Liturgical Musicology

The Singing Mass

la messa (in)cantata

Let’s clear up any misunderstandings: if today we produce music that is inadequate for the liturgy, the root cause is to be found in the weakness of our own faith. From it, in fact, we draw divine inspiration from which the charisms and talents, the wills and the actions spring, and the Mass is (also) the synthesis of the song of our daily life. If this is lacking or even absent in our common actions, it will certainly not be easily expressed in the highest act of worship to God, Saviour and Redeemer.

This is echoed by a considerable series of clichés, mostly born from deviant interpretations (for superficiality or, worse, for interest) of the reform of the Second Vatican Council[1]: “the songs must be simple”, “everyone must be able to sing everything” , “Music must be a mirror of common feeling” … How many times we have been rebuked with such expressions, and how incredulous have the encouragement of certain questionable repertoires been. These, according to many, would have attracted floods of faithful young people to our assemblies. Significant gatherings have never been recorded, at least as far as I know!

Despite of some diehards still stoically holding onto their positions, for some years the reflection has appeared more constructive and better prepared; the many scholars of liturgical musicology have contributed over time to form an analytical and scientific thought, capable of giving serious and credible answers to musicians and priests, provided, of course, that there is reciprocal willingness to receive.

It no longer makes sense to think that everything is wrong, that “it was only in the past that things were done right”. We are all called to responsible training and updating that allows us  to finally change things with the authority of competence and not through the abuse of an ignorant authority, definitively abandoning the sterile controversy and, above all, “the useless nostalgia for the good old days”.

To be clear, it is necessary first of all to start from a basic concept: the liturgy is not our thing, it does not belong to us. We will talk about it at length when we reflect on the question of “active participation”. For now, it is enough for us to enter into the perspective that it is God in the Liturgy who acts on His People, at the “table of the Word and of the broken Bread”. He is the True Action, we, in response, are the re-Action. We deceived ourselves by mistakenly thinking of “lowering” the mystery of God to the level of man, and in doing so we consequently tried to simplify everything by bringing it to our “ground floor”. Our faith is based not on the descent, but on the ascent, even when this is impervious and tiring like that of Calvary, without which, Easter morning would not exist. We therefore opted for the easier solution, capable of creating as few headaches as possible, ignoring the call to rise to the height of the mystery, by virtue of our own faith. Yes, faith! Let’s go back to the starting point!

On the other hand, by appropriating liturgical worship, over the years we have introduced everything and nothing. Musically speaking, this has materialized by flattening the forms, the instrumental hierarchies, the words of the lyrics, the harmonic correctness, and increased the melodic banalities. In short, breaking down, in whole or in part, what “Tradition” had generously given us. We are convinced (inside and outside the Church) that we could have done our own thing, regardless of the substance of the mystery being celebrated, the culmination of which is Christ, dead and risen. We relegated Him to the role of supporting actor, putting other things at the centre of attention! We have created new figures of dubious utility, such as the animator, as if we were in any holiday village or on a beach on August Bank Holiday. In doing so we have ignored that the liturgy was not already animated autonomously by virtue of the plurality of sacramental signs but, on the contrary, believing that our direct intervention was decisive.

Faced with this disconcerting and slightly depressing situation, we have the responsibility to vigorously resume the correct direction, to try to bring things back into their right perspective and dimension, as people of faith and as musicians. We are called to consciously realize that we cannot do exclusively what we want without any reference criteria, based only on our “feeling”, on the positive personal sensitivity, but strongly challenged to a healthy question. In the words of Paul VI “Not everything is valid, not everything is lawful, not everything is good. Here the sacred must join with the beautiful in a harmonious and devoted synthesis[2]. We are exhorted to cultivate that sensus ecclesiae (Church feeling), which is expressed in the discernment of music in the liturgy.

At this point, then, let’s ask ourselves what “Liturgical Music” is.

Specifically, “Liturgical” basically means “adhering to the Rite“, or rather, that “springs from the rite itself“, predisposing and proportioning the musical sign primarily to the ritual needs.[3] Therefore, the ritual value of a song is the first criterion to be sought, in the same way as the other no less important musical and artistic values. Woe to decentralize this balance! The goal, therefore, is to combine art and functionality, which is not easy to implement with an imbalance in favour of one or the other.

It is by far the hardest way!

We could then speak indifferently of liturgical or “ritual” music: it will be such the more it is able to make the rite evident, that is, it will be able to correspond adequately as a “sign” to the rite to which it is itself applied.

What do we mean by “Rite“? It is the set of words and gestures that identify the different parts of the Liturgy according to an order established by Christ and His Church. The “Sign” applied to it, makes the mystery celebrated and present in it read transparently, expresses an inner attitude and, at the same time, stimulates and guarantees its effectiveness. The relationship between “Res” and “Signum” is realized through some practical and concrete criteria of “liturgical functionality” or, simply, of “liturgicality“. Let’s try to list some of them:

– Respect for the liturgical season: an Advent hymn will not be the same as a Lent one, Christmas does not signify Easter, just as time itself, endowed with its own dignity and an orderly development, cannot be colonized by excessive generality or, worse, by continuous passe-partout passages;

– Adherent choice of genre and musical form: there is a difference between singing a hymn from an antiphon, a litany from a motet or a tuneful piece, etc. The hymn form of Gloria, for example, neither includes nor admits banal and imaginative refrains;

– Use of a clear and adequate musical language, avoiding impossible melodies and dance rhythms, underlined by coherent and artfully played instruments, without wild beatings or eager attitudes;

– Controlled temporal rhythms of development: to understand each other, we cannot sing an eight-minute Kyrie as in the past, expanding a litany form which, structurally, is immediate and direct. The same can be said for the other parts of the Ordinarium Missae (By the way: how long will the persistent and deleterious practice of sitting at the Gloria last?). Still, a simple liturgical-musical direction would seem appropriate, which can be achieved by agreeing in advance on the actions, to understand (for example) whether the entrance and offertory rites provide for the procession or the incensation, so as to establish the right timing of the songs and coherent instrumental interventions;

– Use of adequate texts that come directly from the liturgical books or that, at least, are approved. We hear everyone singing, and unfortunately theological orthodoxy is not always perfectly respected. I refer this topic to a specific moment of subsequent discussion;

– Respect for the characteristics of the “true art” of “goodness and sanctity of forms” and “universality“, that is, everything that from Pius X (Motu Proprio Inter solicitudines, 1903) up to now is peculiarly required of music destined for sacred rites. We will talk more about this later.

Our reflection therefore starts from these criteria. Let us not delude ourselves into thinking exclusively on cold and rigid norms. If that were the case we would be deceived, given that human legislation is limited and limiting.. The principles we are analysing, on the other hand, are the mature fruits of a theology of sacred music that leads to a weighted practical application that is both ritual and aesthetic. In essence, it is not a question of making choices “by force” but, in as perfect adherence as possible with the rite, of creating those signs that favour the interiorisation of the mystery celebrated in the heart of man.

[1] Benedict XVI, Christmas greetings speech to the Roman Curia, 22 December 2005

[2] Paul VI, Speech to the nuns assigned to liturgical chant, April 15, 1971

[3] V. Donella, Music & Liturgy


Translated from the Italian by Annamaria Fonti
Revised by Louise Wiseman

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