Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sacred Music V: Of Praise and Petition

Sacred Music: Part I | II | III | IV | V

I'm guessing that Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Man got your attention just now. Doesn't he look happy? Look at those flailing arms and that big grin: he's ecstatic! He's ecstatic and he wants everyone to know. He just can't contain himself. Look at him!

In the course of affairs I have often heard the charge that Catholic sacred music is dolorous and depressing. It is not celebratory enough. Chant in particular is too serious. In place of such music Catholics should use big loud happy pieces during mass. Preferably this music should be in four parts and feature as much tinkling and thwacking accompaniment as possible. Mass should be HAPPY. After all we are "celebrating" the eucharist. Psalm 43.29 and the "sacrifice of praise" is then duly trotted out.

Now this sentiment is surely not to be condemned in toto any more than, say, the happy heart of Joseph Haydn that wrote his great symphonic masses should be castigated. The sentiment must, however, be moderated and for two reasons.

Foremost we must be reminded that prayer, all prayer, fundamentally maintains an element, even a prevailing element, of petition. We never simply praise God but always ask and hope that He be praised both to the utmost and per omnia saecula saeculorum. We hope that our humble offering of praise, subject as it is to our foibles, exalts. We hope that our love is pure and our craft refined. Thus even a laudatory prayer is not simply an effusion of joy but a hopeful request. All prayer, then, should maintain some spirit of supplication even as it exhorts or expresses.

Modern man of course has difficulty with this necessity because requesting implies submission and submission humiliates him, that is, it makes him humble. Petition seems to provide no vehicle for him to express himself or demonstrate the extent of his own genius and vast material resources but rather forces him to acknowledge his smallness and weakness.  Such an admission is uncomfortable for the modern man who has conquered so much and such brings us to our second reason that one must praise as supplicant, that otherwise the offering becomes a vehicle for the aggrandizement of the individual than of pure praise for God. This is a problem for much great music simply because the music is forever tied to its composer. In some way when we hear Handel will always hear not just music but Handel. Only the church's ancient and anonymous chants overcome this hurdle.

Now this imperative that prayer praise and petition God alone, what we might call the SDG imperative after the famous saying Soli Deo Gloria that  Bach appended to all of his music, has a profound implication, namely that all elements must focus on and only on a divine end. In other words, Christian worship is the worship of God. This means each element of sacred music must either directly contribue to a divine end by way of its overt meaning or by way of beautifying the work. For example, a text might worship in words and music might beautify it.

All else, by definition, serves another purpose. This implication itself has another: such music must be excellent. That which fails to be excellent contains, perhaps only in part, what is extraneous. Such is extraneous by virtue of having what is purposeless, and it is purposeless because it does not solely address God, is not beautiful, or accomplishes one of these aims but at some greater expense. For example, we might add words which unbalance the musical phrase or we may add notes which obfuscate the words. Too we may add either notes or words which are redundant and therefore undesirable as disruptive to the work's overall symmetry and logic.

The greatest works of sacred music contain the most excellent texts with no poor or extra words, the most excellent music in which all elements are necessary and meaningful, and harmony between these two elements.

If you enjoyed this essay you may also enjoy:

Theological Problems of Church Music by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
Liturgy and Church Music by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

The Anonymous Artist
Causa Pulchritudinis
On Gratitude
Music and Community
Would You Sing it on a Boat?

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