By Fr Steve Ransome
“A hymn is the praise of God in song”—St Augustine.
Music is a very essential component of any liturgical celebration. Music in the liturgy permeates throughout: from the Entrance, to the Penitential Rite, to the Alleluia, to the Mystery of Faith, the Lord’s Prayer, the Lamb of God, the Meditation, and to the Processional.
Music finds its way in the entirety of the liturgical celebration. Although not all of these will be sung at every Mass, the Sunday celebration and other Solemnities are grand occasions when most, if not all of the parts of the Mass are sung.
Owing to its importance and function to set the mood for prayer and praise, liturgical music must be given due respect and consideration. In light of this, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) penned a document Sing to the Lord that examined music in divine worship, November 14, 2007.
In number 5 of the document titled ‘Why We Sing’, the bishops write, “Obedient to Christ and the Church we gather in liturgical assembly, week after week. As our predecessors did, we find ourselves ‘singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in [our] hearts to God’.”
This common, sung expression of faith within liturgical celebrations strengthens our faith when it grows weak and draws us into the divinely inspired voice of the Church at prayer. Faith grows when it is well expressed in celebration.
Good celebrations can foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations may weaken it. Good music “make[s] the liturgical prayers of the Christian community more alive and fervent so that everyone can praise and beseech the Triune God more powerfully, more intently and more effectively,” (Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, no 5, 2007).
In addition to the consideration paid to the importance of singing on the liturgy, the US bishops were keen to mention the need for the entire liturgical assembly to fully participate in the hymns/songs.
Under the heading ‘Participation’, the bishops assert that, “Within the gathered assembly, the role of the congregation is especially important. The full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else, for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit.” (Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, no 11, 2007).
Therefore, the entire liturgical assembly, inclusive of the bishop, priest, deacon, acolytes, ministers of the Word, music leaders, choir, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and the congregation, all have their voice to offer in the liturgical celebration.
In his book Introduction to Christian Worship, James F White has a chapter on ‘The Sounds of Church Music’. Within this chapter, White asks in the similar vein to the US bishops “Why do Christians Sing?” and here the forms and functions of Church music are duly explored.
According to White, Church music is very much determined by the specific occasion in the Church year or the event (weddings, funerals, and so forth). This should resonate with several if not many of those in active ministry.
How many unfortunate occasions have we experienced a beautiful song, sung at the wrong time: a Marian hymn sung in full voice as the Entrance choice on an Easter Sunday is one that comes to mind.
Also, what about when we choose to sing or not sing? How many of us have had to stand through the recitation of the Gloria on a Solemnity? The appropriate song really sets the tone and the mood for the season or the occasion.
As a point to note too, there is singing with musical accompaniment and there is also effective singing without the drums, piano, organ and guitar. Good Friday, with the simplicity of the melodic voice(s) in song alone can be quite a moving liturgical experience!
White also makes the point that music in the liturgy enables us to express intensity of feeling through variety in tempo, pitch, volume, melody, harmony and rhythm. Furthermore, he sees that the building or the structure of the liturgical space; the way that the Church is built, is potentially an aid to music.
White looked at the Congregations Song and broke it up into different categories:
Psalmody—Singing the Psalms
Service Music—Music to a fixed set of words in the liturgy, for instance, the Sanctus.
An interesting quotation from White’s book is also applicable for this topic: “…we often tend to treat the choir as if it were the congregation whereas we ought, instead, to treat the congregation as if it were the choir. The choir is only the supplements to the congregation, except in sacred concerts.”
Overall, White stresses that one factor however, remains constant. Church music is meant to have a high element of participation even when it is performed by others. Ephesians 5:18–20; Colossians 3: 16–17.