Tuesday, December 4, 2018

What Makes "Good" Liturgical Music? Part II: Sincerity

Music is bare. Unlike words, visual productions, and lectures, in which "tricks of the trade" can fill the void of poor or absent content, music is nothing more or less than what we hear says it is. A good performance will not make a poor piece excellent; in fact, a faithful rendition of mediocre music may be especially dull.

Atheism and scientism invaded the humanities long ago, and music, one of the last hold outs, is now giving way to these reductionistic views with little alacrity. Music becomes sound in much the way Impressionism becomes layers of oil on canvass. It produces sine waves in various frequencies and rhythms which, in the right combinations, please our minds and stimulate certain parts of the brain. Our more esteemed composers unwittingly knew this and it was their "secret" to success. James May, an ex-BBC presenter most famous for Top Gear, once presented a computer's algorithm for a supposed pattern in Beethoven's music. The result sounded unlike anything the man from Bonn ever wrote, just quick trills up and down a few chords in more particular direction. May called the result "electronic drivel".

Music's main quality is its own "intentionality", that it exists for its own sake out a void where it once did not exist and where, after it stops, it will not exist any further. It possesses its own full range of purpose, emotions, arcs, stories, and impulses which the listener must hear and given himself to in order to encounter. No one listens to "background music" because no one cares about it; background music has no intentionality other than to create noise.

Romantics assigned a fluid quality to the creative process of music, as if works flow from the composer's consciousnesses like the Requiem did for Mozart in 1984's Amadeus, a fine movie removed from the historical reality. The same film, in an earlier scene, offers a moving and more accurate depiction of creativity. Salieri traces the deliberate steps and stages of unfolding music and its message. In this particular piece of chamber music, the "rusty squeezebox" sound establishes a calm rhythm and timing before the melody comes in through the treble, passed from one instrument to another to create a whimsical effect. It is deliberate and stylized because music is deliberate and stylized in what it tries to do. Spontaneous music, the doggerel teenagers write in their garage bands, rarely transforms into tangible music-writing talent, whereas those who do at least try to understand how to write a song may one day be capable of sincere music.

Music, which speaks unabated to the listener, can and should be understood objectively for its qualities and what it tries to do, as well as the more common subjective judgments that modern commentators brand "interpretation" (is not the music itself the interpretation of the theme?). A listener can judge music's harmony, its balance, its theme, and, above all, its sincere intentionality.

A piece of music has some intentionality, some purpose that is apparent to the listener, but only the listener, who is the object in this relationship just as mankind is in the Liturgy's outpouring of grace, can deduce how true it is. Some music is divinely uplifting and sends one's thoughts heavenward without much consideration of the arrangements and details of musical arrangement. Other pieces only simulate this effect by using stock methods and familiar themes from like works, but without any soul. Some pieces can brings about feelings of joy, youth, anger, rage, nerve, and distress. Others do not so much develop these emotions as much as they sentimentalize them, bring them to our minds for a passing moment without challenging us to confront them. This is insincere music.

Sincere musical intentionality can vary greatly not only within genres or composers, but within the works of the masters themselves. This writer, for one, has never cared much for Mozart's Coronation Mass, a bit of late Baroque chirping, a piece of music that very much wants to be listened to. The Gloria, several times, has the potential to continue with its current melody only to shudder with horns in dramatic pauses (et in terra pax! pax! pax HOMINIBUS!). His Requiem is much discussed, but here deservedly so. It is a rare orchestral Mass that actually works in a liturgical context, with balanced parts that successfully bring out the soul of their texts without overstepping them. The 20 minute long sequence does change frequently (Dies irae... confutatis maledictis.... Lacrimosa...) without throwing the whole thing off kilter; it is balanced and never oversteps its place in the Mass.

Talk of Mozart, Beethoven, the Mass, and a philsopher's idea of "intentionality" belong to high culture of another era and high culture now. These comments are just as unapplicable to Mick Jagger as they are to Irish drinking songs from two centuries ago or the mystery play songs that became our Christmas carols centuries before that. Yet, there is one place where "high culture" and regular people regularly cross: the Church's liturgy, where we will resume this series.


  1. We sang a Mozart Mass (Missa Brevis in B-flat Major K275) for the patronal feast of our local ICKSP oratory in Wisconsin. It is a powerful piece of music, and surprisingly attentive to the theological nuances in the words. Although I can't really recognize the music as sacred -- it is far too showy and melodramatic to be sacred -- I am nevertheless impressed with what Mozart could do within the aesthetic confines of the classical period. He was living, after all, at the very peak of Enlightenment rationalism, when one would think religion would be dead.

  2. I think Plato had the right idea that the quality of music is best judged on the effect that it has on the human soul. Based on the tripartite division: body, soul, spirit, which both Plato and St. Paul use, there are broadly speaking three kinds of music – somatic or bodily, which is driven by rhythm (e.g. military marches, and most forms of dance and rock music); psychic or emotional, which is driven by harmony (e.g. most symphonic music, and most pop music which is used to excite an emotional response); pneumatic or spiritual, which is driven by melody (e.g. Gregorian chant). The "soul" in this tripartite division is where the spirit and the body enter into composition, in acts which are neither fully spiritual nor fully carnal (the imagination and the emotions). This psychic or emotional music which is harmony-driven is the most complex form of music due to the complexity of human emotion; this is why most "classical music" (of whatever era) belongs to this category. Spiritual music driven by melody is relatively simple due to the simplicity of the spirit itself. Sacred music should always be pneumatic and spiritual, and should induce in the soul a sense of calm and rest conducive to prayer. You're right that Mozart is too giddy, and saying "music that very much wants to be listened to" is a very nice way of putting it – truly sacred music does not, as it were, draw any attention to itself, because it is transcendental pointing to something beyond human emotion and experience. Those Mozart-era Mass settings can be very obnoxious because they distract from the spirit and motion of the Mass and become a separate performance in their own right, which at worst can be quasi-sacrilegious. The thing they say about altar servers – that if they're doing their job right nobody notices them – also applies to the choir. It should sound natural as if it were the church walls themselves that were singing. Rest and tranquility is what sacred music ought to aim for. P.S. I'm convinced Bach never wrote any sacred music according to this definition.

  3. A lot of music I've been listening to recently is music for the ancient Chinese instrument called the qin or guqin. Almost all music written for this instrument belongs to what I would call the pneumatic or spiritual category. It was difficult listening at first because it is very Eastern and I find requires a different sort of "listening" to most Western music, but I really like it.