On Modern Liturgical Music
Over at Plato’s Stepchild, there is a dispute about Catholic liturgical music. Both sides (see here) are being silly now, which is unfortunate since the topic they are discussing is of extreme importance. Music in general is of underappreciated importance- being one of the primary influences of character. This makes the music of the liturgy significant even when considered simply as music, but even more so because the music of the liturgy cannot but be seen- especially by the young- as the music approved by God.
The dispute began with Tony asking The Stepchild to define a bad hymn. The stepchild didn’t do so. Let me try: I define a bad hymn primarily as “A musical composition that is not fitting to the mass”. So there’s a definition. The definition can be taken in two ways:
1.) Modern liturgical music is a bad because it is the sort of music that is unfitting to the mass, or
2.) Modern liturgical music is bad, but only because of the particular songs that have been written.
For my own part, I favor position 1. Here’s why:
- It has always been my experience that no one listens to modern Catholic liturgical music outside of when they have to listen to it at the mass. Mr. Haugen and Mr. Haas do not sell many CD’s, and there seems to be no demand for them. I have never heard any of their songs outside of the context of the mass. If their music is intrinsically worth listening to, why is it that it sells so poorly, especially given the sort of aggressive advertising that is afforded to someone who gets heard so frequently by so many people?
- Modern liturgical music- as any liturgical music- is by nature ordered toward making God known. But modern liturgical music is intrinsically limited in it ability to make God known. Modern liturgical music does not admit of any way of expressing the majesty, transcendence or solemnity of God, because it is folk inspired, and folk- inspired music has no power to strike one with a sense of awe. People love folk music because it is folkish, which is the opposite of awe inspiring, solemn, transcendent, majestic, sublime, etc. If one tried to play a folk song when a king walked in- or some other lofty dignitary, everyone would be confused. It is unfitting, it would clang. But liturgical music must be able to invoke majesty and awe- to the extent that it cannot, it is simply unfitting.
-Modern liturgical music is unfit to be played in any context- since it is intrinsically unable to highlight any emotional state. A sign of this is that modern liturgical music is not used in any movie scene as a compliment to the action- even when the action is religious or uplifting, or expressing intimacy with God. Imagine, just as the most favorable example, a movie scene that calls for a moment in which a man experiences the revelation of the love of God- like St. Peter weeping at the feet of the Blessed Mother in The Passion, or William Wallace praying in his prison cell “Give me the strength, Lord, to die with dignity”. Imagine the movie camera showing him choke on his tears. Then imagine that someone cues up the music “Here I am, Lord”. CLANG. Everyone recognizes that this would, at best, destroy the whole scene. There could never be a movie made about the Passion of Christ that used modern liturgical music: so why is it that we think that it should ever be used at the mass- and for that matter, when does it ever work? Is there a single movie scene anywhere that effectively uses modern liturgical music as a compliment to anything?
-Modern liturgical music is by definition new. Inasmuch as it is new sort of music, it is unfit to invoke a sense of continuity with those who have come before us. But it is of the nature of the liturgy to invoke a sense of unity with those who came before us Therefore modern liturgical music is a bad sort of music.