Wednesday, November 21, 2018

What Makes "Good" Liturgical Music? Part I

Saint Felix of Valois, whose feast day concluded yesterday evening, is the patron saint of this blog owing to the circumstances before his death. Before his passing the Saint awoke in the early morning, while the rest of his monastery stayed in their beds, and entered the Trinitarians' church to find the celestial host and the Virgin herself singing the nocturnal Office. Singing, mind you, not saying, the nocturnal Office, singing, which requires the orientation of every faculty—mind, will, intention, voice, eyes, ears, feel—to the purpose of music. The business of heaven and of music are one and the same, directed to God.

The wealth of Church liturgy inundates us with musical choices that vary based on place, time and taste: primitive monosyllabic singing, Old Roman chant, medieval plainsong, Greek and Arab chant, droning, Renaissance polyphony, Russian choral music, Baroque operatic Masses, symphonic arrangements, local usages of Europe, Native American adaptations, Praise 'n' Worship, the Gather Hymnal. A musical director's opportunities are endless, but, aside from the issue of preference, there is the more obvious question: what makes liturgical music "good"? It is this question we will pursue in the following short series.

In his The Soul of the World, a book reputedly considering the subject of religion, philosopher Roger Scruton devotes a considerable chapter to the subject of music. Social interactions, he purports, come about when encounters happen between two subjects, each actively engaging the other. This observation bears naught for music. Music has "an 'overarching intentionality' that we carry with us in our search for home, and which ensures, in Saint Augustine's famous words, that our hearts are restless, until they rest in Thee."

It comes out of no where and in a moment can be gone again without our having done anything to it. Unlike speech between persons, music does not require me to do anything to have felt it, and yet it does something while it was there. Music, then, exists for its own sake, argues the quasi-Burkian aesthete. It can be reduced to sounds, pitches, notes, and styles, means of explaining music without understanding it. The vicissitudes of rhythm, harmonies, melodic variations, and movements are goal directed, and without understanding the goal, one fails to understand the music.

This brings up another sore point in our subjectivistic society, which is that music has objective standards. Apophatically, it is not modern "art", creating a mood or opening itself to multifarious judgments of individual dispositions. Beethoven wrote his Fifth Symphony in anger over what the Romantic perceived as Napoleon's betrayal of the spreading egalitarianism of the day. The C-minor chords do not tell this, nor do the variations of the initial melody and the ways he resumes it in different interludes. However, one could listen to the first eight notes (are any notes more famous in musical history?) and deduce rage. One could listen to the interlude and be moved to gentility and optimism, and one could find that spirit crushed under the thunder of the returning main melody. If someone listened to the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth and left with feelings of triumph, glee, and satisfaction, then that person would completely and utterly missed Beethoven's goal.

In the coming weeks we will develop these ideas in greater substance and consider them in the context of Divine service.

Sancta Caecilia, ora pro nobis.

1 comment:

  1. Wasn't it Beethoven's third symphony that was written in protest at Napoleon's perceived betrayal of democratic ideals?