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No Music is Good Music

February 3, AD2017

hymn, church music, chant

Vatican II Music

If you read what the Second Vatican Council wrote about sacred music (in Chapter VI in the 1963 constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium) you will wonder what has happened over the last fifty years.

By reading the documents of Vatican II, we can learn that the Church considers our tradition of sacred music a treasure “greater than that of any other art” (112). This sacred music is to be “preserved and fostered with great care” (114). Vatican II called for Gregorian chant, polyphony, and the pipe organ. Highly trained choirs were to be fostered and institutes were to be established to promote sacred music. The Church specified that the texts “to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine and drawn chiefly from Holy Scripture and from liturgical sources” (121).

Post-Vatican II Music

If you read what the Magisterium says about sacred music in Musicam Sacram (the 1967 Instruction on Music in the Liturgy), you will also wonder what has happened over the past half-century.

To explain, Musicam Sacram said that when we are going to sing at Mass, there are three degrees of participation “to make the celebration of Mass more beautiful” (28). “These degrees are so arranged that the first may be used even by itself, but the second and third, wholly or partially, may never be used without the first.” In other words, if we are going to have music, we start with the first degree, and and always include it when incorporating the second or third degrees.

Judge for Yourself

Here are the sung parts of Mass in order of priority (judge your parish music accordingly):

The following belong to the first degree:

(a) In the entrance rites: the greeting of the priest together with the reply of the people; the prayer.
(b) In the Liturgy of the Word: the acclamations at the Gospel.
(c) In the Eucharistic Liturgy: the prayer over the offerings; the preface with its dialogue and the Sanctus; the final doxology of the Canon, the Lord’s Prayer with its introduction and embolism; the Pax Domini; the prayer after the Communion; the formulas of dismissal.

The following belong to the second degree:

(a) the Kyrie, Gloria and Agnus Dei;
(b) the Creed;
(c) the Prayer of the Faithful.

The following belong to the third degree:

(a) the songs at the Entrance and Communion processions;
(b) the songs after the Lesson or Epistle;
(c) the Alleluia before the Gospel;
(d) the song at the Offertory;
(e) the readings of Sacred Scripture, unless it seems more suitable to proclaim them without singing.

Four-hymn Sandwiches

If I am reading correctly, the kind of music actually used recently—the four-hymn sandwich as some call it—belong to the last degree. Given how inappropriate, if not downright terrible, many of these hymns are, it seems we’ve been subjected to a travesty.

I do not how to reform this situation. It seems that when it comes to the kind of music we should be experiencing in the Mass, we are at zero on a scale of 1 to 10.

A Mass without music and with some silence is often much more edifying.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Kevin lives with his wife and seven children in Springfield, IL.

He is currently doing freelance curriculum and research projects and teaching.

In his free time he writes screenplays, TV pilots, novels, and non-fiction books and articles. His homiletic lectionary-based blog is Doctrinal Homily Outlines.

He is also pursing a MA in Theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary via distance learning.

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  • Edwin taraba

    The music of a solemn high traditional Latin mass greatly enhances the contemplative prayers of the mass and helps lift your mind and heart towards God. Go to http://www.latinmasstrenton.org and http://Www.ccwatershed.org to find out more about the rich heritage of the old church still alive today.

  • Margaret Drowns

    I actually purposely seek out the earliest Mass on Sunday for the sole purpose of not having to have my Communion time disrupted with so-called “music”. Most times, I have to go to a different parish.

    • Jon82

      The reason music is sung during the Communion Procession is because it is called for by the GIRM, our liturgical guide and law. Sorry, don’t sing. Simple solution. My prayer is enhanced by the music–yes even at Communion.

    • Margaret Drowns

      And mine is not.

    • Jon82

      Good, I guess you wish those of us responsible for music in our parish to ignore the laws and directives of the church. Ok–got it.

    • Margaret Drowns

      “Silence is difficult but it makes a human being able to allow himself
      to be led by God. Silence is born of silence. Through God the silent one
      we can gain access to silence. And a human being is unceasingly
      surprised by the light that bursts forth then. Silence is more important
      than any other human work. For it expresses God. The true revolution
      comes from silence; it leads us toward God and others so as to place
      ourselves humbly and generously at their service.” Cardinal Robert Sarah, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise

    • Jon82

      Oh, yes quote Cardinal Sarah, such a fine liturgist and musician….NOT. Until he writes something in a document signed by the Holy Father, all he writes is his opinion. Good for him.

    • I do like to hear music, sung or as an instrumental piece when I receive the Eucharist

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Could you support this statement from the GIRM? The document I quote above lists the Communion Procession as “third level,” not to be done unless the first level is done.

    • Jon82

      Those who receive Holy Communion should be prepared to receive so great a gift. They should fast (except for medicines) for at least one hour before receiving the Eucharist and should not be conscious of having committed serious sin.

      Because sharing at the Eucharistic Table is a sign of unity in the Body of Christ, only those in communion with the Catholic Church may receive Holy Communion. To invite others present to receive Holy Communion implies a unity which does not exist. Those who do not receive Holy Communion still participate in this rite by praying for unity with Christ and with each other.

      The people approach the altar and, bowing with reverence, receive Holy Communion. People may receive the Body of Christ either on the tongue or in the hand. The priest or other minister offers the Eucharist to each person saying, “The Body of Christ.” The person receiving responds by saying, “Amen,” a Hebrew word meaning, “So be it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2856).

      As the people receive Holy Communion, the communion chant/song is sung. The unity of voices echoes the unity the Eucharist brings. All may spend some time in silent prayer of thanksgiving as well.

      http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/order-of-mass/liturgy-of-the-eucharist/index.cfm

      Now you have it.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I think that is a description, not a proscription. It does not mean there is a church law that says we have to sing “One Bread, One Body.”

      86. During the priest’s reception of communion, the communion song is begun. Its function is to express outwardly the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to give evidence of joy of heart and to highlight more the “communitarian” character of the communion procession. The song continues while the Sacrament is being ministered to the faithful. But the communion song should be ended in good time whenever there is to be a hymn after communion.

      Care must be taken that cantors are also able to receive communion conveniently.

      [US Adaptation] 87. In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Cantus a Communionem:

      (1) the antiphon and Psalm from the Roman Missal as set to music in the Roman Gradual or in another musical setting;

      (2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual;

      (3) a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the USCCB or the Diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms;

      (4) a suitable liturgical song chosen in accordance with GIRM, no. 86.

      If there is no singing, the communion antiphon in the Missal may be recited either by the faithful, or by a group of them, or by a reader. Otherwise the priest himself says it after he has received communion and before he gives communion to them.

      https://www.ewtn.com/expert/answers/music_mass_parts.htm#communion

    • Jon82

      The GIRM is not a description; you need to check with the USSCB as they promulgated the document. Anyway, I am sure you and others will continue to do what you feel is best, as I will in my vocation and according to the directives/laws which govern music in the liturgy.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I did not mean to say the GIRM is a description. I meant what you quoted was. Note the following from the GIRM:

      86. While the Priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion Chant is begun, its purpose being to express the spiritual union of the communicants by means of the unity of their voices, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the “communitarian” character of the procession to receive the Eucharist. The singing is prolonged for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful.[73] However, if there is to be a hymn after Communion, the Communion Chant should be ended in a timely manner.

      Care should be taken that singers, too, can receive Communion with ease.

      87. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, there are four options for singing at Communion: (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the antiphon with Psalm from the Graduale Simplex of the liturgical time; (3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) some other suitable liturgical chant (cf. no. 86) approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. This is sung either by the choir alone or by the choir or a cantor with the people.

      However, if there is no singing, the antiphon given in the Missal may be recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a reader; otherwise, it is recited by the Priest himself after he has received Communion and before he distributes Communion to the faithful.

      88. When the distribution of Communion is over, if appropriate, the Priest and faithful pray quietly for some time. If desired, a Psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn may also be sung by the whole congregation.

      >When have we ever heard a Communion Chant–any one of the four options listed?
      >If no singing is an not option, why is “no singing” discussed?

      A question I would like to ask is when and where have we actually experienced the directives/laws which govern music in the liturgy being carried out?

    • Jon82

      Interestingly enough, sir, our recently retired Bishop gave all Music Directors, myself included a guide for music at Mass in his Diocese. It directly and explicitly indicated that we have to have a communion processional hymn of some form, to begin with the communion of the priest and conclude at the final communion for those participating in Mass. We carry out the directives carried out six times per weekend.

  • Super Genius

    “A Mass without music and with some silence is often much more edifying.”

    Sometimes referred to as “the music-lover’s Mass.”

  • I absolutely agree Kevin. I attend Mass several times a week and father starts and ends each Mass with a hymn. Rarely do I ever recognize any of the hymns. Sometimes I have looked up composers after Sunday Mass to find they are Protestants. Yes I’m old school, but rarely am I moved or inspired by the music I hear at Mass.

    • Dagnabbit_42

      Richard,

      I sympathize; but then, if the Catholic equivalent hymns are those treacly tunes from the Gather hymnal, an 18th-century hymn by an Anglican, a Methodist, or even a Lutheran is frequently more orthodox, and has better music.

      And that’s understandable: Henry VIII and his successors got rid of nearly all the English-speaking Catholics through killing, compulsory conversion, or crushing oppression. This seriously undermined our ability to have an English-language hymnody: You need to have a few hundred years of English-speaking Catholics, in very large numbers, just in order to get a few good hymn-writers among them per generation. And you need several generations of good hymn writers, before you’ll get a full hymn-book.

      Hymns written in a romance language often translate well to another such language for grammatical reasons: The syllable count will remain similar, and grammatically-required word-endings will keep most rhymes intact. And for the same reason, they can translate from the Latin without much altering the melodic or rhythmic structure of the original.

      Not so with English: We don’t gender our nouns or conjugate our verbs with regularized patterns of word-endings, so most of the rhymes vanish. Because ours is the language that catches other languages alone in dark alleys, beats them up, and steals their vocabulary, our patterns of stressed syllables are irregular.

      So the Gloria sung in English is all wrong from the point-of-view of English musical text-writing. Having been translated from Latin, it has some lines too short, some too long, some with syllables uncomfortably crammed together immediately adjacent to short words which have to be spoken slowly to balance them. The Credo is better, but still a monster to try to set to music.

      So I think the best approach is just to keep them in Latin, if they are to be set to music, or get rid of the music, if they are to be in English. As for English-language hymns, use ones whose words can be construed in an orthodox manner, even if a Protestant wrote them, provided they’re a minimum of 75 years old and widely loved in every decade. Chuck the rest.

    • Dagnabbit,

      Excellent comment! And I agree with you 100%
      I would love to sing the Latin hymns again, not only am I an old altar boy,
      but an old choir boy as well. I remember singing those Latin hymns as a boy, and at times felt that lump in my throat and could hardly finish.