“This so-called ‘music,’ they would have to concede, is in some way efficacious to humans. Yet it has no concepts, and makes no propositions; it lacks images, symbols, the stuff of language. It has no power of representation. It has no relation to the world.” —Oliver Sacks, “The Power of Music”
“Sing unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm. With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the LORD, the King.” —Psalm 98:5,6 (KJV)
Several years ago my spiritual director told me to study “De Musica Sacra et Sacra Liturgia, Instruction on Sacred Music and Sacred Liturgy,” issued by the Sacred Congregation for Rites in 1958. Although I will comment on that document in this article, it won’t be my principal focus. Rather, the main story will be how music has shaped my devotion to the Church. I will also include links to my favorite sacred music: liturgical, hymns, and symphonic. Finally, I’ll relay some current criticisms of the state of liturgical music—criticisms given by one with better musical credentials than mine.
I won’t say much about the psychology of music or how music affects the brain. A lot of work has been done in functional imaging, but I’m not sure we know much more now than when Pythagoras noted the beautiful mathematical relations between harmonious intervals. However, for those interested in pursuing that subject, references are given below.
Now, to my own experience.
Liturgy made powerful by music
My first encounter with the power of music in liturgy came at a 40 Hours devotional service during my preparation for entry into the Church. Although on rational grounds I had come to believe in the Resurrection and its implications, there was an important dogma I found difficult to understand, transubstantiation, the change of the substance of the host into the body of Christ. As the monstrance was carried in during the procession of the 40 Hours service, "Tantum Ergo Sacramentum"was played, and I read in the missal:
“Præstet fides supplementum, sensuum defectui.”
Enough of my high school Latin came back:
“Faith will supplement the deficiency of the senses.”
I then realized in my heart that the wafer, the host, was the body of Christ—that it was mystery beyond science and philosophy. My eyes filled with tears. I must emphasize that it was the music and the situation that moved me.
Other liturgical music has struck my heart in ways homilies or theological texts seldom seem to do. During my first Easter Vigil Mass, the Litany of the Saints was played, and an overwhelming vision of the history of the Church and all its holy people came to me. During Vespers at St. Vincent Archabbey (attended during retreat as a Benedictine Oblate) or Evensong services at the St. Thomas More Anglican Usage Parish, a great peace and understanding comes over me as I listened to the strong voices chanting the psalms.
Hymn and non-liturgical music
Other music, not liturgical — Bach (the B minor Mass, Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring), Mozart’s Requiem, Brahms German Requiem (2nd movement), Ralph Vaughan William’s Dona Nobis Pacem — will bring me to thoughts of God. Hymns that I want to be played at my funeral have made their mark: Amazing Grace, Shall We Gather by the River, Jerusalem my Happy Home, The Lord of the Dance, Come ye Sinners, Poor and Needy (old and corny pieces from evangelical churches, for the most part).
And there are those I have played with the instrumental group at Church: It is Well with my Soul, Panis Angelicus, Mozart’s Ave Verum, The King of Love My Shepherd Is, Old 100th and so many others. (I played the alto clarinet, not well, but enough to provide harmony–a bass voice, since I can’t sing on key.)
Context is all
One thing should be clear: it isn’t the music by itself that is moving, but the total situation: liturgy, congregation, and the words. I could read,
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,That saved a wretch like me.I once was lost but now am found,Was blind, but now I see. T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear. And Grace, my fears relieved. How precious did that Grace appear The hour I first believed.” —John Newton
It would be moving, but it is the combination of the words that reflect my own experience and the music that brings me to tears of joy. I could read the verses of Tantum Ergo and Pange Lingua, but it would not be meaningful without the presence of Christ’s body, the procession, the Benediction, and the congregation sharing this experience.
Does music distract from true devotion?
Am I being overly sentimental and not truly devoted to the austere beauty of liturgy in my reaction to such music—too catholic (with a lower-case "c")? Some Church liturgists might think so.
“It is not surprising that Church leaders have doubted whether the feelings which music arouses are truly religious. Music’s power to fan the flames of piety may be more apparent than real…” —Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind
The Hebrews did not worry about music being a distraction from devotion to the Lord. David danced in the procession to the altar, and the Psalms say, “Sing to the Lord a new song, play the lute, the lyre and the harp, sound the trumpets.” St. Augustine, entranced by music, was concerned that this power might enable the senses to overcome the intellect in worship:
“So I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know, can accrue from singing….I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess it is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.” —St. Augustine, "Confessions" [emphasis added]
The last sentence in the quote is the foundation for the expulsion of music from the Church in Calvinist sects (read "The Warden" by Anthony Trollope). I cannot subscribe to that view. I am one of St. Augustine’s weaker spirits. I believe God gave many many gifts to man in giving him intelligence: language, mathematics, art, and, most valuable, music.
Music has the power to heal the soul (as Oliver Sacks shows in "Musicophilia") and to bring one closer to God. We give joy to God when we rejoice in music, not only to praise Him, but to rejoice in life (l’Chaim). But does Church music nowadays give joy and help us praise God? Let’s see what some critics say.
Music in the Church, then
To understand the contemporary criticisms of Church music one should see what standards the critics employ. These critics are mostly Traditionalists, who look back to a time before Vatican II and its reforms. So, let’s see what "De Musica Sacra and Sacra Liturgica," an instruction given in 1958 by the Sacred Congregation for Rites, has to say about liturgical and sacred music.
"De Musica Sacra" is a long and complicated document, which I won’t attempt to summarize. However, there are several points I would like to emphasize.
The preferred form of music is Gregorian Chant. Hymns are to be encouraged with the following provisions:
“[Texts] must conform to the doctrine of the Catholic Church, plainly stating, and explaining it. The vocabulary should be simple, and free of dramatic, and meaningless verbiage. Their tunes, however brief, and easy, should evince a religious dignity and propriety” —"De Sacra Musica et Sacra Liturgica," item 52
Restrictions are imposed on the use of musical instruments:
“It would be preferable to omit the use of instruments entirely (whether it be the organ only, or any other instrument), than to play them in a manner unbecoming their purpose. As a general rule it is better to do something well, however modest, than to attempt something more elaborate without the proper means... But there are some instruments which, by common estimation, are so associated with secular music that they are not at all adaptable for sacred use. Finally, only instruments which are personally played by a performer are to be used in the sacred liturgy, not those which are played mechanically or automatically.” —"De Sacra Musica et Sacra Liturgica," item 60
All these conditions have been violated by the music played during Mass in my Church: guitars, drums, inexpertly played instruments (me on the alto clarinet and teenage violinists, electronic organ played automatically)—not only in the Church I usually attend but in others. But more of that below.
Music in the Church, Now
In this section I’ll not give my own criticisms, since I’m very far from being a musical expert. (Although I know what I like!) I will refer the reader to two articles in which a critic takes contemporary Church music to task for not satisfying the requirements laid out in "De Musica Sacra."
In “Pop Goes the Mass” Anthony Esolen sets forth what good hymns should be musically and gives several examples: “Be Thou My Vision,” “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” “Now Thank We All Our God,” “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” “Pange Lingua.” A prime musical requirement is that hymns be singable by all, bass to soprano and expert to mildly tone deaf. But nowadays many are not. Moreover, unlike traditional hymns (many derived from Protestant sources) the newer ones are designed as vehicles for performance excellence. Their melodies are “trite and ugly” and, accordingly, don’t invite participation by the congregation.
In “Bad Poetry, Bad Theology: the Curse of Liturgical Music” Esolen gives examples of poorly written hymns taken from the hymnal “Glory and Praise.” These hymns, all written after 1960, suffer from the two defects named in the article’s title. The message conveyed in them is banal and narcissistic and fails to enhance the psalm or scripture upon which the hymn might be modeled.
Many others have criticised contemporary Church music. A web search will reveal other sources, but I find Esolen’s to be most trenchant and detailed.
Although these and other critics have found many faults in contemporary Church music, there is hope. The Anglican Usage rite provides a model for what liturgical music should be.
Music in the Church, as it should be
In “Anglicorum Coetibus,” Pope Benedict XVI provides a vehicle for Anglicans and Episcopalians to swim the Tiber, become Catholics, and still retain the elements of their beautiful liturgy. I’ve discussed elsewhere (see here and here) what the Anglican Usage liturgy entails and how the liturgy, while faithful to the Roman rite, retains the beauty of Elizabethan English in the Book of Common Prayer and the inspiring music in the hymnal assembled by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
The best demonstration is the Anglican Usage Mass itself, so I invite the reader to go to these YouTube videos celebrating the 10th Anniversary of Anglicorum Coetibus: St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica and The Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (Cathedral of Our Lady of Walsingham, Houston, Texas). If you, the reader, say, “But those are extraordinary celebrations, not ordinary Masses,” I invite you to visit the web page of St. Thomas More Parish. There you will find links to a copy for the order of worship for the Sunday Mass and to the audio recording of the Mass.
You’ll find all the qualities required in "De Rerum Sacra" are present, inspiring hymns, beautiful music, and musicians whose talents are fitting for this sacred music. This should be the model for music in the Church today.
I hope and pray that such reforms will be accomplished so that music in the Church will be a superhighway to devotion and faith.
- A portion of this article has appeared previously in the blog, Catholic Stand.
- The beginning Oliver Sacks quote—to show what a strange gift music is—comes from Arthur C. Clarke’s classic Childhood’s End, in which an alien species comes to guide mankind from childhood to maturity. The very intelligent aliens do not understand the power of music. They go to a concert, listen politely and come away wondering.
- References: Robert Jourdain, "Music, the Brain and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination"; Oliver Sacks, "Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain"; Anthony Storr, "Music and the Mind"
- Here’s the story behind my spiritual director’s request for me to read "De Sacra Musica." I had complained about hymns currently being used in our Church liturgy and also that the key for older hymns had been transcribed to a higher pitch, making them difficult for male voices. I had been looking for tenor and bass parts in hymns that I could use for the alto clarinet, which I was then playing in our Church instrumental group. I had found choral parts for the older hymns in an edition of “The People’s Mass” (published before Vatican II) and noticed that hymns written in the key of F in that hymnal had been transcribed to G in the currently used hymnal, “Breaking Bread,” Bflat to C, C to D, etc...
Robert J. Kurland, Ph.D. describes himself as a retired, cranky, old physicist. whole converted to Catholicism in 1995. He now writes and teaches to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith. He is a volunteer to a federal prison and hospital, lector, and sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery. Find his blogs at rationalcatholic.blogspot.com.