Faith & Life

Music and Sacred: some considerations

September 17, 2021

Aurelio Porfiri

In recent decades, the use of the term “sacred music” to denote the music that is used for the liturgy has often been contested, preferring terms such as ritual, liturgical music and so on. Certainly, for some the term “sacred music” meant the monumentalization of certain repertoires as untouchable or intangible, not as models as they should be.

We are certainly talking about Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony which certainly have a place of honor in liturgical repertoires, especially Gregorian chant which is the proper chant of the liturgy, but they must be seen in a dynamic and not merely static form. That is, they do not exclude the good that is produced outside these repertoires.

This is so true that St. Pius X in his Motu Proprio of November 22, 1903 indicated Gregorian chant as a model for new compositions: “For these reasons Gregorian chant was always considered as the supreme model of sacred music, since the following general law could be established with every reason: the more sacred and liturgical a composition for a church is, the more it approaches the Gregorian melody in its trend, inspiration and flavor, and the less it is worthy of the temple, the more it recognizes itself different from that supreme model.”

As we see in this important document, Gregorian chant is clearly indicated as a model for compositions to come.

We were talking about the resistance to the use of the definition of music for the Church as “sacred.” Some consider the use of this tradition as a recent tradition (see Nicolas Schalz, 1971, “La notion de ‘musique sacrée’” in La Maison-Dieu, 108). A young tradition that dates back to the seventeenth century and that only in the nineteenth century and then under St. Pius X would be well specified.

In reality, while accepting as a school hypothesis what is asserted by Schalz’s article, it does not solve the problem of the use of that definition in the opposite sense, as it matters not for how it is formulated but for what it means. It has been used to denote a repertoire of music reserved for the public worship of the Church, although in modern times it has been understandably wanted to include in this definition a wider range of repertoires always distinct, however, from music for commercial use.

Perhaps it will not be improper to look at where this term “sacred” comes from. In Hebrew (see Arnaldo Nesti, “Il sacro, le teorie, i dilemmi” in Le forme del sacro, 1991, edited by Francesca Brezzi) we have qadosh and herem.

The first term is more used with the sense of “separate” but also, according to a different derivation from Akkadian, of brilliant, shining. This term also has a sense connected to the numinous, to the majestic presence of the divinity that was treated with great insight in the classic book on the sacred by Rudolf Otto (1869-1937). In Greek these terms pass as hieròs, hagnos, hagios and hòsios which always have this sense of consecrated to the divinity, while in Latin we have sacer and sanctus which would denote the implicit sacred and the explicit sacred. The sacer has a more mysterious value, precisely to the divinity, while the sanctus is more about a type of interdiction for which men are responsible.

Today some, including Mons. Giuseppe Liberto Maestro emeritus of the Pontifical Music Chapel, prefer to use the definition “holy music”: “In liturgical art, beauty is not the effect of human art that is self-satisfied and, therefore, celebrates itself ; it is not even a spectacle about God to a disembodied, distant, untouchable, insensitive, unreachable God. In liturgical art, beauty is the reflection of the divine glory that reveals itself: the liturgical praying person enters into a communion of love with our ‘near and accessible’ God, made flesh of our nature” (Musica santa per la liturgia).

Having said this, I believe that the definition of “sacred music” has its own reason if it is rightly understood, that is, as a denotation of repertoires that are reserved for the worship of the Church and that intend to be reserved for this function and not taken from profane styles in order to offer us a sort of a returning sacralization of what is outside the Temple. 

Let’s be careful, it is one thing to sacralize the profane as a process of transformation that transforms for God what was contrary or indifferent to him, another is the “sacred of return,” that is the sacralization of the profane as profane, therefore the realm of sentimentality (that was already widely denounced by Antonio Rosmini and in a different era from Pius X) which is a perverse way to ensnare unprepared souls. Roger Caillois talks about it in L’uomo e il sacro, a text that would be worth rereading.

The scholar Mircea Eliade says: “All religions admit that there is a time, a space and gestures that can be defined as sacred. The profane, on the other hand, is characterized by the illusory character of him, passing, without meaning” (Miti delle origini e ritmi cosmici).

Here, in this sense we can safely speak of sacred music and at the same time be concerned for its desacralization.

(Image: Hans Memling, Christ Surrounded by Singing and Music-making Angels (1483 – 1494), Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Antwerp. Source: Wikipedia.)