Why the Latin Mass? #3: The Music, or Lack Thereof

(This is the third in a series of posts called Why the Latin Mass? I’ve been asked by several people why I like the Latin Mass—why people will drive a hundred miles to get to one, or spend a lot of time and money bringing it to their area. I’m trying to answer that from my perspective in this series.)

I grew up on rock and roll. It’s not my parents’ fault; they listened to country at home, and not a lot of that. But I picked up 80s rock and pop from friends: AC/DC, Reo Speedwagon, J. Geils Band, Foreigner, Pat Benetar, Rick Springfield, Toto, and yes, Michael Jackson. (Hey, 10 million other people bought Thriller too; we didn’t know what a freak he was then.) My favorite then was Billy Joel—the Angry Young Man version who did Captain Jack and Glass Houses, not the happy version that was married to Christie Brinkley or the morose version she divorced. Later, when I lived in range of a classic rock station for a while, I caught on to the Eagles, Clapton, BTO, and the like.

All that left me with a definite expectation that music would have a strong drumbeat, and usually a melody carried by electric guitar. Popular music tells you plainly when to tap your foot. There’s nothing subtle about it, but it’s catchy. Now that I’m older and trying to expand my cultural horizons, I try to appreciate classical music and chant, but it’s hard to. It doesn’t give me that obvious beat, and soon my mind is wandering off. The only time I really seem to appreciate classical music is in an auditorium, listening to an orchestra play live.

And the one time I definitely enjoy chanting and “church music” is when I’m in church, fortunately enough. There it just fits. Like most Catholics my age, I grew up with Masses where people played guitar, shook tambourines, and probably even whipped out a kazoo or two that I’ve blocked from memory. Those things all have their place elsewhere, but there’s something special about organ music and chanting in church. I’ve been told that the reason the organ was always allowed at Mass was because it “breathes” through the pipes, so it’s similar to a human voice. I don’t know if that’s the real reason, but whatever the reason, the result works. A choir backed by a real organ makes a sound that is unquestionably “churchy,” that you can’t mistake for an Arlo Guthrie concert.

I don’t know enough about chant and terms like “polyphonic” to appreciate it on any deeper level than that. Most of the time I attend Low Mass, which doesn’t have any music, and that’s fine by me too. Either have the real thing, or don’t have music at all, and I’ll be happy. Just keep those tambourines away!