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Musical Tradition of the Church


Fr. Scott A. Haynes


Christendom can boast of many beautiful and iconic artistic masterworks—the Ghent Altarpiece, the Pietà of Michelangelo, and the architecture of the great Canterbury Cathedral, to name a few. Greater than these is the musical tradition of the Church, with its unique power to touch the heart and attune us to the Creator of all harmony. Indeed, sacred music helps us to contemplate “the reality which no human knowledge or philosophy can ever express” (Benedict XVI). Besides the sacred texts we sing in worship, solo organ music can express truth, goodness, and beauty, and thereby draw worshippers into contemplation of things divine. For example, Bach’s trio sonatas can help us meditate upon the Holy Trinity. Summed up in three equal movements, the interplay of three independent musical lines reflects the interrelationship between the three parts of the Triune God (perichoresis). Solo organ music can be a powerful expression of human emotion in the context of worship. In his "Litanies," composer Jehan Alain comments: “When the Christian soul, in its distress, cannot find words to implore God’s mercy, it repeats ceaselessly and with a vehement faith the same invocation. Reason has reached its limit. Faith alone can go further.” Because pure instrumental music, of all the arts, abstracts the most from concrete situations in reality, the emotions that flow from it can more readily lead one to pose the deep questions about life. The Beethoven scholar John William Navin Sullivan, speaking of listening to and appreciating that composer’s works, once remarked that compositions which express spiritual experiences “stir elements in us; they reverberate thought in a larger part of our being. Certain emotions and expectations are aroused besides those that accompany our reactions to pure music.” How true it is that all beauty and all aesthetic goodness emanates from God, and honors God.

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