Academic journal article Sacred Music

Liturgical Music and the Liturgical Movement (1966)

Academic journal article Sacred Music

Liturgical Music and the Liturgical Movement (1966)

Article excerpt

The current revival of liturgical devotion has brought about, and in part has proceeded from, extensive investigations of liturgical history and theology. On the one hand, the historical source documents have been made available and studied. On the other hand the supernatural reality of Christian worship has undergone painstaking re-examination in the light of the sacred scriptures and the writings of the fathers. These efforts have culminated in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. As a result, the actual offering of the liturgy, once thought (it is said) to be a merely formal and exterior requirement of religion, is now seen to be the very center of Christian life. As the Constitution says, "the liturgy is the summit towards which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the fount from which all of her power flows."

Yet, one vast area of problems concerning the liturgy has been discussed only slightly, and mostly in vague and metaphorical terms. And these problems must be resolved if the restoration and reform of the liturgy so ardently desired by the church is to be brought about. The area we refer to is that of the psychology of liturgical participation. The liturgy has been considered at great length in supernatural or theological terms, and in historical terms; there is also need to discuss it in natural or philosophic terms. For liturgy involves human activity, and the nature of this activity determines the means required to bring it about.

An outstanding problem of this sort (and, considering the difficulties involved, perhaps the farthest from solution) is that of music: what its contribution to religion might be, and what sorts of music are most effective in securing proper liturgical participation. Historically music has had an eminent place in the liturgy. It was an integral part of the Passover meal and synagogue services, of the early Latin liturgies, and of the Oriental liturgies up to the present day. It is treated at great length in the liturgical legislation of the church, from the earliest times, through the era of the Tridentine reforms, up to our own time. Yet, aside from exegetical, or symbolic, discussions, much current writing on the liturgy seems virtually to ignore it. And none need be reminded of the present unfortunate state of liturgical music, in which much of what is done contributes very little to religion, if it does not in fact oppose it.

Liturgical music is, nevertheless, an area of sharp disagreement. Some consider Gregorian chant a relic of the Dark Ages, worth of study and admiration perhaps but totally out of place in contemporary worship; they prefer music of modern composition. Others would avoid music written later than the sixteenth century. Still others would eliminate the services of organists and trained musicians and give all the singing to the congregations. Some champion can be found for every available style of music, and nearly everyone considers some sorts of music preferable to others. The various issues are in urgent need of clarification.

This paper will point out a way of distinguishing the psychological effect of music, and will illustrate it with the history of music. It will then consider the place of these effects in liturgy, and will criticize certain recent practices. For a discussion of the more specific question of congregational singing from the point of view of this paper, see the author's "Congregational Singing." (1)


The immediate goal of musical activity certainly must be some human good. We might begin by asking whether this good is confined to the sensual level, that is, whether its effect is merely pleasure, or whether music affects also the higher levels of the personality.

Aristotle, while observing that it is difficult to determine precisely the nature of music, sees its possible effects as threefold, corresponding to his division of the faculties of the soul:

  For it is not easy to say precisely what potency it possesses, nor
  yet for the sake of what object one should participate in
  it--whether for amusement and relaxation, as one indulges in sleep
  and deep drinking (for these in themselves are not serious pursuits
  but merely pleasant, and "relax our care," as Euripides says; owing
  to which people actually class music with them and employ all of
  these things, sleep, deep drinking, and music, in the same way, and
  they also place dancing in the same class); or whether we ought
  rather to think that music tends in some degree to virtue (music
  being capable of producing a certain quality of character just as
  gymnastics are capable of producing a certain quality of body,
  music accustoming men to be able to rejoice rightly); or that it
  contributes something to intellectual entertainment * and culture
  (for this must be set down as a third alternative among those
  mentioned. … 
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