(This is Neil) The Covenant website has a very good short article by the Anglican priest Dan Martins promisingly entitled “Notes Toward a Comprehensive Theory of Church Music.” He makes three points of likely interest to readers of our blog:
First, Fr Martins points us to Augustine’s Confessions (X.33), where the saint acknowledges that singing at church can move listeners “with the things sung” and that “by the delight of the ears, the weaker minds may rise to the feeling of devotion.” But Augustine still worries about the “contentment of the flesh,” being moved by the “singing itself,” and acknowledges that “when it befalls me to be more moved with the voice than the words sung, I confess to have sinned penally, and then had rather not hear music.”
Augustine points us to what Fr Martins calls a “tension … between liturgy qua liturgy and music qua music.” Music might begin as self-consciously “liturgical” music, but then it develops a “life of its own,” and, soon enough, the members of the assembly, lacking proper technique, have become mere spectators before trained performers, the texts of the liturgy have become secondary to the music, and the liturgical space is itself dominated by an orchestra.
There have been continuous attempts to reform music so that it remains “liturgical.” While the stories about the origins of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli in Tridentine controversies over the intricacies of polyphonic music are probably just stories, the Reformers did wish to restore simplicity – John Merbecke’s settings of the Prayer Book texts for Holy Communion follow the principle of one syllable for each note, and William Byrd’s settings for the Prayer Book are homophonic. We are also reminded that Pope Pius X, in his 1903 motu proprio, Tra le Sollecitudine, sought to restore church music from, in part, “the fatal influence exercised on sacred art by profane and theatrical art,” or, in Fr Martins’ words, “the mammoth choral and orchestral Masses and Requiems of composers like Verdi and Berlioz.”
Perhaps, then, any present “tension … between liturgy qua liturgy and music qua music” might seem inevitable. But Fr Martins suggests that we must always follow a “Prime Directive”: “Let the liturgy be the Liturgy.” Music, he claims, is a “wonderful servant but a horrible master.”
This means that, second, we must realize that the liturgy already “has a discernible shape, rhythm, and flow.” Music must serve these ends, not replace them. “Unfortunately, the most important question in planning liturgical music is the one that too often never gets asked: ‘What music will best serve the needs of this particular celebration on this particular day with this particular congregation at this particular point in the service?’” Our intention should be to plan what the late Fr Aidan Kavanaugh very deliberately called “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.” (See my post here.)
And, third, Fr Martins tells us, as we consider his question, to remember a rather unfortunate fact
…I’m talking about the fact that we invariably ask people to sing in church (except at those anomalous Low Masses), but church is increasingly the only place where that request is made. I think it is arguable that there is presently no vibrant (or even living) American folk music (in the sense of a genre and repertoire in which most people can readily participate) tradition. We are culturally bereft. Think about it: In movies from fifty and sixty years ago—I’m not talking about musicals, but straight dramas and comedies—it was not implausible for there to be a scene of spontaneous singing (often with someone playing the piano, also a dying skill). Aside from stylistic conventions, such a scene would be literally incredible in a film set in today’s culture.
It’s not that music isn’t important to people—quite the contrary; witness the explosion of iPod sales in the last decade, and the growing dependence on having “my music” available 24/7. But “my music” is something I passively receive, and not something I’m likely to get together with friends and attempt to spontaneously replicate. And if I’m at all inclined to do so, it’s probably with the assistance of karaoke equipment. We may even be at the point where recorded music has become the norm and live performance the aberration—not only in bars but at weddings and funerals. (The culprits are probably legion; my candidate is the steady erosion of music education in the public schools.)
Singing together, then, used to manifest the unity of the Body Christ – that the church really was, in Cyprian’s phrase, “a people brought into one by the unity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (my emphasis). But now we associate music with “passivity and artificiality.” Music for many of us is not a form of active participation with others. It is something that we receive, by ourselves, at the press of a button, whenever we desire.
What is to be done about this sad state of affairs? Fr Martins tentatively suggests that the church might need to “cultivate (once again?) a musical idiom that is distinctly ecclesiastical.”
What do you think?