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Beauty Will Save the World—But How? Part IV: Liturgical Music

June 8, 2021


Continuing our look at how we identify and understand beauty in all its forms, we feature Denis McNamara, the Director of Benedictine College’s Center for Beauty and Culture. In Part III, McNamara discussed the inherent ontological reality of the liturgy. His conversation with Robert Mixa, the Word on Fire Institute’s St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Fellow for Catholic Education, now turns to liturgical music and where and why it can fail us.

Robert Mixa: Let’s talk about liturgical music. I know that’s something people like to debate all the time. I went to a high school where the liturgical music annoyed me so much. The music seemed more fitting for a Broadway show. Just as it would be inappropriate to play Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” at a funeral, this music seemed inappropriate at Mass. Can you explain liturgical music, according to the three constitutive elements of beauty?

Denis McNamara: Remember, for anything to be beautiful, it has to reveal its ontological reality. And liturgy—and therefore liturgical music—has a nature that is particular to it, that is different from other kinds of singing. Many people assume that music at Mass means they sing a pious song that they like at the beginning, middle, and the end. But texts that are correctly liturgical come from the Church’s liturgical books, rather than other song books or even hymnals. These are called the “proper” texts, meaning the songs are specific to each day of the liturgical year. And so, they reveal something of what the Church wants us to know for each liturgical event.

To find songs that are “proper” to the sacred liturgy, the first place to look is the Roman Missal, which gives words for the entrance and communion songs for every day of the year. These songs, often called “antiphons,” are almost always from Scripture. They’re quite profound and related to the feast or that particular day in the calendar. So, like other beautiful things, they help reveal the ontology of that day’s liturgy, and therefore contribute to its beautiful expression. In its most elaborate form, the proper texts are set to Gregorian chant in a liturgical book called the Graduale Romanum, and every important liturgical document of the twentieth century, including in Vatican II itself, strongly recommend it as the Church’s own treasury of sacred music.

So if you push aside the proper texts and sing whatever you like, you are choosing to use words which may or may not actually be revelatory of the day’s feast. And the actual liturgical words are replaced by other poetic words—some of which may be quite profound but often are not—that do not come from the liturgy itself. If the choir director simply picks an easy song that everyone knows, it is not so much wrong as it is a missed opportunity. Imagine singing a Christmas song on Easter Sunday. The content of the song is true, but it is not proper to the day. And every Sunday and every day of the liturgical year has a proper song text coming from Scripture itself. Devotional songs are not forbidden at Mass, and they have their place, but they are, by definition, not liturgical.

Here’s another analogy. Suppose someone decided not to use the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass and say a novena instead. This is the substitution of devotional prayer for liturgical prayer. Similarly, singing a song like “We Are Called, We Are Chosen,” true as the words may be, is not the entrance antiphon for a particular Sunday or the feast of an Apostle. Again, hymnody is permitted as an option—generally the last option—which is allowed if a particular parish is unable to sing the proper chants. But even the hymns should be related to the feast or the readings of the day. In other words, it should approximate the antiphon given in the liturgical books. And here’s where the question of beauty for liturgical music comes in: a song that is properly liturgical will reveal the grandeur of the song of the Mystical Body of Christ to the Father, and its words will be the words the Church gives. In each case, something of the nature of the liturgy is revealed more fully and clearly, and therefore, more beautifully.

Okay. I’ve heard about some crazy things from the 1970s, like jazz Masses. How would you think about that according to this way of thinking? Some people told me they liked those jazz Masses. 

Well, it always goes back to the nature of the liturgy. So first of all, why is liturgy sung? I remember hearing a liturgy scholar say once that liturgy is a sung prayer which is sometimes recited. In other words, liturgy by its nature is sung, not just accompanied by songs. And here’s why: song is elevated speech and the way lovers express their love. And the liturgy is always the love song between God and his people.

If you wrote a song for your girlfriend proposing marriage, she might be so moved as to be brought to tears. You could have said: “Hey, honey, you and I should combine our genetic material and propagate the species.” That’s a scientific way to suggest marriage. But imagine the lyrics of a song being based on a poem that’s already elevated text for an important occasion. But then you take that poetry, and you set it to song; it’s elevated even more.

Because the liturgy is the voice of Christ’s Mystical Body to the Father joined by the love of the Holy Spirit, it is by nature, by its very ontological reality, the most perfect, elevated love song. And so, our sacramentalization of that reality in liturgy comes from using the words of the Church’s books and then singing them in an elevated way. In this way, we get to hear and sing the very song of the persons of the Trinity!

In evaluating liturgical song lyrics, we have to ask what Christ would be saying to the Father in this love song. What would the text of that song be? Does a trivial song, or even a time-tested hymn, put the words of Christ on the lips of the people in the pews to be sung together with Christ? Or is it just some other song we like? And does the melody reveal what an elevated heavenly song might sound like?

Here are the principles for assessing a “jazz Mass.” Does it best approximate the way that Christ would sing to the Father, or are people simply looking to hitch the sacred liturgy to something earthly to show that it’s still relevant? So that’s always the question. You see how this system of theological primacy allows for a great flexibility and variety in the possibilities of liturgical music. It can be Palestrina or Mozart or Haydn or Gregorian chant or something composed yesterday. But it always reveals the song of heaven.

However, if the music does not approximate this Trinitarian love song or leads a person to mere earthly concerns, then it’s not appropriate, or as we are speaking, not beautiful. And it’s very tough to make jazz do that. So that’s always the test. Would this be the sound of the angels and saints singing around the throne of God?

I’ve heard that in Mozart’s Requiem there’s a movement downward in notes that’s appropriate to context. It is reflective of the downward movement of God and his mercy. It’s fitting to the nature of the liturgy.

Texts and melody both contribute to the knowledge of what’s being said. So, if you sing the Kyrie eleison in some kind of arbitrary way—like to the melody of “Oh My Darling, Clementine” or the Star Wars theme—the melody is a mismatch with the text because it doesn’t reveal the nature of the text itself. But if you take a melody that has a pleading quality, it fits the text because the text is a plea with God for mercy. Even if you didn’t know the meaning of the Kyrie, there’s something about that melody that says, “I’m asking for something from a position of smallness before God.” This is why Augustine is famous for saying, “He who sings, prays twice,” because the music says something, and then the text says something. And together, it’s a double revelation of reality.

Are there any good resources to better understand this?

Yes. There’s a great book by Dr. David Fagerberg, who teaches at Notre Dame, called On Liturgical Asceticism.

We may not think about asceticism in liturgy, but the word comes from ascesis in Greek, which also gives us the word exercise. When you go into the gym, you don’t express yourself in whatever way you want; you have a pre-existing reality called those heavy weights and a pre-existing reality called your body. And you have to lift those weights for your muscles to grow. And it’s harder to exercise than to sit on the couch and eat Doritos.

But if you want to progress, you have to do this exercise. And so, liturgy is, by definition, ascetic in that we’re being conformed to the realities of heaven as it already exists. Merely expressing yourself in liturgy is not the same as conforming yourself through discipline to the pre-existing realities of heaven and given by the Church.

And this is why people sometimes don’t like some ascetic things in Mass. It feels like they can’t express themselves, and it’s not necessarily fun. It may feel like there’s no personally expressive warmth, but liturgy, by definition, is a bit cool. It makes us conform to it. Devotional prayer, by contrast, is warm, expressive, and personal. We get to pour out our private problems to God. Liturgy, by contrast, is group activity that requires a kind of universality and stability. This is why the Church needs both the expressive personal prayer of devotional life and the normative and formative prayer of the liturgy.

So, liturgy has an ascetic discipline, and the questions again arise: is its music primarily expressive of someone’s personal emotions, or is it primarily revealing the realities of God to which I must be conformed? If you can’t imagine God the Father receiving a particular song from the angels and saints in heaven, then it’s probably not good liturgical music on earth.