P FRONT, I WILL ADMIT that ever since the first time I heard a pipe organ follow up on the recessional hymn with a magnificent postlude, it has seemed to be almost self-evident that this is the right and proper way to end Mass. But there are people who are apparently bothered by postludes and find them a loud distraction that stands in the way of making a thanksgiving after Mass. So I will take up the challenge of showing the fittingness of this practice, which has been with us for several centuries now, since the great age of organ music that dawned in the late Renaissance and reached its height in the Baroque period.
First off, the Church herself says a great deal in praise of the organ’s qualities as an instrument for the temple of God. Just a few lines:
The traditionally appropriate musical instrument of the Church is the organ, which, by reason of its extraordinary grandeur and majesty, has been considered a worthy adjunct to the Liturgy, whether for accompanying the chant or, when the choir is silent, for playing harmonious music at the prescribed times … Let our churches resound with organ-music that gives expression to the majesty of the edifice and breathes the sacredness of the religious rites; in this way will the art both of those who build the organs and of those who play them flourish afresh and render effective service to the sacred liturgy. — Pius XI, Divini Cultus (1928).
Among the musical instruments that have a place in church the organ rightly holds the principal position, since it is especially fitted for the sacred chants and sacred rites. It adds a wonderful splendor and a special magnificence to the ceremonies of the Church. It moves the souls of the faithful by the grandeur and sweetness of its tones. It gives minds an almost heavenly joy and it lifts them up powerfully to God and to higher things. — Pius XII, Musicae Sacrae (1955).
In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things. — Vatican II, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963).
And a pair of gems from Pope Benedict XVI:
We have just listened to the sound of the organ in all its splendor, and I think that the great music born within the Church is an audible and perceptible rendering of the truth of our faith. — Address in Bressanone (August 6, 2008)
Solemn sacred music, with choir, organ, orchestra and the singing of the people, is not an addition of sorts that frames the liturgy and makes it more pleasing, but an important means of active participation in worship. The organ has always been considered, and rightly so, the king of musical instruments, because it takes up all the sounds of creation and gives resonance to the fullness of human sentiments. By transcending the merely human sphere, as all music of quality does, it evokes the divine. The organ’s great range of timbre, from piano through to a thundering fortissimo, makes it an instrument superior to all others. It is capable of echoing and expressing all the experiences of human life. The manifold possibilities of the organ in some way remind us of the immensity and the magnificence of God. — Dedication of Organ in the Regensburg Basilica (September 13, 2006).
When I consider texts like these—of which there is an abundance—I think to myself: There is something special about the organ whereby its music, when properly chosen and played, is most of all suitable for the church, raising the minds and hearts of the faithful to the contemplation of God’s beauty, grandeur, and mystery. A Mass without music (vocal and instrumental) is a Mass that does not fulfill in every possible way the elevating power of the sacred liturgy. Of course, quiet prayer is a very important aspect of the liturgy, so it should never be omitted. We are once again dealing with a Catholic “both/and,” not a Protestant “either/or”: a High Mass generally has both periods of silent meditation and periods of chant and other music, and they are complementary to one another.
HIS BEING ESTABLISHED, I would next say that the postlude after Mass is specifically ordered to proclaiming the attributes of God’s greatness and majesty, which have been revealed to us in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is highly appropriate for a time of thanksgiving, because throughout the Mass we have been preparing ourselves, with contrition, with steps towards the altar, with much earnest prayer and supplication, and when the Lord finally makes Himself present to us and even gives Himself to us in Holy Communion, our hearts should be bursting and ready to cry out “Alleluia!” with all of creation. That is what an organ postlude does better than anything else can do: it makes creation resound with the divine praises as we get ready to step forth into the world again.
Such a postlude needs to be appreciated for what it is: a musical expression of the soul’s exultation. People don’t need to be able to think during it; the music is pre-rational and super-rational. We simply allow ourselves to be carried off for a few minutes by the harmony. It’s a healthy apophatic experience. It cannot substitute for personal thanksgiving, which may be opportunely done afterwards. Perhaps one of the problems is that modern people are so often either in a hurry or in an individualist frame of mind that either they can’t wait to get out of church or, once in church, they’d rather be “left alone to their own prayers.” Both utilitarian pragmatism and individualistic piety are inimical to the true spirit of the liturgy, which is a divinely-bestowed communal leisure, elevated by the fine arts and vivified by personal devotion.
It does seem to me that the “low Mass mentality” is one that needs to be gently but firmly combatted, because it is a form of minimalism whereby the wings of the soul cannot fully spread themselves and soar on the beauty our Lord has so lavishly given to His people. Seek out silence in your prayer times; seek blessed silence at the very heart of the High Mass; but do not silence the exuberant expression of the glory of the Lord and the beauty of His handiwork, as they reach our minds through music.
So, the next time you are at church and the postlude thunders forth as the Mass ends, don’t try to keep following that devotional book, don’t try to “meditate,” don’t leave for the chattiness of the coffee hour or the seclusion of your car. Just sit and absorb the plenum of sound, the heavenly harmonies, the wordless jubilation. Take up again the thread of thanksgiving when the music fades away.
Please visit THIS PAGE to learn more about Dr. Kwasniewski’s Sacred Choral Works and the audio CDs that contain recordings of the pieces.