Monday, July 14, 2014

Church Music versus Utility Music

Joseph Ratzinger has often spoken about the sharp contrast between authentic sacred music and “utility music” (Gebrauchsmusik). By their own admission, the architects of the liturgical reform tended to favor the latter over the former, because their sole criterion was creating a new body of vernacular music that was catchy and easy to sing. Here is how he describes it in The Ratzinger Report:
Many liturgists have thrust this treasure [of the traditional music of the Catholic West] aside, calling it “esoteric” and treating it slightingly in the name of “an intelligibility for all and at every moment, which ought to characterize the post-conciliar liturgy.” Thus instead of “church music”—which is banished to cathedrals for special occasions—we only have “utility music,” songs, easy melodies, catchy tunes. (127-28)
But there are at least two major problems with this shift from the lofty ideals of traditional sacred music to the simplistic repertoire of the postconciliar era, whose populist agenda has, of course, triumphed everywhere in the church, except for small fortunate pockets of survival or restoration. The first problem is what Jeffrey Tucker aptly calls “a truncated range of emotional experience”:
One of the failings of mainstream parish music today (and I mean the style more than the text) is that it appeals to and expresses a truncated range of emotional experience. Mostly it suggests a sense of contentment and satisfaction, often to the point of superficiality. There seems to be little about struggle, disappointment, pain, suffering, and finding peace even within great difficulty. If “happy” is all that our parishes offer, what happens when tragedy strikes? Sometimes it seems that our missalettes are training us to live in denial, so that when we have to deal with terrible illness, war, depression, we are asked to buck up and get with the happy program or go somewhere else.
Again, Ratzinger pointedly agrees with this diagnosis: “Every phase of life has to discover its own specific maturity, for otherwise we fall back into the corresponding immaturity” (Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures, 111). Superficial, frivolous elation is far removed from the solemn joy or “sober drunkenness,” sobria ebrietas, of the mystics. As Arvo Pärt once remarked: “Music, like other arts, is a result of a certain way of thinking. What do you think about life?”

Ratzinger is famous for his exposure of the Dionysian, diabolic spirit behind rock music. Apart from some aberrations that occurred more in the seventies than today, the devil knew he could not get straight-up rock music into the churches. So he got his cloven hoof into the Mass by a softer, subtler device: insipid, uninspiring, artistically banal, relentlessly horizontal music that derives from rock and pseudo-folk music, but has something of an appearance of reverence without the substance. In this way it was possible to retard an entire generation’s transformation in Christ by institutionalizing the sensual shallowness of profane existence.

The second problem is the very loss of artistic greatness itself, manifested in a truncated range of aesthetic response to the majesty and holiness of God. The utility music in contemporary liturgy suffers not only from emotional impoverishment but also from intellectual vacuity. It does not challenge, elevate, expand, and refine the senses of man so that he may become a more fit vessel for divine action and for the suffering of divine mysteries.

In an interview in Dominicana, the philosopher Roger Scruton speaks of the critical role played by fine art and the treasury of artistic works:
I agree with you that the high [European] culture in which I have always put my trust has been effectively destroyed by its own appointed guardians, and that without the religious core it persists only as a fragile shell. . . .  But this [renewal] means, as you say, rejecting the premise of modern life, that God is dead, and starting all over again, seeking for the living God, and hoping to be visited by his grace.  If people are prepared to live the religious life, then their example will once again make this course available to the mass of mankind, and there will be hope.  At the same time, we must constantly fight those who are trying to destroy the memory of the spiritual way of life, and assailing all those things in which that memory is contained.  In particular we should exercise our aesthetic choices in art devoted to the ideals of beauty and order, and refrain from the kind of desecration that has become the norm in modern art schools.  (Dominicana 55.2 [Winter 2012], 65)
For Scruton, art represents or contains the memory of a spiritual way of life: it is the embodiment or echo of some experience, some way of seeing or hearing, that has happened deep within the artist’s mind and heart, and, as a result, it can become the activating occasion for such an experience in the mind and heart of another. The great work of art gives the viewer new eyes, the listener new ears. It is as if every work of art is a mnemonic device that demands of us the recollection of some truth or mystery we have transiently encountered in life—and art will evoke or assist this recollection more or less depending on its inherent “goodness of form” (to use a phrase from St. Pius X’s motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini).

Scruton’s insight finds support in an observation made by St. Thomas Aquinas:
In the emergence of artworks from art, a twofold coming forth may be considered: first, that of the very art from the artist, which he discovers in his own heart; and secondly, the emergence of the works of art from the art thus discovered.  (In egressu artificiatorum ab arte est considerare duplicem processum; scilicet ipsius artis ab artifice, quam de corde suo adinvenit; et secundo processum artificiatorum ab ipsa arte inventa.)  In I Sent., d. 32, a. 3, ad 2
So, art has a twofold birth: the first is an interior origination of the work, which, being from the artist’s heart, is akin to his nature, his character, his soul; the second is the outward emergence of that work into the world where it can be seen or touched or heard by others, and can gently but powerfully mold them. The work of art is born in the heart, and is shaped according to the heart’s total formation—psychological, cultural, spiritual.

Without denying the crucial role of trained skill and an unpredictable factor of genius, Scruton and Aquinas alike suggest that art is an unfailing barometer of a person’s worldview and of an age’s aspirations and ideals. This is no less true of music than of any other art; indeed, it may be most of all true of music, which has a more intimate connection with the human heart, and more immediately moves and moulds its listeners and singers. Hence, what we need most of all today is a renaissance of music that will challenge, elevate, expand, and refine our powers of spiritual perception and bolster our ability to live a godly life in the midst of the world’s corruption—the most subtle form of which is a self-satisfied mediocrity that aspires to nothing great or difficult, an utter lack of magnanimity.

Pope Benedict XVI brought to the Church a vivid faith in, and wonderment at, the awesomeness of Christ Jesus—and so, the awesomeness of the Holy Eucharist that deserves our adoration, our total dedication of all powers of body and soul, and the very best that we can give. Like John the Baptist, he was a voice crying out in the wilderness of the contemporary Church, preparing the way of the Lord. It is time for us to heed the call to repentance and artistic conversion as we prepare to receive Christ anew in our hearts, in our churches, in our liturgies. Only in this way will Christians be able to transform the world; otherwise, we ourselves will keep on being changed more and more into its image.

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