Music and the Form of the Good

To be perfectly honest, dear reader, I begin this post in the hope of allowing myself the luxury, at some point herein, to trash the liturgical tastes of my co-religionists at great length, because verily I say unto you that I have suffered through too many banal liturgies with too much banal music and I am about ready to puke. But because this ambition is clearly self-indulgent I'm going to try to dignify the proceedings just a little by talking about something else, thereby trying to disguise my obvious narcissism.

So let me start with a quotation from Plato's Laws. Quoting from Plato is always a good way to mesmerize the masses. In discussing the moral education of the youngest citizens of the ideal state, Plato has the Athenian Visitor say the following (812bc):
We said, I think, that the sixty-year-old singers of Dionysus should be persons who are particularly sensitive to rhythm and the way in which "harmonies" are constructed, so that when faced with good or vicious musical representations, and the emotions aroused by them, they may be able to select the works based on good representation and reject those based on bad. The former they should present and sing to the community at large, so as to charm the souls of the young people, encouraging each and every one of them to let these representations guide them along the path that leads to virtue.
Plato is here expressing the view that art, particularly music, in the form of rhythm and harmony, can have an effect on the human soul. This effect takes the form of eliciting in us emotional reactions to the rhythms and harmonies that we hear, and these emotional reactions are in some sense homologous to the emotional reactions we have in our souls when being virtuous or vicious. So Plato is recommending that the state poets (the "sixty-year-old singers of Dionysus) present only those musical forms that will prompt in young people the proper sorts of emotional reactions, that is, the sorts of emotions that get evoked ought to be the ones that are compatible with virtuous states rather than vicious states.

That might remind you a little of certain court cases in the United States where heavy metal musicians were put on trial by misguided folks who wanted to prosecute them for writing songs that drove their children to commit suicide. In my opinion anybody who had to listen to that music would naturally want to commit suicide, but that's just me. Well, except for Metallica. I really like Metallica. But that's just me.

Plato's sentiments were shared by Aristotle, who wrote in the eighth book of the Politics that music has an effect on our soul, principally through rhythm and melody, and again the context is that of moral education (1340a19ff):
Rhythm and melody supply imitations of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and temperance, and of all the qualities contrary to these, and of the other qualities of character, which hardly fall short of the actual affectations, as we know from our own experience, for in listening to such strains our souls undergo a change. The habit of feeling pleasure or pain at mere representations is not far removed from the same feeling about realities; for example, if any one delights in the sight of a statue for its beauty only, it necessarily follows that the sight of the original will be pleasant to him. The objects of no other sense, such as taste or touch, have any resemblance to moral qualities; in visible objects there is only a little, for there are figures which are of a moral character, but only to a slight extent, and all do not participate in the feeling about them....On the other hand, even in mere melodies there is an imitation of character, for the musical modes differ essentially from one another, and those who hear them are differently affected by each....Enough has been said to show that music has a power of forming the character, and should therefore be introduced into the education of the young.
Ah, Aristotle, a man after my own heart. At least that part of my heart that finds music pleasing. So you must bear in mind that I am simply that sort of person: when it comes to music, I think some kinds are better than others, and I am very much tempted to the view that some kinds are objectively better than others from the point of view of moral education.

This is very much a Platonic viewpoint, I confess: you have to believe that there is such a thing as an objective good before you can believe that some kinds of music possess it. I don't expect everyone to agree with me about this, but I think that Christians, Thomists, Aristotelians, Platonists, Kantians, and others will at least be tempted by the view.

So now, let me get down to the my main item of business, griping about the objectively bad qualities of the liturgies, and in particular the musical aspects of the liturgies, to which I have been subjected. Before I begin I will say that, before I converted in 1983, I had the great pleasure of enjoying many fine and beautiful liturgies at the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the Episcopalian parish to which I belonged for a short time before my conversion. However, looking back on those liturgies now, I am saddened by the realization that, as beautiful as they were, they were celebrated around an empty altar, and that fact necessarily has consequences for the objective beauty of the proceedings. True beauty can only exist where there is true goodness, and though the liturgies of Churches not in communion with Rome are not all of them fully bad, they are none of them fully good.

Having said all of that, I must now point out that mere conformity with doctrinal purity is not the same thing as perfect goodness, because just as true beauty cannot exist without true goodness, so, too, true goodness cannot exist independently of true beauty, since The Good and The Beautiful always go together, like the convex and the concave. So when a liturgy is celebrated that is objectively ugly, it is not as fully good as it could be, any more than a beautiful Episcopalian liturgy celebrated around an empty altar is as good as it could be. Truth and Beauty are both of them necessary conditions on Goodness. In many Episcopalian churches you often have Beauty, but you never have Truth; in Roman Churches you always have Truth but you rarely have Beauty. This is a problem.

The problem is quite complex, because it involves different components of the celebration. Music, according to the documents of the Second Vatican Council, is an essential element in all liturgy, especially in the Mass and the Office. But the congregational music one finds in most parishes is abysmal. Language, too, is a necessary component of all liturgy, and thanks to the ICEL the vernacular versions of our liturgies have been banalized beyond belief. I am not one of those folks who believes, erroneously, that the Mass mandated by the Second Vatican Council falls short of that mandated by the Council of Trent in terms of orthodoxy. The new texts and rubrics are perfectly orthodox. But even in the normative Latin they often fall short of the true beauty that the Latin rite has managed to achieve in other contexts, so we should hardly be surprised when a bunch of aging hippies were given the task of rendering these texts into popular English during a time, the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the intrinsic beauty of popular culture itself was already at an all-time low. We should probably be grateful that it has not been mandated that all vestments be made of polyester and sport wide lapels with giant, pointy collars, or that all clergy wear white patent leather shoes, but things are bad enough without all that.

I love liturgical Latin, and I pray the Office in Latin, but I do not insist that publicly offered Masses be in Latin (though I wouldn't object if they were, either); I would be happy just to see a Mass done with care and reverence in a dignified and beautiful setting. One way to achieve this, in my opinion, would be to completely discard most, if not all, of the music that has been in use since the late 1970s in American parishes and replace it with the great sacred music of our tradition. Gregorian chant, of course, but also the great sacred music of the Renaissance and Classical periods. The difficulty, of course, is that few small parishes can afford the musical talent to produce such music in a way that is genuinely fitting to the context and to the music. The university town is an exception, I think, because often there is a music department with at least a few Catholics who are willing to donate their time and talent to such things, but even here, at Ohio University, where there is a sizable and talented School of Music, there are few musicians who seem to have the motivation to volunteer to help put together a truly beautiful musical experience at our liturgies. This seems to be compounded by the fact that some music directors do not understand the nature of The Beautiful. Some of them actually like the contemporary pop crap that gets sung at our liturgies. The University of North Carolina's school of music was not bigger than the one here, but the Chapel of the Cross always had very fine classical music at its liturgies, and the music director would have exploded into millions of tiny little bits if anyone had even suggested a "guitar mass" to him, so I think that at least part of the problem lies in the way in which Catholic musicians see their opportunities for integrating their talents with their calling as Christians.

Perhaps more Catholic music directors need to be required to read Plato and Aristotle before taking on the task of running the musical side of a Catholic liturgy, but I would settle for just getting them to agree to try something different every now and then. Why must every Mass be equally banal? Why not offer at least one Mass where there is fine, classical music, with Gregorian chant for the texts? Why not restore the tradition of the sung Gospel with procession? Why not sing the Our Father? To the old chant tune, not the new, crappy tune. Why not re-orient the altar to the east, for that matter? Or restore the use of altar rails with kneelers? One can think of many little ways in which the beauty and dignity of the Mass can be restored to some of its former glory. But none of that can happen until Catholics generally are taught again to first recognize, and then to desire, what is truly, objectively beautiful.

Given that so many American Catholics already either don't recognize, or else outright reject, what is objectively true (think about: abortion, contraception, sex outside of matrimony, material wealth, etc.), perhaps I shouldn't be surprised to find that so many of them also cannot recognize or else outright reject what is objectively beautiful as well. As I said above, Truth and Beauty go together, and American Catholics appear to be the closest thing there is to Catholics who have lost the Truth along with the Beauty in their pursuit of material well being. The road back will be difficult, but let's hope it isn't impassable.


John Farrell said…
Why must every Mass be equally banal? Why not offer at least one Mass where there is fine, classical music, with Gregorian chant for the texts? Why not restore the tradition of the sung Gospel with procession? Why not sing the Our Father? To the old chant tune, not the new, crappy tune.

Indeed. This is basically why I find myself getting up at the crack of dawn so often to drive 20 mins into the city in order to visit St. Anthony's on Arch Street.

They don't have any music at 6am and the liturgy is mercifully free of BS.

Excellent post.
Edmund C. said…
Scott, you'll be happy to know that the large Catholic parish in Chapel Hill is doing a better job with music these days, at one of the Masses anyway, where Mozart, Michael Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Palestrina have been performed recently.

But, sadly, they were alongside some 70's favorites, and Fr. still forbids Mozart Masses from being sung as parts of the Mass, rather than "special communion music".

I often wonder what possessed (figuratively, I hope) the majority of the composers of the Boomer generation.
Apollodorus said…
If you ever come to Austin (you know, just out on the weekend), you'll probably enjoy St. Mary's Cathedral. I don't think I've ever heard a homily there that reminded me why I experience the Catholic Church as a kind of magnet for my soul, but their music is just amazing. And yes, they do Gregorian chant. In comparison, the parish up the street has some excellent priests and I almost invariably weep during Mass. I think their music is fine -- their performers are certainly talented -- but I doubt you'd find it quite so impressive.
Carl Olson said…
Great post! I've been Catholic for ten years, and have avoided bad liturgical music for seven of those by attending a Byzantine Catholic parish. No guitars, no drums, no harmonica solos (yes, all of that and more at the Roman rite parish we previously attended). We didn't start attending the parish because of the music or liturgy (I was hired by the parish to teach catechesis), but now, when I am at Mass and experience lousy liturgical music, it drives me nuts. Still, I really like great Western liturgical music, and hope and pray it will continue to come back.
Dad29 said…
Your fine essay's last graf reminds me of Aquinas' dictum that 'sin darkens the mind' (or to that effect.)

It's not unreasonable to compare excellent music to light; which then opens the whole "light/dark" door to further discussion.

Thanks for a great read!
Paul Hamilton said…

I half agree with you about ditching most of the music produced after VII: most of it is not conducive to prayer (I say this even ithough I am a lot more tolerant of the modern stuff e.g. guitar music, than the average conservative Catholic is). However, I still think there are many good songs that have been produced in the last 40 years. I don't know if "Oh God Beyond All Praising" was sung before VII, but in St. Louis the song has become so customary at ordinations that seminarians joke that the rites are not valid without singing it.

Part of the problem, methinks, is that we are comparing 800-900 years of a musical tradition to 40 years of music. As one of my friends said, 40 years is not enough time to produce an abundance of timeless music, and the pieces that are timeless get overplayed due to their scarcity. However, I think patience will solve this problem. In 200 years, "Here in this Place" will be a forgotten hymn, replaced by a more mature selection of music.

Of course, I also think that it is the height of stupidity that we don't use our long tradition of music that proceeded VII. I never understood why people have been so willing to throw out music that satisfied the Church's needs for so long.
Scelata said…
Excellent, thought-provoking piece, your highness ... well, thought-provoking, to be sure, (because it has provoked me to thoughts of various types,) but its excellence is only a guess on my part, as though I can vouch for what you have to say about music, I have forgotten most of what I may have once known of philosophy.
But I ask you, no, beg you not to be too hard on the musicians and music directors.
Many of us know better, and would even do better but our hands are tied.
At some point, many of us must make the decision, swallow our gorge and obey the mandates of a pastor or liturgy committee or director of catechetics or school principal or diocesan office of worship and hope to make what changes we can, incrementally, for the inside -- or throw up our hands, quit, and seek refuge at early morning "silent" Masses or Byzantine Divine Liturgies.
You say "there are few musicians who seem to have the motivation to volunteer to help put together a truly beautiful musical experience at our liturgies," but it may very well be that their talents were offered and rejected.
Long story: I have friend, fine unassuming professional singer, deeply involved in his parish on the other side of town. He was asked repeatedly to cantor and join the choir, begged off with various excuses, but actually because he couldn't bear to sing much of what was programmed, (some merely banal or ugly, some borderline heretical,) offered to lead chant at a "music-less" Mass, and was turned down (4 hymn sandwich with piano was instituted instead.)
A new music director who knew the situation and guessed why the singer wasn't part of the parish's program came on board when the old director retired, and got him to cantor.
But after a few months of chanted lectionary psalms and a not-bad ordinary and even some chanted propers, the new music director was ordered, period, the end, to switch back to Mass of Remembrance and the "Celebration Psalms" (I think that's what the Haugen Hass, "psalm" settings are called,) and asked to submit hymn lists monthly because "our favorites" weren't being done.
Singer withdraws as gracefully as possible, but is thought lacking in loyalty to parish, elitist, etc.
I would like him to sing for me at my parish, but I don't have complete freedom in my choices of music, and can't promise him that some of what will come up isn't truly dreadful. (I don't know whether I'm a complete wimp or prudent in picking my battles...)

Paul, it may be significant that the tune dates from the early part of the century, the second golden age of Anglican sacred music.
Scelata said…
"I also think that it is the height of stupidity that we don't use our long tradition of music that proceeded VII. I never understood why people have been so willing to throw out music that satisfied the Church's needs for so long. "
Have you ever noticed that when AFI, or whomever, does a "100 Greatest XXX of All Time" poll, the overwhelming majority of XXXs are of recent vintage? It's ignorance of history, lack of imagination, self-centeredness that prevents them even recognizing anything that happened or was created before their births.

(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

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