When reading papal documents about sacred music, we often find popes speaking about the need for music that possesses a certain sacrality, conduces to meditation, and exhibits high artistic quality.
I do not mean to say that a given musician will agree that solemn music is the most appropriate for the liturgy; in fact, there are many church musicians who would say "Palestrina's solemn, for sure, but it's much too serious and somber for modern-day church-goers. We prefer something lighter and happier-sounding, something you can sing along with and feel good about," etc. This is significant, is it not? People know what is meant by "solemn music," regardless of whether it helps them pray or bores them to tears. Many contemporary church hymns are intended to be, and are recognized as, precisely not solemn. A decision has been made, then, to reject one of the criteria of sacred music, namely, that it should respect and venerate the transcendent awesomeness of the divine mysteries.
Similarly, when it comes to artistic quality, few people in positions of pastoral authority are so poisoned by relativism that they would not be able to perceive the objective excellence that belongs to many older works of musical art and to judge them superior simply as exhibits of skilled craftsmanship or products of genius. Still, having made this judgment, many would argue that such works are no longer culturally relevant; they are too difficult to perform, they do not "actively involve the people," and so on. Once again, a certain quality is shown to be capable of being recognized, even if it is not considered a relevant criterion — even if, indeed, it is repudiated.
The papal teaching addresses precisely the question of criteria; it does not attempt to teach people how to listen to music or how to discriminate different qualities of music. If such discriminatory abilities are lacking, the papal teaching can have no meaning for us. If it ever comes to pass that we can no longer distinguish finely-crafted art from trite toss-offs, a solemn atmosphere from a sentimental or familiar one, or sacral intentions from profane idioms, then the magisterium on sacred music would actually be totally irrelevant in practice, because its very words would carry no weight, no meaning, no force.
Some years ago I read a fascinating book by Oliver Bennett, Cultural Pessimism. Bennett observes: "In a 'dumbed-down' culture, the idea of an art which might be 'ennobling and spiritualising' was destined to be mocked" (129). Try this experiment. Tell someone who doesn't care for polyphony, Gregorian chant, or the classic pipe organ repertoire that the reason you prefer these types or genres of music for the church is that they ennoble and spiritualize the listener. It can be guaranteed that your claim will be written off as either patronizing or incomprehensible and irrelevant. Bennett goes on to say:
This is the kind of relativism and even nihilism that church musicians, liturgists, and lovers of tradition are up against — a relativism that can undermine even the comprehension of the vocabulary that papal documents have confidently used, relying all the while on the native intelligence and judgment of educated people. If we want to usher in a day when the consistent criteria of St. Pius X, Ven. Pius XII, Bd. John Paul II, and Benedict XVI are actually followed, we must work today to ensure that their aesthetic and theological language can be well and duly understood, especially among young Catholics.
Reprinted with permission from Corpus Christi Watershed and Peter Kwasniewski. The original article can be found here.
Corpus Christi Watershed is a non-profit organization dedicated to exploring and embodying as our calling the relationship of religion, culture and the arts. We employ the arts and creative media in the service of theology, the Church and Christian culture for the enrichment and enjoyment of the public.
THE AUTHORPeter Kwasniewski is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College (B.A. in Liberal Arts) and The Catholic University of America (M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy). He has been teaching philosophy, theology, and music at the university level since 1998. He has held posts with the International Theological Institute in Austria, the Austrian Program of Ave Maria University, the Phoenix Institute Europe Foundation, and the Austrian Program of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and is currently Professor of Theology and Philosophy, Instructor in Music History and Theory, and Founding Choirmaster at Wyoming Catholic College. He is also a published and performed composer, especially of sacred music.
Copyright © 2013 Corpus Christi Watershed
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.