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Musical Musings: Liturgy Page 2

Cardinal Ratzinger on Liturgical Music

A) The cultural challenge vs. the biblical culture of Faith

('Sing Artistically for God': Biblical Directives for Church Music, pp. 94-110.)

"Since church music is faith that has become a form of culture, it necessarily shares in the current problematic nature of the relationship between Church and culture" (94). This relationship was in crisis during the Renaissance and the Reformation, but as of the Enlightenment, secular culture "emancipated" itself from the faith: they went their separate ways and have drifted further apart ever since.

Since the seventeenth century the Church has seen the Caecilian reform of sacred music, the rediscovery of Gregorian chant, and the renewal of polyphonic church music. Nevertheless, as a result of cultural dislocations, "we are at a loss as to how faith can and should express itself culturally in the present age" (95).

The picture from the culture's side is bleak. In the absence of religion, art becomes groundless aestheticism with neither direction nor purpose. Music in particular has split into two worlds: pop (a manufactured commodity) and rationally constructed high-brow music (an elite, degenerate form of "classical" music). A middle ground remains: "a staying at home in the familiar music that preceded such divisions, touched the person as a whole and is still capable of doing this even today. . . . Church music mostly settles in this middle ground" (95).

Many are the calls for the Church to dialogue with culture today, but few imagine the talks as being bilateral. You can't expect the Church to subject herself to modern culture, which, having lost its religious base, is in a never-ending process of self-doubt. Culture, too, must question itself radically and be opened to a cure, a reconciliation with religion.

Are there any biblical directives for the path that church music should take? Cardinal Ratzinger narrows the question: "Can we find one biblical text that sums up the way Holy Scripture sees the connection between music and faith" (96)?

The Bible contains its own hymnal: "the Psalter, born from the practice of singing and playing musical instruments during worship." Furthermore this practical tradition contains "essential elements of a theory of music in faith and for faith." Within the Old Testament, the Psalter is like a bridge between the Law and the Prophets; it also serves as a bridge connecting the two Testaments. From the earliest days of the Church, the psalms are prayed and sung as hymns to Christ, the Son of David the psalmist. "Christ himself thus becomes the choir director who teaches us the new song and gives the Church the tone and the way in which she can praise God appropriately and blend into the heavenly liturgy" (97).

Cardinal Ratzinger selects one psalm verse which appears throughout the history of theological reflection on church music. Psalm 47:7 (in some numberings Psalm 46 and/or the eighth verse) exhorts us to "Sing praises with a psalm" (RSV). The Hebrew word maskil is variously rendered in modern translations as "an inspired song" (M. Buber, German) or as playing "with all your skill" (Jerusalem Bible, French), or as singing "artfully" (in a version approved by the Italian Bishops Conference).

The ancient translations of the Church also shed light on the subject. "The Septuagint, which became the Old Testament of Christianity, wrote psalate synetos, which we might translate as: '. . . Sing with understanding'-in both senses of the word: that you yourselves understand it and that it is understandable" (97). Of course this involves more than a merely rational act; we are to sing "in a way worthy of and appropriate to the spirit, disciplined and pure" (98). St. Jerome's rendering is along the same lines: psallite sapienter. Sapientia means more than understanding; "[it] also denotes an integration of the entire human person . . . with all the dimensions of his or her existence." Just as the gift of wisdom integrates knowledge and experience with the requirements of Divine Law, so the singing of the inspired psalms involves the human person, body and soul, with all its faculties, in divine worship.

The first word of the verse, "Sing praises with a psalm," in Hebrew zamir, is also laden with history. "The emphasis is on articulated singing, a singing with reference to a text, which is instrumentally supported, as a rule" (98-99). In stark contrast to the orgiastic cult music of the pagans, zamir refers to "logos-like" music, "which incorporates a word or wordlike event it has received and responds to it in praise or petitions, in thanksgiving or lament." The Septuagint Bible chose psallein as its translation, giving a new, culturally conditioned meaning to a Greek word that previously had meant only to play a stringed instrument, but never to sing.

From this word study, Cardinal Ratzinger draws several conclusions about possible biblical directives for music in the Church.
  1. The command, "Sing to the Lord," runs through all of Scripture as part of the call to worship and glorify God. "This means that musical expression is part of the proper human response to God's self-revelation. . . . Mere speech, mere silence, mere action are not enough" (100).

  2. There is no such thing as a faith completely undetermined by culture, which could then be inculturated any way you like. "The faith decision as such entails a cultural decision; . . . Faith itself creates culture and does not just carry it along like a piece of clothing. . . . This cultural given . . . is capable of encountering other contemporary cultures. . . . This ability to exchange and flourish also finds its expression in the ever-recurring imperative, 'Sing to the Lord a new song.'" The Christological interpretation of the psalms is a particularly dramatic example of this capacity for development in what is an irrevocable and fundamental cultural form (101).

  3. The various meanings to be found in the second word of our psalm verse range between the two translations sapienter and cum arte. Singing in accordance with wisdom implies a word-oriented art, which is not concerned merely with intelligibility but "stands under the primacy of logos" and makes demands upon our highest moral and spiritual powers. The second translation, artfully, tells us that encountering God challenges a person to respond to the best of his or her abilities. God gave Moses detailed specifications for the tabernacle; artistic endeavor in the book of Exodus is portrayed as a participation in God's creativity (103).
The New Testament, by both frequent citation and explicit command, takes up the psalm tradition as an integral part of its own teaching and worship. "When you come together, each one has a hymn [Gk: psalmon], a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification" (I Cor 14:26). To the early Church the psalm appeared as a gift of the Spirit. The epistles also give evidence of exalted Christological hymns newly composed in Greek. By the second century, however, as a precaution after the musical innovations of the Gnostic sect, the Church reduced liturgical music to the Psalter. "The theology of the Psalter sufficed and set the standard in terms of content, but also . . . the way of making music specified by the Psalter became the musical model of emerging Christendom" (104). To put it in a less scholarly way, revelation was complete with the end of the apostolic age, and the divinely inspired hymns found in Sacred Scripture were sufficient for the Church's worship.

In light of the foregoing discussion, both "pop" music and the music of elitist aesthetes are unsuitable for divine worship. The latter, proclaiming art to be "for art's sake" and for no other purpose, elevates the composer to the level of a "pure creator." "According to Christian faith, however, it belongs to the essence of human beings that they come from God's 'art' . . . and as perceivers can think and view God's creative ideas with him and translate them into the visible and the audible" (106).

On the other hand, hasn't the Church's liturgical music always drawn on popular music to renew itself? Isn't "pop" music just what the Church needs in order to "relate" with contemporary culture? Cardinal Ratzinger recommends "treading carefully" in this area (107-108). In the past folk music was the expression of a clearly defined community held together by language, history and a way of life. Springing from fundamental human experience, it conveyed a truth, however naive the form may have been. Pop music, in contrast, is a standardized product of mass society, a function of supply and demand. The 20th-century composer Paul Hindemith called the constant presence of such noise "brainwashing," and C. M. Johansson claims that hearing it gradually makes us incapable of listening attentively: "we become musically comatose. . . . This medium kills the message" (p. 108 cf. footnote 19).

Cardinal Ratzinger insists that the faith must not be trivialized in the name of inculturating it. Today we do not have to limit church music so strictly to chanting of the psalms, because we have "an infinitely larger trove" of good liturgical music to draw on. But to hold the line against the onslaught of misguided attempts to import "modern" musical forms into the liturgy requires "the courage of asceticism, the courage to contradict. Only from such courage can new creativity arise" (109).

 Back to Part 1: Introduction

Part 3: Sociology vs. Christian Anthropology

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