On Liturgical Music

(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.

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Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to On Liturgical Music

  1. Compelling questions and notions, Neil.
    And, doubtless, most answers and reflections on those notions will be inter-related.
    Of course we know that phonation among primates, proto-humans and homo sapiens existed before their “discovery” of other methods of making sounds and noises into organized, specific and imitative constructs.
    The hollowed out femur that inadvertantly becomes a flute, which imitates the voice of birds and humans; the hollow log drum, whose sonority is most pleasing when measured and played in rhythmic patterns (this is where Fr. Kavanaugh’s analogy lines up with mine.) But, I tend to imagine the more likely scenario is that dance was the primeval form of corporate “worship” to the “Other.” And if that is the egg, then music was the chicken. Music is quite at home, probably most consonant with the cosmos, within the mensurate structures of rhythm; you cannot have a melody that does not have some form of rhythmic component (sorry, diehard chant enthusiasts.)
    Now as regards as how measured rhythm corresponds to visual rhythm, that’s a very large elephant for this, and two other blind guys to describe. I know that the arsis and thesis of the opening Mass at WYD in Sydney was suffering from great cori interruptus. It stumbled and staggered because the various “officers” seemed to have prepared the liturgy like it was a checklist on a clipboard, rather than like storyboards or the markings of a choreographer. And when such behemoth spectacles lumber on, there is a feeling of tension among all; hell, I felt it watching it in my den. I saw it on the faces of the clergy, the director/conductor, the faces of dazed and confused kids in the congregation. That’s not to say joy and reverence were absent. It’s just that the “stunning modesty” in such liturgies is conspicuously absent, and leaves one to think “Now what?” instead of “Oh, yes!”
    The argument that the chant is the most sublime and suitable form of music for our Roman Rites because its rhythmic character is totally subservient to its only need to serve the aesthetically beautiful delivery of sacred texts is a very potent and attractive one. It eschews “timeliness” for “timelessness” in all meanings. But, because it very well be a singularity among all the sacred forms of music humans have engineered in that respect, that doesn’t mean we need to dismiss the rhythmic attributes of the majority of other forms as being alien to our liturgies.
    However, I think Fr. Kavanaugh did his argument a disservice with the analogy of lectures vs. parades.
    Lectures and parades are both quite temporal. Now if he’d thought of poetry, though….

  2. Wendelin says:

    Neil,
    I love the reference to Gordon Graham. Last year I was having a discussion with a priest/friend regarding the wide range of perspectives in the Church on this matter. He asked, “Is the Mass valid without any music? If the answer is ‘yes’ then that’s how I’d settle any debate.” While I certainly appreciate this response to one that is ignorantly opinionated it still smells like a cop out. This is indeed a tricky matter! Fr. Kavanaugh asks heavy questions. The way I see it, music is as necessary as candles, incense, art-glass windows, pews, or anything else that interacts with and moves our senses within the Liturgy. If we don’t need music then we may as well do away with the rest!…and few people would. People come to Church to be fed- in as many ways as possible. Yet this makes it sounds like I’d being doing my job well if I played a little lick for ‘filler music’ a-la Mr. Rogers taking off his shoes. People would sigh and think, “My! that was pretty.” I just wouldn’t feel right. So I absolutely agree, Liturgical music must transcend mere entertainment. It must strive to be dignified in a way that approaches the Glory and Mystery of God’s Presence that is so central to the Mass. Can it be pleasing? Sure. But here we get into all those hairy discussions about aesthetics…When does ‘pretty’ become a cheap knock-off/kitsch? At some point it becomes a mere facade, almost a parody. If we keep copying, reusing, and recycling the golden tried-and-tested (vis a vis, safe) idioms and styles we risk a real stagnation in artistic development for the glory of God. And that would be a shame given that the Church has, especially in the past, been at the forefront of artistic progress. This tradition is all the more reason to encourage and support (fund occasionally?) enthusiastic and competent artists to be good stewards of this powerful gift! From chant to the present day there is more wonderful and exceedingly appropriate music for Mass than we can imagine! Why not use it?

  3. Neil says:

    Thanks for posting. I’ll try to post more on “rhythm” – partly because it can get us past vague “discussions about aesthetics.” I guess I’ll have to read some ritual studies …

    Best,
    Neil

  4. Turyamureeba Rugaba Augustino says:

    Iam a musician Iplay Accodion and Organ in the Cathederal I wish I get some body to sposor me to visit Germany to see how Germans sin to lord. The Holy Mass is one in the universal Church but I would like to see the expresions. Thanks alot for your servise. God bless you.

  5. Turyamureeba Rugaba Augustino says:

    Good, Service.

  6. Pingback: Notes on Liturgical Music « Catholic Sensibility

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