Sacred Music Today: the Best of Times, the Worst of Times
Nov 15, 2013

Sacred Music Today: the Best of Times, the Worst of Times

Online Edition:
November 2013
Vol. XIX, No. 8

Sacred Music Today: the Best of Times, the Worst of Times

by Carl E. Olson

Joseph P. Swain is associate professor of music at Colgate University and author of several books about music, including A Historical Dictionary of Sacred Music (2006), Harmonic Rhythm: Analysis and Interpretation (Oxford, 2002), and Musical Languages (Norton, 1997). He has also written numerous articles for journals including Music Perception, Journal of Musicology, Music Analysis, Criticus Musicus, Opera Quarterly, The Adoremus Bulletin, and Catholic World Report.

Dr. Swain’s most recent book is Sacred Treasure: Understanding Catholic Liturgical Music (Liturgical Press, 2012), which is described as “an exercise in pragmatic music criticism…. Sacred Treasure shows how the hard facts of music must be taken into account in any holistic conception and any lasting form of liturgical music.”

Dr. Swain was recently interviewed by Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about his book and the state of liturgical music, what Vatican II actually said about sacred music, and what can be done to improve the music heard in parishes throughout the United States and beyond. The interview appears here with permission. — Editor


Carl Olson: Taking up Dickens’s famous opening lines in A Tale of Two Cities, you open your book by stating that when it comes to Roman Catholic liturgical music, it is both the worst of times and the best of times. What are some examples of each? What is unique about this particular era as far as liturgical music is concerned? 

Dr. Joseph Swain: At no time in history has the Church had at hand, in print music and recordings, such a wealth of liturgical music of amazing variety and of the highest quality. At no time have such numbers of highly trained church musicians been available to sing and play that music. At no time has there been such a pitch of interest in liturgy and its music on the part of everyday, churchgoing Catholics. These are the best of times.

At the same time, only a tiny fraction of the liturgical music thought by Catholics and non-Catholics alike to be among the most beautiful ever conceived is ever heard by everyday Catholics at Mass. The fine professionals who want to contribute their services are often not allowed to perform it; they put aside their long training and look for other kinds of work. And the interest in liturgical music has apparently led only to strife within and between parishes, rather than healthy traditions of liturgical music, and there appears to be no end in sight.

Such paradoxes are what make our times unique in the history of liturgical music.

Olson: Sacred Treasure covers a tremendous amount of material — musical, theological, historical, and cultural — and you describe it, in the preface, as “an exercise in pragmatic music criticism.” What was your main goal in writing the book? How might, respectively, a liturgist, a musician, and an “average” lay person benefit from reading it? 

Dr. Swain: The main goal of the book is to help parishes establish authentic traditions of liturgical music that can be passed from generation to generation.

There are two reasons why this has not happened very often in parishes since the Second Vatican Council. First, people generally do not share the most basic assumptions about liturgical music. Indeed, ideas about it are all over the map. This causes strife in parishes. If one parishioner believes that the purpose of music at Mass is to make people feel uplifted while another believes that it should mainly praise God, one cannot expect any agreement about particular choices. The argument quickly devolves into battles over taste — “I like…”, “I don’t like …” — without the interlocutors ever realizing what the real disagreement is, or, if they do realize it, without having any idea of how to bridge that gap. Sacred Treasure bridges the gap.

The second reason is that discussions about liturgical music have been entirely theological and have never dealt with the hard facts of music. This oversight leads all too easily to asking music to do what it by nature cannot, or failing to exploit what it can. Those errors can be disastrous. “Were church buildings designed according to liturgical principles alone, no one would dare enter them” (p. 15). Musical materials, like building materials, have characteristics that must be respected if they are do to their job. Sacred Treasure tells people the basics of what they need to know about the hard facts of liturgical music.

Olson: What do you mean when you write of a “theory of liturgical music”? Why is that needed?

Dr. Swain: There is no shortage of ideas, principles, and microtheories of liturgical music floating out there in parishes. But too often they conflict and contradict one another. Which ones should we trust? We need to know which ones are fundamental, always true, which ones are more sensitive to the situation at hand, what is essential, what is nice to have. We need order and priority among the many ideas about liturgical music. That order is a theory of liturgical music.

Olson: There has been a tremendous amount of confusion about what the Second Vatican Council said about liturgy and liturgical music. Why so? And how revolutionary, really, was Sacrosanctum Concilium regarding liturgical music? 

Dr. Swain: There is no way to rid oneself of the many misconceptions and myths other than to read the liturgical document Sacrosanctum Concilium in its entirety. It is quite a subtle document. Here’s how it can be subtle about music, in its sixth chapter.

On one hand, Sacrosanctum Concilium confirms the primacy of Gregorian chant, the utility of church choirs, and the pipe organ as the best instrument for liturgical music. On the other hand it provides that, “other things being equal,” other kinds of music may be employed. The entire constitution promotes “active participation” of the laity in twelve different passages, so there is no doubt that the Council wanted it, but what exactly constitutes that participation must be gleaned from careful reading of the particular contexts where that expression appears.

So it is at once a conservative document and one that approved innovations in liturgical music. If what happened to liturgy after 1965 seems revolutionary, that is because many experiments were promoted in great haste, without due reflection. Most of these conformed not to the principal clauses of the constitution but to the exception clauses.

Olson: Following the Council, the use of folk music in Mass became widespread very quickly. What were some reasons for that sudden change? And why do you insist that folk music is not able “to survive congregational singing”? Are you being snobbish and old-fashioned, or are there other issues involved in that assessment? 

Dr. Swain: The rage for so-called folk music in the late 1960s and 1970s was caused by a coincidence. The pop style known as the “folk music revival” of Bob Dylan and his disciples — taken to be an anti-commercial, anti-status quo, purely felt kind of music — was at the peak of its popularity. At the same time, liturgical reformers who, for various reasons, wished to ignore the Council’s directive to promote Gregorian chant looked for an alternative. The folk-revival style seemed made to order.

Why folk revival music and its later derivatives can never work as true congregational music is a good example of how the hard facts of music matter. The hard fact is that the folk revival is a style that takes the solo singer as its premise and cannot do well in any other arrangement. The technical reasons for this truth are explained in Sacred Treasure. Trying to transfer such a style to a large group (e.g., congregation) is like trying to fly a car simply by driving faster. There is an intrinsic technical barrier to both. The results of trying to do the impossible are clearly seen in the constantly changing song repertories in parishes of the last five decades. One fad succeeds another, nothing is retained. There is no tradition, just a revolving door, like the Top 40.

Olson: “Music and democracy,” you write, “do not get along well.” How so? And what challenges does the democratization of liturgy pose for sacred music?

Dr. Swain: As Americans we like to believe that democracy is always the best solution for every political group or task, but such is certainly not the case. Think of a football team or a hospital administration. They are not democracies because one requires too many decisions to coordinate in too little time, and the other requires great expertise owned by a few. The same is true of musical organizations larger than four people. A church choir, to work to its potential, cannot be a democracy. The director, like Aristotle’s king, decides what is good for the whole, and the singers give up their individual musical preferences, also for the good of the whole.

The chief harm inflicted upon modern liturgical music by the democratization of liturgy is the promotion of the untrained at the expense of the trained musician. Everyone’s opinion of the music counts equally, regardless of qualifications. The situation is as if, when a new church were being built, professional architects, contractors, and tradesmen were sent away while any parishioner who wished to pitch in showed up to build it. Of course, professional liturgical musicians want and need the participation of lay singers and players, but the professionals’ proper role in the direction, like that of a quarterback, must be acknowledged if you wish to succeed.

Olson: What are some of the basic criteria for liturgical music? What makes certain music “liturgical” in character?

Dr. Swain: The theory of Sacred Treasure concludes with a description of what parishes need to consider when building authentic traditions of liturgical music, traditions that can last “from generation to generation.” The description provides three criteria essential for every piece of liturgical music: 1) it must be sacred, that is, it must have a sacred semantic; 2) it must be beautiful in its intrinsic musical qualities, “true art,” in the words of Sacrosanctum Concilium; 3) it must provide for active participation of the congregation. These are the things that last.

What makes music “liturgical” in character (first of the three criteria above) is the vexed question that has been debated for centuries. Sacred Treasure has a theory of the matter in Chapter 12, “The Semantics of Sacred Music,” which takes some pages to explain, but the heart of the matter is this: music sounds sacred when it owns, among its hearers, a deep association with sacred things and at the same time a distinction from other kinds of music heard in the secular world.

Olson: You pose the question, “Must the liturgy be beautiful?” How do you think most Catholics would answer that question? And in what way is liturgical music “beautiful”? Why is it important and necessary? 

Dr. Swain: I can only guess at the response of most Catholics: most would agree that the liturgy should be beautiful, but of course there would be substantial disagreement, owing to the common natural diversity of taste among all people, about the particulars of the liturgy — which songs, for example — that actually are beautiful.

The qualities that make any musical masterpiece apply also to liturgical music, but because it must work in the liturgy, the category of “beautiful liturgical music” is far smaller than “beautiful music.” I like to say: “great music is not necessarily great liturgical music.” Saint Pius X is supposed to have said: “I love Verdi [the opera composer], but not in church.”

As to why the absolute beauty of the music is necessary, there are two reasons. First, as history has shown time and again, we tire quickly of music that is not first class. That is the root cause of the revolving door of songs that parishes have suffered in the past five decades. Mediocre music will never found a healthy tradition. Second, a simple truth: in the liturgy that He has given to us, we owe to God the best we have.

Olson: Three of the concluding chapters focus on “eternal conflicts” within liturgical music. What are those conflicts, and how can they best be addressed?

Dr. Swain: “Eternal conflict” is my way, perhaps overdramatic, of expressing our inevitable situation, that we live in an imperfect world where local circumstances and legitimate but contrary values will often, if not always, prevent us from achieving the ideal liturgical music. Still, we continue to reach for it.

The first is the conflict between creativity and tradition. The Catholic Church owns the greatest musical tradition of any institution or nation on earth. What are composers to do in the face of this? Do we need another “Lord, Have Mercy”? The short answer is that, as the constitution states, we will always need new music to meet the spiritual needs of a changing world. Such composers must find the training that allows them to connect deeply with the tradition while creating something new. This is not a radical idea. It has been done since the dawn of Christian music.

The second conflict is that of inculturating liturgical music. Catholicism has always tried to accommodate the cultural habits of peoples new to the faith (see Acts 15) as long as the central truths remain undisturbed. The competing values in this conflict are, one the one hand, the legitimate cultural values of any indigenous people, including its music and, on the other hand, catholicity, the value of a liturgy that in its essence is the same through all the world, a symbol of the unity of faith.

The third conflict is that of active participation in liturgical music by all the people and the needs and prerogatives of the professional church musician. Both these values are supported by Sacrosanctum Concilium. Much of the solution, always a partial solution, to this conflict depends upon a proper understanding of what the Council meant by participatio actuosa. Sacred Treasure analyzes this term at length.

“How can [the conflicts] best be addressed?”

First, by recognizing that they are in fact eternal in the sense that there will never be a formula for resolving them for all times and places, and that therefore solutions are partial and temporary, to be altered when the situation changes.

Second, by recognizing that there is goodness and value on both sides of the conflict. A little charity can make things a lot better.

Third, therefore, by seeking not a total victory of one value over the other, but rather a prudential balance. A healthy tradition is never written in stone; on the contrary, it is a living thing, like a tree, growing without changing its fundamental trunk and roots.


Carl E. Olson, a frequent contributor to Catholic publications, is editor of the online magazine Catholic World Report, where this interview originally appeared on October 25.

(E-mail: [email protected])




Carl E. Olson