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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Finding Beauty and Truth in Sacred Music

I enjoy reading a lot of Jeffrey Tucker's writings.  He really has a genuine Sensus Fidei when it comes to what constitutes authentic Sacred Music.  Fr. Z reports that the National Catholic Register posted an interview with Jeffrey on that publication's blog.  While Jeffrey had so much to offer, there are, perhaps, two items really leaped out his comments.  Here is the first:

What do you say to parish music directors who think that prescribed music for the Mass takes away from their artistic freedom?

In some ways, Catholicism in general takes away from our freedom to believe and do whatever we want, but there is another sense in which the framework itself frees us to do what is right, true, and beautiful. Many art historians have looked back to see that it is not untethered freedom that has given rise to great art but rather creativity within constraints. Think of the Mass settings of the Renaissance and Classical periods. Many of the great secular composers are best known for their settings of Requiem Masses or operas with a pre-set story. Artists craved a framework to work within; it is this framework that causes an exit from the ego, which is probably the beginning of truly lasting contributions to art.

There is also the need for music at Mass to unify the purposes of the gathered community. That cannot happen if the music is all about individual preferences. Notice how even four people in a moving car cannot agree on which radio station should be played. If we leave the choice solely to individual preferences, the result will be chaos. We need to use music that draws us out of ourselves and into a higher realm that unifies us. The chant tradition provides this. It is a third way, beyond liberal and conservative hymn choices.

Jeffrey makes some really spot-on observations here in his response.  The Holy Sacrifice is not some anything goes from of worship where we can do as we please.   Things need to fit.  Things need to be compatible with the Sacred mysteries that are about to unfold before us.  They need to be congruent.

A long time ago, I was in a debate regarding musical selections for a diocesan Mass.   The local hospital director of pastoral care services, a lay person, like myself,  insisted that Mariachis should be used because he said that they reflected our culture.  I told him that our culture was first and foremost Catholic.  Furthermore, I also told him that a lot of that genre is incompatible with the sacred nature of the Mass.  It was almost like that South Park episode where Cartman and the kids took a pop song and subsitituted the lyrics for something religious, turning the piece into some sort of Praise and Worship anthem.  We were told to compromise.   The end result was a battle of the bands, so to speak, with the organ and cantor doing much of the music, while the Mariachis played a couple of songs.  It was, as the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus would have said, a "cultural mishmash."

The Church, indeed, gives us the freedom to do what is right and what is beautiful.   That is why we have such beautiful music as Gregorian Chant and Palestrina and simple chants for the propers.   Sadly, though, many parishes are lured into the trap of the proverbial four-hymn sandwich.  The Big Three publishing houses do not bother to set the antiphons to music and so we are stuck with bad hymns from the Age of Aquarius.

The next subject that Jeffrey accurately diagnoses concerns youth and Music:

What do you say to people who think that ”contemporary” or rock music is necessary to attract young people to Mass?
So far as I can tell, the only people who really argue this way are old people. It’s true that plenty of young people are not interested in true liturgical music, but those same people are not interested in Catholicism either. How do we draw people to the faith? By lying about it and substituting false teaching? I don’t think so. The faith draws people when it is not ashamed of itself and when it has the ring of truth.
It is the same with liturgical music. Church music uses free rhythm that always points upwards in the same way that incense is always rising. This assists our prayer. Secular styles of music, in contrast, use rhythms that elicit temporal thoughts and emotions. Rock music points to nothing outside of itself, so it does not belong anywhere near the liturgy.  
We are living in times of transition, and young people seem to know this even more than older people. I don’t think there is any doubt where that transition is headed: People are discovering the sacred music tradition. If you look around at the Catholic music world, you quickly find that this is where the interest and energy is. This is the future.
Here, Jeffrey echoes, in some way, what Pope Benedict XVI wrote as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy.  Note what the Holy Father said about music:

Then there are two developments in music itself that have their origins primarily in the West but that for a long time have affected the whole of mankind in the world culture that is being formed. Modern so-called "classical" music has maneuvered itself, with some exceptions, into an elitist ghetto, which only specialists may enter -- and even they do so with what may sometimes be mixed feelings. The music of the masses has broken loose from this and treads a very different path.

On the one hand, there is pop music, which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient sense (populus). It is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. "Rock", on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit's sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments.
Unfortunately, a lot of the stuff in OCP's Spirit and Song falls under the second paragraph from the Holy Father's quote.  When I leafed through Spirit and Song, I was dumbfounded to see that the old R&B song, "Lean on Me" was included as the last song.  It was bad enough to see Protestant P&W songs like "Shine, Jesus, Shine" and "Lord, I Lift Your Name on High" in the mix.  It's even worse to hear these choirs sing "I Can Only Imagine" for Holy Communion.  The song seems to totally disregard the reality that we stand in the very presence of God during the Mass, especially at the moment that we receive Him in Holy Communion. 

Jeffrey is right when he notes that the young people want something more than what is being offered to them.  They recognize that there is something greater, transcendent and universal.  Sadly, it's the older adults who do not recognize this and seem to be stuck in a timewarp when felt banners and Kumbaya were all the rage.

Thank you, Jeffrey Tucker, for putting to words what many of us have been thinking for quite some time.  It will take awhile to right the ship of liturgical music, especially here in the United States.  But, I find comfort in the fact that I have two friends in the seminary who have discovered chant and want to promote it as soon as they are ordained.  There is hope for the Church.


Here is the article in its entirety:

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