Monday, June 19, 2023

Taking Music Seriously — Inside and Outside of Church

Our Western art-music is the loftiest of God’s gifts to us in the natural order, the greatest artistic treasure the world has ever known, and, in its specifically liturgical manifestations, a vital, indispensable bearer of the theology, spirituality, meaning, and identity of the Catholic religion. We cannot live well without it; we will not pray well without it either.

Music is the language of the soul, its most intimate and exalted expression. Music goes deeply into the soul, into its passions and emotions; it affects us at the intersection of spirit and flesh, it gets “under the skin,” it goes into the very sense-appetites and shapes them by motion, by repetition. Just as habits of virtue or vice are formed in the sense-appetites by repeated action, so too are certain habits formed in the same appetites by repeated sensual stimulation. What we listen to does not remain “outside” of us but enters into us and changes our way of feeling, reacting, perceiving. We cannot help being affected morally by long-term exposure to any kind of music.

The sound that is language comes from our unique mode of being in this world—as being in the world, due to our physicality, but not of it, due to our being rational creatures made in the image of God. The sound that is music, for its part, is the finest flowering of language. No wonder it is the province of worship, loss and lamentation, exultation and joy! For it is a wonder past all other wonders that proceed from the heart of man. Christians, inasmuch as we are “priests, prophets, and kings” by our baptism into Christ the High Priest, Word of God, and King of Kings, deserve and require a diet of the most artistically beautiful, most emotionally satisfying, most intellectually stimulating, and most spiritually beneficial music. In short: we need, for our human and Christian perfection, music that is both good and great. Surrounding it, sustaining it, we need prayer-saturated silence.

Such is the fundamental thesis of my new book Good Music, Sacred Music, and Silence: Three Gifts of God for Liturgy and for Life, which has just been released by TAN Books of Gastonia, North Carolina. Born of decades of experience, study, and reflection as a singer, choir director, composer, and teacher, and seasoned by countless conversations with college students in particular, this work urges readers to take the art of music as seriously as it ought to be taken.
The first part, “Music Fit for Kings: The Role of Good Music in the Christian’s Life,” deals with the corrosive cultural and psychological effects of a lot of modern popular music, contrasted with the numerous benefits of a lifelong apprenticeship to the great music of the Western tradition (including the many excellent composers working today). Here, I draw upon thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Pieper, and Ratzinger, and offer concrete strategies for acquiring or deepening a love of beautiful music.

The second part, “Music Fit for the King of Kings: The Role of Sacred Music in the Church’s Life,” provides a thorough philosophical and theological account of what is right about Gregorian chant, polyphony, and pipe organ, and what is wrong with, say, folksy guitar-and-piano or peppy Praise & Worship genres at Mass. I do not hesitate to name names and to pursue my argument to the nitty-gritty level.

In the last and (appropriately) shortest part, I speak of the ways in which silence is both the origin and the fulfillment of music. The book ends with a thorough defense of the more-than-thousand-year-old custom of the silent Canon in the Mass, the fittingness of which Cardinal Ratzinger praised, more recently joined by Cardinal Sarah.

Here’s the Table of Contents:
Good Music, Sacred Music, and Silence was written for the benefit of pastors, seminarians, church musicians, homeschooling families, classical curriculum advocates, and everyone who is already in love with music or is seeking to develop a better knowledge of it. To musicians particularly, I would add: in my meandering journey from

  • a childhood liberal parish and contemporary youth group (all the while listening to prog rock, heavy rock, rap, and other, dare I call them, genres), to
  • a charismatic prayer group (when my listening incorporated some “Christian pop” artists), to
  • a Latin Novus Ordo with a chant schola (by which time I had switched over entirely to “classical” music), to
  • immersion in the Byzantine liturgy in Austria, to
  • a mixed old-and-new-Mass chaplaincy in Wyoming, to
  • life in parishes run by the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest and the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter,
it is highly likely that I have been, for some portion of my life, in a situation similar to that in which any Catholic musician, music director, or music lover may ever find himself; so I believe my book will carry the force of conviction born of experience, and will be able to say something relevant and beneficial to readers from a wide range of backgrounds.

Nowadays I am singing in a fine men’s schola every Sunday and most holy days, and look forward — if anything, ever more as time goes on — to the joy of singing these incomparably wonderful ancient plainchant melodies, so perfectly suited for the rites to which they give musical utterance and shape. Their beauty elevates my mind to God; their tranquility comforts my heart. This is a joy in the beautiful that we should eagerly share with everyone, until they too can know it and benefit from it.

Nothing could be better than the flourishing, everywhere, and to the fullest extent, of great secular music and of the finest sacred music in the liturgy. That is why I have written my latest book, and I hope you’ll check it out.

Good Music, Sacred Music, and Silence: Three Gifts of God for Liturgy and for Life (hardcover, 344 pp., $29.95, ISBN 978-1505122282) is available from the publisher, from Amazon, and from the author if you would like a signed copy.

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Mary Harrell of TAN Books conducted a 26-minute interview with me about the book, for those who might be interested:

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