St. Augustine (and Others) on Music at Mass

I normally attend Sunday mass in the Extraordinary Form (i.e. the Traditional Latin Mass). But the TLM is not permitted during the Easter Triduum, so for Holy Thursday I was forced to attend mass in the Ordinary Form (i.e. the mass as revised after Vatican II) in the vernacular, or not at all. (I will refer to the Extraordinary Form as “EF” and the Ordinary Form as “OF”.)

Since it had been quite a while since I attended an OF mass, of course I noticed a lot of things about it that are different from what I’m used to. One of the first things was the music, specifically the Gloria. It was one which I know is familiar to a lot of people — I remember it from my pre-EF days — but unfortunately I don’t know the composer so I can’t identify it for you. Suffice it to say that it’s quite rhythmic, with a lot of syncopation.

It’s a lively song and was played in a fairly lively manner. But I was struck by the contrast between the liveliness of the music and the relative stillness of the congregation. It seemed as though the music was designed to get people rocking and rolling, clapping hands, singing along, etc. But the people weren’t having it. Pretty much everyone just stood stock-still, scarcely even singing along, let alone clapping or dancing.

I don’t know if the people were keeping still and quiet because they didn’t like the music, or because they didn’t think it would be appropriate to dance and sing at mass. But in any event it was kind of pathetic: The music was rocking and rolling and the people were just not responding at all. I thought, if this were a concert or a wedding this song would be considered a big flop.

As I stood there, like everyone else, stock-still, I realized that the experience was illustrating what I hate about a lot of modern mass music: It tries to force the people to adopt a certain emotional state which the authors, or the liturgists who choose the songs, think is appropriate for mass: that of enthusiastic joy bubbling over into physical activity.

But what if you just don’t happen to feel joyful that day? What if your wife just died, or you’ve lost your job? You may not be in despair: you may be perfectly prepared to resign yourself to the Lord’s will and endure the suffering until such time as he chooses to grant you consolation and comfort. But nevertheless, dancing and singing may be the last thing you feel like doing.

(This is also the problem with lay “announcers” who walk up to the microphone before mass and say, “Good morning!!” And when the people don’t respond loud enough repeat somewhat louder, “I said GOOD MORNING!!!” As much as to say, “What’s wrong with you people?! We’re here to worship the Lord! Let’s be joyful dammit!!”)

Do I mean that music at mass should not evoke any emotion? I would say not. Most music in fact evokes some kind of emotion, to a greater or lesser extent. The question is, what kinds of emotions should mass music try to evoke?

Not only what kinds of emotions, but to what degree should it evoke them? Should it try to evoke extreme joy or intense, dramatic sadness? Or should it be more moderate and subtle?

It seems to me — and it seems obvious — that the primary emotion that mass music should evoke is reverence. Reverence is an emotion that is always appropriate at mass — unlike, say, joy, which may be appropriate at some moments during mass, but is not always appropriate. At the moment of consecration for example, should we be feeling joyful, when what we’re doing is offering to the Father Jesus’ suffering on the Cross? Or during the Confiteor, when we’re expressing sorrow for our sins? (Though in my experience, the word “sin” often is not mentioned during OF Confiteors.) But reverence is appropriate at all these times.

Furthermore, reverence is compatible with most of the emotions we might happen to be feeling when we walk into mass: Reverent music is not going to jar the nerves of someone who has just lost his job, for example. And if we walk into mass feeling active and playful, well, it’s good to have music that reminds us that it’s time to calm down and pay attention.

Here is a description of what St. Augustine, among others, thought was the most appropriate type of music for mass:

‘The great Christian theologian Augustine (344-430) reinterpreted in a Christian vein this sense of music and its effects. He did so theoretically (and mainly in terms of metrical theory), in book 6 of De Musica, and with more practical awareness in the Confessions. Thus, in book 10 of his Confessions, Augustine reports how in his first years as a committed Christian he was moved to tears by the singing of psalms in church. But he worries that sometimes he may be moved more by the music itself than by the truth of the words being chanted. He acknowledges that when the words of a psalm are chanted well, piety is kindled with warmer devotion than when the words are merely spoken. But physical delight, he adds, must be checked from enervating the mind. Consequently, Augustine concludes that he can welcome singing in church only when it is restrained and moderate–conceding, though, that music of some sort may be needed so that “weaker minds” may be stimulated to devotion through the “delights of the ear.”

‘Augustine in this passage provides a classic expression of the ambivalence that church fathers, like the pagan philosophers, typically felt about the emotional powers of music. Respecting music as God-given and good, Christian leaders of the patristic era were generally very guarded about music’s effects on the emotions. They worried, as Christian theologians continued over the centuries to worry, about the bodily and erotic basis of certain emotions to which music and dance might appeal; and in general they advocated restraint rather than musical ecstasy or enthusiasm. Moreover, many a church father declared that what should give pleasure in sung prayer is not so much the singing itself as the words.

‘Because musical instruments were widely associated with frenzied or ecstatic pagan rituals, lewd dancing, and bawdy drama, early church leaders restricted church music to unaccompanied chanting–shortly ruling out even the voices of women. Judging from repeated warnings about the use of instruments and dance in church, it appears that music as practiced by Christians in late antiquity must have transgressed such norms with some frequency. Even so, the use of instruments in church was mostly forbidden for the next thousand years or more; and in Eastern Catholic churches, Orthodox Jewish synagogues, and Islamic mosques, instruments (and often women’s voices) continue to be proscribed to this day.

‘Still another aspect of Augustine’s musical restraint became a prominent feature of Christian attitudes toward music–namely, the priority he gave to words and their intelligibility. It is true that Augustine himself seemed to approve of occasionally singing to God in free jubilation, without always being able to understand or express in words what is sung in the heart–establishing a warrant for the long melismatic passages later given over to the “Alleluia” in the liturgy. Augustine claimed that because God is ineffable, it is sometimes fitting for the heart to rejoice wordlessly in singing God’s praise. Yet, as choral singing in Roman Catholicism frequently included polyphony from the High Middle Ages on, church leaders complained that the simultaneous sounding of multiple melodic lines of music inevitably tended to obscure the texts being sung. Thus the Council of Trent (1545-1563) placed more stress on the need for the words of a sung mass to be set in an intelligible way than on emotional tenor. Indeed, the documents of Trent caution against music that “delights the ears more than the mind” and excites the faithful to “lascivious rather than to religious thoughts.” Instead, they say, the mass should be sung clearly, and in such a way that it “may reach tranquilly into the cars and hearts of those who hear” it, not giving “empty pleasure” but drawing listeners to desire heavenly harmonies and to contemplate the Joys of the blessed.’

From The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Emotion, John Corrigan, Ed., 206-207, Oxford University Press US, 2008.

You can see that happy-clappy music is definitely not what St. Augustine or the Council of Trent would have considered ideal for mass.

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