Notes on Liturgical Music

(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?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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11 Responses to Notes on Liturgical Music

  1. Liam says:

    Well, music a few generations ago ceased to be something that many (perhaps most families) engaged in at home. We can chalk that up to the advent of broadcast media (radio in the 1920s) – which, while it popularized music, did make for greater habits of passivity as compared to the advent of the gramophone a couple of generations earlier.

    And, in the past generation, music education has increasingly become elective (I can’t tell you the last time I saw children carrying their instruments to school…), and fewer people are musically literate. I cannot begin to tell you how many choral singers I know (and some are fine singers) who don’t really read music. (But they also really don’t have the ears of those who were entirely orally trained in pre-literate generations. The decline of musical literacy has not been matched by an increase in intuitive music skills, at least yet.)

    But everyone knows what he or she likes, of course.

    The experience of the liturgy as something that is inherently sung is relatively rare in Roman churches in the USA. My own parish is exceptional in that regard, but even it does not go the full distance (readings and the eucharistic prayers are not chanted for the most part, with some exceptions).

    One thing that does not help is instrumental accompaniment that becomes soundtrack-like. For example, when I was visiting my parents’ new parish, the pastor sang the MoC eucharistic prayer – he had a fine chanting voice, but the accompaniment was gratuitous and unnecessary (also, of course, illicit, but we can avoid that rabbit hole for now). The music for the liturgy by and large should be music that sounds good without instrumental accompaniment.

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  3. Neil says:

    Dear Liam,

    Thanks, as always, for commenting. You are quite possibly right that radio in the 1920s “did make for greater habits of passivity,” but that leaves us with a question. Was it

    A) The nature of the medium?
    B) The effect of the Radio Act of 1927 in consolidating radio broadcasting at the expense of small, local, community-based stations?

    I think that you are also right in saying that “the experience of the liturgy as something that is inherently sung is relatively rare in Roman churches in the USA.” The question, again, is why? (I think that our mutual friend Todd would blame pragmatism, utilitarianism, etc.)

    My fear here is that, if the liturgy doesn’t have a “discernible shape, rhythm, and flow,” it easily becomes instrumentalized, whether for “liberal” or “conservative” ends.

    Thanks again.


  4. FrMichael says:

    “cultivate (once again?) a musical idiom that is distinctly ecclesiastical.”

    That, of course, would be Gregorian Chant. I would also throw in for us English-speakers hymns.

  5. Liam says:


    1. A. It’s not about the local vs national networks as such, though advertising did shape the radio experience. Radio was, unlike the phonograph, *programmed*. That meant the listener had to arrange his or her schedule around it. The phonograph, by contrast, was entirely at the listener’s beck and call, as it were.

    2. The dominance of the preconciliar Low Mass: and the pragmatism that ruddered its survival into the postconciliar Mass.

  6. Jimmy Mac says:

    I submit that the Misa Luba, Misa Criolla and Misa Flamenca (to name 3) are as “ecclesiastical” as Gregorian Chant.

    It’s just that they are not in Latin and, in the case of Misa Luba (African) and Misa Criolla (Argentinian), not European. Therefore, they are suspect in certain circles as not being “ecclesiastical” enough.

    Yes, they are all modeled on the format of the Latin mass, but they are distinctively indigenous to their particular areas and, as such, are strongly inculturated to serve the people for whom they were written.

  7. Neil says:

    Dear All,

    Thanks for writing. It seems that we have two questions:

    1. If Liam is correct to suggest that the main difference between the radio and the phonograph was that “the listener had to arrange his or her schedule around” the radio’s schedule, does more recent technology mean a return to the age of the phonograph?

    2. What makes music “ecclesiastical”? Is it merely a long history of being “ecclesiastical”? Does it have to possess the main qualities of chant (namely, that the music is the servant of the words of the liturgy, and that the music is free of the “lasciviousness” of much secular music)?


  8. Liam says:


    I am not sure that the habit, once set, gets reversed as easily. I suspect it takes much more.

  9. Todd says:

    Thanks to Neil for this excellent post and thread.

    My observations would be these:

    – Prior to broadcast or recorded music, people did have concerts. I suppose the wealthy could hire musicians to give concerts … and lessons, too. The masses had Mass, I suppose. Or people could learn to play an instrument, or they just sang for personal enjoyment. Some of us still think there’s nothing like playing the music. Personally speaking, there’s no choice whatsoever if I had the option of going to a concert of rock or folk or sacred music or playing/singing with the musicians. If I played a classical instrument, I might feel the same about playing with an orchestra. But my readers all know I’m a strange duck.

    – Broad access to radio preceded hi-fi technology in the home. All radio did was to make concerts more accessible as a listening experience.

    – Hi-fidelity stereo improved the sound and made the listening experience an on-demand sensibility. Improvements in technology and portability extended the quality and the “on-demand” experience.

    – The next break would have been the advent of the music video. Instead of playing music, or listening to music, by 1981 people could watch music. It became a multi-media experience. Thanks to Michael Jackson, Madonna, and others, the pop music concert developed into a multi-media with video, dancing, choreography, and such.

    My concern is that music has become something to be consumed rather than produced. Most people are willing to cede production to professionals and experts. It’s true that it takes thousands of hours to achieve a certain competence as a performing musician. That’s a commitment neither young people nor adults seem to wish to tackle.

    Having mentored many less-than-professional musicians in church circles, I will comment that for me, there is a certain deep enjoyment in hearing music performed that is less than perfect. This is because I know the effort, spirit, and personality that is put into musical expression. I have the backstory, as it were. I also go to concerts, listen to the radio, and I own a few hundred cd’s. But these experiences don’t replace playing or liturgy. We are an impoverished culture for believing that they do.

  10. Jimmy Mac, your point about M. Luba, Criolla and Flamenca is honestly advanced by describing them all as having “ecclesiastical” qualities. (I have to disqualify myself from discussing “Flamenca” further, not familiar.) However, that point doesn’t go far enough in advancing the point that their respective non-Roman oveures are nonetheless valid for liturgical service. The genesis of Luba and Criolla can be described as an “apples to oranges” scenario. Luba (as opposed to David Fanshawe’s “African Sanctus Mass”) clearly had its roots spring up from within the liturgical domain. Ariel Ramirez’s wonderful Criolla, though having been utilized in actual liturgies over these last 40+ years, cannot be regarded as merely another innovative Mass setting. It was a full-on conceptual work of art Ramirez designed to incorporate and synthesize various Afro-Latino idioms into the “organism” of the Mass. That makes it distinct from Luba’s truly aboriginal origins. Though Criolla is not akin to, say, Bernstein’s MASS, a performance piece if you will, it can be likened to some of the Mass settings by Dave Brubeck. These works, if heard at actual liturgies, are “festival” Masses at best; they are proportionately heard more frequently as concert works.
    Again, not challenging your point; just saying it doesn’t advance the argument that defines what attributes of musical composition meet the original author’s vision of suitable new works that serve the liturgy, but don’t define the liturgy or subsume its pre-eminence to the music because of the artistic merit of the music itself.

  11. Neil says:

    Thanks for these further comments. Two comments:

    1. I was struck by Todd’s writing about his “deep enjoyment in hearing music performed that is less than perfect.” I wonder if, in the not-so-distant future, parishes will have to be self-consciously countercultural places that sustain the ability and attentiveness necessary to really read texts and perform (not merely consume) music.

    2. Regarding the question about the “ecclesiastical” qualities in music, I think that we have to take care. For instance, is Charles right to suggest that the Missa Luba has “truly aboriginal origins”? Peter Jeffrey claims that “In fact it is closer to the Europeanized popular music of Africa’s urban industrial workers than to indigenous African ‘folk’ musical traditions.”

    Thanks again to everyone for your generous comments. I look forward to reading (and learning) more.


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