Friday, January 11, 2019

What Makes "Good" Liturgical Music? Part III (Finale): Music's Place

The average man, woman, or child does not go to the opera. They do not go to the symphony either, save once in a lifetime and only then because a friend's wife lamentably suggested it. To speak of music in the context of "high" culture is just as unapplicable now as it was during Mozart's time, when the illiterate masses had to content themselves with drinking songs, hymns, local ditties, and poetry. Great music, the sort from which we are basing our observations, had no very little place in their lives save in one place: the Church.

"Here comes everybody," James Joyce once said of the Church. Education and secularism have diluted this comment in our time. Clergy are now comparatively less educated than their predecessors and laymen are often more educated than clergy. More to the point, at least in the developed world, the Church tends to retain people from more stable parts of society, like traditional families, whereas in the past the Church could be expected to play host to all rungs of people. Joyce's remark that anyone could be in the Church is not untrue in our day, just less forceful. It is, however, still true.

"Everyone" sets foot in a church, or the Church, at some point and is forced to hear what transpires at the altar. What happens at the altar is dissimilar to any other form of engagement save music. It is not a lecture, where one can fall asleep; it is not a movie, which can fail to gain our sympathies by mere boredom or cardboard characters. For good or ill, it is has "intentionality" which grabs a hold of us as if it were another subject, just as we are "subjects" to Scruton, and not as an "object", something that we can objectify or make our own. It has its own place and purpose, like music, and we cannot help but have a reaction to it.

Just as music has its own sincerity in provoking a mood or emotion by means of rhythm, tempo, themes, arcs, melodies, and farces, so the liturgy has its own way about it with protestations of unworthiness, prayers for the needs or people, readings of exhortation, the words of Christ, the bringing forth of gifts at the altar, a prayer of thanksgiving, the transubstantiation of the elements and appearance of God, the partaking of the Body of Christ, and the dismissal. The Mass is, in fact, the place where ordinary people have encountered music of "high" culture and the best music of high culture often came about for use in this very setting.

Ordinary men and women experience music through microphones or, if they are fortunate a few occasions of the year, in concert. They may enjoy what they hear in this sedated setting, but rarely encounter it fully. The one setting where most people will truly encounter music is in dancing, contorting the movements of the body to the power of the music and giving up control of one's own mind to the timing and rhythm of the sound emanating from either an orchestra, or a wedding band, or a chamber quarter. In more deliberate ways, the ballet dancer coordinates every gesture to the vicissitudes of music in a way which has very few parallels. Through dance, music joins to our wills and moves us where it will.

This paradigm inverts within the sacred confines of the Church, or at least it should. The priest, deacon, cardinal archbishop, and lector do not move because the timing of a Renaissance piece tells them to "step it up", but rather the music emanates from the sacred work being performs. The older the music, the more apparent and seamless the congruence of action and sound.

Take, for example, the most poignant part of Lent outside Holy Week: the incensation of the altar during the pre-Sanctified Divine Liturgy. The priest sings a verse of a psalm ("Put a guard, O Lord, before my mouth...." etc) while waving his thurible, a sign of his prayer and a real gesture of prayer. When he finishes he drops to the ground while the faithful rise and ask that his prayer be received in their own sining of psalm 140 ("Let my prayer rise like incense before and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice").

The Roman liturgy, always more sparse in its externals than its Byzantine brother, similarly views music in a sacred context. There is no more Roman week than the old Holy Week and during the old Holy Week the Church greets Christ and goes from the gates of Jerusalem up to Calvary with Him on Palm Sunday. During the distribution of branches on Palm Sunday the Church sings Pueri Hebræórum, portántes ramos olivárum, obviavérunt Dómino, clamántes et dicéntes: Hosánna in excélsis. The Church equates herself with Israel, the people of God bound by blood in covenant, because she is just that. Then follows a procession. In our modern, reduced Missal we might think that the door ceremony is the point of Palm Sunday, but it is in fact the procession and the music tells us so. In former times a station would be made outside the Church while children atop the church would sing:
Hic est, qui ventúrus est in salútem pópuli. Hic est salus nostra et redémptio Israël. Quantus est iste, cui Throni et Dominatiónes occúrrunt! Noli timére, fília Sion: ecce, Rex tuus venit tibi, sedens super pullum ásinæ, sicut scriptum est, Salve, Rex, fabricátor mundi, qui venísti redímere nos.
This is not drama or theater. It is not music for music's sake like it was with Mozart. Here the music follows our running from our true, fulfilled Jerusalem to meet Christ like willing children who first sang to Him twenty centuries ago. The more memorable Gloria, laus, et honor tibi sit at the door warily remembers the faithlessness of some of Jerusalem then; let us pray that Sion, the Church, remains faithful now.

In Sarum the procession would enter the church and celebrate a Mass of the Passion of Our Lord, but unlike in the Roman rite it would pause before doing so and reveal the Holy Rood before the choir and all would fall down in silent worship. As with the elevation at Mass the silence is pregnant, impossible to ignore, and its own music, demanding we say nothing before the crucified Christ. It is still music, it just has no sound.


We have considered the "intentionality" of music, that music is something un-predicated upon our own reception of it. Music comes upon us like another person, for it approaches us on its own terms, not ours, as another subject and not as an object of our own perceptions. Music can be true, sweet, false, saccharine, and any other number of things that tell people instinctively whether or not it is "good" music.

Music grasps the listener and the listener can even occasionally encounter music on its own terms by giving himself to it, by contorting himself to its whims. This is true, albeit opposite, in the music of the Church, where the action dictates the music and the music only has a place as far as it is concordant with what transpires in the sanctuary. Indeed, music must strive to be the same thing happens in the sanctuary. Otherwise, it is bad liturgical music.

It begs the question to readers: can hymns, outside of those prescribed in the Divine Office, ever be "good" liturgical music?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. "Music for music's sake". This can, unfortunately, be manifest in certain places today in which the TLM is offered. We must be careful not to offer a reaction against deplorable "music" in the Novus Ordo or to counter the Low Mass Four-Hymn Sandwich model with a return to 18th/19th. Century theatrics which also obscure the Liturgy and take on a life to themselves.

    I find it quite disturbing when music is made the object of consideration above the Liturgy itself. This comes in the form of displacing the Gregorian melodies of the Ordinary very often with complex polyphony and of operatic pieces which prolong and delay the rituals of the altar (we should not have to wait 5 or 10 minutes after the Minor Elevation to hear a soloist sing the "Benedictus" 20,000 times before we can continue with "Per omnia saecula saeculorum."

    1. It's true and there is a very fine line between what "works" as an expression of the words being said at the altar and the action Christ works, and just music for its own sake. There is quite a bit of good polyphony out there, but even more which is music self-ingratiation. Symphonic music and those Renaissance pieces with strings and lutes are even more difficult to admit to the liturgy.