About this blogger:
A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he resides with his wife and children.
Connect on Facebook:
Connect on Twitter:
The liturgical reform bears absolutely no relation to what is called "desacralization" and in no way intends to lend support to the phenomenon of "secularizing the world." Accordingly the rites must retain their dignity, spirit of reverence, and sacred character.
— Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship (5 September 1970)

Which Instruments Are Allowed At Mass?
published 30 March 2013 by Jeff Ostrowski

UR BLOG, as you know, is called “Views from the Choir Loft.” Please notice the word “view” is plural. We offer differing views, and sometimes we don’t agree. Many other journals are the same way. Antiphon, Caecilia, Sacred Music, and Catholic Choirmaster would be examples of magazines which published authors who disagree with one another, and sometimes quite openly. I mention this because some readers may become upset when they read my article below. I hope nobody will: just take a deep breath! If you disagree with what I write, simply say to yourself, “Well, that’s his opinion. What does he know?!!”

A YouTube comment was posted on a CCW video a few weeks ago. The video in question was one which clearly said we cannot use secular musical styles in the Holy Mass. Here’s the comment:

Psalm 150 from the New American Bible States: / Give praise with blasts upon the horn, praise him with harp and lyre. / Give praise with tambourines and dance, praise him with flutes and strings. / Give praise with crashing cymbals, praise him with sounding cymbals. / Let everything that has breath give praise to the LORD! Hallelujah! / Amen!!!

Comments like this are made quite frequently. People who make these comments are often upset that Pope Pius X forbade the use of instruments in Church (except the organ) without specific approval by the Bishop. Years ago, [ back when I was young and foolish! ] whenever people would quote that Psalm (above) I would sharply respond, “Don’t worry: Pius X knew the Bible a million times better than you ever will . . . so simply obey him.” In some ways, I still think that answer was acceptable. But let’s go a little further.

To take just one example, it cannot be denied that some modern translations use the word “flute.” But the original psalms were written 3,000 years ago. Sadly, many people read “flute” and think of our modern flutes. Sadly, they believe that there must have been flutes 3,000 years ago just like we have today, playing music in rhythm, using Major-minor tonality, equal temperament tuning, and so forth. Sadly, they seem to envision going back 3,000 years and hearing Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, or perhaps Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Sadly, they imagine that because some modern translation uses the word “flute,” they could go back 3,000 years and hear an evening performance of the Schumann Concerto, with flutes just like we have today.

The reality of the situation is that the instruments and (more importantly) music played 3,000 years ago has absolutely nothing to do with how the flute is played in 2013.

I am at a loss for words to describe how wrong their interpretation is for this passage. I’ve pondered these things, yet cannot even think of an adequate analogy. However, I shall try one just for the heck of it. Their interpretation of Psalm 150 is like the following analogy:

Let’s suppose somebody named “Josie” is reading a document from 3,000 years ago. Now, suppose a modern translator used the word “transportation” in the translation. Suppose Josie’s normal method of transportation is an F-22 Raptor (military plane). “Well,” says Josie, “who would have guessed they had F-22 Raptors 3,000 years ago?”

In stunned disbelief, we respond, “Josie, what are you talking about?” Josie responds, “Well, I read in the translation the word 'transportation’ so that must mean the exact same thing it does 3,000 years later, right?”

What can be said? Would this not mean that Josie has lost her marbles? Is this not insane? Yet, this is what people do all the time when it comes to music, musical instruments, the Bible, and the Mass. You might say to me, “Jeff, you’re taking this too far.” My response? “No, I am not taking this too far. Josie’s statement is precisely as insane as the insinuation that the flute played music in a Major-minor tonality and four bar phrases 3,000 years ago.”

So, after this beautiful analogy I have now related (patting myself on the back), where does that leave us?

The following opinions might offend some readers. Please “take them with a grain of salt.”

I am against orchestral Masses at Mass. In my view, the compositional make-up of the “Viennese school” is exactly like the secular music of the day, and we know the Church does not allow secular styles at Mass. It is beautiful music, and I am quite familiar with it. As a matter of fact, I sang a whole bunch of it in college and have won a decent amount of money playing Mozart and Beethoven concerti at competitions. I mention this lest anyone say, “Jeff, if you don’t think it’s suitable for Mass, you must not understand it. Go study it first.” However, I say again: I understand this music better than most, especially the compositional techniques used, and it is not suitable for Mass.

Many people disagree with my view. My own teacher, who worked closely with three popes is staunchly in favor of orchestral Masses. Pope Benedict XVI, whom I greatly admire, has a different view than mine. On the other hand, many share my view. Some professors at the Sacred Music Colloquium call such music “parlor music.” Pius X was wise to only allow orchestral Masses if the local Ordinary approved.

Here is an article by Fr. Fidelis Smith, O.F.M., which answers the question, “Which musical instruments are allowed at Mass?” It is a fairly long article, and I certainly don’t agree with everything in it, but I would suggest it’s worth reading (especially the second half):

      * *  Article discussing orchestral Masses [pdf]

Giving another perspective, here’s an article by Fr. Hogan, Msgr. Schuler’s nephew:

      * *  “Orchestral Masses” by Fr. Hogan [pdf]

Fr. Hogan is very much in support orchestral Masses, but his article completely misses the point. Fr. Hogan argues, “Mozart used the same secular compositional style for his sacred works, but he wrote his sacred music first, so that makes it OK.” For instance, he says:

The criticism that Mozart’s Masses sound like his operas implies a chronological error. He wrote many of his Masses while in the service of Archbishop Collaredo of Salzburg. They are earlier than his well-known operas which appeared only after he had left his birthplace and moved to Vienna in 1781. To Mozart’s contemporaries the later operas could have sounded like the earlier Masses! Mozart did not borrow a secular form for use in the liturgy; if anything, he used a sacred form for his operas. But this is as patently ridiculous as what the critics claim. If people wish to maintain that there has been an improper mixing of the sacred and the secular, then one must conclude that Mozart was using a sacred form in his secular music, not that he borrowed a secular form for his liturgical compositions.

Fr. Hogan’s argument reminds me of a comment by Fr. Rutler [video], quoting Victor Borge: “My father and uncle were identical twins, but I never knew which was the identical one.” In other words, the point is, there is no difference between Mozart’s secular style and his sacred style. The point is not whether Mozart composed this or that piece of music before or after some other piece of music. By the way, I’m afraid Fr. Hogan’s claim is also factually inaccurate. It simply cannot be maintained that all of Mozart’s secular music was written after his sacred compositions.

In the future, I hope to write more about orchestral Masses. I hope to explore the rhythmic and tonal elements I object to. I hope to present more opinions by major figures, some of which I disagree with quite strongly. But for now, I must stop, because I’ve already gone on for too long.


Victor Borge studied with a pianist named Frederic Lamond, a pianist I grew up listening to on recordings. Lamond was one of the last Liszt pupils, and followed his master’s habit of looking at the audience as he played. Emil Von Saur added, “And when he hit wrong notes, he looked very confused.”