Friday, August 05, 2005

The Current State of Liturgical Music in the Roman Rite

(Originally published as "Sacred Music: A Layman's Reflection on Church Music Past and Present" in Challenge Magazine, February 2005.)

By Shawn Tribe

"By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres." (Psalm 137)

Many Catholics (and even non-Catholics) earnestly feel the sentiments of the psalmist when contemplating what was the glory of Catholic liturgical music. It was, and indeed still is, a treasure of Christian culture. The Second Vatican Council affirmed this and Musicam Sacram directs how new works ought be characterized: "composers should have as their motive the continuation of the tradition..." (59) Watching many of our modern liturgists and composers avoid the perennial wisdom of the Church on this point is rather like watching a stubborn child who, refusing to listen to his parent, thinks he knows better. The child's self-centredness and lack of broader perspective results only in aggravation for everyone.

Too often, proponents of what passes for liturgical music today reduce this issue simply to a matter of taste and thereby trivialize the matter. This reflects a broader cultural blind-spot which fails to recognize in the arts the power to form an individual for good or for ill; to lift one by way of beauty to virtue, or to bring one down into the mire of vice. I am not suggesting that poor liturgical music places us in the realm of sin (like much popular music can indeed), but it won't necessarily inspire us to the heights of holiness either. The question then, whether this liturgical music is better than that, is not necessarily a simple question of likes. Rather it is a recognition of the formative power of painting, music and literature – which incidentally is why this question extends not only to Church music, but to all the liturgical arts. Tastes and preferences do exist of course, but these are not absolutes. Like moral conscience, our taste must be formed in accordance with the Good, the True and the Beautiful. It isn't a case of, "I like x, therefore x is good." In the domain of morality this results in relativism and it has disasterous consequences. Similarly, a piece of music is not made appropriate to the liturgy merely because one likes it, but rather one should like it (or at least accept it and be open to it) because it is appropriate to the liturgy. How is it appropriate to the liturgy? Insofar as it formed by the primary character, end and spirit of the liturgy: prayer, adoration and worship of God.

Beauty in this deformed, modern understanding becomes defined as something subjective (“in the eye of the beholder”) or relative to a time and place. Following the latest styles and trends, and not staying rooted to the tradition, becomes its principle. Hence, Gregorian Chant might be cast aside as no longer relevant to the modern person. But beauty, truly understood, is not as fragile as this, because it is something rooted in the eternal and transcendent: God. Beauty misunderstood as popular whim is of course fragile, which is why trends come and go – and also why they should not play a part in our liturgies and liturgical art. This shows the wisdom of the Church in its preference for tradition and organic development from it. Rootedness in tradition doesn't mean being slavishly restricted to it with no possibility for additional developments, but means that the new be conformed likewise to its spirit and character and grow from it. Given that the sacred liturgy is the central and supreme act of our Faith we can hardly show enough prudence in this regard. The benefit of the traditional character and spirit is that it has been tried and tested down the ages and found perennially fruitful and spiritually efficacious.

What much modern liturgical composition seems to lack is indeed the permanency and verticality of traditional liturgical music. The styles seems overly influenced by secular developments, be it through 1970's folksiness or through a character, though hard to put a finger on, disturbingly reminiscent of the staged, contrived dramatics of Broadway musicals. It doesn't take a trained music theorist to recognize that these are not building upon the tradition. Other Mass settings inappropriately modify the texts of the Mass, an abuse firmly corrected in Redemptionis Sacramentum. In terms of hymns, or sacred song, many have noted that the songs are overly sentimental and lacking in their theology. Certainly many of them lack the awe-inspiring prose and poetry that characterize traditional musical texts. This of course is reflective of an entire problem in our liturgy, where it's celebration has virtually lost its verticality, or God-centeredness, and become almost entirely self-referential – a celebration of the gathered community. It's no surprise that music would reflect this misplaced, emphasis. Rather than lifting us in our prayer and worship of God, it can actually become a stumbling block to this, pushing us back down to the earthly.

If modern liturgical composers are to regain the confidence of the Catholic faithful, then they must adopt the Church's principles and take to heart the patristic understanding of “cosmic liturgy.” Namely that in the liturgy, heaven and earth are united in prayerful worship of God. Composers must seek to reflect this spiritual reality and be formed by the tradition. Further, liturgists and parishes must make room for the tradition rather than shun it. In so doing the faithful can join in the sentiment of St. Augustine that “He who sings prays twice.” This conveys a deep truth about the place of music in Catholic liturgical worship: it is sung prayer. Until the current situation is corrected however, the faithful will not so easily share the sentiment that music is sung prayer, but they may very likely share the prayer that the Mass not be sung.

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