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The Organ of Ghent Cathedral

The Organ of Ghent Cathedral

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, last week I gave the first of two talks on Sacred Music at the parish of Ss Francis and Anthony (The Friary) in Crawley, West Sussex. We spoke first about the nature and purpose of the Sacred Liturgy, drawing on the documents of the second Vatican Council and the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, before turning to the nature and purpose of Sacred Music. Why? Because as both Pope Saint Pius X and Sacrosanctum Concilium point out, the music performed in the Sacred Liturgy is intrinsic to the rite itself. To use the phrase coined by Mgr Andrew Wadsworth, “We need to sing the Mass, not sing at Mass”.

One of the questions that came up in the Q&A session touched on the appropriateness of differing styles of music in the Mass. Theologically sound music of a high quality can be found in genres other than plainchant and polyphony; hymns of good quality can be found (if we search hard enough!). So why can’t these pieces be used in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, be it the celebration of the Eucharist or the Liturgy of the Hours? Reading over Archbishop Alexander Sample’s talk to the recent CMAA conference in Salt Lake City, we see this exact question answered by placing alongside all performances of music in the liturgy three specific criteria.

First, Sacred Music is holy – it is sacred. Sacred Music is music set apart for the worship of God alone and, therefore – in the words of Pius X – must “exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it” (Tra le Sollecitudini §I). This means that the music performed in the liturgy cannot simply be secular music – either in origin or style – ‘baptised’ by Christian worship; it must be set apart for the worship of the Almighty, just as a chalice is never to be used for profane purposes once it has been consecrated for the offering of the Mass.

Secondly, there must be an intrinsic beauty in the music performed in worship. It must be ‘good’, in the sense that it must of the highest standard of music and of performance, and it must also be ‘Good’, in the sense that it has within itself some transcendental element. The sheer beauty of the performance, of the music itself, should generate a desire for God within the one listening; this is why concerts of Sacred Music are always an opportunity for evangelisation, and why listening to Sacred Music outside the sphere of the liturgy is a way of deepening our desire for God, and our sense of his fundamental right to the worship we offer.

Thirdly, Sacred Music must have a universal character. Obviously plainchant embodies this perfectly (at least in our Latin context), but it would also be naive to suggest that only the chant can exemplify such a character. Certainly it does so in an unambiguous way, but music that is universally recognisable as sacred and intrinsically beautiful – even when it is drawn from a particular culture or context – can also embody such a characteristic. Victoria is pure Spanish renaissance, but utterly suited to the liturgy; Zoltán Kodály’s exquisite Missa Brevis is a work of twentieth century genius, but equally meets the required characteristics of beauty and sacredness. Neither draws on a secular idiom or style, neither seeks anything other than the objective worship of God.

If the music in our liturgical celebrations doesn’t meet these three criteria, then we are falling somewhat short of offering to God the best that we are able. Even with limited resources, if we attempt to apply these criteria to our worship, we will not fail to see more clearly the essential and true purpose of the Rites which we celebrate. In doing that, we will also see more clearly the essential and true object of our worship – the God who has loved us and known since before time and who, even now, desires nothing more than our presence with him in the full splendour of our heavenly home, where we will (we pray) worship him for all eternity.