My Entry for the Best Hymn Ever Written

Anthony Esolen recently wrote a piece about the beauty of the older poetic and metrical hymns as compared to many modern asymmetrical and syncopated songs. I wrote a post about the beautiful hymn “Rorate Caeli Desuper” yesterday.

The hymn writers of old knew that in order to get a large congregation to sing together, a steady beat or meter was needed. Most modern church songs have complex, uneven rhythms. It is no wonder that many Catholics just stand there while cantors and choirs sing for them. For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle? (1 Cor 14:8) The lyrics of most modern church songs are also far from noble or memorable; some of them are even theologically questionable.

In his article, Esolen provides excerpts of several beautiful older hymns, some well-known, others less so, but all magnificent.

For my money, the best hymn ever composed from the standpoint of textual and theological value is Veni Redemptor Gentium (Come Redeemer of the Nations), written by St. Ambrose in the 4th century. It is more widely known by the title “Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth.” Although is from the Advent season, its sweep is the full soteriological drama of Christ’s work. Jesus is not just coming; He’s redeeming, dying, rising, ascending, and reigning at the Father’s right hand. How can you all of that be squeezed into an Advent hymn? Read the lyrics below and see.

One of the beautiful things about the ancient Latin hymns is how richly theological they are. Not content to merely describe an event, they give an extensive theological vision and delve into its more hidden mysteries. Too often, we see the events of our redemption in a disconnected sort of way, but it is all really one thing and the best theology connects the dots. It is not wrong for us to focus on one thing or another, but we must not forget that it is all one thing in the end.

Without this reminder, we can easily develop a kind of myopia that overemphasizes one aspect of redemption at the expense of others. In the 1970s and 1980s it was “all resurrection all the time,” but no passion or death.

Christmas, too, has its hazards. We get rather sentimental about the “baby Jesus” but miss other important aspects of his incarnation. The passion and death are present in His birth into homeless poverty, the swaddling clothes, the flight into Egypt, and so forth. The Eucharist is evident in His birth at Bethlehem (House of Bread) and His being laid in a manger (a feed box for animals). His glory as God and His ultimate triumph are manifested in the star overhead and the angels’ declaration of glory! You see, it is all tied together, and the best theology connects the dots.

With that in mind, I present this wonderful Advent hymn, my candidate for the best hymn ever written. It can be sung to any long meter (LM) tune but is usually sung to its own melody (Puer Natus). You can find this melody in the index of most hymnals. I provide below only the English translation, but both the Latin and the English are available in this document: Veni Redemptor Gentium. I think the poetic translation reprinted below is a minor masterpiece of English literature. Enjoy this sweeping theological vision of the mystery of Advent caught up into the grand and fuller vision of redemption.

Among the theological truths treated in this brief hymn are these: His title as Redeemer, His birth to a virgin, His inclusion of the Gentiles, His sinlessness, His two natures in one person, His incarnation at conception, His passion, His death, His descent into Hell, His ascension, His seat at the Father’s right hand, His divinity and equality with the Father, His healing and sanctification of our humanity so wounded by sin, His granting us freedom and eternal life, His renewing of our minds through the light of faith, and His opening of Heaven to us.

Not bad for a mere seven verses! St. Ambrose, pray for us!

Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
Come manifest thy virgin birth:
All lands admire, all times applaud:
Such is the birth that fits our God.

Forth from his chamber goeth he,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now his course to run.

The Virgin’s womb that glory gained,
Its virgin honor is still unstained.
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in his temple dwells below.

From God the Father he proceeds,
To God the Father back he speeds;
Runs out his course to death and hell,
Returns on God’s high throne to dwell.

O Equal to thy Father, thou!
Gird on thy fleshly mantle now;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.

All laud, eternal Son, to thee
Whose advent sets thy people free,
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost, for evermore.

The video below gives you an idea of what the melody for Veni Redemptor Gentium sounds like. The words in this version are slightly different from what is shown above, but the tune is perfect.

Best Advent Hymn! I Wonder If You’ve Ever Heard of It

dec8-blogFor my money, the best Advent hymn ever is Veni Redemptor Gentium (Come Redeemer of the Nations), written by St. Ambrose in the 4th century. It is more widely known by the title “Come Thou Redeemer of the Earth.” Sadly, it is not often sung in Catholic parishes today. Most Catholics I’ve asked have never even heard of it.

One of the beautiful things about the ancient Latin hymns is how richly theological they are. Not content to merely describe an event, they give sweeping theological vision and delve into its more hidden mysteries.

Here we are in Advent and Jesus is coming. Get ready! Well, yes, but He’s not just coming; He’s redeeming, dying, rising, ascending, and reigning at the Father’s right hand! But how can you squeeze all of that into an Advent hymn? Well, just below you can read the text and see.

Full vision – For now, ponder the theological point that hymns like this make: no act of God can be reduced merely to the act in itself. Everything God does is part of His sweeping master plan to restore all things in Christ, to take back what the devil stole from us. Too often we see the events of our redemption in a disconnected sort of way. But it is all really one thing and the best theology connects the dots. It is not wrong for us to focus on one thing or another, but we must not forget that it is all one thing in the end.

Without this reminder, we can easily develop a kind of myopia that overemphasizes one aspect of redemption at the expense of others. In the 1970s and 1980s it was “all resurrection all the time,” but no passion or death.

Christmas, too, has its hazards. We get rather sentimental about the “baby Jesus” but miss other important aspects of his incarnation. The passion and death are present in His birth into homeless poverty, the swaddling clothes, the flight into Egypt, and so forth. The Eucharist is evident in His birth at Bethlehem (House of Bread) and His being laid in a manger (a feed box for animals). His glory as God and His ultimate triumph are manifested in the star overhead and the angels’ declaration of glory! You see, it is all tied together, and the best theology connects the dots.

With that in mind, I present this wonderful Advent hymn, so seldom sung in our Catholic parishes. It can be sung to any Long Meter (LM) tune but is usually sung to its own melody (“Puer Natus”). You can find this melody in the index of most hymnals. I provide below only the English translation, but both the Latin and the English are available in this document: Veni Redemptor Gentium. I think the poetic translation reprinted below is a minor masterpiece of English literature and hope that you’ll agree. Enjoy this sweeping theological vision of the mystery of Advent caught up into the grand and fuller vision of redemption.

Among the theological truths treated in this brief hymn are these: His title as Redeemer, His birth to a virgin, His inclusion of the Gentiles, His sinlessness, His two natures in one person, His incarnation at conception, His passion, His death, His descent into Hell, His ascension, His seat at the Father’s right hand, His divinity and equality with the Father, His healing and sanctification of our humanity so wounded by sin, His granting us freedom and eternal life, His renewing of our minds through the light of faith, and His opening of Heaven to us.

Not bad for a mere seven verses! St. Ambrose, pray for us!

Come, thou Redeemer of the earth,
Come manifest thy virgin birth:
All lands admire, all times applaud:
Such is the birth that fits our God.

Forth from his chamber goeth he,
That royal home of purity,
A giant in twofold substance one,
Rejoicing now his course to run.

The Virgin’s womb that glory gained,
Its virgin honor is still unstained.
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in his temple dwells below.

From God the Father he proceeds,
To God the Father back he speeds;
Runs out his course to death and hell,
Returns on God’s high throne to dwell.

O Equal to thy Father, thou!
Gird on thy fleshly mantle now;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
And darkness breathe a newer light,
Where endless faith shall shine serene,
And twilight never intervene.

All laud, eternal Son, to thee
Whose advent sets thy people free,
Whom with the Father we adore,
And Holy Ghost, for evermore.

This video below gives you an idea of what the tune for Veni Redemptor Gentium sounds like. The words in this version are slightly different from what is shown above, but the tune is perfect. Just try not to dance as it is sung!

What is Sacred Music? The History Is More Complex Than You Might Think

sacred music

sacred musicNote to readers: The following article is long (3500 words). This is because I have been adding to it over the years as my research has continued. I am by avocation a church musician. Before my ordination, I was a Choir director and an organist. Like most of you, I have my preferences in the area of Church music, but we must be careful not merely to dogmatize them. If we are going to talk intelligently about Church music, knowledge of history is important. It would certainly be incorrect to think that the debates about music in the liturgy began in 1965. In fact, such debates go back to the very beginning of the Church. In order to provide some historical perspective (and a context for the reflection on what is and is not appropriate music) I have been writing and expanding upon this essay for several years. Since it is long, I want to provide a PDF, which you may find here, so that you can print the article out and read it at your leisure.  If you do not have the time or the interest to read this full article, you can get the gist of it in the summation at the end.

With the exception of chant, almost every form of music that is today regarded as sacred initially had a stormy reception in the Church before being admitted to the ranks of music commonly called “sacred.”

That music is controversial in the Church is nothing new, as we shall see in this modest survey of the history of music in Catholic liturgy. Some of my sources are listed at the end of this post, but it is really the product of many years of reading and studying.

On some level, I hope to provide some perspective on the claim that is often made today that certain modern forms of music are inadmissible because they are not “sacred.” In no way do I intend to approve of all forms of modern music nor to encourage the admission of all of them into the liturgy, but it is worth appreciating that the definition of “sacred music” has changed over time. New forms have been admitted— sometimes reluctantly—to the exalted class we refer to as “sacred music.”

Here, then, is a brief look at the history of Church music in terms of what has been considered sacred and what has not.

I.   The early, pre-Constantine period: Chant reigns supremeWhile little if any music survives in written form from the earliest days of the Church, it seems clear (as Johannes Quasten records) that the leaders of the early Church (the Fathers and bishops) preferred monophonic music. This seems largely due to the association of harmony with the excesses of the pagan world and pagan worship.

Frankly, there was in the early Church a very persistent theme that music itself was problematic. Many ancient bishops and Fathers of the Church barely tolerated it, sought to limit its influence, and/or were deeply suspicious of any singing at all.

In his essay “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” Cardinal Ratzinger (drawing from sources such as Pope Gregory the Great, St. Jerome, Gratian, and even as recent as St. Thomas Aquinas) describes the rather negative opinion in the early Church of any music involving instruments, harmony, or anything deemed “theatrical.” He writes,

Instrumental music, understood as a Judaizing element, simply disappeared from the early liturgy without any discussion; the instrumental music of the Jewish temple is dismissed as a mere concession to the hardness of heart and sensuality of the people at that time. What the Old Testament said about music and worship could no longer be applied directly; it had to be read by them allegorically; it had to be spiritualized

(Ratzinger, “On the Theological Basis of Church Music,” quoted from Collected Works Vol XI, pp 425-432).

Summarizing the views he had received from the earlier Church, St. Thomas wrote, “In the praise of God, the Church does not employ musical instruments … lest she appear to be falling back into Jewish ways” (Summa Theologica II, IIae, q. 91 a 2 ad 3).

Cardinal Ratzinger continues,

Analyzing the texts, not infrequent in the Fathers, which are critical of music or even openly hostile to it, one can clearly identify two constant and governing factors:

A.  In the first place there is the one-sidedly “spiritual” understanding of the relationship between the Old and New Testaments … [So] Christian liturgy … took on a more or less Puritan form. … The idea that God can only really be praised in the heart means that no status can be accorded to music … In Christian worship … music must be relegated to a secondary level. Augustine is a splendid example of this. His sensitivity to music causes him much torment because his mind is dominated by a spiritualizing theology that ascribes the senses to the Old Testament, the old world; he is afraid of “sinning grievously” when he is “moved more by the music then by the reality to which the singing refers” … and would prefer “not to hear singing at all.” Fortunately, his rigorism is dampened when he recalls the profound stirring his soul experienced when he first heard Church music in Milan. [He thus adopted a view of music later stated by St. Thomas, which held that among the reasons for Church music was that] “Thus the minds of the weak be more effectively summoned to piety.”

B.  The second group of ideas that stood in the way of a positive the valuation of Church music … is put in a nutshell in Thomas’ fundamental article on the praise of God, where he says that vocal worship is necessary, not for God’s sake, but for the sake of the worshiper (Ibid).

Cardinal Ratzinger argues in the essay that this tended to lead to a utilitarian view of Church music: necessary to some degree, but somehow less than ideal. He reflects that this created a barrier to any satisfactory theology, not only of Church music, but of all prayer whatsoever.

He also adds (in a later essay) another reason for the restrictive notions about music in the early Church:

To the extent that it distanced itself from the Semitic world, the development of Christological art songs [also] threatened more and more to turn into an acute Hellenization of Christianity … The fascination of Greek music and Greek thinking [now excluded] … so that the new music rapidly became the domain of Gnosticism … For this reason [too] the Church immediately and rigorously rejected the poetical and musical innovation and reduced Church music to the psalter … This limitation of liturgical singing which gradually began asserting itself from the second century … led to a forbiddance of private song compositions and noncanonical writings in liturgical services. The singing of the psalms also came to be restricted to the choir whereas others “should not sing in church” (See canon 59 of the Synod of Laodicea 364 AD) (Ratzinger, Ibid, p. 505).

Thus music in general, given its Semitic and pagan associations, was widely resisted in the early Church and tolerated only in limited ways. Music with any harmony was altogether excluded and would not reappear until the Late Middle Ages.

As a final sample of the Patristic skepticism of music or demonstrative worship, consider St. Cyprian, who wrote the following early in the 3rd century:

When we pray, our words should be calm, modest and disciplined. Let us reflect that we are standing before God. We should please him both by our bodily posture and the manner of our speech. It is characteristic of the vulgar to shout and make a noise, not those who are modest. On the contrary, they should employ a quiet tone in their prayer ….

When we gather to celebrate the divine mysteries with God’s priest, we should not express our prayer in unruly words; the petition that should be made to God with moderation is not to be shouted out noisily and verbosely. For God hears our heart not our voice. He sees our thoughts; he is not to be shouted at …

(Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer by Saint Cyprian, bishop and martyr (Nn. 4-6: CSEL 3, 268-270)).

So much, it would seem, for demonstrative prayer and exuberant singing.

Another reason that the early Church seems to have favored non-harmonic singing was somewhat rooted in the cosmology of the time, wherein there was an emphasis on the unity of all things. Whatever diversity was discovered was viewed as coming from the one hand of God. Monophonic music seemed to better express this unity, at least to the ancient Christian mind.

This cosmology of unity still finds its expression in the way that most Prefaces in the Mass are concluded. The Latin text speaks of the multitude of the choirs of angels, joining with the voices of the many saints (cum Angelis, et archangelis, cum Thronis, et Domininationes … et òmnibus Sanctis). Yet despite the vast multitude of voices, at the end of the Preface it says that they all sing “as with one voice, saying” (una voce dicentes), “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts.”

And so at the earliest stage, music was limited, and to the degree it was it was largely what we today call chant. To the ancient Church, harmony was widely considered to be secular, even pagan.

II.  The Church after Persecution: Chant developsThe earliest chants were quite simple and largely syllabic (one note per syllable); there were few elaborations. However, after the Edict of Constantine (321 A.D.) as the Church came out of a more hidden worship, the use of large, cavernous buildings started to influence the singing.

Cantors began to elaborate on the chant, making full use of the echoes in the larger, basilica-like buildings. Vocals became increasingly melismatic (multiple notes per syllable) rather than syllabic, especially during festival seasons. Syllables (such as those in the word “Alleluia”) began to be extended over more and more notes.

Singers also “yielded to the spirit,” and the long melismata became a kind of ecstatic “singing in tongues.” Though at first any elaboration was resisted, certain chants did begin to develop in some areas. As these melodies became increasingly complex, they were written down and collected by Pope St. Gregory (among others), hence the modern name, “Gregorian chant.”

As these chants became more and more elaborate, their sacredness was only gradually conceded. In fact, they became so complicated that the faithful in the congregation, who were already being discouraged from singing at all, had great difficulty joining in most of the chants. For this reason, special choirs called “scholas” were formed.

III. The High Middle Ages: Harmony entersThe next major development in Church music took place during the High Middle Ages, generally speaking in the 13th century. The first developments of harmony occurred in the musical schools in France, particularly around Paris. It was here that we saw the first widespread introduction of harmony into Church music.

Several factors influenced the introduction of harmony. First, there was the reintroduction of Greek philosophy and some of its views back into the Western world through scholasticism.

Among the Greek notions was a cosmology that spoke of the planets orbiting the sun in perfect circles, each of them ringing out a different tone and creating a beautiful celestial harmony in the heavens as they did so. This was the “music of the spheres” and the idea of a great and beautiful harmonic sound in the heavens. Thus the association of harmony with the sacred began to seem more plausible in the minds of Christians.

The first experimentation with harmony seems to have been singing the Gregorian melodies and adding a hollow harmony of a fourth or fifth. Sometimes this involved several singers singing the words in those harmonies. Other times the harmonizers simply “droned” in the background, somewhat like bagpipe drones.

Architecture was another factor that influenced the harmonies. The soaring new cathedrals with their vaulted ceilings that began to dot the landscape of Western Europe seemed to demand more soaring music. These cathedrals were the skyscrapers of their day.

As harmony began to sound more pleasing to the ears, scholars worked to study it using, of all things, the Pythagorean Theorem, to mathematically set forth the harmonic scale. Thus mathematics and music came together to quantify a kind of music theory. Gradually, as the years just prior to the 16th century ticked by, we came to have what we know of today as the 12-tone scale.

The introduction of harmony in the Church (as with most things musical) was not always without controversy. Some thought that it made the words harder to understand, a complaint that would plague polyphonic music in its early stages.

Nevertheless, as a general rule, the new harmonies from the Paris school swept through Europe to widespread acclaim. People flocked to the cathedrals to hear this splendid new music.

IV.  Late Middle Ages to Renaissance: Musical revolution and a growing crisis for polyphonyIt is hard to describe what took place in music from the late 1300s to 1500 as anything less than revolutionary. The modern harmonic scale as we now know it came into full realization. Harmony went from two-part, to three-part, and then to four and more parts, amazing listeners everywhere.

The incredible development of music during this period paralleled the remarkable developments in painting: increasing use of shadow, light, perspective, and depth. By the early 1500s, Renaissance polyphony was in all of its glory. Composers such as Isaac, Lassus, Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, and Byrd brought this art form to an amazing richness.

But the music was not without controversy. There were two main problems with this new style called polyphony.

The first problem was the intelligibility of the text. With multiple harmonies being sung, the Latin text, often staggered across many parts and voices, became harder and harder to understand. Clergy in particular complained of this, arguing that the sacred text was taking a backseat to musical flourishes. In addition, the “theatrical showiness” seemed secular to many.

The second troubling issue was that many of the composers of the day drew from secular melodies that were often heard in taverns, in theaters, and on the streets. They would often take these recognizable melodies and set them as a cantus firmus (musical theme or foundation) of sacred compositions, including the parts of the Mass.

Heinrich Isaac, as early as the 1400s in his Missa Carminum, drew from many of these tavern songs. But perhaps the most egregious example of this, and something that almost caused polyphony to be banned completely from the Catholic Church, was a Mass composed by Orlandus de Lassus.

The Mass in question was his Missa Entre Vous Filles. The main melody of both the Kyrie and the Gloria came from a secular piece by the French composer Jacob Clemens non Papa, the words of which bordered on the pornographic. As the Mass grew widely popular (for it is a lovely melody), Church authorities discovered its source and a great uproar ensued.

This controversy took place during the years of the Council of Trent, and though some scholars are dubious of all the details, it is reported that there were Council Fathers who were serious about seeing that sacred polyphony was forever banned from the Catholic liturgy.

Among those who came to the rescue, I am happy to report, was my patron saint, Charles Borromeo. He assembled some increasingly dubious bishops and cardinals who were attending the sessions of the Council of Trent so that they could hear the Pope Marcellus Mass by Palestrina. This particular Mass seems to have been specifically composed to address some of the critiques about the intelligibility of the text and the secular origins of many melodies. The presentation calmed some of the fears regarding this new music and the crisis largely passed.

This incident demonstrates that what many today consider a very sacred sound (namely Renaissance polyphony) was actually quite controversial in its day. It was only thought of as sacred in a widespread way later on. After surviving this first crisis, polyphony became less “florid” and gave greater emphasis to the intelligibility of the text. Secular melodies were also excluded. For these reasons, later works by Palestrina are more austere than those from his earlier period.

Thus we see how the definition of what makes for sacred music had already passed through two major periods. In the first, harmonies were considered too secular; in the second, harmony was introduced but only slowly accepted as sacred in nature.

V.  The Renaissance to the Baroque: New controversies, old problemsIn the period of the middle Renaissance, a new cosmology began to replace the idea that the planets revolved around the sun in perfect circles. Astronomy started to reveal that most of the planets revolved around the sun in elliptical orbits, some of them quite elongated. The notion of the circular orbits of the planets, symbolized by the “music of the spheres” and imitated by Renaissance polyphony, began to give way to the understanding of the mathematical progression of elliptical orbits—a kind of Bach fugue in the sky. This change in cosmology helped to usher in the rather more elaborate, yet mathematical, music of the Baroque period.

In this period, we find the wonderful and mathematically precise music of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Gabrieli, Schubert, Scarlatti, and many others. Perhaps the fugue best exemplifies the kind of mathematical cosmology of the time. In a fugue, mastered by Bach but not wholly unique to him, a musical theme is set forth. For example, quarter notes may announce the theme of the fugue. This theme is then repeated in the left hand and then in the feet (of the organist). It also progresses mathematically: into eighth notes, then into sixteenth and even 32nd notes. Math meets music! Other musical forms like canons emerged similarly. Symphonies also grew to have movements, which were often named for their tempo (e.g., allegro, adagio, presto).

The classical and baroque periods brought the great orchestral or “Classical” Masses, by composers such as Mozart, Schubert, and Scarlatti. Even Bach and Beethoven set the Catholic Mass in great symphonic and orchestral renderings.

Much controversy accompanied these newer forms. Once again, the principle concern was the intelligibility of the text. Another concern was the length of many of these Masses; in some, the Glorias and Credos could go on for twenty minutes or longer.

Some complained that these musical settings of the Mass made it sound more like being at the opera than at Mass. Indeed, they often broke the sacred text into movements sprinkled with soprano or tenor solos and duets, grand choral sections, and often with full symphonic accompaniment. It was quite a feast for the ears! These Masses were generally so elaborate that they could only be performed in the larger, well-endowed, city churches.

The controversy concerning these kinds of Masses continued for many years. Even as liturgical reforms began in the early 1900s, Pope Pius X frowned on their usage, referring to these orchestral Masses as “theatrical” (see Tra Le Sollecitudini # 6). This led to a de facto banishing of the form from the Catholic liturgy at that time. Only after the Second Vatican Council was this form rehabilitated in a small way.

Here, too, we see that what many Catholics today consider unquestionably sacred (e.g., a great Mozart Mass) had to survive much controversy and even a kind of banishment. What is thought of as sacred today has not always enjoyed that rarefied distinction!

VI.  The Modern Era: New musical forms, new controversies This leads us to the modern era. As we have seen, those who think that debates about what constitutes sacred music are new are simply mistaken. These disputes have been quite a constant part of Church life almost from the beginning. To place them at the feet of the Second Vatican Council is to lack historical perspective.

It is true that two documents of the Second Vatican Council (Musicam Sacram and Sacrosanctum Concilium) opened the door to newer forms with a greater freedom toward enculturation (e.g., MS # 18, 63), but they also reasserted the special accord to be given to chant (# 50a), polyphony, and the pipe organ (# 4a).

Although debate continues about newer forms of music and whether or not they are sacred, such tensions have long existed. Some newer forms have already been tried and found wanting (e.g., Polka Masses). Other forms such as “folk,” gospel, or contemporary music, with adaptions over time, have remained.

Summation:

  1. Historically, no form of music currently considered sacred achieved that status without controversy.
  2. Indeed, music itself was controversial in the early Church and was barely tolerated by many of the Church Fathers.
  3. Time ultimately proves where wisdom lies and ultimately mediates for us what is sacred in a way that transcends mere passing tastes or preferences.
  4. Music has made several revolutionary leaps during the age of the Church.
  5. Provided necessary rational limits are applied, there is no need to rush to exclude every newer form.
  6. If we were to do so, only chant would exist in the Church, and we would be deprived of a great treasury of music from the era of polyphony and the classical period.

In saying this I do not mean to indicate that all music is just fine, or that all modern forms are here to stay, or that newer forms should not be questioned; it is clear that some forms are wholly inimical to the Sacred Liturgy. Rather, I seek to remind people that what is called “sacred music” is historically quite complex. It is the result of long and vigorous discussions, refinements, and other factors as diverse as cosmology, architecture, mathematics, and culture.

We do well to let some of the conversations and controversies work themselves out, lest in too quickly ending them by judicial fiat we impoverish ourselves and block what might bless others and even our very selves.

These are just a few of my sources for the above article:

  1. Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity (Johannes Quasten)
  2. Theology of the Liturgy (Joseph Ratzinger)
  3. Papal Legislation on Sacred Music (Msgr. Robert F. Hayburn)
  4. Sacred Music (a four-part production of the BBC)
  5. Coming of Age in the Milky Way (Timothy Ferris)
  6. Why Catholics Can’t Sing (Thomas Day)

Here are the Kyrie and Gloria from the Missa Entre Vous Filles by Orlando de Lassus, the polyphonic Mass setting that almost torpedoed polyphonic music in the Church. To our “distant” ears it is delightful and melodic. At the time, however, it engendered great outrage as nearly pornographic, because it drew from the melody of a “racy” song of the time.

For All the Saints – Reflecting on a Great Hymn of the Church

blog10-29As we approach the Feast of All Saints this Sunday, we do well to meditate on one of the great English hymns, “For All the Saints.” It is a wide and sweeping vision of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. Its imagery is regal and joyful, its poetry majestic and masterful. A vivid picture is painted in the mind as the wondrous words move by. To me it is a masterpiece. Many people know the opening line, but most have never sung it all the way through and thus miss its wondrous portrait. A number of years ago I committed words of this hymn to memory, very much in the spirit of my father, who loved to memorize things that moved him.

Let’s spend a few moments reflecting on this masterwork. It was written in 1864 by William Walsham How, an Anglican Bishop. Ralph Vaughan Williams set it to a stirring melody in 1906. I love to play this hymn at the organ since it has a challenging but exciting “walking base” played by the feet and big rich chords in the hands. In his recent outreach to the Anglicans the Pope speaks of the liturgical, spiritual, and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion as a “precious gift” and “treasure to be shared”. This hymn from the Anglican tradition is surely one of those treasures. Permit me to set forth each verse and then comment.

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia!

As the hymn begins, we cast our eyes heavenward to the Church Triumphant. Stated in the first verse is the hymn’s purpose: that we sing to and praise God for all those saints who have finished their course here and entered into the rest of the Lord. Like the Lord, they can say, It is finished. Like St. Paul, they can say, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day (2 Tim 4:7-8). By their words and deeds, these saints declared to the world His holy and blessed name. They confessed and did not deny Him. To them and us, Jesus made a promise: Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven (Matt 10:32). We, too, are called to take up the cry, “Blessed be the Name of the Lord!”

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.

Alleluia!

Salvation and the living of a holy and courageous life are only possible by the grace of God. Only if God is our rock, our defender, and our strength do we stand a chance in the battle of this earthly life. Jesus said, Without me you can do nothing (Jn 15:5). St. Paul taught that the ancient Israelites made it through the desert only through Christ: they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them in the desert, and that rock was Christ (1 Cor 10:4). Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in a time of storm! Only in Christ and by His light could they have the strength for the battle and garner the victory.

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia!

Ah, this is the connecting verse. We here on earth (the Church Militant) share blessed communion with the saints in Heaven because we are one in Christ. The Body of Christ is one and so we have communion with the saints. We are not in separate compartments, unconnected to the saints in Heaven. We are one in Christ. And though we struggle feebly here on earth, we are strengthened by our communion with the saints and the vision of the glory they already share with Him. Referring to the saints in Heaven, the Book of Hebrews says, Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders us and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us! (Heb 12:1-2)

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia!

Having gazed heavenward and having derived strength from our mystical communion with the saints in Christ, we now face the trials of the Church Militant and are counseled to have courage.

We are told to be like courageous soldiers, holding firm and loyal to the end. We must often fight bravely in a world that is hostile to Christ and His truth. So fight we must, nobly, for the crown comes only after the cross. But the victory will one day be ours. Although it doesn’t always look that way to us, Christ has already won the victory. And even if this world deprives us, ridicules us, or even kills us, the victor’s crown awaits all who remain faithful. Jesus said, You will be hated by all because of me, be he who perseveres to the end will be saved (Matt 10:22).

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia
!

Now comes a call to courage, rooted in the song that faith puts in our hearts. Psalm 40 says, I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. It is a song that echoes from Heaven through the words of Scripture and the teachings of the Church: Victory is ours today!

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia!

For now it is God’s will that we hear the call to fight on. Now we are the Church Militant. But here the verses of the hymn direct us back toward heavenly things and the last things, because one day the battle will end for us. The hymn speaks elegantly of the “golden evening” of life and the “rest” that death will one day bring. And, likely through the purifying effects of purgatory, we shall one day pass where we will cast off our burdens, our sorrows and final sins. There the Lord will wipe every tear from our eyes (cf Rev. 21:4).

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia!

And then an even more glorious day breaks forth. The hymn closes the circle and we are back in Heaven again! There the saints are clothed in bright array. The heavenly liturgy is beautifully captured in two lines that describe the saints in worshipful praise as the King of Glory, Jesus, passes by in triumphal procession. What a glorious vision this verse provides!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia!

The hymn takes one final look. We have come full circle from Heaven to earth and then back to Heaven again. We have made our journey but now the hymn bids us to cast our glance outward and see the magnificent procession that continues for all who will come after us. Jesus said, “And I when I be lifted from the earth I will draw all men unto me” (Jn 12:32). So now look, fellow Christians! Look outward from a heavenly perspective and see the harvest as Christ draws countless numbers to Himself.

Ah, what a hymn! What a sweeping vision and wondrous celebration of the Christian life! Though the battle be now engaged, victory is sure if we but stand firm and hold to God’s unchanging hand.

Dust on the Hymnal: Pondering the Decline of Hymn Singing in American Denominations

060114One of the more prominent features of Protestant denominations over the decades was hymn singing. Get in your time machine, go back 50 years to a service for any Protestant denomination, and you would find every member of the congregation on his feet, hymnal in hand, singing quite loudly, even harmonizing the old familiar hymns: Onward Christian Soldiers … Amazing Grace … When the Roll is called up Yonder … More About Jesus … Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow!

Catholics congregations were rather different. Low Masses in Latin were common in which there was little or no singing. High Mass featured complex music that a trained choir largely handled. And the few hymns the Catholics did know quite well were generally not sung with the gusto anywhere near that of the Protestants.

I’ll admit it; I’m a big fan of the metrical hymns of the Protestant tradition. One of the regrets I have is that in the years just after the Second Vatican Council when vernacular songs were permitted, we did not borrow more heavily from the English and German traditions of hymns.

Hymns are stately, easy to learn, and have memorable melodies. They were also metrical, which means that they were sung to a steady beat and almost never had the complicated rhythms of many modern church songs. Congregations have a hard time singing syncopated rhythms (rhythms that are in some way unexpected, making part or all of a tune or piece of music off-beat).

Many of the old Protestant hymns, especially those from the English tradition, are actually magnificent translations of the Latin hymns of the ancient Catholic Church. Many of them also beautifully paraphrase the Psalms. As such, their themes were biblical, and richly theological.

A beautiful example of this is the English translation of a verse from the beautiful hymn by St. Ambrose (Veni Redemptor Gentium):

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
and darkness breathe a newer light;
An endless light that shines serene,
Where twilight never intervenes.

And there is this line from the well-known English hymn “For all the Saints”:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long;
Steels on the ear a distant triumph song
and hearts are brave again and arms are strong
Alleluia!

One final example is from the grand hymn “O Worship the King”:

Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
Thy mercies how tender, how firm to the end,
our Maker, Defender, Redeemer, and Friend.

I love to sing and listen to these old hymns, and I love to play them at the organ.

But lo and behold, it seems the old hymns are dying out even in many of the Protestant denominations, and especially in those of the Evangelical sort. Paradoxically, in many of the old mainline Protestant denominations, which are theologically and morally quite liberal, the old hymns are still sung. Many of the Evangelical denominations, which adhere more closely to biblical teachings and morality, are now using Christian contemporary music, largely replacing the old hymns.

But most Christian contemporary music is really meant more to be listened to than to be sung, and it certainly is not designed to be sung by a large group of people.

Here are some excerpts from a recent article by Thom Schulz at the Holy Soup Blog: (I have added a few remarks of my own in plain red text.)

Looking around the church last Sunday I noticed that the majority weren’t singing … That’s been the case for years now–in churches large and small. What used to be congregational singing has become congregational staring … (Looks and sounds like a typical Catholic Congregation.)

What happened to the bygone sounds of sanctuaries overflowing with fervent, harmonizing voices from the pews, singing out with a passion that could be heard down the street? I suspect it’s a number of unfortunate factors.

Increasingly, the church has constructed the worship service as a spectator event … It seems it’s paramount for church music to be more professional than participatory. The people in the pews know they pale in comparison to the loud voices at the microphones. (Yes, this is certainly the case in most megachurches, which are even built like theaters. Many of the services there look more like productions than worship services.)

[Further] The musicians’ volume is cranked up so high that congregants can’t hear their own voices, or the voices of those around them, even if they would sing. So they don’t sing. What would it add? The overwhelming, amplified sound blares from big speakers, obliterating any chance for the sound of robust congregational singing. (Yes, I learned this as an organist: if I played too loud, people stopped singing. The singing of the faithful needs to be supported and accompanied, not drowned out and overwhelmed. In some Catholic parishes, volume from musicians and even lectors and preachers is a problem. Now even some smaller church structures have massive PA systems that overload the listeners rather than enhance their listening.) 

Sometimes people refrain from singing because the songs are unfamiliar, hard to sing, or just cheesy … I long for an environment that evokes my real, heartfelt, vocal participation. (As stated above it is really rather difficult to get a larger congregation to sing syncopated music. Clear, metrical music is better if congregational participation is desired. Just because some song by a soloist sounds nice doesn’t mean it’s easy to sing. I get the impression that a lot of Catholic contemporary music is really written for soloists and then forced upon the congregation, who then vote with their mouths—which stay shut during the song. All the frantic waving of the cantor’s arms doesn’t really change the situation either. If something is singable for the congregation, the wild gesticulation of the cantor is not needed.)

At any rate, I’ll just conclude by saying again that I favor metrical hymns for congregational singing, and there is a noble history of some five hundred years on which to draw. There are some nice Gregorian hymns too. I know the comments section below is bound to attract more than a few comments about ditching hymns as well and singing the Introit, the Gradual, etc. But honestly, the number of parishes capable of accomplishing that reasonably are few. Further, even if a trained schola exists in your parish, the topic here is congregational singing. Sadly, that reality seems to be disappearing—even in the denominations that once resounded with hymns and enthusiastic singing by most of the congregation. It’s too bad, really.

I’m interested in your experience of congregational singing. I find that in most parishes less than 20% even make a pretense of singing. My own congregation is a bit of an exception since we use a lot of Gospel hymns and music that are very easy for the congregation to sing: lots of refrains and memorable melodies. What of your parish?

Here are two grand Hymns from the English Church:

And here I am playing the organ—an older melody for the Tantum Ergo that was popular in older German parishes.

The Bridegroom Comes! A reflection on the Great Wedding Feast That Christmas Brings

“Wedding Couple” This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

The coming of Christ at Christmas was as an infant. And thus we don’t usually think of wedding imagery related to the First coming of Jesus.  Yet, since the first coming of Christ is certainly fulfilled, we now focus more on his Second coming, of which the first coming is a sacramental reminder.

Thus, in Advent our longing and thrill are also and essentially  directed to his glorious second coming. And now Mother Church, the New Jerusalem, our Mother looks for her groom Jesus to come again all his glory:

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God…I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean was given her to wear.” (Rev 21:2-3; 19:7-8)

And this longing remains until Mother Church, Christ’s beautiful bride, hears those words from him: Surge amica mea, speciosa mea et veni! (Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one and come!) (Song of Songs 2:10). Till then, her longing cannot be quenched, when he comes again, in all his radiant beauty and majesty. Till then, she longs, she looks and she waits.

Though some of her children have attained to this glory, she waits and longs till the number of her elect children are complete and she, in her fullness, will go to be with her spouse for ever in beatific glory.

One of the great Advent hymns of the Protestant tradition picks up this bridal theme and “weds” it with advent longing. This particular translation is a masterpiece of English translation (from the German). It is both biblical and artistically beautiful:

Wake, Awake with tidings thrilling;
The Watchmen all the air are filling;
Arise, Jerusalem, Arise!
Midnight strikes, no more delaying;
“The hour has come,” we hear them saying;
Where are ye all ye virgins wise?

The bridegroom comes in sight
Raise high, your torches bright!
Alleluia!
The wedding song swells loud and strong;
Go forth and join the festal throng.

Zion hears the watchman shouting;
Her heart leaps up with joy undoubting;
She stands and waits with eager eyes!
She her love from heaven descending;
Adorned with truth and grace unending;
Her light burns clear her star doth rise!

Now come our precious crown;
Lord Jesus, God’s own Son;
Hosanna!
Let us prepare to follow there
Where in thy supper we may share
.

Yes there is a great wedding feast in every liturgy, and its culmination looks to the glorious second coming of Jesus. This Christmas look to your wedding garments which the Lord gave you at baptism, a garment which, in the baptismal liturgy your were told to bring unstained to the great judgment seat of Christ. The Bridegroom comes! Let us go out to meet Christ the Lord (cf Matt 25:6)

Here is the Great Wedding Song of Advent quoted above:

What is Sacred Music? Historically it’s a bit more complex than you may think.

120913-PopeRecently  there was a discussion on my Facebook page about Church music. My parish, Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, here in Washington DC, was featured on EWTN’s nightly news (video is below), and discussion centered on that report.

Among the many forms of music we use here the parish, gospel music is predominant at our 11:00 AM Mass. While many of the comments on the Facebook page were encouraging and supportive of this music, there were a significant minority of comments that spoke of gospel music, as being inappropriate for Catholic liturgy, and of it not being sacred. Chant, polyphony, and traditional hymns were held up as being sacred, whereas is Gospel, and other modern forms of music, are “not sacred,” and /or not appropriate for Catholic worship.

While everyone is certainly entitled to personal preferences, the question arises, what do we mean by sacred music, and how have some forms of music come to be more widely regarded as sacred than others?

The answer to this is a little more complex than most people today realize. With the exception of chant, almost every form of music today regarded as sacred, had a stormy reception in the Church, early on, before being admitted to the ranks of music called “sacred.”

That music is controversial in Church, is nothing new, as we shall see in this modest survey that I make of the history of music in Catholic liturgy. I list the sources for the survey at the end of the article, but I gleaned this basic description of the history of Church music from many years of reading and studying.

At some level, it is my hope to provide perspective on the problem that is often raised today that certain modern forms of music are inadmissible, because they are not “sacred.” In no way do I intend to baptize every form of modern music and encourage its admission into the liturgy. But it is worth appreciating that the category “sacred, music” has varied and grown over time, and there have been, sometimes reluctantly, new forms admitted into the exulted status that we refer to as “sacred music.”

Here then, is a brief (probably not brief enough) look at the history of Church music in terms of what has been considered sacred, and what is not been.

I. The early, pre-Constantine Period. Chant reigns supreme – While little if any music survives in written form from the earliest days of the Church, it seems clear, as Johannes Quasten records, that the leaders of the early Church, (The Fathers and Bishops) preferred monophonic music,  that is to say, music with little or no harmony. This seems largely due, to the association of harmony with the excesses of the pagan world, and pagan worship.

It is also worth mentioning that the rich harmonies of the modern 12 tone scale which we have today, were unknown in the ancient world. The harmonies that were used were of a more pentatonic nature, using lots of hollow fourths and  some fifths.

Thus, given its association with pagan and secular music and its less appealing quality, the use of this sort of harmony was largely resisted in the early Church and would not reappear until the late Middle Ages.

Another reason that the early Church seems to have favored non-harmonic singing was somewhat rooted in the cosmology of the time wherein the early Christians emphasized the unity of all things. Whatever diversity was discovered, it all came from the one hand of God. Monophonic, (non-harmonized) music seemed to better express this unity, at least to the ancient Christian mind.

This cosmology of unity, still finds its expression in the way that most Prefaces in the Mass are ended. The Latin text speaks of the multitude of the choirs of angels, joining with the voices of the many saints (cum Angelis, et archangelis, cum Thronis, et Domininationes….et òmnibus Sanctis). And yet despite the vast multitude of voices it says, at the end of the preface that they all sing “as with one voice saying” (una voce dicentes): Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts!

And so, at the earliest stage, the sacred was associated with what we call today chant. To the ancient Church, harmony was widely considered to be secular, even pagan.

II. The Church after Persecution. Chant develops – The earliest chants, it would seem were quite simple, largely monosyllabic, (with one note per syllable) and only a few elaborations. However, as the Church came out of a more hidden worship after the Edict of Constantine (321 AD), the use of large cavernous buildings began to influence the singing. Cantors began to elaborate the chant, making full use of the echoes in the larger basilica-like buildings. Syllables such as the end of the Alleluia (ia….) began to take on an extended quality of longer and longer melismas, especially in festival seasons.

Singers also “yielded to the spirit,” and the long melismas became a  kind of an ecstatic “singing in tongues.”  Eventually as these melodies became increasingly elaborate, they were written down and collected by, among others, Pope St. Gregory;  hence our modern designation of “Gregorian Chant.”

It is less clear, as these chants became more and more elaborate, how they were regarded in terms of the question of sacredness. What is clear, is that they became so increasingly elaborate that the faithful in the congregation were less able to join in most of the chants, and special choirs, called Scholas,  had to be developed.

And thus sacred music began to move from the people to specialized choirs, in the period of late antiquity and into the early Middle Ages.

III. The High Middle Ages. Harmony enters. – The next major development in Church music takes place in the high Middle Ages, generally speaking in the 13th century. The first developments of harmony  centered in the musical schools around Paris and other places in France. It here that we see the first widespread introduction of harmony into Church music.

Several factors influenced the introduction of harmony. First there was the reintroduction of Greek philosophy and some of its views back into the Western world through Scholasticism.

Among the Greek notions, was a cosmology that spoke of the planets circling the sun in perfect circles, each of them ringing out a different tone, and creating a beautiful celestial harmony in the heavens as they did so. Here was the “music of the spheres” and the idea of a great and beautiful harmonic sound in the heavens. And thus the identification of harmonies and the sacred began in the imagination of Christians to seem more plausible.

The first experimentation with harmony seem to have been singing the Gregorian melodies and adding a hollow harmony of a fourth or fifth. Sometimes this involved several singers singing the words in those harmonies. Other times the harmonizers simply “droned” in the background, something like the sound that bagpipe drones make today.

Architecture was another factor that influenced the harmonies. The soaring new Cathedrals that began to dot the landscape of Western Europe seemed to demand a music more soaring, even as the vaulted ceilings soared upward, ever higher. They were the skyscrapers of their day.

Interestingly enough, as a harmonies began to sound pleasing to the ears, scholars worked to study harmony, using, of all things, the Pythagorean theorem to mathematically set forth the harmonic scale. Thus math and music came together to quantify a kind of music theory. As the years just prior to the 16th Century tick by, we come gradually to have what we know today as the 12 tone scale.

As with most things musical, in the Church, the introduction of these harmonies was not always without controversy, and some complained that the words were harder to understand, a problem that would plague polyphonic music and it’s early stages.

Nevertheless, as a general rule, the new harmonies from the Paris school swept through Europe to widespread acclaim. Many flocked to the cathedrals to hear this splendid new music.

IV. Late Middle Ages to Renaissance, Musical Revolution and growing crisis for polyphony- It is hard to describe what took place in music from the late 1300s to 1500 as anything less than revolutionary. The modern harmonic scale as we now know it came in full realization, harmony from two-part, to three-part, and then to four and more parts amazed listeners everywhere.

The incredible development of music in this period,  paralleled also the remarkable developments in painting with shadow and light, perspective and depth. By the early 1500s Renaissance Polyphony was in all of its glory. Composers such as Isaac, Lassus, Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, Byrd and many others, brought this art form to an amazing richness.

The music was not without controversy. Two main problems seem to presents with this new style called polyphony (=many voices).

The first problem, was the intelligibility of the text. With multiple harmonies being sung, the Latin text, often being staggered across many parts and voices,  became harder and harder to understand. Clergy especially complained of this, arguing that the sacred text was taking a backseat to musical flourishes,  and a kind of “theatrical showiness”  seemed secular to many.

The second thing that troubled many about polyphony was that many of the composers of the day drew their melodies from secular melodies that were often heard in the taverns, in the streets, and  in theaters. They would often take these recognizable melodies and set them as a cantus firmus (musical theme or foundation) of sacred compositions, including the parts of the Mass.

Heinrich Isaac, as early as the 1400s in his Missa Carminum drew from many of the songs heard in taverns. But perhaps the most egregious example of this, and an incident which almost caused all polyphony to be utterly banned from the Catholic Church, was an incident caused by the composer Orlando De Lassus.

The Mass in question was his Missa Entre Vous Filles. Here he drew, for the main melody of both the Kyrie and the Gloria, from a secular piece by the French composer Clemens non-Papa. The song featured a text that was so lewd that it cannot be translated here. To be frank, the text was  outright pornographic. As the Mass grew widely popular (for it is a lovely melody), the Church authorities discovered its source and a great uproar ensued.

This controversy took place during the years of the Council of Trent, and though some scholars are dubious of all the details, it is reported that there were Council Fathers who were serious about seeing that sacred polyphony was forever banned from the Catholic liturgy.

Among those who came to the rescue, I am happy to report, was my patron Saint, St. Charles Borromeo. For some increasingly dubious bishops and cardinals who attended some of the sessions of the Council of Trent, Borromeo assembled them for hearing of the Pope Marcellus Mass by Palestrina. The Mass seems to have been specifically composed to address some of the critiques about the intelligibility of the text and the secular origins of many melodies. The presentation to the select Cardinals seems to have calmed some of the controversy regarding this new music. And thus, the crisis seems to have largely passed.

Nevertheless, this incident goes a long way to show how, what many today consider a very sacred sound, namely Renaissance polyphony, was quite controversial in it’s day, and had something of a stormy relationship with the Church at first. It was thought of as sacred in a widespread way only later. Polyphony, generally after passing this first crisis, became less “florid” and gave emphasis to the intelligibility of the text, secular melodies were also excluded. Later Palestrina is more austere than the works from his earlier period, for these reasons.

Hence, we see how our notions of what makes for sacred music, had already passed through two major periods. The first, where harmonies were considered secular. The second, where harmonies were introduced, but only slowly accepted as sacred in nature.

V. The Renaissance to the Baroque – New controversies, old problems – In the period of the middle  Renaissance, A new cosmology began to replace the perfect symmetry of the planets revolving the sun in perfect circles. Astronomy began to reveal that most of the planets revolved the sun, not in a perfect circle, but had elliptical orbits,   some of them rather steep ellipses. And thus the perfect circles of the planets, symbolized by  the “music of the spheres”  and imitated by Renaissance polyphony, began to give way to the understanding of the mathematical progression of elliptical orbits, a kind of Bach Fugue in the sky. This change in cosmology helped usher in the rather more elaborate, yet mathematical music of the Baroque.

Yes, here we find the wonderful and mathematically precise music of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Gabrieli, Schubert, Scarlatti and so many others. Perhaps the Fugue most exemplifies the kind of mathematical cosmology of the time. In the fugue, mastered by Bach, but not wholly unique to him, a musical theme is set forth.  For example, quarter notes may annouce the theme of the fugue. And this theme is repeated in the left hand, then in the feet (of the organist) and also adapted mathematically, sub-dividing it to eighth notes, then sixteenth, even 32nd notes. Math meets music. Other forms like canons emerged similarly. Symphonies also grew to have movements often named for their time: Allegro, adagio, presto, etc.

The classical and baroque periods brought in the great orchestral or “Classical” Masses, by composers such as Mozart, Schubert, Scarlatti, and many others. Even Bach and Beethoven set the Catholic Mass in great symphonic and orchestral renderings.

Great controversies accompanied these newer forms. Principle among the concerns was, once again, the intelligibility of the text, and also the rather lengthy quality that many of these masses tended to have. Some Glorias and Credos could go on for  twenty minutes or more.

Some complained to these musical settings of the Mass sounded more like being at the opera, than  Church. Indeed, they often broke the sacred text into movements, speckled with Soprano or tenor solos and duets, grand choral sections and all most often supported by a full symphonic accompaniment. It was quite the sonic experience!   These masses were generally so elaborate, that they could only be performed in the larger city churches that were well endowed.

The controversy concerning these kinds of Masses continued for many years, such that,  as the liturgical reforms began at the turn the last century, Pope Pius X, referring to these orchestral Masses as “theatrical”   (see Tra Le Sollecitudini # 6), frowned on their usage. This led to a de facto banishing of the form at that time from the Catholic liturgy. Only after the second Vatican Council was this form rehabilitated in a small way.

Here too we see that what many Catholics today consider unquestionably sacred, for example a great Mozart Mass, had to endure much of its own controversy and even a kind of banishment. What is thought of as sacred today, has not always enjoyed that rarefied distinction!

VI. The Modern Era – New Musical forms, new controversies. And this leads us to the modern era. As we have seen,  those who think that debates about what constitutes sacred music are new, would be sadly mistaken. These debates have been quite consistently a part of church life almost from the beginning. To simply place them at the feet of the Second Vatican Council is to lack historical perspective.

It is true Musicam Sacram, and Sacrosanctum Concilium, documents of the Second Vatican Council, opened the door to newer forms with a greater freedom toward inculturation, (e.g. MS #s 18 & 63) but it also reasserted the special accord to be given to Chant (# 50a), polyphony and the Pipe Organ (# 4a).

The fact is, debates continue about newer forms and what is sacred, but such tensions have long existed. Some newer forms have already been tried and found wanting (e.g. Polka Masses). Other forms such as “folk” or contemporary music have, with adaptions along the way, remained a mainstay.

As for “Gospel Music,” the debate about which occasioned this rather lengthy article, a few things can be said.

  1. Simply saying “It is not sacred” or “It is not appropriate for Catholic liturgy” does not make it so. As we have seen, the judgement about what is sacred often takes time to be worked out. The notion of what sounds or seems sacred also changes, and what was once dubious is later admitted to the ranks of the sacred.
  2. Gospel music, unlike many other modern forms (e.g. Polka or Mariachi) has real sacred roots. It emerged from the Spirituals and hymns of antebellum and early 20th century time periods. And while not strictly Catholic in origin, it does not per se offend against what is allowed in Catholic liturgy.
  3. One virtue of Gospel music, unlike most other contemporary expressions, is its focus on God. Too many modern contemporary “worship songs” speak more of us and the “gathered community” than God. Not so Gospel, which almost wholly focuses on God.
  4. Like almost any form of music, Gospel can have its excesses, but this does not mean the whole form is flawed, only that certain rational limits should be observed. This was the case with early polyphony and the Classical Masses, and it is also true of Gospel.
  5. Many complain that Gospel looks too “performed.” Generally however most “outsiders” confuse the exuberance of congregation and singers, with performance. Applause is also not for the performer per se but is directed to God and in gratitude for this manifestation of the Spirit.
  6. As is the case with many previous forms, discussions will and should continue.
  7. If one does not “prefer” or even like Gospel Music, they are free to stay away from it. But mere preference or taste does not mean that Gospel is intrinsically lacking in sacred qualities.
  8. Similar things can be said for the use of hymnody. To this author’s mind, the use of metrical hymnody is a good way to once again engage the faithful in the singing of sacred texts in ways that are melodic, memorable, appropriate, and easily learned. Yet for others the Protestant origins of this form and most of its repertoire remains a sticking point.   Here too time must prove where wisdom lies, and over time, many of these hymns are finding a solid place in Catholic liturgy.

Summation: Historically we can see that, except for Gregorian Chant, no form of music currently considered sacred, was without its controversy. Time ultimately proves where wisdom lies and mediates for us what is ultimately sacred in a way that transcends mere passing tastes or preferences. Music has made several revolutionary leaps in the age of the Church, as we saw above. With necessary and rational limits, there is no need to rush to exclude every newer form. Were that the case, ONLY Chant would exist in the Church and we would be deprived of a great treasury of music from the era of polyphony and the classical period.

I do not, in saying this, mean to indicate that all music is just fine and that all modern forms are here to stay or should be unquestioned. It is clear that some forms are wholly inimical to the Sacred Liturgy. Rather, I seek to remind of this fact: that what we call “sacred music” is historically more complex than many understand. It is the result of often long and vigorous discussions, refinements, and other factors as diverse and remote as cosmology, architecture, mathematics, and culture.

We do well to let some of the conversations and controversies work themselves out, lest in too quickly ending them by mere judicial fiat, we impoverish ourselves and block what might bless others, and even our very self.

Some of my sources for the above article are

  1. Johannes Quasten, Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity
  2. Msgr Robert F. Hayburn, Papal Legislation on Sacred Music
  3. BBC Four Part Production Sacred Music
  4. Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way
  5. Thomas Day, Why Catholic Can’t Sing

Here are the videos that sparked the discussion on my Facebook page.



Where Will You Be When the First Trumpet Sounds? A Good Question Asked in An Advent Hymn

120113Part of the Genius of the African American Spirituals is their ability to treat of serious themes, such as the final judgment, in a creatively compelling manner that steered a middle course between unproductive fear and prideful presumption. Some of them are even playful saying things like, I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name, and I wouldn’t be ready to die! Another song says, Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe, If you don’t watch, he’ll slip it on you! Yet another song warns with love: In that great gettin up morning, fare you well, fare you well! Or fare you well poor sinner, fare you well!

Some of the early African American hymns from the late 19th Century also draw heavily on this tradition. One such hymn is “Where Shall I Be When the First Trumpet Sounds?!” by  Charles P. Jones (1865-1949). The hymn consists in applying this question, “Where shall I be” to a litany of biblically based descriptions about the Second Coming of Jesus,  when He will  judge the world by fire. Each verse is steeped in rich biblical tradition and provides us a series of good advent reflections, all rooted in the essential Advent focus of second coming of the Lord Jesus.

As I sing it with my congregation each Advent, I am reminded of the familiar themes of another masterpiece, the ancient Dies Irae. That hymn too is richly biblical and I have treated of it HERE.

But as for this fine hymn, Where Shall I Be, let’s take a look at each line, asking the question, Where shall I be? I provide a biblical background for each verse and question that might help us since the rich tapestry of faith.

First, here is the hymn in toto, and then a line by line biblical lexicon, with brief commentary by me. Since this is a longish post I have put it here in PDF for you to print and read later. The hymn can be heard in the video at the bottom.

When judgment day is drawing nigh,
Where shall I be?
When God the works of men shall try,
Where shall I be?
When east and west the fire shall roll,
Where shall I be?
How will it be with my poor soul:
Where shall I be?

Refrain

O where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds,
O where shall I be when it sounds so loud?
When it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead?
O where shall I be when it sounds?

When wicked men His wrath shall see,
Where shall I be?
And to the rocks and mountains flee,
Where shall I be?
When hills and mountains flee away,
Where shall I be?
When all the works of man decay,
Where shall I be?

Refrain

When Heav’n and earth as some great scroll,
Where shall I be?
Shall from God’s angry presence roll,
Where shall I be?
When all the saints redeemed shall stand,
Where shall I be?
Forever blest at God’s right hand,
Where shall I be?

Lexicon and Commentary:

1. When judgment day is drawing nigh, Where shall I be?

A. Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. (Matt 24:32-33)
B. Do not grumble….The Judge is standing at the door! (James 5:9)
C. Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. (Rev 3:20)
D. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. (Mk 13:36)
E. For, “In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.” (Heb 10:37)
F. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. (1 Thess 5:3)
G. Then the angel I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven. And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, “There will be no more delay!” (Rev 10:5-6)
H. Comment – Judgment day is drawer nearer and nearer for us all. Which each beat of our heart the moment edges forward. Are you ready for the Day of Judgment? What are you doing to get ready. The Dies Irae says, Day of Wrath and doom impending, heaven and earth in ashes ending….Do not delay your conversion to the Lord. The Lord has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Cor 5:19-20)

2. When God the works of men shall try, Where shall I be?

A. Their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor 3:13-15)
B. For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. (Matt 16:27)
C. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. (Rev 20:12)
D. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. (Rom 2:6-8)
E. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. (Matt 12:36)
F. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:9-11)
G. Comment: We will not be saved by our deeds, but we will be judged by them. For the veracity of saving faith is manifest by its work. As Jesus attests: The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. (Matt 12:35) Hence our works shall be tried by God, that is, they shall be judged by the Lord Jesus, to whom we must render and account. The Dies Irae says, Lo the book exactly worded, wherein all hath been recorded, thence shall judgement be awarded.

3. When east and west the fire shall roll, Where shall I be?

A. Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. (Mal 4:1-3)
B. For behold, the LORD is coming forth from His place. He will come down and tread on the high places of the earth. The mountains will melt under Him And the valleys will be split, Like wax before the fire, Like water poured down a steep place. (Micah 1:3-4)
C. By the wrath of the LORD Almighty the land will be scorched and the people will be fuel for the fire; they will not spare one another. (Isaiah 9:19)
D. For behold, the LORD will come in fire And His chariots like the whirlwind, To render His anger with fury, And His rebuke with flames of fire. For the LORD will execute judgment by fire And by His sword on all flesh, And those slain by the LORD will be many (Is 66:15-16)
E. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly….But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. (2 Peter 7,10-12)
F. Comment: The only way to survive on the day of fire is to be fire yourself. Let God set you on fire with love and bring you up to the temperature of glory. Let God send tongues as of fire to enkindle in you the fire of his love.

4. How will it be with my poor soul: Where shall I be?

A. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, “If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. (1 Peter 4:17-19)
B. Comment – While we can have confidence for the day of salvation, our confidence cannot be in our own ability, but must rest in the grace and mercy of God. We are all poor sinners, beggars before God. The Dies Irae says: What for I fail sinner pleading, who for me be interceding, when the just are mercy needing?

5. O where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds, O where shall I be when it sounds so loud?

A. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Cor 15:52)
B. Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (Matt 24:30-31)
C. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. (1 Thess 4:16)
D. The Sovereign Lord will sound the trumpet; he will march in the storms of the south (Zech 9:14)
E. Comment – The trumpet summons all to judgement; some to glory others to wrath. But all must come! This is an appoint all must keep! The Dies Irae says, Wondrous Sound the Trumpet flingeth, Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth, all before the throne it bringeth.

6. When it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead? O where shall I be when it sounds?

A. And there will be a time of distress such as never occurred since there was a nation until that time; and at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt. (Dan 12:1-2)
B. And [The Father] He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man. “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment. (Jn 5:27-29)
C. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Cor 15:52)
D. Comment – Where will you be? With the, with the righteous or with the wicked, with the Saint or the aints. Everyone will rise, but to different realities entirely. Where Shall I be?

7. When wicked men His wrath shall see, Where shall I be?

A. Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. (Mal 4:1)
B. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (2 Peter 3:7)
C. The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Rom 1:18)
D. You formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph 2:2-3)
E. You turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come. (1 Thess 1:9-10)
F. Comment: Are you getting this. The Day of Judgment is going to be bad for the wicked. They will experience God’s wrath. What is God’s wrath? It is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sin in the presence of God’s holiness. It is like fire and water coming together. They cannot coexist, there is a fundamental conflict and one has to give way. So it is with sin in the presence of God; no can do. Only Jesus can give us the capacity to stand before God’s utter sanctity. Only Jesus can rescue us from the coming wrath. The dies Irae says, When the wicked are confounded, Doomed to flames of woe unbounded: Call me with thy saints surrounded

8. And to the rocks and mountains flee, Where shall I be? When hills and mountains flee away, Where shall I be?

A. As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!” ’For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:26-31)
B. Men will go into caves of the rocks And into holes of the ground Before the terror of the LORD And the splendor of His majesty, When He arises to make the earth tremble. (Is 2:19)
C. Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:15-17)
D. Comment – You can’t run from God, because He’s already there. There will be no escape, no postponing the Day of Judgment.

9. When all the works of man decay, Where shall I be?

A. Each man’s work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor 3:13-15)
B. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. (2 Peter 3:10)
C. Jesus came out from the temple and was going away when His disciples came up to point out the temple buildings to Him. And He said to them, “Do you not see all these things? Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another, which will not be torn down.” (Matt 24:2)
D. Comment – All things of man shall pass away, and all our works. Only what we do for Christ will last. Jesus says, You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit–fruit that will last–and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. (Jn 15:16). Only what you do for Christ will last. All other works will decay.

10. When Heav’n and earth as some great scroll, Where shall I be? Shall from God’s angry presence roll, Where shall I be?

A. Come near, you nations, and listen; pay attention, you peoples! Let the earth hear, and all that is in it, the world, and all that comes out of it! The Lord is angry with all nations; his wrath is on all their armies…. the mountains will be soaked with their blood. All the stars in the sky will be dissolved and the heavens rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves… (Isaiah 34:1-4)
B. The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night. (Rev 8:12)
C. Comment: The Dies Irae says, Death is struck and nature quaking, All creation is awaking, To its judge and answer making. Come on now, if even the stars are struck and must answer, who are you or I to make light of judgement?

11. When all the saints redeemed shall stand, Where shall I be? Forever blest at God’s right hand, Where shall I be?

A. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. “He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness (Mal 3:2)
B. Wherefore…having done all to stand, Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints. (Ephesians 6:10-18)
C. When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. (Matt 25:31-33)
D. Comment: The Dies Irae says, With thy sheep a place provide me, From the goats afar divide me, To thy right hand do thou guide me. When the wicked are confounded, Doomed to flames of woe unbounded: Call me with thy saints surrounded.

Yes, quite a song, so rich in biblical allusion. It, like the Dies Irae accesses many scriptures quite vividly and creatively. And yet like so many of the spiritual is able to combine them in ways that are almost celebratory. The hymn is usually sung in upbeat ways, in my parish we clap hands as it is sung.

But at the end of the day the question remains: Where shall I be? Will it be among the righteous in glory, or the sinful and unrepentant in Hell. Where, poor sinner, where shall you and I be? Thanks be to God for his grace and mercy that help us to stand a chance.

But as with all offers of God, grace and mercy are only accessed through repentance.

This song, like the more ancient Dies Irae could not be more clear, we are hastening to the day of judgement, a day about which to be sober and ready. Are you ready? Where shall you be when the first trumpet sounds.

Here is the Song as sung: