Apr 15, 2013

What is Really behind the Music "Style Wars"?

Online Edition:
April 2013
Vol. XIX, No. 2

What is Really behind the Music "Style Wars"? A question of Function, Holiness and Hermeneutics

by Susan Benofy

Music has always been essential to the worship of God — for music has the unique capacity to transport those who hear it beyond words, engaging our emotions and minds in inexpressible ways. 

Perhaps for this reason, few elements of Catholic worship have caused greater disagreement than its musical expression — as we have seen in sharp focus in recent decades.  Is the ongoing conflict over appropriate music for the liturgy simply a matter of style and personal taste, as some maintain, or does it have deeper roots?

Recently, on a blog post titled “Byrd or Bernadette Farrell — the war that won’t go away,” Abigail Frymann, the online editor of The Tablet, a British Catholic news weekly, gave her analysis of this “war” over music in the liturgy.

“The debate,” she wrote, “is partly about your tastes in music (Byrd or Bernadette Farrell, Tallis or Tim Hughes) but quickly moves on to your views of God and how us mere mortals should approach him. A great recipe for a long war” (January 9, 2013, thetablet.co.uk/blogs/444/17).

Frymann’s comment is not new. “Style Wars” was the title of the address composer Father Michael Joncas presented at the 2005 convention of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM). He said that since Vatican II, “many passionate arguments over appropriate music in worship have been arguments over style” (Joncas, “Style Wars,” p. 26).

A similar analysis has been evident for years in liturgy journals, which have published a stream of articles with advice on ending these “style wars” by employing a “blended” repertoire. That is, the musician is urged to use a variety of styles of music in order to satisfy the various groups of worshippers, while carefully avoiding fragmentation of the rite and any appearance of tokenism.  Numerous schemes have been proposed, but still, as Frymann says, the conflict over style won’t go away.

This suggests that the attempts at “peacemaking” do not address the real cause of the “style war.”  There is a hint of the real cause in Frymann’s statement that the argument about style “moves on” to debates about God and how to approach Him.  In fact, it seems likely that the real root of the conflict is the more fundamental question of how we approach God, especially in the liturgy.

Hermeneutics of continuity; rupture

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger suggested this possibility almost two decades ago, in A New Song for the Lord:

The controversy seemed to be taking place essentially on the level of application alone, but the rift goes deeper….  Here the issue is the essence of liturgical action as such, its anthropological and theological foundations. The controversy about church music has become symptomatic for the deeper question about what liturgical worship is. (Ratzinger, 1996, pp. 111-112)

Later, as Pope Benedict XVI said in his famous 2005 Christmas address to the Curia, the reason the implementation of the Council’s reforms has been difficult is a problem of interpretation, or hermeneutics, to use the theological term:

… it all depends on the correct interpretation of the Council or — as we would say today — on its proper hermeneutics, the correct key to its interpretation and application. The problems in its implementation arose from the fact that two contrary hermeneutics came face to face and quarreled with each other. One caused confusion, the other, silently but more and more visibly, bore and is bearing fruit.

On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “her-meneutic of reform,” of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.

The hermeneutic of discontinuity risks ending in a split between the pre-conciliar Church and the post-conciliar Church. It asserts that the texts of the Council as such do not yet express the true spirit of the Council. It claims that they are the result of compromises in which, to reach unanimity, it was found necessary to keep and reconfirm many old things that are now pointless. However, the true spirit of the Council is not to be found in these compromises but instead in the impulses toward the new that are contained in the texts.

It is this dispute between the two divergent interpretations of the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), and the very different ideas of worship they represent, that is the real basis of the so-called “style wars” over liturgical music. 

Contrasting views of music groups

This can be illustrated by an examination of the hermeneutics of two international organizations of liturgical musicians: the Consociatio Internationalis Musicae Sacrae and Universa Laus. Both groups were formally founded shortly after the Council, but their histories go back further. 

The Consociatio Internationalis Musicae Sacrae (CIMS), considered traditional, was established on November 22, 1963, by Pope Paul VI’s Chirograph Nobile subsidium Liturgiae (Documents on the Liturgy  [DOL] 4100-4111).  Among the purposes of CIMS was to “carry out the measures taken by the supreme authority of the Church in regard to sacred music” (DOL  4100).

In the United States, two existing sacred music organizations merged in 1964 to form the Church Music Association of America (CMAA).  The CMAA is affiliated with CIMS, and has interpreted the Council’s liturgical reforms in continuity with the teachings of the popes of the 20th century, beginning with Pope St. Pius X.  They employ the term “sacred music” as defined in his 1903 motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini (TLS).

1. Sacred music … participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful….

2. Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality….

3. These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently, the Chant proper to the Roman Church …

The second organization, Universa Laus, is considered progressive.  It was founded during a 1966 meeting of a group of European liturgists and musicians, some of whom had already been working together for years. Jesuit Father Joseph Gelineau, best known for his musical settings of the psalms, was among the original leaders of Universa Laus (UL). Two well-known speakers at early meetings were Holy Ghost Father Lucien Deiss and Bernard Huijbers.  Like Father Gelineau they were both composers, and also wrote and spoke on liturgy. The UL group prefers the term “ritual music,” since they are concerned mainly with the ritual function music fulfills.  (For more information on these groups, see Benofy, “Buried Treasure, Part II,” Adoremus Bulletin, April 2001.)

The consequences of applying the two contrasting hermeneutics are evident in the groups’ interpretations of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC).  A key passage is in the first section of Chapter VI on sacred music, §112:

The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn Liturgy.

Holy Scripture, indeed, has bestowed praise upon sacred song, and the same may be said of the fathers of the Church and of the Roman pontiffs who in recent times, led by Saint Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord.

Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites. But the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into Divine Worship. (Emphasis added.)

Accordingly, the Sacred Council, keeping to the norms and precepts of ecclesiastical tradition and discipline, and having regard to the purpose of sacred music, which is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful, decrees…

“Breaking new ground”

The passage of SC §112 in bold type above is key to the functionalist, “ritual music” approach to post-Conciliar liturgical music.

The hermeneutic of rupture is revealed clearly in this comment by Paul Inwood:  “We all know that Sacrosanctum Concilium broke new ground in that passage” (Inwood, “Ritual Music: Just Icing or Part of the Cake?” p. 21). Inwood is director of liturgy for the diocese of Portsmouth, England, and past English-language president (1986-1998) of Universa Laus.

Paul Ford, a liturgist, composer, and former Benedictine monk who teaches at St. John’s Seminary in California, says that what Inwood calls the “new ground” passage in SC §112 contains “the essence of the musical reform of the Second Vatican Council” (Ford, “Authentic Liturgy, Authentic Chant,” p. 18).

Ford clearly believes that the Council’s intended reform of the liturgy is not in continuity with that of earlier decades.  In fact, in a recent blog comment he suggests that one cannot read Pope Saint Pius X’s 1903 letter on music, Tra le sollecitudini (TLS), “as if it means by ‘holy’ the same thing that SC 112 means by ‘holy.’ 
The shift from an [art for art’s sake] model of church music to a ministerial model is among the most significant restorations of the Second Vatican Council” (Ford, PrayTell blog, Feb. 13, 2013).

The “ministerial model,” according to this interpretation, concerns primarily the function of music in the liturgy — which requires reinterpreting even such a fundamental concept as holiness. This certainly risks a split between the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar Church on the very nature of liturgy.

It is clear that in TLS, holiness is not a superficial matter of style: holiness is essential to liturgical music because it is a necessary characteristic of liturgy itself. 

Thus a very different interpretation — a hermeneutic of renewal and reform — would see the “new ground” that the Council intended embedded securely within the old ground: Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, traditional liturgical norms, and especially the teachings of Pope Pius X and his successors — including a statement of the purpose of sacred music identical to TLS.  According to this view, the “ministerial function” is not at all new development, but rather is an intrinsic element of sacred music.

Furthermore, SC §112 expressly states that the twentieth-century popes have already “explained more precisely the ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord.”  Among these explanations we find something very like the “new ground” idea in the 1955 encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Musicae sacrae (a/k/a Musicae sacrae disciplina; hereafter MSD): 

It is easy to infer from what has just been said that the dignity and force of sacred music are greater the closer sacred music itself approaches the supreme act of Christian worship, the Eucharistic sacrifice of the altar. (MSD §34)

Embracing the “functionalist” view, Capuchin Father Edward Foley, professor of liturgy and music at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, claims that this passage of Pope Pius’s encyclical on music “foreshadowed” the change made complete in SC §112, in what we we’ve referred to as the “new ground” passage  (Foley “A Lyrical Vision,” p. 49). 

 But Pope Pius XII himself said that his encyclical was intended to “give an orderly explanation of the topic” of sacred music (MSD §1), certainly in continuity with the Church’s history:

We hope, therefore, that what St. Pius X rightly decreed in [TLS] may be confirmed and inculcated anew, shown in a new light and strengthened by new proofs. (MSD §3)

The proof begins from the premise that man’s last end is God, the pope wrote:

Therefore even art and works of art must be judged in the light of their conformity and concord with man’s last end. (§24)

All art, Pope Pius XII wrote, has as its purpose “to express in human works the infinite divine beauty” (§25).  This applies even more to sacred art “because its only purpose is to give the faithful the greatest aid in turning their minds piously to God through the works it directs to their senses…” (§27). And these standards apply “in a stricter and holier way to sacred music” because it enters directly into the liturgy, and is “the servant, as it were, of the liturgy” (§30).  It helps to “increase the fruits which the faithful … derive from the holy liturgy” (MSD §32). 

Contrary to Ford’s claim, nothing here suggests that music in the liturgy should ever be “art for art’s sake.” In fact Pope Pius says quite clearly that music is the servant of the liturgy. In summary, this encyclical says that to fulfill a proper liturgical function music must be able to turn us toward God; that is, it must be holy

Pope Pius XII did not depart from the teachings of Pope Pius X.  Read in context, the “new ground” passage of SC §112 does not indicate that the Council Fathers did either. 

Continuity — or rupture?

In his 2003 Chirograph on Sacred Music, Pope John Paul II, himself a Council Father, recalled the principles governing sacred music promulgated by his predecessors, and said that the Council reasserted those principles, especially in Chapter VI of the liturgy constitution, Sacrosanctum Concilium. He writes:

3. … In this perspective, in the light of the Magisterium of St Pius X and my other Predecessors and taking into account in particular the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council, I would like to re-propose several fundamental principles for this important sector of the life of the Church, with the intention of ensuring that liturgical music corresponds ever more closely to its specific function. (emphasis added)

4. In continuity with the teachings of Saint Pius X and the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary first of all to emphasize that music destined for sacred rites must have holiness as its reference point: indeed, “sacred music increases in holiness to the degree that it is intimately linked with liturgical action.” (original emphasis)

The passage in quotes in §4 above is the “new ground” passage of SC §112. Pope John Paul II explicitly confirms that holiness is what ensures that music can fulfill its specific liturgical function — the same point made by Pope Pius XII in MSD, which in turn confirmed the principles enunciated by Pope Pius X. 

Interpreting SC in continuity with earlier principles does not deny that music must fulfill a function in the liturgy.  In fact, in this approach it is the rite itself that determines the function of each chant.  Gregorian Chant, as the music proper to the Roman rite, then, is considered the primary model of proper ritual function. 

The relation of holiness to function

William Mahrt, president of the CMAA, illustrates this approach, noting ways in which music contributes to the ordering of the liturgy. Among other things, music “takes the texts out of the everyday and confirms them as sacred,” he wrote.

[It] differentiates each part of the liturgy from the other by musical styles that suit the very character of that part, allowing each to be perceived in its own liturgical functionality…

by distinguishing each part from the other, it clarifies the bontà delle forme [goodness of forms], the excellence of the forms, contributing to the splendor formæ of the whole liturgy, its beauty…

it places the liturgy in the context of the transcendent and the eternal; this can only be through the use of music of the highest artistic quality and of uncompromised sacred character….

Thus, the intimate relation of musical styles to liturgical function … is a most purposeful use of music in showing forth in a clear and radiant way the nature of the liturgical actions themselves. (Mahrt, “Gregorian Chant as a Paradigm Of Sacred Music,” 2006, pp. 13-14) 

For CMAA, as for Pope John Paul II and his predecessors, both the sacred character (i.e., holiness) and goodness of form contribute to music’s liturgical function, which is related to the transcendent character of the liturgy. 

Thus the primary difference between the traditional and functionalist interpretations is not the view that music has a ministerial role, which both clearly recognize. The difference arises from their evaluations of the relation of holiness to function, and especially from their divergent views of what the function of music is. 

Universa Laus reverses John Paul II’s interpretation of the “new ground” passage of SC §112, insisting that music must fulfill a liturgical function in order to be considered “holy.” Traditionally, music is integral to the liturgy because it accompanies the prescribed texts with musical sound. But functionalists believe music’s ritual function pertains primarily to the action of the assembled worshippers rather than to accompany the text or the rite.  Consider Father Gelineau’s description:

If Christian worship is a symbolic activity in which an assembly expresses its faith, it then follows that any singing or music must belong to the believing whole …  Again, if rites are a cultural as well as a religious phenomenon, then the language and the musical form used to clothe them must be both practicable and meaningful for each different culture and for each given assembly (Gelineau, “Music and Singing in the Liturgy,” 1978a,  p. 449).

There is no concern here with transcendence, nor with the character of the different parts of the rite. Instead the function varies with the character of the assembly.  Since the culture of the assembly can change, a piece of music — indeed the rite itself — may even become obsolete, no longer fulfilling its former purpose.  When that happens, says Lucien Deiss:

Obviously, it must be replaced with some other song or ritual.  In fact, even to ask such a question about ministerial function is to begin a permanent inquiry into the very heart of the liturgy, confronting “head on” every kind of formalism, rubricism, and traditionalism…. [T]he ministerial function … will accept only what serves the present-day community.  (Deiss, Spirit and Song of the New Liturgy, 1976, p. 2)

This suggests that because the congregation and its culture are subject to change, there can be no fixed rite; consequently, music cannot be judged by its appropriateness to any prescribed rite.

Bernard Huijbers, for example, believes that in renewing the Roman Rite the Council ended “the long immutability of that rite” so it will be constantly changing, as will the purpose of its music.

It is no longer to accompany prescribed actions and to interpret prescribed texts.  The new criterion, I believe, is this: will this music, used here in the service, invite, promote, and (musically) compel the active participation of the people?  (Huijbers, The Performing Audience: Six and a Half Essays on Music and Song in Liturgy, 1974, p. 69)

Redefinition, rejection, rupture

This redefinition of the function of music in the liturgy, though attributed by functionalists to the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, actually leads to a rejection of the Council’s reform of the Roman Rite. 

According to Father Gelineau, Universa Laus advocates a liturgical renewal, “But it would not be right to identify this liturgical renewal with the reform of rites decided on by Vatican II.  This reform goes back much further and forward far beyond the conciliar prescriptions.  The liturgy is a permanent workshop.” He states bluntly:

We must say it plainly:  the Roman rite as we knew it exists no more.  It has gone. (Gelineau, The Liturgy Today and Tomorrow, 1978b, p. 11)

This view advances a rupture not only between past and present rites, but even within the Council’s liturgy constitution itself.  If the Roman rite is gone, so is any special status for Gregorian chant and polyphony. So SC’s decree that they were to be preserved and cultivated becomes meaningless, and need not be taken seriously. 

But if sacred music’s traditional function has changed so radically and the traditional repertoire is rejected, how is one to determine what the proper ritual function of any piece of music is?  Paul Inwood admits that several important questions remain unanswered. 

What actually is the nature of the rite, or this particular part of the rite? … What is its function? What is its dynamic? To begin to tackle these questions, the composer needs to, as it were, “get inside” the rite.  (Inwood, p. 21)

But how is the composer to do this if the rite itself “exists no more”?

Inwood suggests that experience may be helpful, but can lead us astray.  Like Father Gelineau he considers the liturgical books unsatisfactory.  He cites as an example the development in some places of a “gathering rite,” differing from the entrance rite in the Missal in its elimination of the entrance procession. Inwood does not conclude from this discrepancy that the “gathering rite” is inappropriate, but that the official liturgical books, like experience, are unreliable as guides to the proper function of music in the rite. 

In other words the nature of the rite is itself in a process of change, and musicians need to take this into account. Sometimes music can itself be the agent for that change.  (Inwood, p. 21, emphasis added)

So, in effect, the composer may decide what the purpose of the rite ought to be, and writes music that will effectively change the rite in the direction he desires. Despite the claims of Huijbers and Gelineau above, Inwood does not say that the needs of the community determine the music; rather, it is the composer who decides what the rite needs, and he in turn instructs the community:

The rite will only come to life when musicians in parishes have the same understanding as the composers who wrote the music, so that the music is put into effect in a way which supports its rationale. (Inwood, p. 24)

But what happens if the Church’s musicians are expected to think with the mind of the composer — not with the mind of the Church? Must musicians then cooperate in imposing a composer’s desired changes on the rite of the Church? 

As Cardinal Ratzinger recognized, concerns that seem to be about musical style may really be about the fundamental nature of worship. Thus, complaints from ordinary Catholics about the style of the music at Mass may actually express discomfort with the composer’s understanding of the ritual itself, and to the changes the music is imposing on it. 

The most complete expression of the Universa Laus group’s functionalist view of the relation of musical style to the nature of worship is found in the 1980 Universa Laus document.  This included a short list of “Points of Reference” and of “Beliefs Held in Common,” both written by Gelineau, together with a Commentary and Technical Notes (called Glossary in the English translation). The Commentary contrasts two approaches to liturgy:

If there is a preoccupation with worship to be rendered to God, priority will be given to everything that favors this particular dimension: “stretched out” architecture; very high churches; remote and hidden altars.… In this context, an unreal ethereal kind of music is naturally preferred … and in this way the image of a majestic, remote, and inaccessible God is projected.

On the contrary, if one’s first thought is of the assembly, if theology sensitizes Christians to the presence of God in the midst of God’s gathered people … then the results will certainly be very different … churches centered around the altar … the presiding celebrant turned toward the assembly … in order to speak to them in their own tongue.… And quite naturally this conception of liturgy will use dialogue forms, communal singing, unison music, and unanimous acclamations….

In reacting against the excesses inherited from previous centuries, Vatican II has resolutely turned us toward the second option. (Duchesneau and Veuthey. Music and Liturgy: the Universa Laus Document and Commentary, 1992, pp. 54-55)

It is quite clear that the UL musicians believe that the function of music has changed because the purpose of the rite has changed.  But one cannot find this change of purpose in the conciliar text.  In fact SC says that “the Sacred Liturgy is above all things the worship of the Divine Majesty” in which “God speaks to His people” and “the people reply to God both by song and prayer” (SC §33).  This certainly describes “worship to be rendered to God,” the sort of worship for which UL admits “ethereal” music (presumably including chant and polyphony) performs an appropriate function. 

Furthermore, SC §21 says that the reform of the texts and rites should ensure that they “express more clearly the holy things which they signify” so that “the Christian people may more certainly derive an abundance of graces” from them. 

This also corresponds to the purpose of sacred music given in Pope Pius XII’s 1955 encyclical. The reform that Vatican II decreed is thus seen, in the words of Cardinal Ratzinger, as a “renewal in continuity with the one subject-Church.” 

The proponents of functionalism, however, applying a hermeneutic of discontinuity, perceive in the Council’s liturgical reform a change — even in the very concept of holiness.  This approach results in a rupture not only with the earlier rite, but even with the reformed rite in the official liturgical books.

What appears to be a “style war,” then, is in actuality a very serious conflict of hermeneutics — of interpretation of the fundamental meaning of the Council. 

Lasting peace in the “style war” can be achieved only by a consistent application of the hermeneutic of reform — of genuine renewal — leading to the use of truly sacred music that, in accordance with the goal of the Vatican II reform, enables the texts and rites to “express more clearly the holy things which they signify.”


References – works cited:

Benofy, Susan. 2001. “Buried Treasure” Part II.  Adoremus Bulletin, April 2001.*

Deiss, Lucien, CSSp. 1976. Spirit and Song of the New Liturgy New revised edition.  Cincinnati: World Library Publications.

Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979: Conciliar, Papal and Curial Texts (DOL), translated by International Commission on English in the Liturgy. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1982, pp. 4100-4111.

Duchesneau, Claude and Veuthey, Michel. 1992.   Music and Liturgy: The Universa Laus Document and Commentary, translated by Paul Inwood. Washington, DC: Pastoral Press.

Foley, Edward. 2009. A Lyrical Vision: The Music Documents of the US Bishops. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press.

Ford, Paul. 2011. “Authentic Liturgy, Authentic Chant,” GIA Quarterly, pp. 16-20. giamusic.com/pdf/GIAQAuthenticLiturgyAuthenticChantPaulFord.pdf.

Ford, Paul. blog comment Feb 13, 2013. praytellblog.com/index.php/2013/02/13/bishop-samples-pastoral-letter-on-sacred-music-in-divine-worship/   Comment #22

Gelineau, Joseph, SJ. 1978a. “Music and Singing in the Liturgy” in The Study of Liturgy edited by Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold, SJ. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gelineau, Joseph, SJ.  1978b.  The Liturgy Today and Tomorrow. New York: Paulist Press.

Huijbers Bernard. 1974.  The Performing Audience: Six and a Half Essays on Music and Song in Liturgy, Second revised edition.  Cincinnati: North American Liturgy Resources.

Inwood, Paul. 1997. “Ritual Music: Just Icing or Part of the Cake?” Pastoral Music, August-September 1997, pp. 22-25.

Joncas, J. Michael. 2005. “Style wars,” Pastoral Music, October-November, pp. 26-35.

Mahrt, William. 2006. “Gregorian Chant as a Paradigm of Sacred Music,” Sacred Music,  Spring 2006.

Ratzinger, Cardinal Joseph. 1996. A New Song for the Lord. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.


Susan Benofy is research editor for the Adoremus Bulletin.

* Dr. Benofy’s Buried Treasure series is now available on our website as downloadable PDF.



Susan Benofy

Susan Benofy received her doctorate in physics from Saint Louis University. She was formerly Research Editor of Adoremus Bulletin.