Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Bridge Building and Sacred Music

It's a common error made in contemporary literature on sacred music to suggest that style doesn't matter, even though the Second Vatican Council clearly speaks of the "qualities proper to genuine sacred music." In fact, at least one defunct document issued in 1982 ("Music in Catholic Worship") explicitly claimed that we cannot judge the style of music as such. The replacement document, "Sing to the Lord," does not repeat the false claim, which was a great relief to the competent musicians involved.

However, at some stage of the drafting of "Sing," someone snuck in a phrase that admits the sentiment that style doesn’t matter. Such is the nature of committee work in which everyone gets a piece of the action. The phrase in paragraph 71 reads: "…the Church seeks to employ only that which, in a given style, meets the ritual-spiritual demands of the Liturgy." That seems like a pretty small nail on which to hang the hat of rock music, overt in its secular beats and emotionalism, but, sure enough, that is what we are seeing.

In any article in the June 2009 issue of Pastoral Music, a piece called "Praise and Worship Music: Can We Use it at Mass," by Ed Bolduc who is associated with a Christian publishing business, this statement is quoted to justify a rousing defense of P&M music. He admits that the music is "simple," but says that is fine since it is focused on the "individuals' personal, intimate relationship with God" and can be played by musicians "with even a minimal knowledge of their instrument." It is suitable because it address "specific needs" and "speaks to the heart." Further, it is suitable liturgical music because it encourages "vibrant, participatory, singing and worship."

Striking, isn't it? A magazine entirely devoted to the issue of Catholic music, in the same issue that discusses chant with a high degree of competence, would hand all musicians of the world a blank check to sing and play whatever they want provided it speaks to people in some way and gets people to sing. By that standard, no music, no style, no text, can be excluded from Mass, so of course Praise and Worship music is suitable too.

One would have no idea that there is any legislation governing the choice of music at Mass, though Popes have been written on this material for nearly 2000 years. The writer of this article feels free to completely ignore the whole of this writing and the whole of tradition, which is free to do, but it strikes me as the height of irresponsibility for this article to be published by a reputable Catholic publication.

Nonetheless, let's take on the notion that anything and everything can be played and sung at Mass. St. Pius the X summarized all the teachings of the Church by delineating three marks of sacred music: it is holy, beautiful, and universal. Gregorian chant is therefore the model and ideal.

Rather than explain each directly, it might be more fruitful to explain this by reference to building a bridge, the very physical structure that stretches over a body of water to road to allow transport above ground.

Let us say that we decide that a bridge has three marks: it design must obey geometric laws governing structure so that it will do its job, it must be made of solid material so that it can withstand wear, and it must be aesthetically pleasing.

The point about geometry is roughly analogous with the principle of universality: the laws of geometry are universal principles that no bridge can do without. In the same sense, sacred music should obey the dictate of universality, possessing quality that elicits a sense of the sacred worldwide.

The point about material integrity—the bridge can't be made of Styrofoam or paper but must have steel or thick wood enforcement—is roughly analogous to the principle of holiness in music. Without it, the music serves some other purpose but not a liturgical one. Holiness means to be set apart from things of the world to serve a particular godly purpose. If the music is not "made" with that quality, it cannot serve that purpose.

The final principle of bridge building concerns aesthetics. It is large and imposing and a permanent feature of the landscape. Without beauty, it can still do its practical functional work but it will be an eyesore. So it makes sense to insist on that quality since the bridge is not just providing transportation. It is also something we experience with this senses in the same way that we experience music with the senses.

So there is the analogy: music must be holy (be made of sound material), beautiful (aesthetically pleasing with an order that elevates our senses), and universal in its appeal to the best in everyone (obey universal norms that transcend time and place).

Now, just imagine if someone came along and said, you know, all these old strictures are just the work of fuddy-duddies, rules imposed by people who don't understand the contemporary bridge-building impulse. Bridges don't have to obey the laws of geometry. They don't have to be made of anything in particular. And the standards of what is aesthetically pleasing are so various as to resist any attempts at objectification.

What would happen to a bridge that in the building of which ignored all these principles? I think we know. Cars would drive on the bridge without any real assurance of safety in getting from here to there. Depending on the degree to which the rules were ignored, they might no make it at all. Meanwhile, the bridge would in fact be an eyesore.

The person behind the project would not end as a community hero. He would probably develop the reputation as a fool and rightly so: anyone who attempts to serve a community of traveler while willy-nilly ignoring established rules has little to offer anyone.

So it is with music at Mass. There are principles. There are rules. These are essential in accomplishing the task at hand. It is not enough that people's hearts are in the right place and that the music moves them in some emotional sense. It must conform to the principles governing the task at hand.

Now, I admit here that there is plenty of room for creativity in the application of these principles. No question about it. That is a good thing. If every bridge looked the same or operated the same way, the world would become rather boring. But that creativity must occur within an established framework else the job would not and could not be said to be well done.

A song singled out by Mr. Bolduc as particularly appropriate for Mass is "Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord" by Paul Baloche. I've not heard this song before. But listening to it now for the first time, I hear bongos, a trap set, electric guitars, a simplistic musical and textual structure, a rock-beat meter, and familiar rock riffs throughout, along with an ego completely unleashed from all decorum and discipline. It might be a good thing that it has a vaguely religious message (a guy wants to see God) but that alone is not enough. It does not serve the purposes of liturgical music. And for anyone with a well-formed liturgical conscience, this music will introduce scandal to many at Mass.

So, no, it does not qualify. Based on this sample, I would say that Ed Bolduc is wrong. Praise and Worship music should not be used at Mass, even if his firm of World Library Publications sells the sheet music.

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