About this blogger:
Richard J. Clark is the Director of Music of the Archdiocese of Boston and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. He is also Chapel Organist (Saint Mary’s Chapel) at Boston College. His compositions have been performed worldwide.
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“It is very curious, rather barbarous, much too ornate, immeasurably less dignified than ours now, anything in the world rather than archaic or primitive.”
— Fr. Fortescue describing the “Sarum Use” in 1912

What Is a “Performance” in Liturgy?
published 17 May 2013 by Richard J. Clark

ERHAPS MOST MISUNDERSTOOD in liturgical music is the concept of “performance.” As musicians, most of us are involved in secular as well as sacred music. The concept of “performing” is the natural conclusion of our work. Yet, in liturgy, it is not. There is understandable tension in what is so natural in one environment and what is unacceptable in another.

So, what is a performance in liturgy? Certainly, the music at mass must be, er…um…executed? Played? Sung? What other word is acceptable? “Performance” can be viewed as a dirty word in liturgy! So what is a musician supposed to do if he or she may not perform?

A few years ago Dr. J. Michael McMahon visited St. Cecilia Parish in Boston to give a symposium on the 2007 USCCB document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. With widened eyes he emphatically declared, “…it is not a performance, but the choir had BETTER perform.”

Dr. McMahon is perhaps referring to the diligent preparation of the music, executed with the same attention to detail as any stage performance. However, the delivery is what differs from a secular performance: prayerful humility that points to God instead of to the musician. (However, even great concert artists may take issue with this characterization. Any concert artist desires to move the audience emotionally and spiritually.)

However, I am keenly aware that “performance” in liturgy is often misunderstood as the choir singing alone which is in turn perceived as precluding participation and therefore must not be allowed. However, remember that full and active participation requires both internal and external participation. (See my post on Full and Active Participation.) Yet, the importance of interior participation cannot be underestimated. That the choir may not sing alone is clearly false.

On the various roles of the choir, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship provides quite a lengthy list of appropriate times in which the choir may sing alone:

“…Appropriate times where the choir might commonly sing alone include a prelude before Mass, the Entrance chant, the Preparation of the Gifts, during the Communion procession or after the reception of Communion, and the recessional. Other appropriate examples are given in the section of this document entitled “Music and the Structure of the Mass” (nos. 137-199).” (Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. No. 30)
The “other appropriate examples” referred to in nos. 137-199 of the document include the choir singing alone parts of the Gloria, the Gradual, the Sequence, the Creed (in alternatum with the people), and the Agnus Dei with the people responding. While it is inadvisable for the choir to sing alone on everything listed above, the notion that every piece of music must be sung by the congregation is yet another late 20th century liturgical construct. That being said, the document is clear that “The singing of the people should be preeminent.” (Ibid. no. 189)

So, a “performance” in liturgy is something quite different and something I think most of us are prone to, including myself. “Performance” has little to do with the particular music at hand or even its liturgical function. Instead, it has more to do with the manner in which it is delivered. In short, a “performance” in liturgy is to draw attention to oneself rather than to God. This is intangible and difficult to quantify. One cannot always discern what is in another’s heart, but we must be mindful of what is in our own.

Seminarian Ryan G. Duns, SJ puts it quite well in his blog A Jesuit’s Journey. A musician of Irish music, (he’s quite good, I’ve heard him!) he writes here of his understanding of his musical role when accompanying dancers in a secular setting—one we can learn from in a liturgical role:

“The crowd shouldn’t notice the musician, really. We need to dissolve in order that the dancer can find himself or herself caught up in the music and performance. My practice meets their practice in order that they shine…my effort to conceal myself in the music lets the dancer take the stage totally.
“I write this and cannot help but think that this is my notion of priesthood. Just two years from my ordination, it’s not about me putting on a show, about making something happen. My Jesuit training and my musical training converge: I think I’ll be my best when I am noticed least, when I can get out of the way so that those who approach the Lord’s Table are treated, not to a dose of Duns, but to an encounter with the Risen One, the Lord of the Dance.”
There is a lesson here, one that is echoed in the 2007 Bishop’s Document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship:

125. The role of music is to serve the needs of the Liturgy and not to dominate it, seek to entertain, or draw attention to itself or the musicians. However, there are instances when the praise and adoration of God leads to music taking on a far greater dimension. At other times, simplicity is the most appropriate response. The primary role of music in the Liturgy is to help the members of the gathered assembly to join themselves with the action of Christ and to give voice to the gift of faith.

Likewise, priests must be mindful of the same:

18. “When he celebrates the Eucharist, . . . [the priest] must serve God and the people with dignity and humility, and by his bearing and by the way he says the divine words he must convey to the faithful the living presence of Christ.” (GIRM No. 93)
All this I write for myself as much as for anyone else. I am mindful of my own sinfulness, my own self-interest, my ego, and so on. This serves as a reminder to me to serve God in humility above all.