(This is Neil.) Let’s begin with a very basic question: Why does music have a place in the liturgy? In an earlier post, I quoted the Princeton theologian Gordon Graham, “[W]e need to conceive of music as a vital instrument (though not the only one) that at one and the same time unites us in a way that allows us to give back to God the gifts of God in a style appropriate to their giving.” This tells us what music is supposed to do – to make concrete the unity of the gathered assembly and to serve as a vehicle for our prayers – but it doesn’t explain how music does this. (And the quote does seem to – “though not the only one” – leave us a loophole.)
I recently was glancing through some back issues of Worship and came across a 1976 address by the late Fr Aidan Kavanaugh, OSB upon his reception of the North American Academy of Liturgy’s first Berakah Award. Fr Kavanaugh used the occasion to report “on the liturgical business I personally have not finished nor even begun.” And, thus, he spoke about “liturgical music.” Kavanaugh tells us that music is important because of rhythm. Without sonic rhythm (to which liturgical music obviously contributes), there can be no visual rhythm. And without rhythm, there is no ritual.
So, perhaps we need to discuss rhythm. What do we mean when we speak of rhythm? Have we lost our sense of rhythm?
Here, then, is Fr Kavanaugh:
I do not say music in the liturgy (God knows, there is lots of this around): I say liturgical music. By this I mean music which is so congruent with the liturgical act, and so available to actual congregations of worshipers as to their being able to hear it all as well as able to sing most of it, that the music flows into the very fabric of the act as a whole with seeming effortlessness. The stunning modesty of this sort of music requires that it be stunningly good music. Most of the music currently done in the liturgy is stunningly immodest and stunningly bad. I think the criteria for judging liturgical music remain the same now as they always have been. They lie in the area of final causality alone. What is the nature of a music whose whole reason for being performed (notice I do not say written) is to become an integral part of a mixed and musically unprofessional congregation’s act of worship of God Almighty? Is it to entertain them? Is it to give them a little surcease after an infinite and deadly sermon? Is it to demonstrate to all that the pastor is with it, whatever “it” might be? Or is this sort of music what it is because the liturgical act is naturally a sung act?
If the purpose of music in the liturgy is entertainment or surcease or demonstration, then Broadway, Muzak and the picket line are our competitors. We shall lose. But if the purpose of liturgical music is to support and give voice to a people celebrating their faith in God Almighty, then we are not in competition with anyone but ourselves. We seem to be losing here as well, I’m afraid. We seem to be ignorant of the fact that the liturgical act without music loses much of its sonic rhythm, and that rhythm is a major component of all ritual activity. As sonic rhythm both in speech and melody decline, the correlative visual rhythm of ceremonial choreography (and the discipline it requires) become harder to sustain. The two rhythms are correlative. When one is weakened so is the other, and when both disappear what one is left with is a seminar or a lecture — modes of activity that separate as much as they integrate, and that make symbolic communication almost impossible to achieve. Communities do not cohere around lectures, but all love a parade.