A Case for Gospel Music

Chant advocates can go too far with their pushing of chant to the exclusion of all other forms of sacred music. I’ve probably been guilty of this in the past. This is why I really appreciate Msgr Charles Pope’s argument for the inclusion of Gospel music in Mass — not in every parish but under specific conditions that call for it. I think his argument is entirely consistent with Church teaching and good praxis.

See what you think.

14 Replies to “A Case for Gospel Music”

  1. No, no, and no. Would you stand on Calvary and watch our Blessed Lord be nailed to the Cross and die for us to this music? Is it appropriate? Superimpose this music over the soundtrack to the Passion of the Christ sometime and tell me how appropriate it is.

    I like Gospel music, and have spent a good amount of time at the Gospel tent during the New Orleans Jazz Festival, but it does not, and never will, belong in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Music is specifically Protestant in origin.

  2. Unfortunately, Msgr Pope's assertion that the Pythagorean Theorem has something to do with music and Pythagorean tuning is just false. Both deal with mathematics, and the latter also deals with the physics of vibrating strings (and overtones or harmonics). The Pythagorean Tetractys (which is really a numerological observation), the Pythagorean Theorem, and Pythagorean Tuning are three separate concepts.

  3. Upon reading the article, I found myself with two large concerns.

    First, Msgr. Pope’s history of church music contains several fallacies and/or interpretations of the historical record which if interpreted differently, do not as strongly support his narrative of the history of church music. These include: 1. the assertion that ancient musics featured multi-voiced harmony, an assertion which is perhaps a fair guess, but for which there is just no physical, historical evidence; 2. the assertion that over the centuries chant has progressed from simple to complex, an assertion which is not universally believed; 3. the assertion that harmonization of church music was first used in the middle ages, an assertion which ignores that our first physical notated chant manuscripts coincide with our first physical evidence of organum practices, thus it is possible if not probable that chant was “harmonized” in preceding eras as well; and 4. the implication that harmony was popular before the common adoption of the consonance anglais and the rise of the Flemish style, a style which spread over Christendom only when it began to exemplify more the pietistic influence of humanism than it did the mathematical and medieval “harmony of the spheres.”

    In this narrative of music history, then, there is a certain march from simple to more complex which, while in many respects true, is undercut slightly when the above points are interpreted in a different light. Also, the narrative expounded in the article of new musical styles continually needing to be accepted as sacred, belies the fact that the new styles were quite often composed with the intention of their being sacred, i.e. the music displayed the historical attributes of sacred music (or at least the composers thought so), and the compositions were meant to stand in that tradition.

    Second, I am concerned with the idea of Catholic church music looking for inspiration to musical traditions that contain none of the historical attributes of sacred music, but which instead value musical attributes of distinctly different sorts. The historical attributes of sacred music are primarily nobility and beauty of form and substance, and stem from the theological and liturgical principles of awe, reverence, and personal abasement in the presence of divine majesty. Several Christian traditions besides Latin Rite Catholicism share this attitude which as far as I can tell was endemic to Roman liturgy and theology before the 1960s, and which – to me – seems to come to it from the Jewish faith. These traditions would include the Orthodox churches and some Protestant denominations, including the Lutheran and Anglican traditions (with the sometime inclusion of Reformed churches and perhaps even some Methodist ceremonies). While not all musics from these traditions fulfill this theological and musical attitude (and to be fair, a great deal of Roman Catholic music both from the present and from past centuries does not either), there is quite a lot that does. I would even go so far as to assert that the true repertory of sacred music is the best of what can be drawn from any of these traditions, that the best liturgical music compositions and the music most appropriate for the mass will quite often be found to be the same.
    Thus, I would suggest that musical repertories demonstrating the historical attributes of sacred music are the traditions upon which we should draw, rather than traditions such as gospel music which values not the theology and historical attributes of sacred music.

  4. Would you stand on Calvary and watch our Blessed Lord be nailed to the Cross and die for us to the strains of Vidana's Exsultate Justi? No, of course you wouldn't. What's your point?

  5. Jason and Jacob,
    Allowing as how I'm truly aghast that Jeffrey has pulled this rabbit out of this hat (the chant hat) one must also match texutual/musical content with the circumstancial context for your litmus tests to be analoguous.
    Borrowing from my comment over at Msgr. Pope's article, I can easily endorse the singing of Leon Robert's "CANTICLE OF MARY" (a Magnificat) as an aural portrayal of her fiat at the annunciation. I can likewise endorse the singing of Grayson Warren Brown's "IF GOD IS FOR US" during Eastertide. Some of the famed Shaw/Parker spiritual arrangements such as "RIDE ON KING JESUS" could contextualize Palm Sunday or Christ the King.
    As Tucker and Pope clearly enunciated, the use of such styles are always situationally dependent.
    I don't think the Pope article needs to rehash the canard of inculturation during any period of ecclesial culture's history.

  6. Using any one aspect of the mass to dictate the musical attributes of church music (in this case, the sacrificial and connection to Calvary), will necessarily lead to a very one sided repertory. While the theological and liturgical principles of awe, reverence, and personal abasement in the presence of divine majesty (either in heaven, on Calvary, or in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass) are the principles leading to the traditional attitude toward and attributes of sacred music, they are not the attributes themselves. Instead, they engender the attributes, principally two: nobility and beauty of form and substance. It is form that should interest us most in this regard, for if we remember that philosophically a thing's form is designed to fulfill its end, then we can see how different musical forms can fulfill different purposes in different parts of the liturgy, and even enhance the form of the liturgy, thus allowing it to fulfill its end, namely, the praise and glory of God.
    As Dr. Mahrt often points out, this connection between form and function (end or telos) can be found even within the Gregorian repertoire, different genres of chants each have their own liturgical role. A piece like Exsultate justi which is shows joy and is meant to celebrate the power and glory of God is appropriate for a happy and joyful liturgical day or moment. It would not be appropriate to sing it instead of the Sanctus, not only because the text would be wrong, but because its substance and form are all wrong for a Sanctus, it would disfigure the form of the liturgy and hinder its telos.
    Now when faced with our Lord on Calvary, we might ask, what music really is appropriate to hear while we watch God die? Perhaps this is why sacred silence has historically been found so essential during the parts of the liturgy which most closely connect with Calvary.

  7. Excellent,David. The only point I'd like to highlight is that rather than this connection between form and function being found even within the Gregorian repertoire, we'd have to say this connection is especially found within the Gregorian repertoire.

  8. Actually, the true test of the music might be: Could this music be at home in an EF mass?

    Hermanutic of continuity and all that . . .

  9. I think the suggestion of using gospel music doesn't fit with the point Jeffrey recently made in his interview with Notre Dame's sacred music blog:

    Universality is extremely important because we don’t want music segmented by demographics if we can avoid it: there shouldn’t be one kind of music for the youth, one for the old people, and one for the boomers. Whatever kind of music that goes on at Mass, it should be obvious to everybody that it is holy and beautiful.

  10. I think that the problem is this, speaking from an educational point of view: we want to take people from where they are ( Gospel, sacropop, Protestant hymnody) and bring them into the traditions and richness of the Latin rite (chant, Latin, polyphony). The problem is, as I see it, most places are staying static: it's a Youth Group, let's use rock music! It's African-Americans, let's use Gospel! It's old (white) people, let's use WASP hymns. All in all, it's rather insulting. The former music director at my parish threw out all sorts of 'gospel inspired' ( see the tempo markings for some of the OCP trash) at the sizable Haitian and Jamaica population in my parish. (Sigh…)

    The point is, take a parish, whatever it's makeup, and introduce sung Propers, chant, and polyphony. Do slowly and steadily. It may, and probably should, take years. But do it.

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