[In the church Christians] find delight not in the baleful [evil intentioned] songs sung by theatrical performers, songs which lead to sensual love, but in the chants of the Church. Here we hear the voices of the people singing in harmony the praises of God. -- St. Ambrose
There are those who insist that all music is neutral and all equally suited for use in the church and for the faithful. They would suggest that text is what distinguishes music -- not its form but its content and words. It is a common thought today. We have had everything from polka masses to jazz masses to folk masses to U2charists. Our people listen to Christian music in a whole variety of genres -- if not in church, then on radio, iPods, computer, and the like. So what is the big deal? Christian rap is differentiated from chant on the common basis of what the words say, right?
Although it is unpopular to suggest otherwise, not all musical forms are equally suitable for worship. Some forms inescapably are locked into sensuality in which words are secondary to the sound of the music itself. Some forms of music have not only an appeal in lyric but in sound to that which is, as St. Ambrose suggested, evil intentioned. Sensuality is sensuality whether the subject is virtuous or wicked. When the sound is what drives the music, no words can fully redeem or even overcome the impression of the sound or the form. Such sensuality is directed to the self and sees the role of music as a liberating force from the imprisonment of self or self-control.
The music of the Church appeals not to sensuality but to the Word, to the Gospel itself, and sings the story of God's redemptive work both in preparing for and then delivering up His own Son as Savior and Redeemer. Josef Ratzinger, Benedict XVI, put it this way in The Spirit of the Liturgy:
The music of the Church is not performance music but music in service to the Word, as Luther oft described it, the handmaiden of the Word. It has not agenda of its own but only serves the Word -- both to communicate this Word to the hearer and to allow the hearers to speak with one voice in confession of this Word before the Lord (and the world). It is not a competition of styles that we face but the confusion about music's very purpose and how music is to be used. Again, from The Spirit of the Liturgy:In liturgical music, based as it is on biblical faith, there is, therefore, a clear dominance of the Word; this music is a higher form of proclamation. Ultimately, it rises up out of the love that responds to God's love made flesh in Christ, the love that for us went unto death.
That is why singing in the liturgy has priority over instrumental music, though it does not in any way exclude it. It goes without saying that the biblical and liturgical texts are the normative words from which liturgical music has to take its bearings.The music Christians inherited was Psalm singing. Early on Christological hymns were added -- some of which became the ordinary of the mass (Gloria in Excelsis). Some are even alluded to in St. Paul (Philippians: At the name of Jesus. . . ). Gregorian Chant was the first fully developed form exclusively born from and designed for worship. Polyphonic music added to this and introduced instruments into more prominence but as support for both text and melody and not in competition for the stage or the mind of the hearer. Attempt was made to distinguish liturgical music, the music of worship, from religious music which is neither directed to the mass nor designed for it. It would be good for us to retain that careful distinction. Another quote from The Spirit of the Liturgy:
Not every kind of music can have a place in Christian worship. It has its standards, and that standard is the Logos. If we want to know whom we are dealing with, the Holy Spirit or the unholy spirit, we have to remember that it is the Holy Spirit who moves us to say, "Jesus is Lord" (1 Cor 12:3). The Holy Spirit leads us to the Logos, and he leads us to a music that serves the Logos as a sign of the sursum corda, the lifting up of the human heart. Does it integrate man by drawing him to what is above, or does it cause his disintegration into formless intoxication or mere sensuality? That is the criterion for a music in harmony with logos, a form of that logiké latreia (reason-able, logos-worthy worship) of which we spoke in the first part of this book." (p 151)Finally, silence is itself a part of the mass and daily office. Living in a world in which music and sound dominates our lives, the music of the liturgy exists within silence that is not in opposition to the music but, like the appropriate music, a constitutive part of that Divine Service. It is almost impossible to escape the sound of something -- from TV to radio to iPod to traffic -- we are immersed in sound. Perhaps we do this because we think it important to make our presence known and felt. We dominate by shattering the stillness with organized or impromptu noise. Silence is not merely a pause between musical selections, silence is its own positive force allowing us to consider the reflect upon the Word that has touched our ears and hearts in speech and song and, by the power of the Spirit, is even now accomplishing the Lord's bidding. And that is an appropriate place to end -- for it is the Lord's bidding that is at the heart and center of the music of the Church. It is not program or tool for its own glory or for the goals and outcomes of the one making this music but always the domain of the Lord both in focus and in outcome.