A Liturgical Wedding: Sacred Music

Debates over music in the Mass dig deep in the dirt of our deepest feelings. So often such disagreements are not grounded in the Church’s doctrine about what liturgical music is and what its purpose is. Here are just a few reflections on the necessity of connecting what is sung with the liturgical text. I often think that if we at least could agree that the liturgical text itself should be sung our disagreements could at least begin at the same point.


Primacy of the Text

Sacred music unites “sacred song…to the words” (SC 112) of Christ’s divine liturgy wherein “God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified” (SC 7). Sacred music, by its nature, is music that has been “created for the celebration of divine worship,” (MS 4) and therefore not just with the sacred text in mind, but primarily for the sacred text. Though singing is itself important (as in the adage about the one who sings well praying twice), the main place is to be given to “singing the liturgical text” (VL 40). Truly, many liturgical texts were “composed with the intention of their being sung” (LA 60). Sacred music is the servant of the liturgy, not vice versa (see TLS 22–23). Tra le Sollecitudini makes clear that the “principal office” of sacred music is to

clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim 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 –TLS 1.

Even when using the mother tongue, “fidelity to the Latin text” must be “suitably harmonized with applicability of the vernacular text to musical settings” (MS 54). Indeed, the texts carry with them the patrimony of the Church’s liturgical encounter with the Lord (cf. ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi),[1] and therefore “paraphrases are not to be substituted with the intention of making them more easily set to music, nor may hymns considered generically equivalent be employed in their place” (LA 60). It is all the more essential that the Church “be demanding about the biblical and liturgical inspiration and the literary quality of texts which are meant to be sung” because singing them engraves them “more deeply…in the memory than when” they are read (VL 40). While the Council Fathers at Vatican II said that “no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (SC 22.3), Tra le Sollecitudini makes clear that such a mandate applies equally to the necessity of singing liturgical texts “without alteration or inversion of the words, without undue repetition, [and] without breaking syllables” (TLS 9).

[1] See David Fagerberg, Theologia Prima (Chicago: Hillenbrand, 2003).

3 thoughts on “A Liturgical Wedding: Sacred Music”

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