Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Word in Sacred Music

The following is an essay which I developed from the opening lecture to a six week course I gave on the history of sacred music for one of the parishes in which I've worked. This was given in October 2004. I suppose I was a bit roundabout in making the point (my intuitive thought processes sometimes get in my own way), but the general thesis is that, while the text is important, in addition to the text, the music itself can express important ideas and is very important in the worship of God.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made....and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."[1]

Here in these passages from the Gospel of St. John, we find a scriptural starting point for an understanding of sacred art, and, more specifically for our purposes, sacred music. The universe, or cosmos, in all its splendor was created by God through Christ, Who is the Word.

"Cosmos" means order--mathematical order, to be exact, and beauty comes from inner order, an internal, organizational logic.[2] This order of the cosmos has its basis in the mind of the Creator, the Word.[3] Creation, therefore, by virtue of its order, declares the truth of its Creator. Its beauty, which comes from this order, declares the glory of God.[4] How many times has the beauty of nature been used to refute some doubt in the existence of God?

God continues His creation in this world through artists, who bring new form out of already existing material. A sculptor uses stone, a craftsman uses wood, and a musician uses the physical laws of sound. All of these materials and tools were first created by the Word, Who fashioned everything out of nothing. Therefore, the artist creates solely through participation in God's creative power. In this context, we can easily understand why Dante called art "God's grandchild."[5] Shouldn't it follow, then, that we ought to strive to make our artistic creations accord entirely with the order of the cosmos? If, after all, a work of art reflects the order of creation, it declares the truth. Perhaps this is why so much of sacred art strengthens our faith; it speaks directly to our intuition because it is in perfect harmony with creation. It resonates with us.

I would dare to say that a work of art is good and true and beautiful insofar as it relates to the order of creation. This measuring stick would require that art be judged outside the realm of personal taste and that it be more than mere entertainment. A true work of art must be well-conceived and well-fashioned. It must have its own logical construction, just like creation. This is the only approach that can be used if artists are to fulfill their highest obligation, which is the revelation of the infinite in definite form.[6]

This is not how most artists today view their vocation. As a consequence of the so-called Age of Reason, artists now more often than not consider their work to be some mode of self-expression, and nothing more. The fact of the matter, however, is that art and religion have been married for thousands of years, even since pre-historic times.[7] Only after art was divided into sacred and secular realms did this marriage suffer, and the chasm between art and religion widened[8], and we began to create art for art's sake.

In this circumstance, much art has become God-less, and it is then that art becomes potentially dangerous. This may be what fuels suspicion on the part of many in the Church toward art and artists of all stripes. Perhaps this is also why many have said that the arts in the Church are not needed, even undesirable. Little wonder that Pope Paul VI said in 1964 that the Church has abandoned the artists, and the artists have abandoned the Church.[9] We are, then, urgently required to remind the whole Church that art comes from faith and is meant to lead us back to it, so we must continue to create, and create accordingly.

The idea of bringing the infinite into definite form is one that is unique to Christianity. Other monotheistic religions take very literally the commandment that thou shalt not make a graven image. Many other religions, particularly from the East, ultimately reject tangible material as an illusion at best, and some consider earthly matter to be evil. Christians, however, know that the Word who created the cosmos became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus took on human form. He was both God and man, and it is through the mystery of His Incarnation that the Father is revealed to us.[10]

Sacred art is analogous to this mystery. In sacred art, we take earthly materials and raise them to a higher purpose. In this way, it can be said that we spiritualize the material.[11] As a work of art takes shape, it brings some element of the faith into the grasp of our senses, albeit in a less than perfect way. In this respect, an artist executes a "materialization of the spirit."[12] Therefore, sacred art, as a spiritualization of matter and a materialization of the spirit, acts as a conduit for us between heaven and earth. This is a most important relationship in the Mass, at which we participate in the Heavenly Liturgy, which makes present the saving acts of God--past, present, and future.

That sacred music plays an important part in worship is less of a contentious issue than the question of how it ought to function in this role. What approach should today's church musicians adopt in order to see to it that our sacred music corresponds to the Word of all creation? After all, it is He who is the Supreme Artist. If modern liturgical praxis is any indication, it seems that most today would say that the music should provide for an understandable text. This is a worthy goal, and the Church has, in the past, addressed this concern with beautiful consequences, specifically in the dictates of the Council of Trent.[13] However, of late, it seems that we have gone too far with this, and the music which serves as a mere utility for communicating a text falls well short of inspiring contemplation on the mysteries of the faith.

One can anticipate arguments to the contrary: "How can the Word be served if there is no understandable text? What use is all of this beauty if there is no intelligible message?" Indeed, there must be a certain cooperation between musical ornateness and clarity of text, as can be found in the Gregorian chant repertoire. Isn't it true, however, that, given what we've already discussed, a musical composition that participates in the order of creation, regardless of the intelligibility of the text, serves the Word, through Whom all things were made? How else could instrumental music be allowed in the Church? In thinking on this, it is important to remember that sacred music is an integral part of the liturgy, which, as a work of art ordered in the cosmos, worships God, who understands all the modes of human expression just as easily as he understands the language of the tongue.

Few in the modern Church require a discourse on the virtues of music that dutifully spits out the text. Because it is most uncommon and tremendously underappreciated, I would like to focus on music which takes the opposite approach, for oftentimes words simply cannot do the message justice. Let us take, for example, this Alleluia for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday of the Year.

"Sing well unto Him in jubilation."[14] This is what you have just heard, a jubilation, or jubilus. St. Augustine asks, "What does a 'jubilation' mean? It is the realization that words cannot express the inner music of the heart."[15]

In this Alleluia, the long melisma, the jubilus, is set only to one syllable, so that this incantation very nearly becomes text-less. In fact, the jubilus, which had its roots in folk music outside the ecclesiastical environment[16], may indeed have originally been text-less.[17] Augustine follows this up: "If folksingers jubilate from earthly exhilarations, ought not we to sing the jubilation through heavenly joy, what words cannot articulate?"[18]

"Alleluia!" This word comes from the Hebrew language, and it means, "Praise the Lord." But in our usage, "Alleluia" has seemingly come to have a special connotation that transcends this definition and summons not just an attitude of praise, but one of joyous praise, of exultation. In the season of Lent, we do not sing "Alleluia," but we still sing various versions of its definition before the Gospel, e.g. "Praise to you, Word of God, Lord Jesus Christ."[19] Having buried the Alleluia before Ash Wednesday, we chant it again at the Easter Vigil, where it sounds forth in celebration of the Resurrection. How appropriate it is, then, that we should jubilate to this text, "not with the din of the lips, but with the affection of the heart,"[20] in this "form of expression which is not that of daily life!"[21]

Augustine's love of the jubilus would surely be viewed as strange in the minds of most of our contemporaries. In this age, we pride ourselves on reason, science, and technology. We tend not to believe anything that cannot be demonstrated in scientifically acceptable terms, which usually require wordy explanations. Science has attempted through the years to explain the order of creation, but what is one to say when he comes into contact with this glorious work of the Lord? Who among us can do justice with our words to the majesty and glory of this universe which God created? Even scientists who claim to know the "how" of nature most certainly cannot explain the "why."[22]

How do we sing of the mysterious glory of God and of His creation that can be loved even if it cannot be fully understood? Sing the jubilus. [23]

It was stated earlier that the beauty of creation is derived from its form, from its internal order and logic. It was said, too, that works of art ought to relate to this order if artists are to serve their true purpose, which is the revelation of the infinite in definite form.

As it turns out, even this Alleluia, with all of its seeming capriciousness, has form, which illustrates the way in which this piece relates to the order of creation.

In the first place, by virtue of singing the Alleluia, the verse, and repeating the Alleluia, an overall A-B-A structure is achieved. This is shown in the link above. The fact that the jubilus is stated in full not only at the end of the Alleluia but at the end of the verse as well also seems to contribute to this three part form. Moreover, smaller motifs lend quite a bit of organization to this chant. The beginning of the verse makes use of the same musical material as the Alleluia. Several sections in the verse make use of small parts of the jubilus. All of these motifs hold the chant together. They are evidence of a logical writing process.

St. Paul tells us that we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that "the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words."[24] The jubilus indeed functions as these sighs, these inexpressible groanings, as we sing of the salvation that was won for us by the Word, through Whom all things were made. May we always recognize him as the Supreme Artist, the source and the object of all our musical endeavors.


1. John 1:1-3, 14
2. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, _The Spirit of the Liturgy_ (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000) 152.
3. Ratzinger 153.
4. Ps. 19:1
5. Rudolph Graber, "Religion and Art." _Sacred Music and Liturgy Reform after Vatican II_, Ed. Johannes Overath. (St. Paul, MN: North Central, 1969) 44.
6. Graber 41.
7. Ibid. 36.
8. Ibid. 37.
9. Ibid.
10. John 14:9 "He who has seen me has seen the Father."
11. Graber 40.
12. Ibid.
13. Karl Gustav Fellerer, "Liturgy and Music." _Sacred Music and Liturgy Reform after Vatican II_, Ed. Johannes Overath. (St. Paul, MN: North Central, 1969) 75.
14. Robert A. Skeris, _Divini Cultus Studium: Studies in the Theology of Worship and of its Music_ (Altoetting: Gebr. Geiselberger, 1990) 81.
15. Skeris 81.
16. Ibid. 73.
17. Ibid. 72.
18. Ibid. 73.
19. _Psalms and Ritual Music: Music for the Liturgy of the Word, Year A_ (Schiller Park, IL: World Library, 2001) A176.
20. Skeris 67.
21. Fellerer 72.
22. Skeris 75. St. Augustine asks, "But who can fathom the whole creation?"
23. Ibid.
24. Rom. 8:26

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: