Three Paths to Sacred Music

Article excerpt

In conversations over the years with people who have caught the sacred music bug, I've noticed certain patterns over how they initially came to fall in love with Gregorian chant and polyphony, the music codified as proper to the Roman Rite.

There are patterns that emerge in one's life experiences that correspond in an interesting way to church teaching on the marks of sacred music itself, and I seriously doubt that these patterns are a coincidence. You might recognize yourself in these patterns.

I'll start with my own story because I know it best. My own background in religious music was in a Baptist church that spared no expense in putting together over-the-top production numbers. We had a well-paid music minister, a choir of fifty voices, and we frequently hired full-scale orchestras to play on Christmas and Easter. These productions came complete with t-shirts and advertising blitzes. We sang Handel and Mendelssohn, and our ideal was driven by visions of brass choirs on balconies and hundreds of voices singing praises. The more the better was our motto.

Then one day in my early twenties I stumbled into a Catholic Mass in which a single priest who was in his eighties chanted the Mass from the altar. There were no instruments. His voice was weak and old. His pitch was uncertain. There was no choir, no pomp, no advertising, no tshirts, and the people who attended--mostly poor people--mostly just knelt and prayed as the simple notes were chanted by the celebrant.

What struck me was the overwhelming humility of the entire exercise, and how it achieved something that could not be bought or achieved through purely human efforts. It buried the ego completely. It was holy. That was the key. It actually arrived at the place that sacred music was striving for, and did it without any accouterments or pomps. The sound of it touched me to the very depths of my heart and I came to understand the place of music in the faith in a completely different way.

I returned for many weeks with a tape recorder and recorded this priest singing the Mass, and listened all weekdays, morning and night, striving to understand how it was that something so simple and so humble could be so powerful, so real, so authentic, so salvific.

Moving on to a second case, I have a friend who grew up in the Midwest in a medium-sized town in which the 1970s ethos of tie-dye-and-sandals Catholicism took hold. The preferred form of art was that phony folk music of Peter, Paul, and Mary, a time in which no music was considered true and human unless it was accompanied by guitar. Organs were considered "high church" and therefore inappropriate for a "people's church."

This ethos brought us "earthen vessels" since gold was seen as a rich man's metal, and it gave rise to felt banners and homemade signs all over the walls of the church. Nothing was too casual. Jeans, t-shirts, torn shorts, unkempt hair--these were the preferred garb. The music was amateurish and awful, to be sure, but this was seen as something to be preferred. The experts had to be tossed from the seats of power in order for the true voice of the people to emerge.

But then my friend discovered something else. He heard some Renaissance polyphony with its incomparable beauty, its glorious drift upwards toward the heavens. This music wasn't about the "people" and their grungy ways. It was about the majesty of God! Yes! This is what is missing in this whole tie-dye ethos: an awareness that the end of liturgy is not ourselves but the throne of God. …