Singing Priest at Wedding: well beyond the liturgical problems

You’ve no doubt seen the video or heard the story about the priest who sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah!” at a wedding.

Praytell blog makes a good point and asks a thoughtful question.

On Facebook, I have many friends who are liturgists, music ministers, youth ministers, and clergy. There, I’ve noticed that those who are liturgists mostly cannot stand what this priest did in the video. Those who are youth ministers tend to be much more enthusiastic about this. Music ministers and clergy seem to be on both sides. Yet most all agree that the priest has a lovely voice and sang this song very well. And almost everyone I know loves the original song by Leonard Cohen.

I’ve already tried to explain to my Facebook friends why this is not an example of good liturgy. But the arguments I hear back from those who are overjoyed at what this priest did are not about what constitutes good liturgy but about what brings joy to the assembly. I lament that we’ve gotten to the point where for some, “good liturgy” equals joyless liturgy.

The social media conversation around this video is very telling. Liturgists (myself included) have not done ourselves or others any good by beating people over the head with rubrics. Yet rubrics do have value, as does human emotion. How can we bridge the divide?

So, without recourse to “It’s against the rules,” what is a helpful way of explaining why this is so inappropriate?

Well- I think you have to toss out all the liturgical explanations, and questions of style, or even questions about secular music in church in order to get at the root of it. Those things are all important, but the atrocity being committed here is much deeper than that, I think.

Let’s even lay aside questions about the theology of the song (which is a bit sketchy), since people don’t tend to care about that sort of thing (and God can withstand stupid things being said about Him).

The first big problem is that the wedding liturgy is about the couple, not the priest. (It’s about God, first. But, whatever, right?) The singing drew attention away from the couple and directed it toward the priest. This is selfish and narcissistic, and robbed the couple of what is rightfully theirs.

Priests tend to forget how a wedding functions in the life of the couple. For a priest – he may preside at hundreds or possibly thousands of weddings in his lifetime. A couple gets married only once. It doesn’t matter if the priest is bored, or has heard all the prayers before, or has to do this same thing again tomorrow. Each wedding is a unique event in the life of a couple, and a priest should not impose his own personality onto that.

Which brings me to the second point, the really disturbing one.

In singing this song in particular, the priest is not just intruding on the wedding celebration, but is intruding on the couple’s relationship. If the song has little meaning for them, the intrusion is only annoying. If it has real meaning to them (which, according to the social media advocates of this nonsense, it does for many many people), the intrusion is profoundly disturbing, even creepy.

Does anyone listen to lyrics anymore?!

It’s really a profoundly moving song, but its not even remotely appropriate to a wedding. It’s about the ways that lovers hurt each other and the glory that can be found even in that pain.

Love is a lot of things, including sometimes a cold and broken “hallelujah.” But a wedding is specifically about the “victory march” of love.

Because of its focus on the private aspect of love (hidden pain and secret joy), and not the public aspect (celebration) it is a remarkably intimate song, with the speaker of the song addressing it to his (or her, I guess) lover.

From a liturgical standpoint, you could fault the lyrics for their vagueness. But that misses the point. The mystifying and pseudo-biblical imagery allows any couple with a shared history to write their own meaning into it, to put fleshy details into the cosmic and romantic poetry. Any couple who finds this song specifically meaningful has a meaning in it that is unique to them.

It is really beyond inappropriate for a priest to publicly insert himself that way into a couple’s private story, taking on the vocal role of one of the lovers. Honestly, it creeps me out a bit, and makes me wonder about that priest’s personal life and his own private longings and struggles in a way that the public should not ever be privy to.

More than a violation of rubrics or good taste or even theology, it is a violation of the sacred rites and private stories that bind lovers together, like a confused idiot stumbling unaware upon two people sharing their first kiss, and not knowing enough that he should turn back around and let them be.

The priest apparently did not sing the original text of the song. I didn’t know this because I honestly could not bring myself to listen to it.

The problem with that is that everyone already knows the original lyrics. The song is embedded into our culture, and the story that we each associate with it- whatever that story is – cannot be separated out just by making it more “optimistic.”

Either the song is meaningless to the couple, in which case there’s no point in doing it, or the song has meaning to them, in which case this is an intrusion into their story. Changing the lyrics just makes it worse. And, since the priest didn’t ask the couple ahead of time, or give them any indication it was going to happen, he had NO IDEA whether the song was meaningful or not to them, no sense of whether he may have been intruding.

The people who advocate a “liberal/progressive” (for lack of a better term – I know it’s not a good term) liturgical paradigm, and/or the people who promote creative adaptations to liturgy and bemoan adherence to rubrics, those people tend to scream about sensitivity, about personalization, about the needs and longings of the individuals. This event, and all events like it, are contrary to all those values. It is ham-handed and awkward. The couple in the video may have been delighted, but the next couple may be appalled, embarrassed, hurt, or just annoyed.

It isn’t the violation of rubrics and theology that primarily bothers me. It is the potential violation of the couple’s relationship that I find so appalling.

Wyoming Catholic College Seeks Full-Time Chaplain

Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, seeks a full-time chaplain to care for souls at our growing institution. We are a faithfully Catholic college that combines a classical Great Books liberal arts education with an innovative outdoor leadership program. The College places at the center of its campus life the reverent and beautiful celebration of the liturgy in both forms of the Roman Rite. In keeping with the teaching and example of recent popes, liturgies and devotions are celebrated in a manner that stresses continuity with Tradition, with treasures such as Latin and Gregorian chant widely employed.

The College has a well-established program of sacred music. Each Sunday there is a Missa Cantata in the usus antiquior, with the schola chanting the full propers and the choir providing polyphony and hymnody. The choir also sings at the Wednesday all-school Mass and the schola provides chant for daily Masses. The chaplain should therefore be comfortable with chanting the parts of the Mass proper to the priest.

The chaplain’s duties include offering Mass in both Forms of the Roman Rite, hearing confessions daily, conducting spiritual direction, presiding at Benediction, organizing and leading processions, and promoting other devotions from time to time, in keeping with the liturgical year. To serve this community well, he should be energetic in working with young people, ready to preach in a way pertinent to students’ needs, and comfortable with offering spiritual direction. Interest in outdoor adventures (hiking, camping, rock climbing, kayaking, canyoneering, skiing, etc.) is a definite plus, but not absolutely required.

The chaplaincy is intended to run all year long, with a lighter summer schedule. The College employs two chaplains in order to allow one or the other to go on outdoor trips or personal trips as well as to have appropriate time off. The incoming chaplain would join our current chaplain.

If interested, or to ask any questions you may have, please contact Dr. Kevin Roberts, President ( For more information on the College itself, please visit the website.

Gregorian Propers in the Light of Post-Hierarchic Theories of Soteriology

In any attempt to (de-)legitimize the ontological authority intrinsic to the notion of Mass Propers “as such,” we have to take into account the neo-Platonic view that positions music as representing an instantiation of some NP-complete quantum reality (or, array of probabilities – to be more exact).

It’s really not worth denying, at this point, that paradigms of authority which posit a ubiquitous resourcement are at least partially to blame for the crisis which has accompanied the 20th Century Liturgical Movement. More controversial is the precise nature of this (to my mind) relativistic nihilism, and the extent to which an all-pervading Freudian rationalism has destroyed all possibility for meaning within a Novus Ordo context.
Unsurprisingly, the critics of this viewpoint seem blissfully unaware of the cultural implications of their rhetoric: it’s one thing to offer semiology as a useful metaphor for understanding Trinitarian doctrine, it’s another thing entirely to suggest that such an understanding is native to orthodoxy, much less a Patristic requirement.
There’s no pleasing some people, I guess.
Given the impossibility of a true semper et ubique, what, then, should our response be as “pastoral” musicians within a framework of meta-orthodox scholarship?
First of all, I don’t want to suggest that anyone operating in a less-than-ideal psychic landscape isn’t adhering to a radicalized understanding of complexity. No one is being ex-communicated from the Reform of the Reform just because they programmed Javanese Gamelan in place of a chanted Ordinary. At the same time, it’s helpful to understand the Benedictine altar arrangement as an analogy to our present situation: who am I to judge?
Nevertheless, forward movement on key aspects of the ante-concilliar agenda can happen, even if compromises have to be made on minor issues of tuning, rhythm, and Petrine supremacy. Taking into account the racist undertones of our Anglo-centric ideology (Hispanic Ordinariate, anyone?) wouldn’t hurt, either.
All that being said, the endgame is clear: We cannot consider the verticalization of the liturgical focus and the horizontal aspect of the monastic epismata to be in conflict.
Of course it’s a mystery: That’s the whole point.

Historical scholarship and liturgical anamnesis

On an “ages old” MusicaSacra Forum post which recently had a little new activity, there is a discussion – one that is repeated and continued over and over wherever Catholic musicians congregate: What role should historical “accuracy” and other scholarly musicological work have on current performance practice? How important is it to get performance details ‘right’? Does it even matter whether we can know how chant sounded at some specific point in the past?

I am not a musicologist, so I’m can’t really comment on issues such as what is or isn’t known or what should and shouldn’t be considered accurate historical performance practice.

What concerns me, though, is a particular way of thinking about historical performance practice which I think is wrong in itself and which is related to a very wrong way of thinking about liturgy and its historical development.

The “wrong way” (in my opinion) is expressed by forum user ‘pulchritudo_musicae’ (who is, apparently, Amy Danielle Waddle, the author of the original Sacred Music article that sparked the discussion). I don’t really believe that she thinks exactly what her statements seems to say, so I want to focus just on the statement as a manifestation of a certain way of thinking, whether or not ADW holds that mindset or not. She wrote:

it is our duty and responsibility to try to determine the most accurate way to sing, the most accurate style, the most accurate notation [ . . . ] the task before us as scholars and as musicians to determine what chant should be

I think this notion that there is some accurate or correct ideal performance practice is wrong-headed, and that it is a manifestation of a modernist way of thinking which has, in other areas of the Church’s life, been destructive.

Moderns have a tendency to fetishize historical accuracy, cloaking a reactionary retreat into the past in the guise of intellectual progress.

This began in the Renaissance with the attempt to restore some perfect past version of Latin (that of Cicero). That project killed Latin as a conversational language among international academics, and halted the ongoing development and creation of new, and yet authentic, Latin liturgical texts.

At the same, the revival of Classical thinking and the adherence to Classical authorities in early-modern academia caused a substantial loss of Medieval philosophical and scientific development. While contemporary secular culture considers this period one of enlightened progress, the fact is that these Classicists wanted nothing more than to ‘turn back the clock,’ abandoning over a millennium of real and steady progress.

(And when Protestants, the spiritual children of the Renaissance, had the opportunity to write history, they swept all this under a rug of anti-Catholic propaganda, coining terms like “The Dark Ages” for a period of almost unparalleled freedom, stability, and intellectual progress. But, I digress…)

In the 20th century liturgical movements we can see first the liberal resourcement that wanted to strip away eighteen centuries of development in favor of some imagined “Early Christian Community Meal” (in exact parallel to the early-modern idolization of Classical philosophy). Then, later, a generation of naive traditionalists seemed to imagine that everything was wonderful before the Council and that history ended sometime in the Baroque era – rejecting false progress in favor of false nostalgia.

But history doesn’t work like that. And working performers – singers, directors, actors, dancers – know especially that the performing cannot be properly understood this way.

Any particular performance of a chant – or, really, any piece of music – is a unique event on its own AND ALSO is part of the tradition of that piece’s history. The first performance is not a ‘Platonic’ standard, with subsequent performances being merely re-enactments or instantiations of that single ideal.

When this notion of a past ideal and present re-enactment becomes normative in an artform, the results are usually disastrous and (Peter Brook would say) deadly. Opera, for example, suffers from this in many places. Ballet as well, and – to a lesser proportion but a greater quantity – Shakespearean theatre.

And this way of thinking, which is deadening to the performing and practical arts, is equally dangerous (perhaps, moreso) in liturgy.

The sacrifice of Calvary and the self-giving nourishment of the Last Supper are not simply remembered or re-enacted in the Mass, with the historical events standing behind us as Platonic ideals or as dramatic inspiration. Rather, the sacrifice is made entirely present and new in each Mass throughout history – even as it is the same sacrifice, offered once for all.

Because we cannot allow this deadening spirit to inform our understanding of liturgy, it is important that we guard against it in performance culture generally and especially with regards to the music which is so integrally a part of our liturgical heritage.

And I want to make clear that I am in no means suggesting an anti-intellectual approach to chant and liturgy, or that I would encourage an abandonment of the historical and musicological study of these things. Rather, I simply believe that we must keep these things in their proper perspective.

Historical scholarship is important. It is good to know what people have done in the past. It is worthwhile to preserve and work within the tradition, and worthwhile to revive traditions which have fallen out of practice. We should never approach music in a haphazard, “do whatever I like” approach, but humble ourselves and recognize our place within a tradition that has gone before us for a thousand years and will most likely survive us for another thousand.

At the same time, we shouldn’t let the virtues of historical and musicological scholarship become idols, and we should guard our theoretical frameworks, lest we let our academic pursuits become a deadening force on the liturgy and an impediment to the recognition of God’s all-present and life-giving grace in the sacraments.

Recording Music that has never been recorded before

The following was written by forum member matthewj.

Go on YouTube and search for a piece of polyphony or a specific Gregorian chant.

In most cases, you’ll find recordings (even if they’re not perfect).

This is a wonderful thing and makes our lives quite nice and easy.

Looking at a score for the first time in your parish office with the noises of an office all around you (chattering co-workers, photocopier, bookkeeper playing praise and worship music, etc)? Throw on some headphones and listen to a recording. Much easier than trying to hear the schola in your head sing the score with the background noise.

However, occasionally you will run across a piece of sacred music (Song X) that has no recording on YouTube, no sample MP3, etc.

How can you help make sure this doesn’t happen to the next person who comes along?

Record your (hopefully competent) choir singing the (hopefully public domain) piece! Upload it with a clear and easy-to-search-for title.

Then bingo – six months down the road some Music Director from the other side of the country who searches for Song X will find your video! You’ll have helped a colleague and you don’t even know it.

Orlande de Lassus has a number of polyphonic Offertory propers. Almost none of them have recordings available online. I will begin the process of putting them online this weekend with his Perfice Gressus Meos.

The next time you find a piece of music that doesn’t have a recording online, do the same.

I say: Heck yeah!

Arvo Pärt on Gregorian Chant

This is a guest post by NLM contributor Dr. Peter Kwasniewski.

My favorite living composer is Arvo Pärt. I have nearly every recording and score of his music, have been blessed to be present at several concerts where the composer was present (including the premiere of In Principio in Graz), and dedicated a set of seven choral compositions to him in honor of his 75th birthday, in thanks for which he telephoned me from Estonia and we spoke in German for about twelve minutes—truly one of the most memorable moments of my life as a musician.

What I find so powerful about his music is that it breathes the spirit of ancient religious chant and yet the overall idiom, particularly the harmonic language, is thoroughly modern. It is obvious that the composer deeply loves and believes in the realities with which he is dealing, and, as a result, treats every word, every phrase, with an intensely sympathetic and sensitive care. This is no less true of his purely instrumental works such as the Fourth Symphony. Often in his orchestral scores one sees a Slavonic liturgical text implanted in the instrumental parts, as if the violins are a choir wordlessly singing to the Lord—a striking re-interpretation of the idea of a “string choir.”

In an interview in 1978, not long after Pärt’s first tintinnabuli pieces, Ivalo Randalu asked him: “Let’s take, for example, ‘Tintinnabuli’. What do you try to discover or find or achieve there? That keynote and the triad; what are you looking for there?” To which Pärt responded:

Infinity and chastity. … I can’t explain, you have to know it, you have to feel it. You have to search for it, you have to discover it. You have to discover everything, not only the way to express it, you have to have the need for it. You have to desire it, you have to desire to be like this. All the rest comes itself. Then you’ll get ears to hear it and eyes to see it.

One could say many things about the special qualities of Pärt’s music, but the purpose of this article is rather to let the composer himself speak about a certain discovery that he considers decisive in his career, his discovery of Gregorian chant, and how that profoundly affected his entire artistic development. It is inspiring to hear this composer, considered one of our greatest living artists, speak about the greatest collection of melodies in the history of music.

In a 1988 interview with Martin Elste, published in Fanfare:

Gregorian chant has taught me what a cosmic secret is hidden in the art of combining two, three notes. That’s something twelve-tone composers have not known at all. The sterile democracy between the notes has killed in us every living feeling.

From a conversation in 1990 with Roman Brotbeck and Roland Wächtner, cited in Arvo Pärt in Conversation :

Gregorian chant was for me the first impulse [toward a new beginning]. It was unadulterated admiration. I had never heard this music before. And when I came across it by chance, I knew: this is what we now need, what I now need.

In December 2000, Jordi Savall had a conversation with Pärt that first appeared in French in 2001. The English translation was printed in Music & Literature in 2012. Here is how the composer describes his transformative encounter with chant:

In the beginning, during my twelve-tone period, I lived truly separated from original sources. And the turn I took, it was a matter of learning how to walk all over again. Undoubtedly, the reason such a metamorphosis takes place in certain people and not in others will forever remain a riddle; all I know is that when I heard Gregorian chant for the first time, I must have been mature enough, in one way or another, to be able to appreciate such musical richness. At that moment I felt at once utterly deprived and rich. Utterly naked, too. I felt like the prodigal son returning to his father’s home. I had nothing, I had accomplished nothing. The methods I had used before had not allowed me to say what I wanted to say with music, yet I did not know any others. At that moment, my previous work seemed like an attempt to carry water in a sieve. I was absolutely certain: everything I had done until then I would never do again. For several years I had made various attempts to compose using collage techniques, mainly with the music of Bach. But all of that was more a sort of compromise than something I carried in my flesh. Then this encounter with Gregorian music… I had to start again from scratch. It took me seven, eight years before I felt the least bit of confidence—a period during which I listened to and studied a lot of early music, of course.

Simply put, at that time [around 1970], I had already distanced myself from all those [political] movements and struggles for freedom. I believe that anyone who wants to change the world must begin not at the other end of the world, but that the starting point must be within him. And this is accomplished millimeter by millimeter.

Ideally I would be able to write a melody with an infinite voice, that carries on forever. Music that would be like speech, like a flood of thought. … In music, one could say that a voice or a melodic line is like a man’s soul. In this sense, polyphony would have more to do with the idea of a crowd. The richness of the music of many voices is, however, the sum of the wealth of each of these melodic lines—as was the case in the polyphony of the great masters of the past.

Lastly, Enzo Restagno held a lengthy conversation with Pärt in July 2003. Here are the pertinent passages from the English translation that appeared in 2012 in the book Arvo Pärt in Conversation :

In order to go on [after a crisis] one has to break through the wall. For me, this happened through the conjunction of several, often accidental, encounters. One of these, which in retrospect turned out to be of great importance, was with a short piece from the Gregorian repertoire that I heard quite by chance for a few seconds in a record shop. In it I discovered a world that I didn’t know, a world without harmony, without metre, without timbre, without instrumentation, without anything. At this moment it became clear to me which direction I had to follow, and a long journey began in my unconscious mind. … It wasn’t until later that I realised one can express more with a single melodic line than with many. At that time, given the condition in which I found myself, I was unable to write a melodic line without numbers; but the numbers of serial music were dead for me as well. With Gregorian chant that was not the case. Its lines had a soul. (18)

At the time [the years just after Credo of 1968] I was convinced that I just could not go on with the compositional means at my disposal. There simply wasn’t enough material to go on with, so I just stopped composing altogether. I wanted to find something that was alive and simple and not destructive. … What I wanted was only a simple musical line that lived and breathed inwardly, like those in the chants of distant epochs, or such as still exist today in folk music: an absolute melody, a naked voice which is the source of everything else. I wanted to learn how to shape a melody, but I had no idea how to do it.

All that I had to go on was a book of Gregorian chant, a Liber Usualis [PDF], that I had received from a church in Tallinn. When I began to sing and to play these melodies I had the feeling that I was being given a blood transfusion. It was terribly strenuous work because it was not simply a matter of absorbing information. I had to be able to understand this music down to its very roots: how it had come into existence, what the people were like who had sung it, what they’d felt during their lives, how they’d written this music down and passed it on through the centuries until it became the source of our own music. … I had succeeded in building a bridge within myself between yesterday and today—a yesterday that was several centuries old—and this encouraged me to go on exploring. During those years I filled thousands of pages with exercises in which I wrote out single voiced melodies. (28–29)

Pärt can help all of us to perceive once more, as with fresh ears, the tremendous, inexhaustible goodness and fertility of Gregorian chant. Although little of his music is based directly on chant motifs (the way that, for example, Bach’s Credo of the Mass in B minor, Liszt’s Totentanz [YouTube], or Durufle’s Requiem [YouTube] are), nearly all of his works—the Passio and the Te Deum immediately come to mind—are permeated with a chantlike feel and spirit.

They share chant’s fluidity of phrasing, where the musical rhythm cleaves to the exigencies of the word; its modal character and subtle emotion, which resists the superficiality of major-happy and minor-sad, tending rather towards a stance of contemplation. Both chant and tintinnabuli seem to be well described by Plato’s definition of time as a “moving image of eternity.”

For Pärt, as his compositions and conversations reveal, music is an elemental mystery that must be approached reverently and silently. Paradoxically, music can spring up only in silence, it originates and resonates only in silence, and the appreciator, no less than the composer, must have a quiet soul. Even when agitated, his soul must, in a deeper way, be still, that is, receptive to the influence of the muses, or grace. Grace accounts for man-made beauty; wherever there is beauty in man’s works, grace is operating. Whether it be supernatural grace or the gift of the powers latent in human nature, God speaks through the arts in their highest manifestations, so much so that the arts may be considered a nest for the Gospels, a translator of the obscure tones of mystery into the bright tones of human feeling and knowing, a fellow laborer of scientia in the work of preaching Christ.

“An interview with Arvo Pärt,” Fanfare 11 (March/April 1988) [Fanfare’s Website]
Arvo Pärt in Conversation (Champaign, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2012)
Music & Literature 1 (2012)

Tradition and Ideals

I recently wrote a rambling and somewhat poorly structured essay exploring some thoughts I have been having regarding “ideal” liturgy and the nature of liturgical tradition. I wanted to get the ideas out, since the ideas are more important than literary quality, but I won’t have time in the next few days to really give it a good once-over for editing and coherence. So, I’m not publishing it here, but rather posting it at my own blog.

The basic idea is this: There is no such thing as ideal liturgical praxis, only a lived tradition. This means that rather then theorizing about what is the essential aspect of the ideal (the Proper texts, the original melodies, the Latin language), we rather must live with and live into the received tradition (Gregorian Chant, the Graduale Propers, Sacred Polyphony, etc) before we can even begin to think about what new treasures should find a place in the storehouse.

To speak of an ideal form of the Mass suggests that either there is some original source for the Mass music which we need recover, or that there is some etherworldly quintessential Mass which we must strive (failingly) to emulate, or that the celebration of Liturgy developed to its intended apex at some time in the past and the job of all liturgists since that time should have been the preservation of that climactic style. None of these is acceptable, though that last one seems pretty common among various branches of tradderrie.

The first-source of the Mass, the “ideal” which all celebrations of the Divine Liturgy point to, is the sacrifice of Calvary- a decidedly unmusical event.

Read “Tradition and Ideals” at my (other) blog…
(And if you do read it, feel free to offer any suggestions on tightening up a bit.)