Thursday, October 6, 2011

Liturgical Thoughts: Proper Worship Music


Music exists in many styles and genres, each suited to its own purpose. A musical style played outside of its appropriate context can be jarring, especially when unexpected. If we were to attend a symphony concert, a black tie affair at a grand concert hall, and instead of Beethoven or Mahler we heard the opening chords of a punk rock anthem echoing in our ears, we might certainly ask for our money back. If we attend a joyous gathering at a friend’s house expecting a light-hearted celebration, but from the stereo we hear the dark notes of a Mass for the dead, the mood would certainly be dampened and the guests would excuse themselves early.

We expect music to fit our mood; and music in turn can shape our mood. A good rock-n-roll or pop tune might liven up a party; soft jazz or an elegant orchestral piece can sooth an anxious mind; a hit from the past can evoke a sense of nostalgia. As with any art form, music carries with it an emotional force, a power to shape one’s attitude and to conjure up memories and passions. Music is as varied in its style as the human heart is in its ability to feel and to express its desires and longings. Music is indeed a powerful medium.

The music we encounter in our worship is no different. Some styles of music are particularly suited to elevate our hearts and minds to God. Good worship music is focused entirely on this purpose. We should not attend Mass expecting a rock concert or a 1960s-style folk revival. Yet, unfortunately, that is what is often presented as valid liturgical music in many parishes today. Since the radical experimentation of “liturgists” post Vatican II, many Catholics have become accustomed to the guitar-strumming, tambourine-rattling, “performances” (and I use the term in a derogatory way – no liturgy is designed to be a “performance”) that seem more like a protest sit-in than real liturgical accompaniment. Many parishes have even given the “band” a space on the altar where they really do “sit in” on the Mass and turn up their amps to drown out any prayer that might be going on.

This style of music often carries with it a cultural baggage that clashes with the solemnity and seriousness of the Mass. Every genre of music has its own particular history and cultural tale which has shaped its current form. And so, for example, the story of rock-n-roll, its path to popularity and the cultural setting in which it took shape, gives to it a certain expressive weight, which colors our emotions and taps into our subconscious when we hear it. A certain chord or a specific drum beat may evoke images of Chubby Checker or Led Zeppelin; we might recall a particular song that has a similar sound or a situation or lyric with which we are familiar; we connect the dots within that musical genre and we react accordingly. Musical styles draw out a certain emotion or awaken certain passions. This is a natural response to music (or to any type of art) and it is precisely why the right music ought to be used at Mass. At worship our minds should be elevated God, not dragged down to earthly things.

The Catholic Church has long held the belief that certain styles of music are simply not suited for liturgical use. Music can become tainted by the profane, imbued with a worldliness that draws our attention away from the divine. The Church loves and honors music and the arts, but art must be put to its proper use:

“The Church has always recognized and honored progress in the arts, admitting to the service of religion everything good and beautiful discovered by genius in the course of ages — always, however, with due regard to the liturgical laws. Consequently, modern music is also admitted in the Church, since it, too, furnishes compositions of such excellence, sobriety, and gravity, that they are in no way unworthy of the liturgical functions. Still, since modern music has risen mainly to serve profane uses, care must be taken that musical compositions in this style admitted to the Church may contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of theatrical motives, and be not fashioned, even in their external forms, after the manner of profane pieces." (Motu proprio of Pius X)

Modern music can certainly be employed for liturgical purposes, but the cultural baggage that necessarily accompanies modern music, the profane roots of modern musical styles, and the impulse among musicians to be true to their art, makes its liturgical use more problematic. Sitting through a Rock-Mass demonstrates how easily the Church’s warnings can come true. When the congregation knows to kneel only after the guitarist has finished his solo…it has gone to far.

Unlike modern music, sacred music has grown up in a setting that naturally directs it toward the divine. By utilizing this genre of music, the risk of profaning the Mass is practically eliminated. The Church has deliberately nurtured the development of sacred music for the purpose of liturgical worship:

"…under the sponsorship of the Church, sacred music, through the course of centuries, has traversed a long road by which, though sometimes slowly and laboriously, it has finally reached the heights: from the simple and natural Gregorian modes, which are, moreover, quite perfect in their kind, to great and even magnificent works of art which not only human voices, but also the organ and other musical instruments embellish, adorn and amplify almost endlessly. Just as this progress in the art of music shows clearly how dear to the heart of the Church it was to make divine worship more resplendent and appealing to Christian peoples, so too it made clear why the Church also must, from time to time, impose a check lest its proper purposes be exceeded and lest, along with the true progress, an element profane and alien to divine worship creep into sacred music and corrupt it." (Pope Pius XII in his encyclical, Musicae sacrae disciplina)

The Church has been vigilant over the centuries as she has safeguarded the integrity of Christian worship and promoted the solemn, reverent dignity of liturgical music… and then came Vatican II. As with many aspects of Catholic faith, the “spirit of Vatican II” has done much to wreck the worship of otherwise faithful Catholics. The profane has entered the sanctuary. But there are new winds blowing. The experimentations after Vatican II are giving way to a new understanding of what the Council actually said. And this includes its statements about sacred music:


“The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy…
“The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral churches; but bishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure that, whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs…
“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action…”
“In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man's mind to God and to higher things...”(Sacrosanctum Concilium)

The Church’s sacred music is a “treasure of inestimable value.” Has it truly been “fostered with great care” over the past few decades? Can we honestly say that Gregorian chant has been given “pride of place” when it is never heard sung in our churches today? Can we say that the pipe organ is “held in high esteem” when in reality it has been replaced by guitars and tambourines? Does our liturgical music of today “lift up man’s mind to God and to higher things,” or have we been dragged down to the level of secular entertainment?

The new Mass translation will surely spur Catholics into rethinking liturgical worship in all of its aspects, including sacred music. Among other things, the English words for parts of the Mass that are traditionally sung (such as the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei) will be changed so that new compositions must be produced, fitting the new words to new music. After Vatican II some composers took liberties with the words to these and other parts of the Mass, shaping the language to fit their musical tastes rather than staying true to the prayer and making the music bend in service to our worship. Rather than a liturgy that dictated the style of music, we had instead music that dictated the style of liturgy. Thus our liturgy has suffered. The new translation can help by reasserting the importance of the words over and above the musical accompaniment.

Many people may be offended to learn that some music is simply not appropriate for Catholic worship. Musicians who pour their efforts into a particular style of “worship music” will not welcome a change of style that effectively shuts them out of the liturgical music scene. But we all must remember the following:

 “As the sacredness of the liturgy has caused the Church to dictate to the priest, to the smallest detail, what vestments, words, vessels, and actions he should employ in the fulfilment of his duties — which regulations he may not disregard without sinning — so also the regulations concerning church music are binding on the singers [and musicians], whether the reasons for these regulations be understood by the individuals or not.” (Catholic Encyclopedia at newadvent.org under the entry for “Ecclesiastical Music)

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