Academic journal article Sacred Music

Quality, Form, Function, and Beauty in the Liturgy

Academic journal article Sacred Music

Quality, Form, Function, and Beauty in the Liturgy

Article excerpt

For musicians who serve the church's Eucharistic liturgy, common sense dictates that not all styles of music qualify as suitable for divine worship. The document Sing to the Lord (STL) accords with this statement. The musical judgment of sacred music:

  requires musical competence, [and] only artistically sound
  music will be effective and endure over time. To admit to the
  Liturgy the cheap, the trite, or the musical cliche often found
  in secular popular songs is to cheapen the Liturgy, to expose
  it to ridicule, and to invite failure. (1)

The deciding factor about sacred music is its quality. Quality has two meanings: (1) Quality as the essential character of something; we value quality of life, quality time with family and friends, and quality of character. (2) Quality in man-made things, the condition for excellence; we choose quality in food and in clothing.

In the world of the arts, for example, perhaps no other word prompts more controversy than quality. Is quality the preserve of Western culture? Has it excluded or marginalized all other cultural endeavors in the interests of "the abstract concept of quality?" (2) Supporters of quality-based art fear that lack of quality will result in sub-standard art. The opposing position sees quality "not as a symbol of standards but as a symbol of exclusion," especially of non-Western artists. (3) "Quality," writes Barbara Tuchman,

  is the investment of the best skill and effort possible to
  produce the finest and most admirable result possible. Its
  presence or absence in some degree characterizes every manmade
  object, service, skilled or unskilled labor--laying bricks,
  painting a picture, ironing shirts, practicing medicine,
  shoemaking, scholarship, writing a book. You do it well or you
  do it half-well. Materials are sound and durable or they are
  sleazy. ... Quality is achieving or reaching for the highest
  standard as against the sloppy or fraudulent. It is honesty of
  purpose as against catering to cheap or sensational sentiment.
  It does not allow compromise with the second rate. ... Quality
  can be attained without genius. (4)

Since its appearance in the 1970s, the television magazine-program, "60 Minutes," has won numerous awards for its outstanding reportage, a success due to its quality of form.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI, summarizes his response to the utilitarian approach to music. In four translations of Psalm 47 (48), verse eight exhorts the Israelites to sing skillfully in their praise of the Lord:

  (1) Sing an art song; play for God with all your art [with all your
  skill]; (5)

  (2) sing artistically (con arte); (6)

  (3) sing with understanding, (7)

  (4) sing the way the ars musicae teaches. (8)

Quality in sacred music requires artistic skill and the composer's honesty of intent to make music beautiful, expressive of prayer. Lack of skill and "doing one's own thing" are not in accord with the liturgical tradition of the church and she cannot permit literary, musical, or visual tripe to be used in it. Though composers of any age and culture will differ stylistically, quality remains constant. Participation by the faithful is normative without sacrificing quality. (9) In Eucharistic worship, we care enough to give God our very best, to paraphrase the Hallmark dictum.


St. Thomas makes no mention of the intrinsic holiness of religious art, but he does reflect on how the mind makes its ascent to God. (10) His text is developed by W. Norris Clarke for understanding the metaphysical structures latent in religious art forms. According to Clarke's line of reasoning from St. Thomas, an objective argument can be made for judging an art form as sacred or not, and how this is done. A prospective religious work must have something religious that is intrinsic to it, and not have a mere extrinsic accident of title. …

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