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September 01, 2006

Sacred Music, part IV

The point for today is that different kinds of music symbolize different things, quite often regardless of what you want it to symbolize. 

Music is perhaps the most intuitively powerful and evocative art form we possess.  It always serves as a symbol of something, so that hearing or performing that music evokes whatever that something is.  Some music signifies strong emotions.  Some music signifies fun or having fun.  Some music signifies (to put it bluntly) sex.  These things are good in themselves, but they are not appropriate to the sacred liturgy (see previous posts in this series). 

The Church's sacred music, however, signifies contemplative prayer.  Since the heavenly liturgy consists of contemplative prayer, and the liturgy on earth is a participation in and preparation for that of heaven, music that symbolizes or signifies contemplative prayer should be used rather than music that symbolizes something else.

If you only want the short version, that was it.  The rambling observations which follow are an attempt to justify the above assertions.  I notice that they run on quite long, but I couldn't spare the time to edit it down into something tighter and more coherent.  So click the "continue" link to see the rest.  (I held off posting this because Peter was posting and I didn't want to bury his.  So I put it in the extended post.)

Signs and symbols (I will use the words interchangeably) are tremendously important in the Christian life.  St. Augustine starts off the beginning of his "On Christian Doctrine" with a discussion of what signs are and how they work.  The Gospel of John starts out with what the NAB editors appropriately call "The Book of Signs," because that is what Jesus' mighty deeds are called in that Gospel.  Words are a type of sign.  An older word for the creed is the "Symbol of Faith."

Signs and symbols are so important because, as I wrote about earlier, while we are here on earth, heavenly realities are invisible realities, and signs and symbols make them visible to us.  In fact, we participate in the heavenly liturgy in this life in the sacred liturgy, which is accomplished through signs.  Some of these signs come from us, such as certain actions, like genuflection, or the Sign of the Cross, or objects, like sacramentals.  Some of these signs are given to us by God, like the Scriptures.  Some of these signs are given to us by God and actually accomplish the very thing they symbolize - the seven Sacraments.  Chief among the Sacraments is the Eucharist, the ultimate sign, because not only does it accomplish the thing it signifies, like the other Sacraments - it actually IS.

Clearly music does not belong to this latter category.  But since it is something of which the form was not specified by divine ordination like the Sacraments, does that mean that anything at all is equally suited? Is our intent for it to symbolize a certain thing sufficient?

If you've taken some English classes, you know that "author's intent" is anything but the final word; and some things are more suited as signs than other things.

Some signs are totally artificial - a different one might do just as well for the job.  Take the word "and."  Is there some special suitability of the word "and" for conjunction?  No, not really.  Any other short, easy-to-pronounce word might do as well, as you can see by looking at other languages where "et," "y," "kai," "und," and so on do just as well.  Nevertheless, if you are addressing an English-speaking audience, you cannot just substitute any thing you please; if you mean "and" and you want to communicate, you must say "and" or something that is widely understood to mean the same thing.  And so you must respect the tradition, even though it is an arbitrary one.

There are some signs that are so totally dependent on some feature of human nature that you couldn't assign it to mean something else and have it make sense to people, or that you couldn't reasonably choose something else to mean the same thing.  For instance, a growling stomach will never be a sign of satiety, for it is a point of human physiology that it means hunger, and it would be preposterous and counterproductive to try to change the cultural consciousness so as to reassign it to fullness, or sadness, or confusedness, for instance.

Most signs are positioned somewhere on a continuum in between these two extremes, that is to say, there is a component of both.  Even the really arbitrary ones, if they are well-established, can be really very powerful in making a point, much more than you might think.  For instance, I remember this one time I was sitting around with some friends and one of the young ladies was wearing high heels, and she was standing with her leg out to the side, her foot balanced on the heel, rocking it back and forth absentmindedly in that way you'll see women doing sometimes.  And even though she is very pretty, right then it was not her looks but the sight of this relatively insignificant action that caused my train of thought to be diverted by a realization that she is a grown woman.  Really, when you think about it, there is nothing in this itself that has to do with being female or a woman.  If history had been a little different, heels could have been the fashion for men instead, or some other shoe the fashion for women.  But this sight triggered an unexpectedly powerful cue in my mind that I didn't even realize was there, that had been built up quite unconsciously over the years from seeing my mother and other women do that.

This may seem a bit irrational, but that is the power of signs and symbols - they have this ability that sometimes they can have an intuitive force that bypasses the rational discourse stage of thought and makes an impact directly on your mind and heart.  I am sure you've had experiences like this, where something trivial-seeming made some powerful connection in your mind because of some association you might only dimly have been aware of - a smell, a sound, a sight - that brings some truth home in a forceful way. 

Think about things covered in previous posts: the sacred liturgy (Mass and Sacraments) are supposed to be preparing you for heaven; and in heaven you will experience heavenly realities in a direct and immediate way.  Therefore in the liturgy you would expect to find as many signs and symbols as reasonably possible that might have some chance of hitting home and making people aware of the divine realities they participate in as direct and intuitive a way as possible.  And in fact, when you look at Catholic liturgy, when practiced in its fullness, you see that it is not purposely stripped down to the bare minimum essentials, but there are incorporated into it sacred sights and sounds and smells - even taste and touch are engaged.

It's important to note that you can't just select whatever you please, call it sacred, and expect it to have the effect of halping people experience the sacred.  For instance, architecture.  Maybe you have seen some of those churches that by design look more like auditoria, modern art museums, or social halls than a church.  I can't help noticing that people often tend to conduct themselves as though they were in an auditorium or a social hall than in church when they are in one of those than when in a church that looks sacred and reverent.

So far this post has been about signs and symbols in general - I should get to how music serves as a sign, because this is getting long enough already.  Music is one of the most powerful symbolic actions we possess, and among the most deeply rooted in human nature.  I am sure that before the Fall, Adam and Eve sang, because they could talk, and if they could talk, they could sing, and since they loved, they would want to.  Perhaps song is one of those things of the "primordial tradition," or maybe not, because even if it was somehow extirpated from one generation, I am certain that a later one would rediscover and revive it.  Some people imagine that singing is an accretion or "modern" addition to the honest, simple liturgy of the early Church.  I am quite sure that not singing is the modern decadent practice, and that singing - not just at Mass but singing the Mass itself - was the ancient practice.  This is not terribly surprising when you think about how "singing is of those who love," as St. Augustine observed, and the early Church loved very much; how (I understand) in the Hellenized culture in which the early Church took was instituted and grew, public speaking (oratory) and singing were not far removed from each other (remember that ancient Greek had a pitch accent, not stress like modern Greek or English); and the Jewish heritage with the tradition of the Psalms.  It was St. Augustine's practice to chant the Mass rather than to speak it; he writes that at one point he wondered whether he should mortify himself further (for he was very strict with himself) by speaking the Mass and thus giving up the pleasure of singing, but he decided against it on the grounds that doing so would glorify God less.  It was said of St. Dominic not that he said Mass every day, but that he chanted it, and when he thought that the brothers were not singing the Office with enough gusto, he would run up and down the aisle exhorting them to "sing stronger, like men."

So there ought to be music, and the music is important.  It has been stated (by either St. Pius X or the Vatican II Constitution on the liturgy, possibly both) that the Church's sacred music is a treasure of inestimable value, greater than that of any other form of sacred or religious art.  Furthermore, it is not just an adornment of the liturgy, like nice architecture or vestments or vessels, it is an integral part of it.

So how does music symbolize something?  Partly it does it by associations that have been built up in the culture.  Partly it does it by characteristics that correspond to some property of human nature, physical, spiritual, or both.

The former is perhaps easier to see.  When you hear music in a certain setting, you associate it with what you were doing and how you were feeling, and when that happens repeatedly, the association becomes very strong.  I am sure you know many people who like certain songs not because they actually like the song itself but because it was popular on the radio when they were in high school, so that it brings back good memories.  See how strong it is?  When many people build up the same strong associations, and especially when those become established over many generations, that is when they can become very powerful.  Just think of how the right music can put you in the right frame of mind to enter into an experience, but mismatched music can disrupt it.  For instance, suppose you were watching a scary movie, and the heroine is going down the creaky stairs into the basement with a knife and a flashlight, and all the sudden circus music started to play.  The whole effect would be ruined, wouldn't it?  The film might still be what it is, but the mismatched music totally disrupted your ability to enter into the world, so to speak, of the movie.  Or Star Wars.  Have you ever seen the original trailer?  It's weird, because it doesn't have any music.  If you've seen Star Wars, you know how the excellent music played an important role in the greatness of the movie.  You can imagine an analogous thing happening with church music.  Use music associated with entertainment or worldly pursuits, and you press peoples' buttons to act like they are dealing with one of those.  Use music associated with the sacred, and you dispose them to be prepared for the sacred.  It happens whether you're conscious of it or not. Where are the associations that are built up with Catholic sacred music?  Everyone knows.  When the news channels did the coverage of Pope John Paul's funeral, and they needed an intro screen that would invoke a Catholic aura, what music did they go for?  Hootenanny Mass music or the St. Louis Jesuits?  No - Gregorian chant.  Even after hundreds of years of neglect, Gregorian chant is instantly recognizable by everyone as distinctly sacred and distinctly Catholic, far and away more so than any other kind of music.

The latter.  Did you happen to watch the finale of that "America's Got Talent" show?  They had the Blue Man Group as guest performers.  They played a song which was as much a musical presentation of sexual climax as any I've ever seen.  It wasn't dirty or obscene, it just definitely represented sex and not something else.  At the risk of being indecorous, I'll say that the tempo got faster and the percussion got harder and the music more intense as the song progressed, until it ended with a great big boom.  If there was any doubt as to what the effect was supposed to be, the boom was accompanied by a burst onstage of white confetti.  A lot of music symbolizes sex.  It might be argued that rock music, the whole genre, does (and contains a particular attitude about it as well).  Listening to it, I don't think it takes that much imagination to see how this is.  I seem to remember Cardinal Ratzinger saying something to the effect of "Rock music is the music of sexual intercourse."  I'm sure a lot of people pegged him as a stuffy old fuddy-duddy for that one, but I also don't think people respect his astute spiritual and musical sense.  I heard an interview on NPR once of a guy who did research on the origins and development of rock 'n' roll and rock music, and he reported that in this context "rock" is a slang term for "have sexual intercourse" and "roll" is a slang term for the same.  This does not make it bad, dirty, or obscene (necessarily), but it does mean that until either human physiology, the Faith, what you do in heaven, or the nature of contemplative prayer changes, this type of music will not be well-suited for sacred music.  Other types of music will also have analogous problems if they do not appeal primarily to the spirit but to the passions and sensuality.

Human nature being what it is, the sacred chant of the Church is well-suited to symbolize and signify contemplative prayer.  Executed rightly, it is peaceful and serene, but not stagnant; mysterious, yet compelling; gentle, but not weak; strong, but not harsh.  Like Jesus. The Church does not limit sacred music to Gregorian chant only, but asked (at Vatican II) that it be given the respect it deserves.  Pope John Paul II proposed in his letter on sacred music the rule of St. Pius X, that you can tell how fit a piece of music is for sacred use by the extent to which it "shares in the spirit and power of" chant.

Posted by Thomas A. on September 1, 2006 at 04:21 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on Sep 2, 2006 10:16:37 PM


I have researched about sacred music and just came accross your page today at
http://catholicaetestudines.blogs.com/catholicae_testudines/2006/09/sacred_music_pa.html. The title of your page is "Sacred Music, part IV". This is a very good thesis and I am wondering if I can have the part I, II, III and the rest of yours about sacred music?
Thanks in advance


Long H. Khong

Posted by: Long H. Khong | Sep 25, 2006 12:20:24 PM

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