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Music vs. theology.

There is a curious difference in viewpoint between church musicians and theologians that has resulted in a 2000 year argument, from which endless beauty, truth, and faith flowed freely for about 1868 years. This discourse is about the supremacy of divine forms of communication. As a musician, the way I see it, God is on top of the hierarchy. He chooses to communicate to us in many ways: through the word (Bible, liturgy of the word, writings of the saints etc.), and through beauty (music, architecture, painting, nature etc.). If this is true, then Mozart, too, is one of God's prophets.

Theologians see the word as supreme, church musicians see divine melody, harmony and rhythm as supreme. And each thinks of themselves as servants of the most important channel of God's love. In the real life of the church, this plays itself out on a daily basis. To express this in an exaggerated manner: a church musician might think of the Mass as a long concert with a few prayers in between, maybe while he has to turn pages in his score; a theologian, on the other hand, sees the Mass as a spoken word-celebration, where you might on occasion insert some music during some brief embarrassing moments of silence, while, say, collecting money or so. To such a person, divine revelation through melody and harmony is "just music".

Let's look at the evidence for both sides in this discussion.


I will always remember my former parish priest, dear Fr. Ted Fournier, 'gently' lowering my self-esteem as a young organist in my student days. Whenever we met, he would start it off by stating with his very low, booming bass voice: "Now, Uwe, always remember: above all is the word, and below the word is the music, and below the music is the organ, and below the organ is the organist. Now, my dear son, what do you want from me?" Needless to say, salary negotiations usually didn't go very well.

(Speaking of money: Bishop Lacey was far more diplomatic on the matter. I asked him once for some financial help for one of my Sparrows children's choirs, and he said with a twinkle in his eye: "Well, Uwe, I have nothing but admiration for you, if you know what I mean." Now you know why Fr. Ted was only' a Priest, and Bishop Lacey a Bishop).


Don't just take the opinion of a lowly organist--the immortal poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said that "Music begins where words end." This seems to imply that you can say far more and give more detailed meaning to realities, especially if they are of a more mysterious or divine nature. May I point out that this is a poet admitting to this!

Consider these statements: "After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music" (Aldous Huxley), or, "This is the great problem of lyrics ... they always impose something that is so unmysterious" (Brian Eno).

I also argue that a combination of notes (melody, etc.) has an even more powerful and concrete message than words contained in it, as evidenced by heavy metal 'Sigh' Requiem, that uses the text of the Requiem. As a musician I think that the heresy of the so-called 'Sigh' piece lies in the combination of notes. Since we cannot make out the words, we can only surmise about any possible heresy in the text.

"Not so!", I'm told by the theological professor down the other side of the hallway. Apparently, music can be a propadeutic to schism (or even heresy). My dear friend and very enthusiastic theology professor John Paul Meenan has tried to convince me of this point in a letter:

   Hello Uwe,

   Thank you for the links, and for continuing the discussion.
   I listened to the Mozart (Requiem) all the way through (the
   Schola sounds excellent, by the way, congratulations!), but only
   listened to a few seconds of the other (it was unbearable).

   However, I would return to my main point: Heresy, schism
   and apostasy are, strictly speaking, acts that a person commits.
   A song or music cannot commit heresy (just as they cannot,
   strictly speaking, be religious). Rather, they can be 'heretical'
   or 'religious' by analogy: That is, they lead one either towards
   truth (as Mozart does), or away from truth.

   Now, the Church, as the voice of Christ, has given us
   guidelines for music. Therefore, to deliberately disobey these
   guidelines can be seen as a kind of schismatical act. I would
   grant you that. Just as to disobey the translation or any other
   liturgical laws would also be 'schismatical'. Thus, I would
   reiterate my point that music can be a propadeutic to schism
   (or even heresy) but cannot technically be 'heretical'."

You see, dear reader? We are not far apart on the issue, but for the 'root'-cause: Which is supreme, the Word or Music? Now, let me deconstruct this a little bit. The first signs of debate around this issue started already with our root music in 100 AD when the first chants were uttered. Fueled by the Spirit, musicians soon began to add tropes, the long inserts between words, and filled them with melismas, or long phrases on one syllable. Theologians countered this innovation by imposing rules laws against that, so that the musicians introduced polyphony (1300 AD), or many voices singing different lines at the same time, thus creating four times the headache in one phrase. At the Tridentine Council (1563), things heated up: no more music, unless it is 'non'-tropic chant! Panic erupted on the musicians side, so we brought in our best argument, Palestrina! Through his genius masterwork "Missa Papae Marcelli", he single-handedly saved musicians and music for the Church. It was so beautiful that a new deal was struck: polyphony was okay, but we have to be able to hear the words clearly.

Antonio Vivaldi followed. He started off as a priest, said one Mass only in his life and felt called to serve the Lord through music. He walked from the sanctuary side straight up to the balcony side, where he produced hundreds of immortal works for us. As a priest, he was the director of a little girl's orphanage that became so famous under his guidance, that people flocked from all over Europe to hear them and the glorious music he wrote for them. Vivaldi spread God's love and beauty through his students into the entire world.

For musicians, children have always been the best exponents of our cause. The world famous Cathedral Sparrows of Regensburg have been helping in this battle for musical beauty (and still do) since 975 AD. Forty years later, Mozart created beautiful Mass music under the patronage of the Archbishop of Salzburg. Things seemed fine for a while, but then the Archbishop joined in on the complaint of the day of "too many notes", and introduced strict rules for the Missa Brevis.

Mozart quit, and Haydn took up the fight, writing masses under the rules in Vienna and London, culminating his argument for the primacy of music with very large and elaborate oratories. He started out with his "Little Organ Mass" (1775), which, with only five pages to it, sports the shortest Gloria ever written. Then, in 1796, he raised the stakes and wrote his Mass "In tempore belli" (Mass in times of war!), which has the cannon thunder played by the timpani right in the Kyrie. This Mass is actually very long with its 'too many notes', but still manages to keep all the new rules. In this account, one can see how beauty (all the Masses that were written), truth (by what the words and the notes imply) and the resulting faith were actually the big winners.

In recent times, though, the argument between words and music took a decidedly darker turn. In the early 1990's, a bishop, who later became a Cardinal, realized how powerful a weapon for reverence that good music was. After celebrating Mass with the aid of my choir, who sang the beautiful choral/orchestral Mass by Schubert, this bishop yelled in the sacristy "Sh*t, they were good. Damn they were good ..." [Editor's note: the author assures us that this is a direct quote, that he was there and was the recipient of this comment]. As Cardinal, he became a strong fighter for stripping the liturgy and stomping out beauty wherever he could. He employed his so-called "scorched earth" policy. Even the last few priests, who only flirted with beauty, were defrocked and silenced by him. He even joked about having become so good at it, that he could defrock a Priest in seven minutes flat.

Similar things were happening not just in one isolated diocese, but all over the world. However, at least twice in the 2000-year history, the Holy Spirit has weighed in on the matter. In the last century we have had two great advocates for musical beauty in the Mass: Pope Pius X and Pope Benedict XVI. St. Pius gave us the first encyclical letter in history on church music in 1903. It resonated throughout the sacred and secular world. He sent musicologists down into the Vatican Vault, and they dug up music by Palestrina and all the other greats and he ordered the use of them in Mass.

Pope Benedict XVI is equally great for us. I went to see him in 1998, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, at his summer residence in Regensburg. I was very depressed about the banality of liturgical music and was ready to officially lay down my weapons (Bach, Mozart, Palestrina et al.). No catholic church was willing to offer us any rehearsal space for our children's Sparrows choir or our Sacred Music Society. We ended up practicing in the local Lutheran church. I asked Cardinal Ratzinger what I should do with my choir: should we stop trying to provide liturgical beauty and leave the theologians alone? Should we maybe seek beauty and truth elsewhere? Cardinal Ratzinger became very emphatic and stated:

"No! Under no circumstance are you to leave! There are millions of Catholic souls who need this music for their salvation, and you cannot, must not leave them alone!"

You can imagine how surprised I was to find a real-life defender of musical beauty in this dark period for liturgical music. Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope, and became the strongest defender of church music we have ever had. His words were also somewhat prophetic: three years later I became music director of World Youth Day 2002, and I had a chance to showcase some reverent and beautiful music with the 500 voice choir and a large orchestra in front of 1 billion people.

So, is my friend Professor Meenan right or not? Can heresy or absolute truth be in the notes alone, or do you need, as he thinks, explicit words?

The beauty of this discussion over music over the last 2000 years has been, that, in this tension, Liturgy lives and thrives. There are readings, anthems, Psalms (sometimes sung, sometimes read), sung Alleluias followed by a read Gospel. In a good Mass, there is a dialogue between the balcony and the sanctuary, creating a liturgical prayer in which beauty, truth and faith are expressed.

In recent times (the last 40-50 years), this liturgical relationship has stopped. Why? Because the church musicians lost their voice. Banality was brutally enforced (see the Cardinal example above). One near fatal blow to reverence came in 1968 with the introduction of the first Polka Mass. Clown Masses soon followed, and Rev. Careys "Giant Love-ball" song appeared in churches across North America. Church musicians were all systematically and mercilessly fired or silenced. The few contemporary musicians that are left are understandably not driven by a passion of a divine fire for liturgical beauty: they must do as they are told, or else. And not surprisingly, with musical beauty and truth suppressed in the liturgy, an unnurtured faith has dwindled and our churches have emptied. Everyone stayed home.

This would be end of the story, a story without hope. That is, but for the legacy of Pope Benedict.

Uwe Lieflander was born in Germany, trained in the famous Regensburg Academy of Church Music in Germany; Conservatory of Music, the University of Toronto and York University in Canada. He has directed the Sacred Music Society since 1996. He had the honor of conducting the 500 member World Youth Day choir for his Holiness John Paul II in Toronto, 2002.
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Author:Leiflander, Uwe
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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