When we take part in any way in liturgical music, we bring our ideal relationships with God and each other into being so that we can explore, affirm and celebrate them.
Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press, 1998) by Christopher Small
- What does it mean to participate in the liturgy through music?
- What are the ideal relationships being represented?
- How do we affirm, explore and celebrate our identity as the Body of Christ in music?
- How are the participations of the composer, performer and listener connected in liturgical music?
Have you ever had an experience where you’ve been listening to a piece of music and it’s just clicked with you? When it just seemed to be the right piece of music for that moment?
On the 18th November, 2018, my local parish church’s mass was in full swing, following the normal pattern of the liturgy: hymns, chants, readings, all as normal. Then, at the end of the penultimate verse of an entirely standard offertory hymn, there was a change. Our singing (perhaps it was even a little lacklustre) was interrupted by (appropriately enough) an interrupted cadence. Instead of resting on that unexpected last chord, the organ moved off in its own direction, improvising and threading together melodies we had heard earlier in the liturgy and signposting chants yet to come. Rank on rank of glorious modulations thundered from the organ loft. From a functional perspective, the hymn wouldn’t have lasted long enough to cover the processions and incensations and offertory, but it was more than functional.
The building’s acoustics gave the sense that we were being propelled forwards towards the sanctuary. The meaning of that moment in the mass was presented to us in musical code. We have a nationally known organist, but this was beyond even what we are used to. At the end of mass, the parish priest announced that we did, indeed, have a visiting organist: Wayne Marshall, from the United States. My experience was one of more than just performing and listening, it was an experience of what it meant to participate as a Christian in the Offertory of the mass.
I found myself asking what it was about the music that meant I was able to participate in it, but Gregory Bateson (quoted in Small, 1998, p. 51) points out that just as valid a question is “what am I that I can participate in the music?”. Indeed, “the fundamental nature and meanings of music lie not in objects, not in musical works, but in action, in what people do.” (Small, 1998, p. 8). More than that, the meaning of the music was specific to that place, to that moment in the mass, with those participants (Small, 1998, p. 10). It was a moment in which I could explore what it would be like to be a better Christian than I actually am, to really be offering myself in the mass in a form of participation that I don’t think I’ve yet achieved. What I was doing was more than just listening; it was “musicking”: affirming, exploring and celebrating my relationship with God and those around me.
1. What does it mean to participate in the liturgy through music?
Christopher Small explains his concept of musicking as follows:
“To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance. That means not only to perform but also to listen, to provide material for performance (what we call composing), to prepare for a performance (what we call practising or rehearsing), or to take part in any activity that can affect the nature of that style of human encounter which is a musical performance.” (Small, 1998, p. 12)
Music is therefore
“about relationships, not so much about those which actually exist in our lives as about those that we desire to exist and long to experience: relationships among people, as well as those between people and the rest of the cosmos, and also perhaps with ourselves and with our bodies and even with the supernatural” (Small, 1998, p. 183).
By musicking, “we learn about and explore those relationships, we affirm them to ourselves and anyone else who may be paying attention, and we celebrate them, then musicking is in fact a way of knowing our world.” (Small, 1998, p. 50) These relationships are encoded on two levels: “those among the sounds that the musicians are making” and “those among the people who are taking part.” (Small, 1998, p. 184) When I take part, in any capacity, therefore, in an act of liturgical musicking, I am given access to a set of idealised relationships.
As well as answering the fundamental questions of “what is music?” and “what is the role of music in human life?”, this understanding of the nature of musicking equips us as Catholics who experience liturgical music to move away from a limited concept of active participation as performance. It seems that the borderline-Pelagian idea that to have participated in the liturgy, everyone has to be seen to have done something, is currently receding into the past. Perhaps now is the time when we ought to be reclaiming listening as an important (maybe even primary) form of active participation.
This also gives us a language to re-express what the Council Fathers of Vatican II were getting at when they discussed acutosa participatio as “the aim to be considered before all else” (Sacrosanctum Concilium ¶14). As Joseph P Swain puts it, “in the mid-1960s congregational singing quickly became a matter of great urgency” (Swain, 2012, p. 40) and in the haste to capitalize on the euphoria of the post-conciliar moment, we largely missed the point. The Council Fathers had called not for a change in musical repertoire (Sacrosanctum Concilium ¶114, 116, 117); “rather, they asked for a change in its role in the liturgy.” (Swain, 2012, p. 39). Instead of being a decoration, music was to be an “integral part of the solemn liturgy”, fulfilling a ministerial role (Sacrosanctum Concilium ¶112), and thus in that context, “religious singing by the people is to be intelligently fostered… [so that] the voices of the faithful may ring out according to the norms and requirements of the rubrics” (Sacrosanctum Concilium ¶118). The Council Fathers were calling for us to sing our parts of the liturgy, but they also wanted choirs to be “diligently promoted” (Sacrosanctum Concilium ¶114).
To put these intentions together in the language of musicking, when I music by listening, my participation isn’t necessarily any less than when I music by singing or playing. My ability to explore, celebrate and affirm my identity and relationships as a liturgical participant is not changed by the form of musicking I happen to be engaging in. “The verb ‘to music’ is not concerned with valuation. It is descriptive, not prescriptive” (Small, 1998, p. 12). When I participate actively in the liturgy, that can take the form of active attention.
2. What are the ideal relationships being represented?
“By bringing into existence relationships that are thoughts of as desirable, a musical performance not only reflects those relationships but also shapes them. It teaches and inculcates the concept of those ideal relationships, or values, and allows those taking part to try them on, to see how they fit, to experience them without having to commit themselves to them, at least, for more than the duration of the performance. It is thus an instrument of exploration.” (Small, 1998, p. 183)
Small, who understands all music as ritual, criticises those rituals in which “the majority watch and listen in stillness and silence, unable to influence the course of the event, while a minority acts”. This, he says, is “a vivid representation of certain types of political relationship”. Instead he argues that “the more actively we participate [externally], the more each one of us is empowered to act, to create, to display, then the more satisfying we shall find the performance of the ritual” (Small, 1998, p. 105). That, however, assumes that our ideal relationships are ones in which we principally defined by our own action, creations and self-realisation. As Christians, we are in fact principally defined by our participation in the grace we receive, our nature as creations of God, and God’s realisation in us. The mass is the indispensable and most important means of God’s grace because it is the crucifixion: “as often as the sacrifice of the cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch is sacrificed’ is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out” (Lumen Gentium ¶3). Those relationships are ones in which we are receptive to the action of God.
Being cruciform, the liturgy (litos ergos, Jesus’ work of our redemption) also has an integral horizontal aspect in which we are united to our fellow Christians. Indeed, it is from the cross that the sacrament of the Church was poured out (Sacrosanctum Concilium ¶5, following the thought of Yves Congar, for example in Congar, 2010, p. 41). Since the Church is the “visible sacrament of saving unity” (Lumen Gentium ¶9), the whole ritual of the liturgy explores, celebrates and affirms our identity within the Church, the mystical unity of the Body of Christ with its head (Colossians 1:18), whose identity is defined by the offering of worship to the Father. Liturgical musicking ought to reflect this reality too, as a perceptible sign of the unity which is the defining feature of our ideal relationship with our fellow Christians.
The ideal relationships of Christians take the form of the cross: the vertical aspect of how we relate to God and the horizontal aspect of how we relate to one another being fused. This is why the liturgy is cruciform, since it is a ritual that articulates those same relationships. Liturgical music is integral to the liturgy and so “in exploring we learn, from the sounds and from one another, the nature of the relationships; in affirming we teach one another about the relationships; and in celebrating we bring together the teaching and the learning in an act of social solidarity” (Small, 1998, p. 218). Liturgical music can not only teach us what right relationship with God would be like, it can make it a beautiful experience of a state of grace.
3. How do we affirm, explore and celebrate our identity as the Body of Christ in music?
Small glances briefly towards aesthetics at the end of his book and argues that when the pattern of the ideal relationships represented in the music closely matches our own, we experience the music as beautiful (1998, p. 219). This is not a world away from the aesthetics of St Thomas Aquinas. On the one hand, Aquinas understands beauty to be reliant on the activity of the mind (Summa Theologica I, Q 5, Art 4). Therefore musicking is beautiful when we access the relationships encoded in it by our intellect and senses. On the other hand, Aquinas understands beauty as a “Quality of being” of a thing that has wholeness, radiance and harmony (Summa Theologica I, Q 39, Art 8). Musicking is beautiful when the relationships among the musical sounds and among the musical participants
- have everything required to encode our ideal relationships; for example a singer who has lost their voice cannot music beautifully.
- when the inner logic of how they relate to our ideal relationships is perceptible; for example a piece of liturgical music where the sentiments of the words and music are opposed to one another is not beautiful.
- and when it really is in proportion to our ideal relationships; which is to say that when the relationships encoded in the musicking don’t match our own ideal relationships, we don’t experience the musicking as beautiful.
Discussing architecture, Denis McNamara (of Liturgy Guys fame) sums up Aquinas’s view of beauty as follows: “We call things beautiful when they reveal their ontological ‘secret’, the invisible spiritual reality of their being as objects of understanding.” (McNamara, 2009, p. 22) When talking about musicking we are discussing an action and process rather than an object, but the same principle holds, how else could ballet be beautiful? Just as Aquinas understands beauty as the revelation of the ontology of the thing being contemplated, beauty in music is the revelation of its ontology as a metaphorical code for our ideal relationships. Because musicking reveals our ideal relationships, it touches several actors – all linked in relationships – whose real selves it can reveal. In the liturgy, it reveals something about us, about those around us, about the Church, and about God. The ultimate relationship that liturgical music articulates, the point at which it really is beautiful, is the unity between the Body of Christ and our head, Jesus himself.
When we use music to explore, affirm and celebrate our right relationship with God and each other, it allows us (at least for the duration of the ritual) to experience those relationships in our bodies, because it relies on our understanding of the metaphor spelled out in the social and sound codes of musicking. “When we think metaphorically, we project patterns that derive from the concrete experience of our bodies and our senses onto more abstract experiences and concepts.” (Small, 1998, p. 102). By placing our bodies in the musicking, we link up the material and spiritual parts of how God has created us, and so the liturgy allows us to be more human. We achieve affirmation, exploration and celebration of our idealised and true relationships as the Body of Christ through beauty. As the art critic Deborah Solomon said in an interview:
“Art never lies, I believe. When you look at a work of art, you don’t see a cover for something else; you see revelation. If you’re an artist, art is the truest expression of yourself. Even if you’re painting a life you don’t have.”
For Small, it isn’t just the composer or performer who is the musicking-artist; it is also for the listener to find the truest expression of themselves in the music.
4. How are the participations of the composer, performer and listener connected in liturgical music?
These three participations exist in a mutually dependent relationship. In the western concert tradition, we tend to think of the composer as being at the top of a hierarchy of authority with complete artistic freedom; their works being interpreted by the conductor or soloist who has some artistic agency within the structure given by the work; performed by the other instrumentalists and/or singers who do as they are directed by the conductor; and the audience sit passively contemplating the work as it is presented to them without any agency or authority. Small inverts this hierarchy, arguing that “performance does not exist in order to present musical works, but rather, musical works exist in order to give performers something to perform” (Small, 1998, p. 8). Liturgical musicians did not lose sight of that truth as the concert tradition developed because we were always dealing with musicking in its original context of ritual, from which the concert tradition divorces it. We have always understood liturgical music as “a facet of the great unitary performance art we call ritual.” (Small, 1998, p. 207). As far as liturgical music is concerned, the composer writes music, the conductor or soloist interprets it and the musicians play it in order for the listener to exercise their ability to use it. It is the agency of the listener that is most important.
This point is made by Pius X in Tra le Sollecitudini when he writes that the
“proper aim [of sacred music] is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.” (¶6)
This, Alcuin Reid suggests, is what Sacrosanctum Concilium meant when discussing “actuosa participatio”, “actual” participation, rather than the misleading official translation of “active” participation (Reid, 2005, p. 64).
Yet for all that composers are at the bottom of the chain of importance in the liturgy, in liturgies involving choral settings, they do still have a role as “culture heroes” in how we bring into metaphorical reality the ideal relationships of how we believe the Church should be structured. They are “summoned up in order to give reassurance that the relationships they encoded in musical sounds are abiding and permanent, that things are as they have been and will not change” (Small, 1998, p. 90). It is perhaps for this reason that Pius X, writing in 1903, cast back to the sixteenth century and specifically to the work of Palestrina as the model of liturgical polyphony (Tra le Sollecitudini, ¶4). Small puts it that “the composer [is] a kind of prophet, the score [is] his sacred text, and the conductor [is] his priest. Like priests generally, the conductor claims the right to interpret the sacred text and to impose his interpretation on others” (Small, 1998, p. 89).
Perhaps in the liturgy we can take this one step further and see in the musical relationships our ideal models of how we think the Church ought to be organised. In choral masses for example, a particular set of ideal relationships within the Church can be found in much the same form as the western concert tradition. The composer, who derives his status as a culture hero from the reality that he is almost always dead, is summoned back to life in a representation of the culture hero par excellence, Jesus Christ. As the ideal relationships for the Church are encoded in immutable sacred scripture, so the printed lines, dots, squares, diamonds and squiggles in the score encode those same relationships (more on that in a moment). These are interpreted authoritatively by the choirmaster, who alone can pass on the deeper meaning of text, much like the Church herself in her magesterium. That the liturgy also plays host to performances inspired by the Historically Informed Performance movement, should remind us of the Church’s commission to guard the deposit of faith (2 Timothy 1:14). The choir then follow the director’s interpretation, following the score, much as the hierarchy including the local priest do. The congregation (one hopes) sit receptively, receiving the music as it is passed down to them (2 Thessalonians 2:15), much as the they receive the teachings of Christ (the composer) held in scripture (the score), interpreted and guarded by the Church (the choir master), communicated by their priest (the choir). These relationships can be reinforced by the positioning of different parts of the liturgical assembly within the church building.
Is it any wonder that the architect of the postconciliar reform of the liturgy saw “the problem of song [as] one of the most sensitive, important, and troubling of the entire reform”? (Bugnini, 1990, p. 885) Perhaps there was something in this model of choral mass that prompted Sister Dolores Dufner OSB to urge congregations to “sing a new Church into being” (in Ruffer & al, 2013, #504).
The music itself can contain the encoded relationships of our ideal Church. The style of music encountered in a choral mass is marked by a “unified, blended sound [which reached its first climax in the works of Palestrina, Byrd, Victoria, and Lassus, masters of Counter Reformation Roman church music at the time of the Council of Trent. It was a unified sound for a unified doctrine, and it was there that conducting technique first developed” (Small, 1998, p. 82). In fact, this particular symbolism of the ideal ecclesial relationship in which all are one (John 17:21) is heightened yet further in well-performed Gregorian chant.
Though by design or accident it may be lacking in the assurance of an abiding continuity with the ecclesial relationships of the past, a similar experience of unity is present in liturgical singing by the congregation. In that form of musicking, the relationships between the participants and within the music itself are reconfigured. The text is handed to the congregation by someone at the door, in the form of a hymnbook, or they pick it off a shelf themselves. The congregation then do something themselves with the text they are directed to (be it by a hymn board, or projector, or announcement), namely sing and interpret it. In so doing, they join their voice to those around them, supported by specialists who are, more often than not, drawn from among their own number and who have selected the hymns to be sung. The artistic quality of the sound is unimportant, rather it is the joining in that counts.
Among other possible interpretations, one could see this form of musicking as accentuating what we might call a postmodern way of being Christian: highlighting the subjective and relativist, whilst rejecting the role of organised ideology. The congregation are handed the text by Christ, and directed towards certain passages by the Church, but one is free to choose to take part or not, and one can interpret it as one desires. In so doing, the congregation’s myriad subjectivities coalesce into one unified voice: many individuals being drawn together into one community which contains those such as clergy and lay ministers who are more specialized in their use of the text who can help the others on their way. The musickers are not hierarchically arranged to the same degree as in a choral mass, but rather represent an apparently democratized ecclesiology. Perhaps the music is contemporary and therefore encodes the relevance of the faith, perhaps it is of the 60s and 70s “folk” tradition, encoding the right relationships of one particular generation, perhaps we are valuing the music of other ecclesial communities in a gesture of ecumenism. Regardless, that the texts are selected by those within the community already points to the importance of the subjective response to the liturgy which stands as the divine structure within which subjective agency is enacted.
In the liturgy, as with any other musicking, the point of our activity is
“to affirm and celebrate our relationships through musicking, especially in company with like-feeling people, [it] is to explore and celebrate our sense of who we are, to make us feel more fully ourselves. In a word, we feel good. We feel that this is how the world really is when all the dross is stripped away, and this is where we really belong in it. It is as if – no, not as if but directly is that – we have been allowed to live for a while in the world as it ought to be, in the world of right relationships.” (Small, 1998, p. 142)
That’s the experience of music just “clicking” that I had in my parish church with our guest organist. When we engage in any way in liturgical music we are going beyond performing and listening, we are experiencing a set of ideal relationships. When that set of relationships is closely aligned to our own, it “clicks” as an experience of beauty.
Stepping off the hamster wheel of being a liturgical musician, perhaps we should take a moment to explore what the ideal relationships we bring into tangible reality in the liturgy say about our ideal relationships with God and each other. Are they in fact the ideal relationships of the Church? Perhaps by examining our preferred forms of liturgical musicking, we might be provoked to question whether our own ideal relationships are rightly ordered and proportioned.
I certainly do not want to discourage congregational singing, but I want to ask what its relationship to listening is in different contexts and what that says about how we use music as part of our religious “vocabulary” to communicate our ideas and to understand reality. I was at mass in Freiburg Minster for the Solemnity of Epiphany this year and so was reminded of the German tradition of Vorspiel, in which each congregational hymn has an improvised or composed prelude attached to the chorale. The congregation are therefore invited to listen and receive first, and then appropriate the melody themselves and put it into action in their singing. In Vorspiel, our external participation in the liturgy by singing seems to grow out of our internal participation by listening. As is the case elsewhere in the Roman Rite, the chants of the mass alternated between the congregation and musicians; the priest chanted and the congregation responded in kind. Singing and listening were held in mutual and productive tension without seeking to overwhelm the other. That relationship could say something profound about the Church, our ideal relationships with each other and our ideal relationship with God.
Lumen Gentium (1964)
Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963)
Tra le Sollecitudini (1903)
Bugnini, Annibale, The Reform of the Liturgy (1948-1975), trans Matthew J O’Connell (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990)
Congar, Yves, At the Heart of Christian Worship: Liturgical Essays of Yves Congar, trans & ed Paul Philibert (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010)
McNamara, Denis R, Catholic Church Architecture and the Spirit of the Liturgy (Mundelein, IL: Hillenbrand Books, 2009)
Sharma, Meara, “Deborah Solomon: Through The Looking Glass“, Guernica (15 Jan, 2014)
Small, Christopher, Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press, 1998)
Swain, Joseph P, Sacred Treasure: Understanding Catholic Liturgical Music (Yonkers, NY: Pueblo Books, 2012)
Reid, Alcuin, The Organic Development of the Liturgy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2005)
eds Ruffer, Tim, Anne Harrison, John Barnard & Gordon Giles, Ancient and Modern Words Edition: Hymns and Songs for Refreshing Worship (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2013)
- Do we mistake the congregation for the most active participant in the work of God?
- Do we condemn the congregation to inactivity?
- How do different groups of people best participate in the liturgy?
- Why have we struck our particular balance between singing and listening?
- What does the way we do music say about the way we want to be Christians?
- How does the way we want to be Christians effect the way we do liturgical music?
Copyright © 2020 Wilfrid Jones
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