Listening and Singing

Article excerpt

Participation in the music of the liturgy involves two complementary processes: listening and singing. In recent years, the singing of the congregation has been taken for granted (sometimes even as mandatory, to the exclusion of music sung by the choir), but listening is often overlooked as an essential part of the role of music in the liturgy and even as an essential complement to singing itself. Pope John Paul II spoke of listening in an ad limina address to the Bishops of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska:

   Active participation certainly means that, in gesture, word, song
   and service, all the members of the community take part in an act
   of worship, which is anything but inert or passive. Yet active
   participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence,
   stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not
   passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the
   homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants
   and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and
   stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a
   culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art
   of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see
   how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated,
   must also be counter-cultural. (1)

Thus, silence, stillness, and listening are essential to active participation in liturgy. How can this be possible? In listening, we hear the Word of God, the teaching of the church--the truth. But also in listening and watching, we hear music and see purposeful actions--the beautiful. In both, we seek to hear the voice of God, to sense his presence. We cannot do this without recollection. As Fr. Kirby tells us in his article below, music arises from silence and returns to silence. The silence of the external world can represent the silence of the soul, the attentive repose of recollection, when all our faculties have put away distraction and are prepared to respond sympathetically to what they see and hear.

Our present society is filled with sounds; practically everywhere something that passes for music pervades. If, however, we examine what is valuable about music, we may find that not much of that stuff around us fully meets the criteria. Music is to be listened to intently, not just as a background for doing other things, or even as a distraction from being confidently in God's presence. We should listen to music which presents to our mind a principle of order in motion which resonates with the orders internal to our own souls, such that we are brought into harmony with something larger than ourselves. This kind of listening involves a very active internal participation in the music we hear. When what we hear does not present something compelling to inner participation, then it is not the highest kind of music; it may even be mere noise. For it to be compelling it has to touch upon something we already have and yet give something we do not already have; it must lift us up beyond where we are.

What is to be heard in music? Essentially, harmony--not just the simultaneous sounding of chords, but the harmonious motion of melodies, rhythms, and counterpoints as well. And when we hear these, they resonate within us, because we feel an affinity with the way they represent order and purpose. And that feeling of affinity helps us model our own sense of order and purpose. This amounts to our internalizing the music.

So the act of listening and hearing is something to which we contribute a very active process--responding in an active, harmonious way to the beauty which is intrinsic to the music. That beauty is an aspect of all reality, even and especially of God; that beauty embodies the integrity and persuasiveness of something whose inner essence is freely shown forth in it. …

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