What Is Sacred Music?

I have sung regularly every Sunday at Mass for nearly thirty years now, two years more than I’ve lived as a baptized and confirmed Catholic. As I’m not much use serving on councils or committees (although I did teach CCD for several years after being received into the Church), I decided at the start of my Catholic life that it was as a trained singer (from my college years on) that I could be most valuable.

The Liturgy
Though I’ve sung as a choir member in a number of churches as needed (tenors are always in demand), I have far more experience as a cantor and soloist. My experience has been mostly in small to medium-sized parishes in small towns and in small to medium-sized cities, three of them university ones and all of them located in the Rocky Mountain West where I’ve lived for the past four decades. Like every musician in every Catholic parish, certainly in the United States and I imagine all over the world as well, I’ve worked with and been accountable to parish priests of varying tastes and opinions regarding the musical liturgy, and accommodated them and their parishioners (usually, but not always, one and the same thing). Before Vatican II, the liturgy was, of course, not a matter for disagreement. The Tridentine Mass was the Mass celebrated according to the Roman Rite; its liturgical parameters, musical and linguistic, were fixed. Or so I understood. It was not before some years after my reception into the Church that I heard my first “Latin” Mass celebrated.

Over the course of three decades I’ve been party to many debates regarding the musical liturgy appropriate to the post-Vatican II Church in general, and individual parishes specifically. Usually these discussions have occurred among the priests, the deacons, the unfortunately so-called “music ministers,” and the musicians themselves. Mostly, they have centered upon the priest’s sense of what is musically appropriate to the celebration of the Mass and congenial with the musical tastes of his parishioners, to which he generally expects the musicians to conform within the limits of their technical abilities.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Oddly, despite the consideration paid to the pew sitters, I’ve always suspected that they, as a body, pay a great deal less attention to what is played and sung than those responsible for selecting and performing the music assume they do (though every parish invariably contains a few people who hold strong opinions regarding modernism versus traditionalism, as well as the old hymns versus those produced for Novus Ordo Masses), and are quite unaware of the  amount of careful deliberation people entrusted with determining the character of the musical parts of the Mass devote to the subject. I once heard from both sides one Sunday following Mass, when I was praised by several members of the congregation for a Cujus animam by Rossini and  accused by another of  having “screamed” at her. (I imagine she had in mind especially the D-flat above the staff at the end of the aria.) The Catholic Church is, after all, “catholic.”

Beyond Liturgical Concerns
Parish priests in our day and age are naturally interested in knowing what music and musical styles are popular, preferred, tolerated, or positively disliked by their parishioners. Church membership and attendance at Mass continue to decline as a result of spiritual lukewarmess, liberalizing influences, secularization, social influence, and now the engulfing scandal of sexual predation involving a shameful number of the clergy, and priests are properly keen to stanch the flow and win back as many of their fallen-away parishioners as they possibly can. Christ provided us with the parable of the Lost Sheep, insisted on his spiritual value, and approved a joyous reception for him on his return to the fold. Apparently, many contemporary priests put the Sheep’s errancy down to his impatience with lengthy sermons, an uncongenial liturgy, and a generally retrograde intellectual and aesthetic atmosphere at Mass for which the necessary cure, they conclude, is modernism and still more modernism—in the musical department especially.

Hence, while the Novus Ordo was still in its infancy, the guitar Mass, inspired by the popularity half a century ago of the hootenanny, was approved by the local Church. The problem fifty years later is that the musicians who still play for guitar Masses today are nearly all in their 70s and losing their voices. For younger generations of Catholics, Bach’s “Benedictus” from the Mass in B-Minor sounds far newer, fresher, and more arresting than “On Eagle’s Wings”—to the very young especially, many of whom have never experienced music of its kind before. Be that as it may, it hardly seems proper, let alone necessary, to indulge the Lost Sheep at the expense of the musical liturgy and of the Mass-goers who value its integrity. Nor is it appropriate to tailor the Mass to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Sophisticated parishioners, who may be assumed to have suffered through many a Novus Ordo Mass as they tried to ignore a circle of guitars strumming Gospel or Mexican festival chords from the choir loft—squirming in dismay and embarrassment while they made a desperate attempt to pray—deserve to have their sensibilities considered, too.

And so does the Church herself, who throughout so many pre-modern centuries provided the great mass of ignorant, unlettered, unsophisticated, and untutored faithful with the only education most of them ever received in their lives. Historically, the Church has enjoyed a critical and unique educative function not only by instructing her children in the Faith but by exposing them to the greatest and most exquisite architecture, painting, sculpture—and music. The facile assumption on the part of clergy and laity alike that “ordinary” people (modern ones especially) are incapable of comprehending and appreciating what is aesthetically beautiful is demeaning, patronizing, and profoundly un-Christian as well.

You Can’t Please Everyone (But You Can Try)
Once or twice I sang the “Ingemisco” from the Verdi Requiem in a small parish church in a dusty coal town in western Wyoming and Schubert’s “Ave Maria” at the Cathedral of San Augustine in Tucson. On each occasion the music was enthusiastically received. In Laramie, I’ve performed music by Verdi, Rossini, Mozart, Bach, Gounod, Beethoven, Haydn, and Handel, among many other composers, and this was appreciated also, with the exception of a few dissenters. This was under a parish priest whose brother is a professional singer in the Greater New York area where he is hired by Catholic parishes to perform at Sunday Mass and who is knowledgeable in classical music, and, of course, chant. When he was moved on to another parish, his successor objected to my repertoire as being too dramatic for a small Western church. Since his arrival, I’ve sung music he finds more appropriate to the Mass. He does not object to traditional hymns, and so we get on very well together. (Like me, he hunts elk in the fall.) Besides, he is The Boss.

A further issue in parishes today can be vocal style. Having been trained in the classical technique—what Americans often think of as “operatic” singing—I find the “popular” style aesthetically foreign, physically uncomfortable, and the resulting sound generally unpleasant, or at least unsatisfying. Years ago I amused myself by practicing an imitation of Ethel Merman, the brassy Broadway musical soprano of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s (until my teacher warned me I risked ruining my voice.) It is produced by employing the tilted larynx and, in the context of church music, is suited only to Novus Ordo music, which I find virtually unsingable in solo pieces and avoid when I possibly can, though I do oblige at funerals.

The crucial thing for a church singer to remember is that he is, after all, only the singer. He is present at Mass, first of all, to praise the Lord to the best of his ability and, second, to do the bidding of the presiding priest. The Church is not a democracy, nor should it be. Anyway, unlike him, I have not been entrusted by the Lord with the shepherding and salvation of a parish family of Catholic souls; my spiritual responsibility is infinitely less than his. If he sincerely believes that the faith of a substantial number of them is critically encouraged by a musical liturgy I find substandard—and even an aesthetic and intellectual insult to God—but that the Church has declared liturgically valid, who am I to insist on my own personal standard? I don’t need to sing, after all.

Sacred, Religious, and Secular
My pastor distinguishes three musical categories: the sacred, the religious, and the secular. He believes that only music belonging to the first category should be allowable at Mass. I am in broad agreement with this formulation, which I understand is shared by Crisis. One can argue persuasively that the only music deserving of the appellation “sacred” is chant, melismatic organum, and European polyphony, owing to their exclusive development by the young Church and their ethereal disembodied quality. I take religious music to mean compositions written as settings for a religious text, taken either directly from Scripture or from some other text written on a religious theme. (Here, I suggest we should bear in mind the extremely physical as well as the spiritual context in which the Old Testament is set, i.e., its frequently worldly and even carnal aspects; the “Song of Songs” is a famous example.) Secular music is immediately recognizable from its tone, melody, rhythm, and textual content, though not in every instance. Among these three categories, the second is the hardest to determine—it is a gray area for anyone trying to distinguish music that can properly be included in the Mass from what ought to be in all circumstances excluded from it.

Every Catholic, I imagine, will agree that Bach—though not himself a Catholic and not writing for the Catholic Mass either—composed “sacred” music. Is Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” from his Ninth Symphony, sacred, too? I argue not; yet the music (though not the text) is included in every Catholic hymnal I’m familiar with. Mozart’s Requiem qualifies in my opinion as sacred music, and so does his chorale work, Ave Verum Corpus. Obviously, his most accomplished arias from the many operas are unsuitable musical settings for sacred texts; though I suppose it is not inconceivable that in this day and age someone might contemplate turning Cherubino’s sublime and expressive evocation of calf love, “Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio,” from Le Nozze di Figaro, into a hymn of love to the Holy Ghost.

I suggest that in order to see more clearly into the gray area of “religious” music we try to judge a composition by applying to it a simple test: Is this score of sufficiently transcendental beauty and reverence that it can be understood and appreciated as a work that offers praise to God and is indeed inspired by him, or at least by belief in him? A beautiful but quite simple hymn, “King of Glory, King of Peace,” with a text by the English Anglican poet George Herbert (1593-1632) and an exquisitely melodic score of uncertain origin, is one of the most reverent hymns I know. I first heard it sung by congregation and choir at the Church of the Immaculate Conception (known as Farm Street) in London (where Evelyn Waugh was received into the Church) and have sung it many times since then at Communion. Textually and musically, it is as consummately reverential—and in my opinion, as “sacred”—as any classical hymn in the Catholic hymnal or César Franck’s “Panis Angelicus,” a work frequently included in the Catholic Mass. My regular Sunday accompanist tells me that Father Michael Joncas, the composer of the score for “Eagle’s Wings” at the end of the ’70s, is on record as saying that if written today he would compose it with the soloist in mind.

As I have already admitted, one can plausibly argue that early Church music alone qualifies as sacred music—i.e., her music. But nowhere in the world today is that judgment practically applicable, save in those few parishes where worship at Mass is restricted to the Extraordinary Form. For the rest, priests, parishes, and musicians are under considerable pressure to be flexible, and accommodating—as well as humble—in setting musical standards. I’ve spent 30 years trying to offer suitable praise to God to the best of my artistic ability, while working to obey and accommodate lesser, but still authoritative, powers and principalities.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Music in the Cloister” painted by August Wilhelm Roesler. 


  • Chilton Williamson, Jr.

    Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior contributor at Crisis. He is the former editor of Chronicles magazine, and his column “Prejudices” appears in The Spectator USA. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review. He blogs at chiltonwilliamson.com.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...