parishioners what old favorites they’d like to see resurrected?  Sure, you can’t expect a choir to harmonize with them all, but you can expect a good organist to be able to read music so at least we can be accompanied.  Sometimes being at Mass is like listening to a Top 40 radio station.  They ruin good songs by playing them into the ground.   What songs am I sick of?  The Servant Song, Now We Remain, The Supper of the Lord, Now in This Banquet . . . hmmm. mostly communion hymns, probably a relic of the time when we were singing the same one EVERY SINGLE WEEK which was the policy of the choir director we had then.  I’m sure you have your own list, which I would love to read about in the comments, if you’d care to share!