Mozart and Elvis... musical rebels in their own times.

Figure of Speech: Church music can build our stairway to Heaven

  • August 22, 2018

One of my favourite bloopers from a church bulletin reads like this: “Eight new choir robes are currently needed, due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones.” 

This is only marginally more reassuring than the notice that announced, “Today’s sermon: How Much Can a Man Drink? with hymns from a full choir.” 

For as long as I can remember, choir music has always been a part of my church-going experience. As a young boy I marvelled at the power of Gregorian Chants and there were specific hymns that always made my heart sing. 

But it was our parish priest who helped me connect my own experience as a youth with the possibility of faith life, albeit through a failed experiment. 

I will never forget the day the priest hired a few of my friends to play what was ominously billed as the Electric Mass that left an entire congregation deaf for hours. I don’t think the priest ever imagined “Amazing Grace” could be filtered through the heavy metal electric guitar riffs of Metallica. 

In a recent book on St. Francis of Assisi by Lawrence Cunningham, I was surprised to read that in his youth the saint had an “interest in subversive music.” The author noted that Francis loved French chansons in particular, which in the 12th century meant songs about love and frolicking, war and heroic deeds. 

This got me to thinking about the role of music, both within and outside of faith, but also the ways that music has often both defined and defied “suitable” behaviour. 

As a young man, I remember my mother looking sourly upon my interest in The Rolling Stones and yet, not much earlier, she, like so many, had swooned over Elvis, so provocatively inappropriate at first that television stations refused to show him below the waist.

Music, youth and counterculture have always been linked. What appears scandalous now will surely be condemned as bland and dismissed by the next generation. But music, beyond this overly simplistic equation, abides. And it has been a deeply connected and controversial part of faith life as well. 

Mozart’s famous adaptation of Handel’s “Messiah,” for example, so hated when first performed, is now unquestionably associated with sacred times and rightly understood to be a masterpiece. J.S. Bach once noted: “Where there is devotional music, God is always at hand with His gracious presence.” 

And yet, music, especially in a devotional context, also has its detractors. Critics have charged that music in church risks being pagan, lewd or distracting. 

The old joke comes to mind of the minister who decries alcohol and says, in his homily, that if he had his way he’d pour it all into the nearby river. After he sits, the choir begins, “Shall We Gather at the River.”

But the role and purpose, style and approach to music are serious business. 

In 1908, Pope St. Pius X dedicated his second encyclical to the subject of church music. In Tra Le Sollecitudini Motu Proprio, or Instruction About Sacred Music, he noted that “there certainly is a constant tendency in sacred music to neglect the right principles of an art used in the service of the liturgy.” 

Numerous debates followed about what, if anything, characterized appropriate devotional music.

Perhaps because of the longstanding debate on the issue, the Second Vatican Council specifically addressed the importance of liturgical music in Musicam Sacram where we are told that there is nothing “more religious and more joyful in sacred celebrations than a whole congregation expressing its faith and devotion in song.” Despite this, Pope Francis most recently complained about the “mediocrity, superficiality and banality” of liturgical music since Vatican II. 

At a conference marking the 50th anniversary of Musicam Sacram, Pope Francis specifically reflected on the “current relationship between sacred music and contemporary culture,” and reminded listeners that liturgical music needed to be “inculturated” so that it embodies and translates the Word of God. 

“Sacred music and liturgical change have the task of giving us the sense of God’s glory, of His beauty, of His holiness which enwraps us like a luminous cloud.”

So while it is true that anyone listening to my teenage efforts to play “Stairway to Heaven” on the guitar would have run for the hills, I still believe music is an enabling force, a community builder and a pathway to spiritual understanding, even when we’re not all singing from the same song sheet. 

As St. Paul puts it, “Be filled with the spirit” and sing a song of praise. 

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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