Monday, April 20, 2009

Notes Toward a Comprehensive Theory of Church Music

One of these days—not in my lifetime, perhaps, but eventually—sex and gender will cease to be the chief presenting issues in ecclesiastical wrangling. But there will always be music to argue about. Even today, a few fortunate congregations are untouched by the sexuality wars that rage above them. But virtually none can escape some degree of tension and ferment over what music should be used in the practice of corporate worship, who should perform it, and how it should be performed.

Music has been integrally associated with Christian worship from earliest times. And it has always generated tension. St Augustine experienced this tension within his own soul:

Thus I float between the peril of pleasure and an approved profitable custom: inclined to more (though herein I pronounce no irrevocable opinion) to allow of the old usage of singing in the Church; that so by the delight taken in at the ear, the weaker minds be roused up into some feeling of devotion. And yet again, so oft as it befalls me to be more moved with the voice than with the ditty, I confess myself to have grievously offended; at which time I wish rather not to have heard the music. (From Confessions)

One dimension of this tension concerns the delicate dance between liturgy qua liturgy, and music qua music. Liturgy is dependent on music (even though many western Christians regularly participate in “low Mass”—a celebration of the Eucharist sans music—this is a generic anomaly, and would wither without a connection to its normative template, the Sung Mass). But music is a veritable “force of nature,” and will always seek to take the lead position in the dance if it is allowed to.

Consequently, we see a cyclic pattern in history: Liturgical music, which begins as simple chant or song, very much “owned” by the assembly and its presider, grows little by little more complex, to the point where it becomes a high art form with a life of its own, reserved for skilled specialists, who perform while the main body of the assembly is mute. The music might also become so lengthy that it eclipses the texts and actions of the liturgy, and requires such logistical infrastructure (e.g. an orchestra) that it comes to dominate the liturgical space. 

When this happens, the liturgy eventually strikes back, and there is draconian reform. In the late 16th century, Pope Marcellus floated the idea of banning polyphony (singing in harmony) in church, reverting to pure chant. The composer Giovanni Perluigi da Palestrina responded with his Missa Papae Marcelli (now considered a choral classic), intended to demonstrate that polyphony need not outshine the liturgical action. In that same era, at the back end of the Reformation, the emerging Protestant liturgical traditions all featured a musical idiom that was simpler and more participatory than anything in the Roman church. In England, we can see this in John Merbecke’s setting of the Prayer Book texts for Holy Communion (a setting still in widespread use), according to the principle of one syllable per note, and for every note a syllable. We can even see the tension expressed in the works of a single composer: William Byrd’s settings of Latin texts are fully contrapuntal (independent voice lines not always singing the same syllable at the same time) while his settings of the Prayer Book service are largely homophonic (hymn-like, a succession of chords in which all the voice parts sing the same words at the same time). Much later, in1903, Pope Pius X once again attempted to reform and simplify the music of the Latin Rite in his Motu Proprio on Sacred Music, this time in reaction to the mammoth choral and orchestral Masses and Requiems of composers like Verdi and Berlioz.

In the early 21st century, this ongoing dynamic of gradually increasing musical complication leading to reactive simplifying reform still looms over our various liturgical landscapes. But we are usually too close to the ground to put our experience into this larger context. Rather, at the moment, we tend to draw battle lines in the “worship wars” pitting various classical traditions (represented by organs, hymnals, and SATB choirs singing from anthem folios) against the “contemporary” stream (represented by texts projected on screens and “Praise Bands” singing from lead sheets). It may be tempting, but is too facile, to equate the “classical” strain with the tendency toward complication and “professionalization” of church music, and the “contemporary” strain with the reformist impulse. Reality is not so simple. There are multiple examples of liturgical music in the classical tradition that is accessible, sturdy, and meant to be sung by a congregation without formal musical training. There are also plenty of instances of “praise and worship” music that is clearly more at home on the lips of the rehearsed “Praise Team” members than on those of the general congregation.

Actually, before we can begin to fruitfully sort out the issues relative to musical style, we need to tame the beast that is Music itself—i.e. the medium that will never stop trying to become the message. We need to face the dilemma articulated by Bishop Augustine so long ago. And in order to do so, we (meaning all who are entrusted with liturgical leadership) need to screw up our collective courage and embrace a sort of Prime Directive (in the Star Trek sense of that term), which might be something like: Let the Liturgy be the Liturgy.  This is to say, music (like tradition), is a wonderful servant but a horrible master.

The Eucharistic liturgy of the Church, both East and West, has a discernible shape, rhythm, and flow. Dom Gregory Dix may be in a sort of scholarly Purgatory at the moment, but we nonetheless all owe him a debt of gratitude for helping us see this shape, rhythm, and flow more clearly. This is the infrastructure through which the liturgy accomplishes its work—doxologically, catechetically, homiletically, sacramentally, and eschatologically. Anything we bring to the liturgy by way of adornment, enhancement, contextualization, vestments, ceremonial, music—whatever—anything we bring to the liturgy must serve the liturgy’s own ends and not introduce some other agenda. The duty of liturgical music, in particular, is to serve these ends by revealing, clarifying, and highlighting the liturgy’s inherent shape, rhythm, and flow.

As soon as music calls attention to itself, to the extent that liturgical song—be it “folk art” or “refined art”—says, “Hey, look at me!” it immediately becomes an alien and an interloper. When that happens, the liturgy has been hijacked and turned into a flatbed truck. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s of the last century, the Eucharist was often hijacked to carry the freight of social protest, with spontaneous Masses being celebrated in front of government buildings and defense plants.  But musicians of all stripes are probably the worst offenders here. I can recall a conversation with another church musician more than thirty years ago where we looked at the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass as little more than a vehicle on which we could load as many jewels of the Anglican choral tradition (which, just for the record, I believe is magnificent) as possible. More recently, I have had similar conversations with “contemporary” musicians who simply want to load different freight on the same truck. Both sorts of musician ask all kinds of important questions, like “What would most please the congregation (or celebrant, or bishop, or visiting dignitary)?”, “What will keep the choir/praise band happy?”, and “What can we do well with the resources at our disposal?” These are all good questions—even necessary. They’re just not the “one thing needful.” 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?” The question pastoral musicians (one bit of contemporary Roman Catholic parlance that I find quite helpful) need to be asking of the liturgy is not, “How can you help me accomplish my pastoral goals?” but “How can I best serve you today?”

But even after we’ve parked the flatbed truck for a long rest in the liturgical garage, there’s still another substantial issue to deal with before we can presume to calm the worship wars, and this is equally true for those on both sides of the battlefield. 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.)

So, while in the relatively recent past, singing in church was a speciation of an activity in which people were likely to also participate in other contexts, it is now a thing-unto-itself, and an increasingly alien thing at that. This realization not only complicates the job of a pastoral musician; it is a potential game-changer in the worship wars because it suggests that both sides are fighting a losing battle. Those attached to the classical tradition (a company in which I can readily number myself) already know that. When I go to an orchestra concert, the proportion of gray heads to youth is about as alarming as it is in the typical Episcopal congregation on a Sunday morning. And when I bring up the rear of the procession into and out of a Sunday sung liturgy, the tendency to not even crack a hymnal—let along attempt to sing—is inversely proportional to advancement in years. But this doesn’t mean that those attached to the “contemporary” idiom (which my pastoral obligations have required me to make some peace with over the last twenty years) can claim victory. Just because someone won’t sing “Love divine, all loves excelling” doesn’t mean they’re going to respond full-throatedly to “Shout to the Lord.” In fact, my intuitive hunch is that singers are singers despite the genre (though most have their preferences one way or the other) and non-singers are non-singers despite the genre. And the problem is that the non-singers have overtaken the singers, in whatever style. So it seems to be in the best interests of the AGO and the AAM to declare a truce with CCLI and their guitar-toting devotees and work on getting people to sing…period. Then they can go back to fighting over what they sing.

Or maybe not. Here my thoughts are more tentative, more speculative. My suspicion is that there in fact needs to be another reform movement in liturgical music, a movement that is populist in that it effectively calls the plebs dei to “own” its participation in the liturgy—musically and in every other way. But it must not merely be a reform that panders to popular taste, because popular taste is presently wedded to passivity and artificiality, which is to say that it is poorly-equipped to generate music that serves the needs of the liturgy, that reveals its inherent shape, rhythm, and flow. Rather, the work before us is more fundamental, more seminal. With the exponentially-increasing de-christianization of western culture, perhaps the Church is called to cultivate (once again?) a musical idiom that is distinctly ecclesiastical (rather than an unreflective emulation of prevailing secular styles, whether “high art” classical or “folk art” popular), accessible (both technically and affectively) to those gathered for worship, and, most importantly, a style that takes a following role rather than a leading role in its dance with the liturgical action.

What will such music sound like? We can only imagine. Let the imagining begin.


Walt Knowles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Walt Knowles said...

It's important to see that lovely quote from Augustine in its full context. Book 10 of Confessions is on memory, and with Augustine's theology being anchored in Word/word/sound, he is struggling with how to deal with the most powerful thing humans do--to make music:
Even now as I am moved not by the song but by the things which are sung, when
sung with fluent voice and music that is most appropriate, I acknowledge again
the great benefit of this practice.
Thus I vacillate between the peril of pleasure and the value of the experience, and I am led endorse the custom of singing in church so that by the pleasure of hearing the weaker soul might be elevated to an attitude of devotion.

Dale Matson said...

Fr Dan,
What would Easter Vigil be without a sung Exsultet? I could have done with a little less incense prior to singing it for the first time this year. I am still wondering why we don't chant the Gospel every week. I am jazzed and ready to go!

Anonymous said...

Interesting post; but as an English major and editor (day job) on the one hand and as a cantor and chorister (on the canonical Wednesdays and Sundays), I think you're missing part of the picture.

First of all, when you say "rather than an unreflective emulation of prevailing secular styles," you're forgetting that the high classical art is not so much the emulated source but a derivation or outgrowth from earlier ecclesiastical music. (This is a simplification but maybe less of one than the statement it reacts against.) I would say that Bach is a good example of the trend to overcomplicate a good thing that you mention -- as much as I love his B-minor Mass, you couldn't pay me to sit through the whole thing in the concert hall, much less attempt to use it in church. And yet people regularly sit through the entire Messiah.

The other point I'd like to make is that our culture has by and large lost any connection to poetry, which is an essential part of the liturgy, and which cannot be ignored in the creation of liturgical music. Praise songs may be great tunes, but the words pretty much suck, even when they are translations of fragments from the Bible. Wagner was on to something with his insistance that if you paid attention to the words, you'd be able to handle the music -- or was one of the popes?

Most of that "contemporary" music, besides having a shallow connection to poetry, is designed for soloists rather than congregational or choral singing, and concentrates attention on the performer, rather than promoting a shared experience of praising God. The Church has a mission to preserve the best in words and music to offer up to God, and enrich his worshippers at the same time.

Wallace H. Hartley said...

Are you working on a "Grand Unification Theory" or GUT?

I have seen music "performed" in church, and have felt unmoved, but I have heard these same works outside of a liturgical service and been deeply moved. The context is an important aspect of music that helps make it "sacred." When it fits in with the liturgy and the scriptures of the day it is more likely to "work." When it is offered to God and not to a human audience music also has this sacred quality. That this offering can be given through various musical genres cannot be denied.

I found this brief quote for you,

"God is the audience of sacred music, and we are the "performers." That is the essence of sacred music. Human subjectivity is not its target. But, as stated above, music directed to God has, as a byproduct, the power to elevate the emotions of those who offer it or hear it."
Charles Don Keyes