Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Liturgy Reflections
How to judge liturgical music

by Father Jan Larson

(From the Feb. 8, 2007 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Jan Larson We have heard the saying that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Our first judgment about a work of art is an instinctual and personal one: Is what I see before me something I like, or something I do not care for?

Personal taste is usually what shapes our first impressions, and it is difficult to challenge one’s personal tastes. Music is an art form, and music, too, is most often first greeted with one’s personal taste. This is true, as well, for the art and music connected with liturgical worship.

Fortunately, there are other criteria, besides personal taste and preference, for judging the quality of music.

In the realm of liturgical music, I personally don’t like the hymn “Amazing Grace,” perhaps because it seems too sentimental and too overused.

I don’t like the use of drums in church, mostly likely because I have never heard them used very successfully in the liturgy.

I really don’t like bagpipes, inside or outside the liturgy.

I don’t like the “Here Comes the Bride” march played during wedding processions, not because of its somewhat shady origins, but because I think it tends the trivialize the wedding procession which, after all, is not just about the entrance of the bride, but about the entrance of bride and groom and the entire assembly, to give praise and thanks in prayer.

I don’t like a steady diet of organ music and “classic” hymns, nor a steady diet of contemporary hymns – the ones that are perhaps more suitable for piano or guitar accompaniment. I like musicians to be able to offer the best of both, even at the same liturgy.

Again, fortunately, the music for a given liturgy cannot and should not depend on only my or any one person’s personal preferences. Our liturgical norms offer us three other important criteria to be used in the selection of liturgical music, criteria that are necessarily interdependent.

• First, the musical judgment, the basic and primary judgment, made by competent musicians: Is the music technically, aesthetically, and expressively good?
• Then comes the liturgical judgment. Here the liturgy itself will help determine what kind of music is appropriate, what parts are to be preferred for singing, and who is to sing them. Are the words of the hymns good prayer and good poetry? Do the music and song properly support the various parts of the liturgy and, at the same time, respect the full, conscious, and active participation of the assembly?
• The third judgment, the pastoral judgment, must also be made by those who prepare the liturgy: What is best for this particular situation, in these concrete circumstances? Will the music and song of the celebration enable these people to express their faith in this place, in this age, in this culture? This pastoral judgment can be aided by authentic sensitivity to the cultural and social characteristics of the people who make up the congregation: their age, culture, and education.

(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)

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