The Reinvention of Parish Music

The birthday notification popped up on my Skype window: Jeffrey Ostrowski just turned 31. I had to look again. Only 31 years old? This is a musician who has produced probably two dozen books of music for Catholic liturgy that have provided new options to tired songs given to us by the old establishment that came to power after the Second Vatican Council.

Jeffrey blew up the model by providing the music for online, most of it free. He published Psalm settings no one had heard of. He made recordings and thousands of videos of that music. He  dared to do it all himself. He didn’t go crawling to the monied big shots. He scraped around and used the new tools of technology to reduce costs, achieve a new form of outreach, to publish composers no one had ever heard of. He did it all just because no one stopped him, and because he couldn’t see any reason not to do it.

Then he went one step further and made a full hymnal for the ordinary form of the Mass, using public domain hymns and including all new compositions for the Psalms. The Vatican II Hymnal now has a happy home in many of the nation’s best parishes and cathedrals.

And he has just begun. He has already recorded one-thousand plus practice videos for the Simple English Propers and the Parish Book of Psalms, plus so much more. Oh, and I haven’t mentioned his full music planning website that offers all the propers of the mass in both forms, with sheet music, audio recordings, and videos. That’s right: the full Graduale Romanum, in English and Latin, with videos that take the singers step by step through each note for every chant.

It is mind boggling.

Back to the “just begun” part. He is now working on a new hymnal designed for parishes that uses the extraordinary form, complete with an ordo, propers, Latin and English hymns, and devotional materials. Maybe, perhaps, at long last, these parishes will have a complete resource for the older form of the Roman Rite that is not the SSPX’s hymnal that includes a bitter swipe at Vatican II right in the first pages. It’s been the only viable option but now Ostrowski intends to change this.

And how has Jeffrey done all this? He has no staff to speak of. He pretty much works alone in his apartment along with his wife and child. He has computers everywhere and vast archives of books on shelves. And that’s about it. His main asset is his work ethic. Of course he has crazy passion for the task. He works every day to make just a bit of progress. And if you look at what he has done over 5 years, he has pretty much accomplished more than anyone else has in fifty years—as measured by the promotion, pedagogy, publishing, and distribution of sacred music.

It’s not only a commentary on his own amazing productivity. It says something about the output of the big publishers in the Catholic world. With all their staff, money, copyright war chests, and markets, why have they produced so little of any lasting value over the last 40 years? Why is it that one guy in an apartment could manage to do so much more? It all comes down to the will and inspiration.

Consider too the Lumen Christi Missal, a book that has introduced me to a liturgical world I did not think could exist. The book, meant for the pews, makes the ordinary form orderly and beautiful in ways that most Catholics in average parishes could not even imagine. It is a true work of genius. It will have a very long shelf life as a pew book and even as a book that people can take to Mass even if their parishes do not adopt it as their own.

I was telling someone about this on the phone the other day, and the person asked me who publishes the book. I hesitated because the answer seems so implausible. I finally said: Adam Bartlett published it. By himself. He did the composition. He contracted the typesetting. He did the proofing and the composition. He thought through every page. He put together the outstanding organization of the book and oversaw its completion from the indexes to the cover to the ribbons. He has accepted the financial risk. He did it all himself—from soup to nuts, as they say.

How old is Adam? He just turned 30. That’s just exactly the age that old timers tend to dismiss. What does this guy know about music? What does he know about liturgy? Where is his advanced degree from? How much experience can a guy this age really have? Shouldn’t he eat humble pie for the next 20 years until he is socially entitled to put together a book like this?

Well, that’s the way the old world worked. But here’s the thing. We are desperately in need of new kinds of creativity in the Catholic music world. We need people who are willing to bust up old paradigms, try new ways, rethink the status quo, use the new technology. Adam looked around and didn’t see anyone else doing this exact thing. He waited, just as he waited for someone to put together a book of English Propers. No one emerged. He was restless. He knew what was needed. He didn’t bother with worrying about what the establishment or his fuddy-duddy detractors said. He pushed his resource on the market.

It was not easy. He had to fight his way through four or five layers of bureaucracy to get the resource approved. He had to deal with the USCCB, the people who manage the rights to print the words of the Bible (yes!), the owners of the Psalms (true!), the gatekeepers who decide who can distribute the liturgical texts (not making this up!), and also his local Bishop, plus who knows how many other people. He was patient and diligent. Finally it happened.

Again, he did it all alone.

And remember, it is not only about youth. It is about being independent from the prevailing establishment that creates and sustains the status quo. It is about clearly seeing the failure of the current paradigm and believing that it can be changed—and then doing something about it. Consider composer Richard Rice. He has produced massive quantities of music for the Roman Rite. His book, the Parish Book of Chant, is the resource that changed everything. A second edition is out in the new year. His Choral Gradual is used in hundreds of parishes. His choral communions are too. He is not only a top composer; he is also an excellent typesetter. Like the others, he unites faith, talent, and a passion for bringing it all to life.

As for independence, the whole of the Church Music Association of America wins the award. Its president William Mahrt has been directing and teaching for nearly fifty years and yet he never signed up with the powers that be. He has led dramatic change in the world of Catholic music.

As an example of the CMAA work, consider Arlene Oost Zinner’s Parish Book of Psalms. She too is new to this whole field. And yet she has produced what no one else bothered to produce.

In one book we have the complete Responsorial Psalms that can be sung by a cantor alone, with Gregorian tones in a dignified melody. This book alone is enough to fix the whole Psalm problem that has vexed Catholics for decades. It is a work of clarity, simplicity, and accessibility, all of which is backed by another example of genius of vision. It’s a resource that can be introduced into any parish and inspire not only relief from the usual noise but prayer and contemplation.

This is all the work of the young and the restless—people who are striving to recovery what we’ve lost and point the way out of the current mire and toward a bright future. Pray for their work. They are leading us to places we need to be.

Jeffrey Tucker


Jeffrey Tucker is managing editor of Sacred Music and publications editor of the Church Music Association of America. He writes a bi-weekly column on sacred music and liturgy for Crisis Magazine and also runs the Chant Cafe Blog.

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  • Not long after I became an ardent Mises fan did I become Catholic. And now I have the enjoyment of reading the likes of Jeff Tucker and Tom Woods commentary on both. Wonderful!

  • I’m a tiny bit confused. During my youth, I learned the typical liturgical and musical norms of the Novus Ordo–I still have a warm spot for some of Haugen’s Mass of Creation. As I grew older, I participated in various choirs, then REALLY learned sight-reading during my first college years. Though never a music major, I had the chance to perform some music that offered passion, guts, and intelligence.
    Somewhere between Jr High and adult life though, I began to grow weary of Mass music; all too often, we seemed to have music that seemed closer to lifeless and dull than awe-inspiring. Growing annoyed with this, I had begun a certification as a cantor a few years ago–I thought CMAA sponsored the program–so I could learn a bit about how we SHOULD be praying music.
    I quit that effort within a few weeks because most of the material covered appeared to be the same weary regimen as what I’d seen for most of my life. At the time, I’d asked my parish choir director about a certification that handled Chant and related liturgical norms. I thought he told me that nobody really had such a program available.
    I felt this quite sad. I had come across (Gregorian) Chant during my early 20’s, but had assumed it a Lutheran form; the fellow who had the tape I first heard was NOT Catholic. I did not know much of anything of the older liturgical norms or music until..the past 5 years or so.
    Most of what I’ve seen of older forms essentially comes down to a full-time choir director compiling the music for Mass, something that most parishes likely can’t afford.

    Has something changed in the past few years?

    This article comments about the age of the people involved in newer Church music efforts. I’d be curious to know how these folks learned about the music they’ve explored in the first place?
    I’d bet that most people between age 25 and 45 have no idea that OCP and GIA aren’t the only music available for Mass. ..And too many people over 50 don’t want to admit it….

  • hombre111

    Good old Jeffrey with his bowtie. And the picture chosen to illustrate this article: A monk or nun in full habit, rosary dangling, Male choir vested like altar boys. Flash to a real parish with real musicians and a real choir. Volunteers who work 50-60 work weeks. One, maybe two skilled musicians, probably keyboard and guitar. Maybe a flute. Practice one hour before Mass. 1/2 to 1/3 of congregation sings. I listen. And etc.. Soldier on, Jeffrey. Let me point the way to another windmill.

    • schmenz

      Your point being………exactly what?

      • hombre111

        Jeffrey can toil away, but he will have little impact on the popular music in the average parish. Of course, what conservatives want to do is get the conservative bishops to force proper music down the throats of the people. They are also happy if they can have enlightened conservative pastors who do the same.

        • “…he will have little impact on the popular music in the average parish.”

          That seems to me the epitome of the problem really. If conservatives wish to “force proper music down the throats of the people”, perhaps there’s a matter of catechesis involved. Keep in mind, we don’t go to Mass for a rock concert, nor to be entertained. We go to Mass to pray to God for grace, to receive His Word, in both reading from the Bible AND in flesh.

          I’ve long since grown weary of “liberal” pastors who refuse to admit that sappy songs from yesteryear don’t really bring people to faith very well.

          • hombre111

            Marvelous to converse with a gentleman of such exalted tastes in church music. I can speak from experience and say that I have often been carried away to highest heaven by music mined from Oregon Press. What I notice is that only about 1/2 to 2/3 of the people sing. The rest, like myself, just listen and soar to the heart of God. I am too busy being raised in the Spirit to mutter about patronizing and simpleminded music.

        • Sam Schmitt

          @hombre111 – Perhaps you’re not aware that Jeffrey himself has directed the choir at an “average” parish in Alabama for many years, where he has had great influence on the music program. And I’d invite you to go to the annual colloquium of the Church Music Association of America, or their sold-out chant workshops held all over the country, where hundreds of musicians, professional and amateur, most from “average parishes,” are learning about what Jeffrey is talking about here, and then going back to their churches and implementing it. It’s not a matter of a “conservative” pastor forcing anything on anybody – which doesn’t really work anyway. It’s the musicians themselves who are making the changes, slowly but surely. It’s always wise to do a little research before making big generalizations so you don’t look ignorant, don’t you think?

    • So..I guess you’re saying that the average parish doesn’t place much priority on a competent music program? Or are you declaring that you think Mr. Tucker places unreasonable demands on people?
      If you don’t think much of the musical prayer at Mass at your parish, I suggest you either collaborate with others in your parish to improve the state of things, or find a different parish where you can do so.

      Griping like this doesn’t really solve too many problems.

      • hombre111

        I think you are right. The average parish does not put a high, high priority on music. I think they give it a decent effort, though, most of the time. Many times, when I am attending a Mass celebrated by a priest who does not take the energy to celebrate a prayerful liturgy, or when the Mass is celebrated by a foreign priest with an incomprehensible accent, it is the choir that saves the day.
        I do not think that Mr. Tucker places unreasonable demands. But I do disagree with his disdain for the music taken by your ordinary choir from places like Oregon Press. Those people are probably as musically knowledgeable as Mr. Tucker. They just have different tastes in tune with your ordinary parish and Mr. Tucker takes pains to say that his are the more noble, better formed tastes. Maybe, his is the biggest pile of baloney.

  • I’m now putting the finishing touches on a book about hymns (almost all of them written before 1900) as poetry — dealing also with the musical settings, though my main emphasis is on poetic structure and beauty, and scriptural and theological profundity. I would dearly love to see the return of hundreds and hundreds of these fine poems — and songs — to all the Christian churches in the English speaking world, Catholic and Protestant! There is no reason in the world why a Catholic cannot sing any of the hymns written by the Wesleys, or by Isaac Watts, or any number of these people — not to mention the great translations from German by Catherine Winkworth and from Latin by John Mason Neale. And all of this material is in the common domain …. the music of Bach, Crueger, Bourgeois, Mozart, Vaughan Williams … traditional and lovely English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish airs, carols from France, chorales from Germany …. If anybody out there wants to put together a hymnal like the 1940 Hymnal the Episcopalians had (and it is still in print), I am ready to go. Sign me up.