Musical Instruments and the Mass

By Poterack, Kurt | Sacred Music, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Musical Instruments and the Mass


Poterack, Kurt, Sacred Music


Since this issue of Sacred Music is devoted to orchestral masses, I thought that I would say a few words about the use of orchestral instruments (and, in general, instruments other than the organ) at Mass. I think there is an interesting analogy to be made between the issue of orchestral instruments and that of Gregorian chant versus other music at Mass. Gregorian chant quite simply is the ritual music of the Roman Rite. Other music is allowed, but only to the extent that it "approaches in its movement, inspiration, and savor the Gregorian form." Even so, such music functions as an addition or substitute for chant--which is proper to the Roman rite. Even Renaissance polyphony is not an option equal to Gregorian chant. 1 Similarly the organ is the sacred instrument of the Roman Rite. Period. Other instruments are allowed, but on the condition that they "are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use; that they accord with the dignity of the temple, and that they truly contribute to the edification of the faithful." As I said in a piece I wrote for Sacred Music years ago:

   [T]hese other instruments must "accord with the dignity of the
   temple," and the use of them in church does not make them sacred
   instruments per se. By analogy one might point out that a suit
   "accords with the dignity of the temple" and that is what laymen
   should wear to church, rather than T-shirt and shorts (which do not
   accord with the dignity of the temple). However that does not make
   the suit "sacred," since its primary reference is outside the
   church. Only the priest's garments, like the chasuble or cassock
   and surplice, could be considered sacred. Similarly, an instrument
   like the violin, because of its association with classical (or
   serious) music may be dignified enough for sacred use. However
   because its primary use is outside of the church, it is not a
   sacred instrument.

      Thus one can conclude from this that there are two categories of
   musical instrument in the liturgy: the first category--of which the
   pipe organ is the sole occupant in the Latin church--consists of
   instruments which have been specifically set aside, consecrated,
   for the liturgy; the second category consists of those instruments
   which, though they have never acquired the status of being sacred
   instruments per se, are nonetheless considered suitable for sacred
   use because they accord with the "dignity of the temple. … 

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