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Musical Musings: Liturgy

The Snowbird Statement on
Catholic Liturgical Music


1. The Snowbird Statement on Catholic Liturgical Music is the result of a series of consultations and discussions among Catholic liturgists and musicians in the English-speaking world, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland. Under the auspices of The Madeleine Institute in Salt Lake City, the first consultation took place in Snowbird, Utah, in August, 1992; a second gathering took place in Salt Lake City in August, 1993. Between and since these dates a process of input and editing involving all signatories was conducted. Most of the signatories are actively serving large churches or cathedrals; some are involved primarily in academic work.

2. Since the promulgation of The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in 1963, a number of instructions and statements concerning music in Catholic worship have been issued by the Holy See and by episcopal conferences in the English-speaking world. These have advanced the theoretical and practical renewal of liturgical music to an extraordinary degree. We wish to affirm the many positive developments in this area set in motion by the Second Vatican Council. We feel obliged, however, to name and critique those developments which we view as problematic, imperfect or unworthy of the church's mission. Accordingly, with this statement, we seek to contribute in a constructive and respectful spirit to the ongoing discussion of issues which remain controversial, unresolved or even divisive and to engage the wider ecclesial community in advancing the greater good of the church's life in the area of liturgical music.

Theoretical Considerations

3. We believe that beauty is essential in the liturgical life and mission of the church. Beauty is an effective even sacramental sign of God's presence and action in the world. The beautiful expresses the joy and delight which prefigure the glory of the liturgy of the heavenly Jerusalem. An injustice is committed against God's people when styles of worship and liturgical art are promoted which lack aesthetic beauty. This problem is evidenced when the church's worship becomes committed to pragmatic, ideological or political ends. Even a liturgy which serves the truth of faith and the justice of the Gospel is insufficient when the beauty of God's self-revelation is inadequately expressed and celebrated. While not wishing to promote aestheticism, we encourage a new attention to the theology and practice of beauty in Catholic worship, especially in the area of liturgical music. This will necessitate a more intense and sustained engagement with theological and philosophical aesthetics.

4. We wish to affirm standards of excellence in the composition and performance of all musical forms in the church's liturgy: congregational, choral, cantorial, diaconal, presidential and instrumental. There is no necessary inconsistency between traditional standards of excellence and the pastoral principles of the renewed liturgy; nor does sound liturgical theology suggest such a discrepancy. Where standards of excellence exist in theory or in practice they should be sustained; where they do not exist, they should be developed and fostered.

Those who work in cathedrals, basilicas and religious institutions or parishes with greater resources have a special responsibility to model excellence in liturgical music performance. While the standards possible in these institutions cannot be replicated in every liturgical community, they do have a distinct and crucial role to play in the formation of attitudes throughout the church. In many parishes and communities, musical excellence will always remain more an ideal than a reality. Nevertheless, even the smallest parish communities must be encouraged and helped to produce music of genuine quality, however simple.

5. We welcome the development of the concept of ritual music among liturgical scholars and musicians. This important development has clarified how intimately music is tied to ritual forms and how problematic liturgical music becomes when it is inadequately formed by the structure and spirit of the liturgy. Yet, the theory and practice of ritual music is often inadequately attentive to the beautiful and the artistic. It often seems to go unnoticed that aesthetically high quality music has the ability to make rituals more powerful and more engaging. Unfortunately, much ritual music in the Catholic church today is hampered by an excessive academicism and an artless rationality. In this regard, the concept of ritual music in the liturgy is very much a product of modernity and, as such, is already showing its age and transitional character. We call for further development in the concept and practice of ritual music so as to avoid utilitarian functionalism and to advance a liturgical music practice that is beautiful and artistically well-formed.

6. In 1972, the U.S. Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy issued the document Music in Catholic Worship which established that three judgments should determine the appropriateness of music for liturgy: the musical judgment, the pastoral judgment, and the liturgical judgment. Various attempts have been made to refine the criteria for these judgments and to integrate their diverse concerns. We welcome the considerable progress made in advancing the criteria for the pastoral and liturgical judgments. We note, however, the inadequate development of criteria for the musical judgment. Given the current lack of consensus in the church on what constitutes "good" music, and even the lack of serious discussion of this issue, efforts to correlate the three judgments cannot help but remain unsatisfactory.

As a stimulus for discussion on this matter, we propose the following about the musical judgment: some music is of higher quality than others; not all music is good. Certainly, musical standards are not absolute or unchanging, and church history attests this mutability. Still, we are convinced that the elements which comprise the musical judgment are objective and are something more than mere assertions of personal preference or of social or historical convention. There are those who, through training and talent, are able to identify music that is technically, aesthetically and expressively good. In seeking to judge musical quality, we do well to consult the cumulative wisdom of both our contemporaries and predecessors.

In asserting the objectivity of judgments about musical quality, we are consciously rejecting relativistic positions. We do not think that the modern cultural situation renders musical evaluation impossible or compels the avoidance of the issue of musical quality. We do not share the often asserted opinion that comparison is valid only within a particular style. To the extent that many of the styles employed in English-language Catholic worship today are dialects of the same larger musical language (in terms of harmonic vocabulary or rhythmic organization), a discussion of musical quality across stylistic boundaries is valid and necessary. The difficulty of definitively stating the objective elements of musical quality is not an excuse for avoiding the issue or proof of the relativity of musical judgments, but rather an indication of human incompleteness and an impetus to further conversation. We invite the liturgical-musical community to a more constructive discussion of the objective elements of the musical judgment in liturgical celebration.

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