An organist leads a choir in Gregorian chant and classical hymns at a Tridentine Mass (left); members of the University of Notre Dame folk choir (right). (CNS photos)
Joseph P. Swain
professor of music
at Colgate University and author of several
books about music, including A
Historical Dictionary of Sacred Music
Rhythm: Analysis and Interpretation
2002), and Musical
He has also written numerous articles for journals including
Music Perception, Journal of Musicology, Music Analysis, Criticus
Musicus, Opera Quarterly,
Catholic World Report.
most recent book is Sacred
Treasure: Understanding Catholic Liturgical Music (
Press, 2012), which is described as “an
exercise in pragmatic music criticism. … Sacred
how the hard facts of music must be taken into account in any
holistic conception and any lasting form of liturgical music.” Dr.
Swain was recently interviewed by Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic
about his book and the state of liturgical music, what Vatican II
actually said about sacred music, and what can be done to improve the
music heard in parishes throughout the United States and beyond.
Dickens' famous opening lines in A
Tale of Two Cities,
you open your book by stating that when it comes to
Roman Catholic liturgical music, it is both the worst of times and
the best of times. What are some examples of each? What is unique
about this particular era as far as liturgical music is concerned?
Swain: At no time in history has the Church had to hand, in print
music and recordings, such a wealth of liturgical music of amazing
variety and of the highest quality. At no time have such numbers of
highly trained church musicians been available to sing and play that
music. At no time has there been such a pitch of interest in liturgy
and its music on the part of everyday, churchgoing Catholics. These
are the best of times.
the same time, only a tiny fraction of the liturgical music thought
by Catholics and non-Catholics alike to be among the most beautiful
ever conceived is ever heard by everyday Catholics at mass. The fine
professionals who want to contribute their services are often not
allowed to perform it; they put aside their long training and look
for other kinds of work. And the interest in liturgical music has
apparently led only to strife within and between parishes, rather
than healthy traditions of liturgical music, and there appears to be
no end in sight.
paradoxes are what make our times unique in the history of liturgical
Sacred Treasure covers a tremendous amount of
materialmusical, theological, historical, and culturaland you
describe it, in the Preface, as "an exercise in pragmatic music
criticism." What was your main goal in writing the book? How
might, respectively, a liturgist, a musician, and an "average"
lay person benefit from reading it?
Swain: The main goal of the book is to help parishes establish
authentic traditions of liturgical music that can be passed from
generation to generation.
are two reasons why this has not happened very often in parishes
since the Second Vatican Council. First, people generally do not
share the most basic assumptions about liturgical music. Indeed,
ideas about it are all over the map. This causes strife in parishes.
If one parishioner believes that the purpose of music at mass is to
make people feel uplifted while another believes that it should
mainly praise God, one cannot expect any agreement about particular
choices. The argument quickly devolves into battles over taste“I
like . . .,” “I don’t like . . .”without the
interlocutors ever realizing what the real disagreement is, or, if
they do realize it, without having any idea of how to bridge that
gap. Sacred Treasure bridges the gap.
second reason is that discussions about liturgical music have been
entirely theological and have never dealt with the hard facts of
music. This oversight leads all too easily to asking music to do
what it by nature cannot, or failing to exploit what it can. Those
errors can be disastrous. “Were church buildings designed
according to liturgical principles alone, no one would dare
enter them” (p. 15). Musical materials, like building materials,
have characteristics that must be respected if they are do to their
job. Sacred Treasure tells people the basics of what they
need to know about the hard facts of liturgical music.
What do you mean when you write of a "theory of
liturgical music"? Why is that needed?
Swain: There is no shortage of ideas, principles, and
microtheories of liturgical music floating out there in parishes.
But too often they conflict and contradict one another. Which ones
should we trust? We need to know which ones are fundamental, always
true, which ones are more sensitive to the situation at hand, what is
essential, what is nice to have. We need order and priority among
the many ideas about liturgical music. That order is a theory of
liturgical music .
There has been a tremendous amount of confusion about what the Second
Vatican Council said about liturgy and liturgical music. Why so? And
how revolutionary, really, was Sacrosanctum Concilium
regarding liturgical music?
Swain: There is no way to rid oneself of the many misconceptions
and myths other than to read the liturgical document, Sacrosanctum
Concilium in its entirety. It is quite a subtle document.
Here’s how it can be subtle about music, in its sixth chapter.
one hand, Sacrosanctum Concilium confirms the primacy of
Gregorian chant, the utility of church choirs, and the pipe organ as
the best instrument for liturgical music. On the other hand it
provides that, “other things being equal,” other kinds of music
may be employed. The entire constitution promotes “active
participation” of the laity in twelve different passages, so there
is no doubt that the Council wanted it, but what exactly constitutes
that participation must be gleaned from careful reading of the
particular contexts where that expression appears.
it is at once a conservative document and one that approved
innovations in liturgical music. If what happened to liturgy after
1965 seems revolutionary, that is because many experiments were
promoted in great haste, without due reflection. Most of these
conformed not to the principal clauses of the constitution but to the
Following the Council, the use of folk music in Mass became
widespread very quickly. What were some reasons for that sudden
change? And why do you insist that folk music is not able "to
survive congregational singing"? Are you being snobbish and
old-fashioned, or are there other issues involved in that
Swain: The rage for so-called folk music in the late 1960s and
1970s was caused by a coincidence. The pop style known as the “folk
music revival” of Bob Dylan and his disciples, taken to be an
anti-commercial, anti-status quo, purely felt kind of music, was at
the peak of its popularity. At the same time, liturgical reformers
who, for various reasons, wished to ignore the Council’s directive
to promote Gregorian chant looked for an alternative. The
folk-revival style seemed made to order.
folk revival music and its later derivatives can never work as true
congregational music is a good example of how the hard facts of music
matter. The hard fact is that the folk revival is a style that takes
the solo singer as its premise and cannot do well in any other
arrangement. The technical reasons for this truth are explained in
Sacred Treasure. Trying to transfer such a style to a large
group (e.g. congregation) is like trying to fly a car simply by
driving faster. There is an intrinsic technical barrier to both.
The results of trying to do the impossible are clearly seen in the
constantly changing song repertories in parishes of the last five
decades. One fad succeeds another, nothing is retained. There is no
tradition, just a revolving door, like the Top 40.
"Music and democracy," you write, "do not get
along well." How so? And what challenges does the
democratization of liturgy pose for sacred music?
Swain: As Americans we like to believe that democracy is always
the best solution for every political group or task, but such is
certainly not the case. Think of a football team or a hospital
administration. They are not democracies because one requires too
many decisions to coordinate in too little time, and the other
requires great expertise owned by a few. The same is true of musical
organizations larger than four people. A church choir, to work to
its potential, cannot be a democracy. The director, like Aristotle’s
king, decides what is good for the whole, and the singers give up
their individual musical preferences, also for the good of the whole.
chief harm inflicted upon modern liturgical music by the
democratization of liturgy is the promotion of the untrained at the
expense of the trained musician. Everyone’s opinion of the music
counts equally, regardless of qualifications. The situation is as
if, when a new church were being built, professional architects,
contractors, and tradesmen were sent away while any parishioner who
wished to pitch in showed up to build it. Of course, professional
liturgical musicians want and need the participation of lay singers
and players, but the professionals’ proper role in the direction,
like that of a quarterback, must be acknowledged if you wish to
What are some of the basic criteria for liturgical music?
What makes certain music "liturgical" in character?
Swain: The theory of Sacred Treasure concludes with a
description of what parishes need to consider when building authentic
traditions of liturgical music, traditions that can last “from
generation to generation.” The description provides three criteria
essential for every piece of liturgical music: 1) it must be sacred,
that is, it must have a sacred semantic; 2) it must be beautiful in
its intrinsic musical qualities, “true art,” in the words of
Sacrosanctum concilium; 3) it must provide for active
participation of the congregation. These are the things that last.
makes music “liturgical” in character (first of the three
criteria above) is the vexed question that has been debated for
centuries. Sacred Treasure has a theory of the matter in
Chapter 12, “The Semantics of Sacred Music,” which takes some
pages to explain, but the heart of the matter is this: music sounds
sacred when it owns, among its hearers, a deep association
with sacred things and at the same time a distinction from
other kinds of music heard in the secular world.
You pose the question, "Must the liturgy be beautiful?"
How do you think most Catholics would answer that question? And in
what way is liturgical music "beautiful"? Why is it
important and necessary?
Swain: I can only guess at the response of most Catholics: most
would agree that the liturgy should be beautiful, but of course there
would be substantial disagreement, owing to the common natural
diversity of taste among all people, about the particulars of the
liturgy which songs, for examplethat actually are beautiful.
qualities that make any musical masterpiece apply also to liturgical
music, but because it must work in the liturgy, the category of
“beautiful liturgical music” is far smaller than “beautiful
music.” I like to say: “great music is not necessarily great
liturgical music.” St. Pius X is supposed to have said: “I love
Verdi [the opera composer], but not in church.”
to why the absolute beauty of the music is necessary, there are two
reasons. First, as history has shown time and again, we tire quickly
of music that is not first class. That is the root cause of the
revolving door of songs that parishes have suffered in the past five
decades. Mediocre music will never found a healthy tradition.
Second, a simple truth: in the liturgy that he has given to us, we
owe to God the best we have.
Three of the concluding chapters focus on "eternal
conflicts" within liturgical music. What are those conflicts,
and how can they best be addressed?
Swain: “Eternal conflict” is my way, perhaps overdramatic, of
expressing our inevitable situation, that we live in an imperfect
world where local circumstances and legitimate but contrary values
will often, if not always, prevent us from achieving the ideal
liturgical music. Still, we continue to reach for it.
first is the conflict between creativity and tradition. The Catholic
Church owns the greatest musical tradition of any institution or
nation on earth. What are composers to do in the face of this? Do
we need another “Lord, Have Mercy”? The short answer is that, as
the constitution states, we will always need new music to meet the
spiritual needs of a changing world. Such composers must find the
training that allows them to connect deeply with the tradition while
creating something new. This is not a radical idea. It has been
done since the dawn of Christian music.
second conflict is that of inculturating liturgical music.
Catholicism has always tried to accommodate the cultural habits of
peoples new to the faith (see Acts 15) as long as the central truths
remain undisturbed. The competing values in this conflict are, one
the one hand, the legitimate cultural values of any indigenous
people, including its music and, on the other hand, catholicity, the
value of a liturgy that in its essence is the same through all the
world, a symbol of the unity of faith.
third conflict is that of active participation in liturgical music by
all the people and the needs and prerogatives of the professional
church musician. Both these values are supported by Sacrosanctum
concilium. Much of the solution, always a partial solution, to
this conflict depends upon a proper understanding of what the Council
meant by participatio actuosa. Sacred Treasure
analyzes this term at length.
can they best be addressed?” First, by recognizing that they are
in fact eternal in the sense that there will never be a formula for
resolving them for all times and places, and that therefore solutions
are partial and temporary, to be altered when the situation changes.
Second, by recognizing that there is goodness and value on both sides
of the conflict. A little charity can make things a lot better.
Third, therefore, by seeking not a total victory of one value over
the other, but rather a prudential balance. A healthy tradition is
never written in stone; on the contrary, it is a living thing, like a
tree, growing without changing its fundamental trunk and roots.