Music

Music at Mass is theological warfare by other means

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

28 September 2013

9:00 AM

How many battles have been fought over sacred music throughout history? The noise you make when you worship is a big deal: those who control it can shape everything from clerical hierarchy to intimate spirituality. And there are patterns. Deep suspicion of music is the mark of the puritan. Fundamentalist Sunni Muslims teach that all music except for chanted Koranic passages is forbidden; instruments in particular encourage lust. Strict Calvinists take a similar line.

Even the Catholic Church considered banning original compositions during services after the Council of Trent. Legend has it that polyphony was saved only by Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli of 1567, which demonstrated that rich harmony could also highlight the words of the text. (A fanciful version of this story is the subject of Hans Pfitzner’s 1915 opera Palestrina, whose more ponderous moments
make Parsifal sound like an advertising jingle.)

Conversely, lovers of opulent worship, and the hierarchical theology it implies, use music to achieve their ends. In the Church of England, High Church clergy who don’t want to describe their Sunday Eucharist as a ‘Mass’ will gently push proceedings ‘up the candle’, as they say, with a Mass setting by Byrd or Mozart. In today’s Roman Catholic Church, too, musical style is loaded with significance. But matters are complicated by the fact that Catholic priests aren’t supposed to be High or Low, or impose their theological preferences on a parish. Music at Mass therefore becomes the continuation of theological warfare by other means — a nasty state of affairs that I’ve witnessed at first hand.


When I was a teenager, I was organist of Christ the King, Reading, a red-brick barn of a church run by a tyrannical but warm-hearted Irish priest, Fr Nugent. His taste in hymns didn’t extend much beyond pre-conciliar favourites such as ‘Soul of My Saviour’ and ‘Sweet Sacrament Divine’ — sentimental numbers often incorporating octave swoops that made the tiny choir sound like ancient Valkyries. Still, they were good tunes and Fr Nugent was happy for me to play the odd 18th-century English voluntary (the easy ones, without pedals).

Then Fr Nugent moved to another parish. Disaster. He was replaced by a priest from Cork who insisted that every hymn had to be ‘popular’ — i.e., set to a bogus ‘folk’ tune with overtones of fake plainchant, nasty enough with guitars but a fairground travesty when accompanied by organ. So I left, and wasn’t surprised to learn that Christ the King’s only interesting architectural feature, its baldacchino, had been demolished to make the sanctuary more ‘simple’.

The story was similar all over the Catholic world: clergy infused with ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ would hand over responsibility for parish music to bossy primary school teachers and other ‘empowered laity’. They could be relied upon to perform antiphons and Mass settings written by diocesan-approved composers whose work sounded as if Hildegard of Bingen had met Joan Baez in a 1970s cocktail lounge. I won’t single anyone out, because that leaves me free to say that some of these composers trousered very large sums of money thanks to viciously enforced copyright laws and a flow of commissions from their mates in the diocesan curia.

There has, however, always been a resistance to this racket from trained Catholic musicians and it’s gathering pace. To see the battle played out, look at the archdiocese of Glasgow. The magnificent Scottish composer James MacMillan has founded an organisation called Musica Sacra Scotland that aims to carve out a new vernacular of parish worship by teaching people to sing English-language chant. Where possible, Musica Sacra will also encourage the return of Latin chant and polyphony — and commission young composers to write congregational music to replace the cod-Celtic garbage forced down the throats of Scottish Catholics since the Council. Crucially, this is not some high-camp exercise by reactionaries: Musica Sacra is orthodox rather than traditionalist, which is why the middle-of-the-road new Archbishop of Glasgow, Philip Tartaglia, has given his blessing to its inaugural conference at Glasgow University on 9 November.

That should settle matters — but it hasn’t, since sacred music and power have always fed off each other and this is no exception. The producers of cod-Celtic garbage have patrons among the senior clergy of several Scottish dioceses. These trendy old priests (and at least one bishop) have employed this populist material — which encourages the ‘community’ to worship itself and its pastor — to reinforce their own personality cults. A move towards a more mystical, God-centred liturgy threatens to dilute their influence. For the first time in 50 years they have been forced on to the defensive in the Catholic culture war. Their reaction to Musica Sacra? A gigantic cry of ‘feck!’ worthy of Father Jack Hackett on the night of a full moon. Music to my ears!

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Show comments
  • Christian LeBlanc

    Lex orandi, lex credendi; and how we sing is how we pray.

  • Fletch

    I am a Catholic and I have played music in Church with a small group in the past. I think that the old hymns are great and contain a lot of truth BUT the Catholic Church is haemorrhaging young people. The older chant-like music simply does not attract young people; it isn’t what they’re used to and it doesn’t move them emotionally or spiritually.

    Praise & worship music like that of Australian church Hillsong has a lot to offer. Now, I’m not saying that Mass is totally the place for all Praise and Worship (by that, I mean the music style), but it should be the place to worship God in the Eucharist. In the liturgy, the priest says the words, “the CELEBRATION of the Mass”. Mass *is* meant to be a celebration.

    Your story about bossy primary school teachers strikes a chord with me – in reverse. We have one who has taken over the liturgy here and has made it almost nothing but old-fashioned hymns. The people here are crying out for the music my guitar-based music group used to play. We didn’t play all new stuff – we had a good mixture of the new and the old but in Australia and New Zealand all songs must now be vetted under the new rules. We had to send in a list of songs we wanted to play and they had to be OK’d before they were allowed to be played. In the end I think we only got a third of the way through the list of stuff we wanted and never heard back.

    Even the new liturgy music is – well, unmusical, due to the fact that the *exact* translation of the words must now be used for the Gloria, Holy-Holy and other Mass parts. Just try fitting music to prose like the Gloria; it doesn’t really work without any verse/chorus structures or rhyming, and strips all musicality and rhythm from those parts.

    People here are starving for music that touches the soul – young people aren’t being touched and aren’t coming (and yes, I know that music is not the point of Mass – that Mass is valuable no matter if it has music or not, but that isn’t the point).

    I’ve seen how music can help lift parishioners souls to God. It makes a HUGE difference. Chanting and older hymns have their place but so does the newer praise and worship type music – even just for an entrance or exit hymn or during Communion.

    At the moment I can see this older stuff stifling the Holy Spirit.

    Just look at the music played during World Youth Day recently – that was GREAT! And that wasn’t all old, chanting hymns. And if the Pope was there, surely he approved of it. We need more of that kind of thing in the Church.

    • Athelstane

      The older chant-like music simply does not attract young people;

      All I can say is that this has not been my experience.

      • Beverly Stevens

        Young people LOVE the Latin Mass and are coming in DROVES all over America. Here’s a taste: http://bit.ly/1lD24HO

    • Rae Marie

      Actually what drives away young people are exactly the campy modern hymns. Mass is more than just a celebration, it is a sacrifice where the graces of the cross become present once more, it is a sacred time when heaven and earth meet and all the angels are present. Young people are turned off by anything that isn’t authentic. Chant and traditional expressions are exactly what they crave. They crave mystery and beauty and meaning. If they wish to merely gather together and celebrate, they can hang out at a bar but to meet the King Of Kings and be united to Him, that is for Mass. And for Mass, reverence and beauty bespeaks the power and love of God much greater than a round of “Gather us in”. Young people are sick of the world and it’s banal music They are exposed to noise constantly. The last place they want that noise to follow them is to their worship.

  • Ray Boyle

    Having read the article a few times I’m still trying to understand what is being said. I appreciate the support for innovative music and the desire for greater diversity of musical choice but I have always viewed attendance at mass as a celebration which has prayer and music as its way of delivering that celebration, irrespective of the type of hymns being sung or the way they are sung.
    As I attend mass in Glasgow I understand what you are saying but the quality and delivery of the hymns at mass in St.Andrews Cathedral is superb and the singers are quite extraordinary, they fill the Cathedral with music and song as it should be and that is with both traditional as well as contemporary renditions of hymns. But I think that the choice of the hymns is organised with great uniformity by both the clergy as well as the laity and delivered quite brilliantly. I agree with the saying that singing at mass means that we are praying twice…..

  • Caroline Galwey

    Superb article, and very funny! ‘Cod-Celtic garbage’ (punches air)

    • 90Lew90

      Thanks for your support at “Love, Joy, Feminism”. However, I’m afraid the blog owner is a blockhead. Not only were her musings about the UK and the EDL wide of the mark, but one of her moderators has in the past actually defended a guy who showed up on Friendly Atheist and declared he wants to have sex with prepubescent girls, as “brave” (that’s “Feminerd”). Those people are, in one word, stupid. I’m now banned from that site for merely standing my ground while daft abuse was hurled at me for about four hours solid. They’re not reasonable. They’re not open-minded however much they think they are. They’re half-educated dimwits. Anyway, thanks again. Best wishes.

  • Ian Williams

    The starting point for such a discussion shouldn’t be hymns, most of which are extra-liturgical, but the music to which the texts of the liturgy are sung. Catholicism has its own cultic music – chant – which developed inseparably from the liturgy from the earliest times. To the extent that practice ignores this inheritance so it divorces us from the liturgy, the chief means of the transmission of the faith. To the extent that it reflects it so it is the more Catholic.

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