The Excellence of the Mass

Crisis Magazine | 7/22/2019 | Chilton Williamson, Jr.
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I found the many comments on my recent essay “What Is Sacred Music?” extremely interesting, and am grateful to the commenters who contributed such divers points of view on what for all Catholics is a vital subject. Unfortunately, among those I found most striking is exactly the one I’m now unable to find. Among the author’s several points is that while the evangelical all-sing-along-now approach to congregational participation is not appropriate to the Mass, virtuoso musicians are not proper either. This is an opinion I’ve heard voiced on a number of the occasions over the years, often enough anyway to deserve honest consideration.

“Virtuoso” means someone with special skill in a particular activity, and skill at this level implies training. The purpose of training in any field is excellence, and in music excellence means the rendition by the musician of sounds that are beautifully produced, arranged, and managed, in this way honoring the composer and his work and pleasing the ears of the audience. The better he does these things, the better he fulfills his duty to his own work and to his auditors. To argue that virtuosity does not belong in the Mass at all is to insist that musical excellence has no place there either. At Mass, as on every other occasion of worship that has a musical component, the congregation deserves to hear the musical aspect of the liturgy played or sung as expertly as the musician or musicians involved can execute it—to be pleased so far as possible by the sounds produced, and displeased as little as possible. This is not a matter of “enjoyment” on the part of a congregation, among whom the Lord himself is present and who we may assume is not honored, praised, nor pleased by shoddy work, whether in the choir loft...
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