HAT IS THE GREATEST enemy of Sacred Music? I sure hope it’s not your pastor or your congregation. Is it the text of the song? Or the instrumentations? No! Because there are some good Catholic hymns writers and composers who write sacred pieces very orthodoxly.
Pope St. Pius X referred Gregorian Chant as the Supreme Model of Sacred Music in Tra le Sollecitudini and of course, then, new pieces should be composed following the model of Gregorian Chant. The most important musical characteristic of Gregorian Chant is its rhythm. Gregorian Chant is not rhythmic, or at least not metrically rhythmic. It is a pure expression of the text. It is impossible for one to tap his toes while singing or listening to Chant. We can judge whether a piece is following the model of Sacred Music by looking at its rhythm.
What does rhythm do to us? I am sure that we all have experienced rhythmic songs before. Naturally, they make us want to tap our toes, clap our hands or even dance along with the rhythm. And when Gregorian Chant is being sung, our bodies naturally go into a more peaceful, still, and contemplative mode.
I would, therefore, like to suggest that when music is more rhythmic, it is more carnal because of our physical reactions; similarly, when music is less rhythmic, it is more spiritual.
In the Liturgy, music is meant to be God-centered instead of self-centered and that is why music that is more spiritual, instead of carnal, should be sung. In another words, less rhythmic music is more suitable for Mass.
HERE IS A GOOD EXAMPLE to demonstrate the role of Rhythm in different styles of music:
There are three different settings and styles of the Alleluia in this video. The first one (0:17) is the Gregorian setting from the Missal. It is chanted in a free rhythm just like all Gregorian Chant.
The second one (3:10) is a less melismatic setting. It is a more hymn-like Alleluia that one can actually counts evenly in twos. Here, the role of Rhythm is just to keep the piece in a steady pace. And the focus of the piece is on the melody instead of the rhythm.
The third one (6:32) is a polyphonic setting. And again, Rhythm helps keeping all the melodies together in a steady pace. If we just pick out one of the melodies, it is basically in a free rhythm like Gregorian Chant. Rhythm keeps the many vocal parts in order so that we might hear the beautiful harmonies created by multiple melodies. And these harmonies are the focus of the style of polyphony.
Now, consider this:
Our ears can pick out that swinging rhythm right away with this famous setting. In this piece, Rhythm is playing an equal role with the melody, maybe even a more important role than the melody. The way to prove that is to sing the melody evenly without the swinging rhythm. It would be a whole different piece without the rhythm.
By comparing the four different settings of the Alleluia, we see the roles of Rhythm in four different styles of music. The more emphasis is put on Rhythm, the music become less spiritual. Looking into the western music history, secular music, like madrigal, opera, waltz, pop music, etc. has always been more rhythmic than sacred music. Rhythm continues to be the greatest enemy and challenge for Church Music today.