Sunday, September 20, 2009

On Liturgical Music

When I first arrived here two weeks ago, I walked out of Sunday Mass, meandered a bit to let it sink in, and began to cry. The Mass itself was beautiful in so many ways, but I had not at all been able to insert myself into it in such a way as to actually pray.

I knew that part of my trouble was caused by the fact that I've been attending the Traditional Latin Mass all but exclusively for the past year, and sporadically for the year and a half before that. The extraordinary form of the Roman Liturgy is so much quieter and more contemplative than its brother the ordinary form.

Too, I've been spoiled by the Liturgical Institute. From my first days here, we've chanted Lauds together daily, and Vespers most days. This is beautiful in its unity and simplicity, but is unfortunately musically distinct from most Masses on campus with the seminary.

As the days rolled by, I began to realize the primary reason I had trouble praying at Mass here: the piano accompaniment was SO LOUD, it drowned out the voices of all 185 seminarians singing, as well as any shot I had at thinking prayerful thoughts. It was just so loud. Occasionally the organ was played instead, which was less jarringly percussive, though no less loud. (The chapel is a large space easily filled, and easily filled to overwhelming.)

Last Sunday, a few hours after campus Mass, I drove out to the nearest TLM available, at a parish apostolate of the Canons Regular of St John Cantius. As soon as the priest and servers processed in and began the prayers at the foot of the altar, I felt the comfort of familiarity, and immersed my spirit in the sacred action with relief.

That is, until the Kyrie. (Background: At my parish back home, we always sing the Ordinary in a seasonally appropriate chant setting.) This choir director had selected a lovely polyphonic setting of the Ordinary, which had great potential to be a wonderful aid to prayer, even despite that one soprano who was consistently just sharp enough to make you cringe. Unfortunately, the choir was mic'd. This church was a small space, with a maximum seating capacity of maybe two hundred people. No carpeting, nothing but bodies to absorb the sound. There was no need to artificially amplify the choir's voices. And though the music they sang was objectively much more beautiful than the 1970's hymns that were sung at the seminary that morning, I could no more pray THROUGH THE NOISE OF THEIR BEAUTIFUL SINGING than I could with the too-loud piano.

As the days have gone by here at the seminary, I've learned to pray via the sound itself of the piano or organ, and they've gotten choirs organized which fill out the sound in a much lovelier (and more balanced) way. Too, the the LI has begun to have our own Masses once or twice a week, which is a retreat into simple chant, at least.

But Friday night tied together for me what's been missing. I went to a local Spirit and Truth, which was much smaller than the one I'm used to. Back home, a night that's light on music ministry had only Isaac and me, guitar with two full, blended voices (other options over the years have also included up to two additional harmonic voices and instruments such as violin, bass, and keyboard). I had anticipated missing this musical delight very much, and much as I expected, music ministry here was just one woman and her guitar.

But in its simplicity, there was such fertile beauty. Fewer than twenty of us were scattered throughout the small church. Her voice and guitar were both clearly heard, but neither impressed the listener with any necessity to join in. The sound floated above us from the choir loft, and we could add to it or pray without our voices, as we so chose. The music itself gave us the choice.

That's what I'd been missing all along: liturgical music should invite the listener to pray, not force them to sing.

How far I've come since the days when I thought participating in the Mass simply meant singing along! I daresay that even more important than the musical style or the lyrical content (excepting heresy, of course) is the prayerful quality of the music. That is what liturgical musicians today must learn, and then teach to their congregations.

Dear Jesus, draw more hearts to Thee through true musical beauty, that Thy whole Church might come to know Thee in beauty and purity of soul. Amen!


  1. Anonymous3:42 PM

    Oh, Claire. Dear, you had soooooo much to say.

    Love you lots!

  2. John Molloy10:58 PM

    So, a scenario for you:

    A man very gifted in playing the guitar decides that he will use his talents by gifting the Liturgy with his classical/Hispanic/Flamenco style of solo playing. When approached about how it was beautiful but did not seem to fit (for what reason given I don't remember) his response was: "Is the Sistine Chapel too beautiful and distracting?" How would you respond to that?

    PS - This is not a scenario that I was involved in, but rather heard briefly about.

  3. The Sistine Chapel was created for the explicit purpose of drawing people's minds and hearts (and thereby their souls) to God without detracting from the sacred action (note that I said DEtracting, not DIStracting). It may distract, but by its very nature it adds to the prayer being said, thus it cannot take away from it.

    Such a style of music, however, is more suited to performance than to contemplaton. Its distraction is a detraction from the sacred action because when people hear it, they are transported to a secular place and a time when they were not at prayer. This is quite unlikely to be the case with the Sistine Chapel, which physically depicts heavenly glory.

    You know all the arguments against performance music in the liturgy. Sheesh! :P

  4. You're not really supposed to be studying the ceiling during mass. It's more of an atmosphere thing -- you see it on your way in, you know it's there. You know you are surrounded by beauty.

    You can look forward and pay attention to the mass, and you won't see the ceiling. You can't just chose to stop hearing the music though. I give the guitar-playing thumbs down.


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