I’m very grateful for the insights Professor William Mahrt shared with me when I interviewed him about sacred music back in 1997. I always felt somehow ill-at-ease with hearing music at Mass that sounded like it came from a Disney animation soundtrack, Children’s Television Workshop, or Peter, Paul & Mary, but I felt guilty about my reservations. “Just because it’s not your favorite music doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it at liturgy,” was the objection I would sometimes hear. But it doesn’t have anything to do with favorites, or even with whether the music is in some way beautiful or excellent. It has to do with the music being sacred or set apart. This raises the discussion above the realm of personal taste and introduces a standard that draws us out of the worldly realm in which modern liturgy so frequently rests in self-satisfaction.
I am reminded of a quote by Dietrich von Hildebrand in his spiritual classic Transformation in Christ:
Often we cherish old and familiar things, ensconcing ourselves in them as in a kind of home, merely because we have lived so long with them, and particularly because they are connected with many memories of our childhood. Thus we suffer the world of Christ to penetrate us with its light only so far as it does not interfere with our safe residence in that putative “home.” There is also the danger of attempting so to redraw and to humanize the face of Christ that it may fit into the features of that home.
Many such humanizations and sentimental falsifications are to be found in so-called popular piety, and are expressed even in certain hymns. We must have the readiness to relinquish such all-too-human substitutes, however comfortable we may feel them. We must be filled with the desire to look into the unfalsified countenance of Christ as shown by the Church in her liturgy. We must long to be lifted by Christ into His world, not try to drag Him down into ours. Whatever is of genuine value and appropriate to His world we shall receive back from Him transfigured and resplendent with a new light.
[NOTE: I wrote the article that follows under a pen name, because at the time I was on leave of absence from a major seminary and didn’t want to preclude the possibility of returning. The politics of the place at that time made this concern a legitimate one.]
An Interview with William Peter Mahrt
by James McDermick
[On November 20, 1997, Professor Mahrt spoke at Saint Mary’s Church in Stillwater, Minnesota, as part of the millennium preparation of the parishes in the Saint Croix Valley. This interview was first printed in The Catholic Servant.]
Q: In your lecture, you distinguished between sacred music and music that is simply excellent. Could you elaborate upon this distinction?
A: All sacred music must be excellent, for it is part of our offering to God. We cannot use mediocre means to achieve our highest end as creatures — namely, the worship of God. Having said this, we must recognize that not all excellent music is sacred in character. When we refer to music as sacred, we are talking about music that, by definition, has been set aside for divine worship. In contrast, when we speak of excellent music, we are not referring to a designated use for the music. For example, a symphony by Beethoven or a jazz recording may be very excellent indeed, but they are not sacred in character and do not, therefore, have a place in the liturgy.
Q: I am surprised by what you say about the Beethoven symphony. Doesn’t this music help us to raise our minds and hearts to God? Isn’t this what makes music sacred?
A: Music is not designated as sacred simply by its function of lifting our hearts and minds to God. If this were the sole criterion, we would have a hard time identifying what music is sacred, because different people may have very different responses to a given piece of music.
Q: If different people respond to music in different ways, isn’t the character of sacred music a rather arbitrary matter?
A: Not at all. Every piece of music evokes a particular place and usage. A given piece of music may have any one of a number of associations: it may remind us of an elevator, a science fiction movie, a concert, a dinner party, or any of a number of different settings. When we hear a piece of sacred music, we should instinctively and immediately identify it as music set apart for the worship of God. Sacred music must be capable of being received as sacred by all who listen to it. In addition, this music must be unambiguous in giving priority to the spiritual and should be characterized by a certain amplitude (that is, it should be used generously rather than meted out in a sort of minimalist style).
Q: What happens when the music used in the liturgy does not meet these criteria?
A: The sacred character of the liturgy is compromised.
Q: What is the role of the liturgist in worship?
A: Ideally, the priest should be the primary liturgist. At the same time, the Church needs lay people who have received professional training in liturgy and music, because the priest cannot attend to all of the details involved in the celebration of the liturgy. Historically, liturgists have served primarily in the roles of master of ceremonies and choirmaster. Both of these roles serve valid and necessary functions.
Q: What guidance has the Church given us in developing music that is sacred in character?
A: In its document on the liturgy, the Second Vatican Council gave Gregorian chant a continuing priority of place in our worship. Classical polyphony also has a sort of canonical status in worship. In regard to musical instruments, the council identified the pipe organ as the church instrument par excellence, while admitting that other instruments are, to an extent, suitable. The texts of liturgical music should be unambiguously sacred. In practice, we have a tendency to mix secular and sacred elements in the liturgy in a heterogeneous way, and the priority of the spiritual often becomes lost in the process.
Q: You also spoke of the role of silence in the liturgy. What role should silence play in our public worship?
A: The principal significance of silence in the liturgy is that music comes out of silence and returns to it. Part of the beauty of chant is that it easily returns to silence. Silence does not reflect a “dead-time” in the liturgy, but rather a certain evenness of emotion that allows us to make contact with our deepest consciousness. We need silence in order to go deep within. Silence is also a symbol of personal prayer. Since we pray necessarily as individuals, we need to have silence so that we can recollect and then join one another in prayer. The monastic tradition understands well the value of silence in helping to preserve a sense of corporate prayer. We need silence in liturgy to help us establish a concord of hearts.