Wednesday, July 9, 2014

In Which I Take My Stand on Suitable Church Music

The writings of Plato and Aristotle on music show that the Greek world in their time was faced with a choice between two kinds of worship, two different images of god and man… one the one hand, there is the music that Plato ascribes, in line with mythology, to Apollo, the god of light and reason. 
This is the music that draws senses into spirit and so brings man to wholeness. It does not abolish the senses, but inserts them into the unity of this creature that is man. It elevates the spirit precisely by wedding it to the sense, and it elevates the senses by uniting them with the spirit. Thus this kind of music is an expression of man’s special place in the general structure of being. 
But then there is the music… which we might describe as ‘Dionysian’. It drags man into the intoxication of the sense, crushes rationality, and subjects the spirit to the senses….
The Apollonian/Dionysian alternative runs through the whole history of religion and confronts us again today. Not every kind of music can have a place in Christian worship. It has its standards, and that standard is the Logos.
Joseph Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy

Reflection – This final reflection (for now) on the subject of liturgical music and worship shows that Ratzinger is, indeed, aiming his sights at the use of rock music in liturgy here. I would hesitate to describe the oeuvre of Marty Haugen as a Dionysian crushing of rationality and an intoxication of the senses. I would also hesitate to place that composer and his confreres and soeurs in the camp of Apollo, either – there is little elevation of sense or spirit that occurs in a rousing rendition of ‘Gather Us In.’ 

No, Ratzinger’s main point here is that rock music, with its Dionysian quality, cannot be reconciled with Christian worship, because of its anti-rational quality, its pursuit of a sort of experience of transcendence through the intoxication of sense and the suspension of reason.

We are a religion of the Logos, and our music in liturgy must acknowledge that God comes to us as logos, as Word, and that hence our rational faculty is engaged, even if we know that reason itself must be transcended by the deeper action of the Spirit.

Now, you may disagree with Ratzinger’s evaluation of rock music, although as I said a few days ago, I think it is remarkable that he considers rock significant enough to write a theological analysis of it and engage it at that level, both as a theologian and a musician. Elsewhere in his books he writes of his experience as a university professor in the late 1960s and witnessing his students going to these rock festivals which indeed had the quality of religious rites of a strongly Dionysian character.

I think his basic principle of evaluating music for its suitability in worship is right on the mark. Music must have this Apollonian quality, this union of reason and sense, of beauty and truth. 

I too am a Church musician of a very low stature, having directed the MH schola cantorum for a couple of years early in my life in the community, sung in it for many years before and after that, and even written a few pieces of sacred music here and there, to boot. So I am fully aware of the struggles and obstacles church musicians face, in terms of limited resources, human and material, and the need to tread carefully while working with the pastor and the parishioners. You can only do so much, and the director of music in a Catholic parish is a job with great challenges, to say the least. I am fully aware of that.

That being said, it’s time for me to take my stand on these matters. I would say that the musical forms available to us in North American parishes that meet the Appolonian standard, if I can put it that way, are three in number. There is Gregorian chant, available in good English translations now, which is necessary in these uneducated times. There is the traditional metrical hymnody—the ‘Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow’ sort of thing. And there is, for the more accomplished parish choirs, the great tradition of choral pieces—Palestrina and Byrd and all that. There are other forms of music that are suitable—in MH we use the Gelineau psalmody to good effect, for example—but these are not necessarily available easily on the parish level.

While I love praise and worship music in itself, I find it too aggressive and showy on the one hand, or too self-indulgent and subjectivizing on the other (as I talked about yesterday), for easy and appropriate use in liturgy. But I realize that in many places there is a great love and attachment to this music, and so it cannot be simply eliminated.

I think what is really needed is a great liturgical catechesis, a real learning of what liturgy is, what it is supposed to do for us, what mystery we are entering into when we enter into the Mass. Along with that, we need a musical education, much like what Ratzinger does a little of in this book, to know what the history is, what the different forms of music are that are useful in liturgy. 

From that, I think all of us will be able to discern what is suitable and what is not, what is in accord with the theology and experience of worship and what is not. And that is my position on this subject, which I come to only after thirty years in the trenches of liturgy and music and its difficulties today.