For the last few days I’ve been pondering the issue of musical styles for the liturgy…. OK, not exactly a new subject for me, but one that I’ve had to really think about lately. At some point, I think it was while pacing back and forth in my front yard enjoying a very nice Havana Reserva, I was reminded of a quote that appears in various forms in Church documents regarding sacred music:
“The musical tradition of the Universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.”
What stuck out for me here was the phrase necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy. What does it mean for music to be an integral part of the liturgy? This quote (from Sacrosanctum Concilium) seems to be saying, correctly I think, that the Church’s traditional music, Gregorian Chant, is pre-eminent because it integrates with the form and substance of the Roman liturgy as it is intended to be. It is a musical expression of the ideal liturgy that we should be striving for. You don’t “add” this music to such a liturgy… the music and the liturgy are one. They belong to each other. They are integral.
And so I kept thinking… if this is true, then what sort of liturgy would other styles of music be integral to? If they are to ever claim to be a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy, they have to be integral to some style of liturgy other than that which chant and traditional sacred music are integral to. In other words, if Chant, and perhaps polyphony are “one” with that ideal liturgy envisioned by the Church, and I don’t think it is going out on a limb to claim this (after all, the Church’s documents say as much), then these other styles of so-called liturgical music must be “one” with other styles of liturgy.
A number of years ago, I attended a Life Teen conference in Mesa, Arizona (I know… I will undoubtedly spend time in Purgatory for this, although I should get time served for several parishes I’ve worked at since then…). The music for the Mass was, well, Life Teen music. A Band (2 Electric Guitars, Bass, Keyboard, Drums and Lead Singer) cranked out the “Gathering Song” at a rock-concert appropriate volume while the Priest jogged up the aisle, stopping to shake hands and share “high-fives” with some of the assembly along the way… finally running up the steps and standing at the top as the band finished the opening number. “GOOD EVENING PEOPLE OF GOD!!” he yelled out to the audience. The audience broke out in applause and whistles. Perfect integration… Rock-Concert music for a Rock-Concert liturgy.
I also recall, though not as clearly, a Mass at my childhood parish of St. Anne’s in Prairie Village Kansas. It could have been 1971 or perhaps ’72…. they had begun offering a “Folk-Mass” in the parish hall and we, for whatever reason, went on this particular weekend (I’m sure it was most likely a Saturday evening). There was a single guitar player strumming chords softly as we came in. There were perhaps a dozen or so people there, already gathering in a circle around the card-table altar with their eyes closed, some holding hands. The priest came in, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt with a stole around his neck. I think we sang “Kumbaya” for the opening, although I also recall “Blowing in the Wind” somewhere during Mass. Again… perfect integration. This music belonged at that Mass.
Fast-forward 30 or so years to a Mass at a newly renovated Church in Brockton Massachusetts… the new “sanctuary” is a raised platform in the middle of a completely circular seating arrangement. It’s a bit awkward because no matter what direction the lectors or the Priest face, they can only face a small wedge of the assembly at any one time. And so the Priest and the readers engage in an ongoing dog-chasing-its-tail motion to be able to address the faithful. The Mass is reduced to a laborious conversation between the people in the middle of the circle and the people forming the circle, with God totally shut out in the confusion. We sing “Gather Us In” as we begin… a song with 30 iterations of “we” and “us” but not one mention of God. This music belongs at this Mass. Perfect integration.
Slick,loud,commercially produced music for a slick,loud,commercially produced Mass.
Shallow, improvised, and casual music for a shallow, improvised and casual Mass.
Self-glorifying, God excluding music for a self-glorifying, God excluding Mass.
Each style of music is integral to some style of liturgy. And so the question we have to ask isn’t whether these styles of music are appropriate for the liturgy, but do we really want the style of liturgy that they’re appropriate for?