N THIS SAINT CECILIA DAY, I confront a challenge most liturgical musicians face: the battle between the Word and musical “feel.” While, they are in not mutually exclusive, one is always a priority. This battle often includes sacred music as entertainment versus prayer.
The musical experience is highly subjective. I often compare listening to music to looking in a mirror. Each person may look at the same mirror, but each sees something different: themselves. Music, like a mirror, reflects what is inside each of our hearts. We hear the same thing, but feel differently despite having the same experience. Hence it is impossible to please everyone. (N.B.: No artist should ever try to please everyone—and arguably no one—regardless of the medium. Doing so almost always results in worthless art.)
So in liturgical music what do we rely upon? The Word. Why? One simple notion perhaps tells us so well: Jesus was the Word made flesh. (John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”) Is it that simple? Perhaps, yes. Consider that Jesus was not the “Feelings made flesh”, nor the “Emotion made flesh” that came to dwell among us. Certainly, He was not the “Good Vibes made flesh.” Jesus was the Word Incarnate and all the beauty, truth, and challenge that came with it.
Likewise, at mass, we have the “Liturgy of the Word” not the “Liturgy of Easy Going Thoughts.” The scriptures are, more often than not, challenging. Our forebears suffered greatly, often death, for our faith. Jesus confronts nearly everyone head on—his own disciples, his followers, the religious leaders and the government. He indeed brought about division. Jesus was very direct to the point of sounding cold when describing the personal challenge of being one of his disciples.
HAT THE WORD IS PREEMINENT in liturgical music comes as a surprise to many. This must be true even if planning hymns and songs. They must be chosen, not to emphasize “themes” or “moods”, but to reinforce the Word. That this is surprising to some is indicative of how far afield liturgical music has come from its purpose and intent: to sing the mass, and hence the scriptures—the Word. Historically, the sung mass is a direct descendant of the Hebrew tradition of singing scriptures. At a bar mitzvah, one does not study to sing a nice song about God. One sings the Torah. To do otherwise would be absurd. This is a simple example, but singing the mass is the liturgical ideal, one perhaps surrounded by many emotional barriers. It is a shift in contemporary thinking to prioritize the dialogues, acclamations, antiphons, etc. — all of which have prescribed texts.
Some may argue that this sounds cold. Not at all. From the Word, emanates a life: all that is love, all that is beauty, all that is sacrifice and service to God. As John 15: 5 states, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” The Word is the vine. In joy and in love, we are the branches sent out into the world to serve.
As musicians it is also our responsibility to express the Word with great passion, emotion, dignity, prayerfulness, and reverence. In giving glory to God, we in turn serve each other well.
AINT CECILIA PRAYED that she “not be confounded.” May our prayer be that we express the Word as God intends, and in doing so, while at times we struggle, we may not be confounded!
“Playing the organ, Cecilia chanted to the Lord, saying: Let my heart be made spotless, so that I may not be confounded.” – Vespers Antiphon for the Feast of St. Cecilia, November 22