What Does Church Music Have To Do With My Life? Music and the New Evangelization

Here, published with permission, is my plenum talk from the recent Notre Dame liturgy symposium on liturgy and the new evangelization: “What Does Church Music Have To Do With My Life? Music and the New Evangelization.”

I spoke from an outline and ended up going over time, and so at the end I left off my conclusion and simply stopped. Alas, this meant I wasn’t able to pull together into a comprehensive vision the various pieces I had put out.


  1. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would appreciate the conclusion – even an abbreviated version, words only and (gasp) sans powerpoint slides – posted here at PrayTell!

  2. Agree. One hour and 17 minutes is too much when one is preparing for NPM, Universa Laus, and much else. Please, Anthony, give us a PDF!

  3. Fr. Anthony, I think your lecture could be the outline of a conference in itself! A couple of thoughts provoked therein:

    1. You entertained a question about Olivier Messiaen. You are right, of course, that Messiaen and most of his contemporaries did not enthusiastically embrace the liturgical reforms. He nevertheless continued to develop his art in the service of the liturgy, as have other Parisian organists, through improvisation tailored to local ceremonial needs (and in the case of Notre-Dame-de-Paris, even continuing the tradition of the organ as a discrete “voice” in the liturgy in the “resonance of the Word of God” after the Homily).

    Messiaen certainly was in a sense avant-garde, but his musical language can be traced at least back to Debussy, resonates in the improvisational art of countless liturgical musicians who MAKE music for the liturgical occasion, helping to “constitute the cult”–I might add in modern musical languages subliminally familiar to the masses through film scores. Perhaps the inestimably valuable Thesaurus is as much the “art of the making” as it is a collection of specific artifacts.

    2. You said that you would like to see more engagement of the liturgy with both high art culture and pop culture. From my current “sitz im leben,” I see evidence all around me of the interface of liturgy with expressions and modalities associated with pop music (soloists and ensembles with names, projected personas, and followers, aiming at high “production” standards associated with the recording arts, and utterly dependent on electronic mediation). To this we might add culturally conditioned expectations of aural delivery of the spoken word through what Erik Routley called the “factitious intimacy” of the microphone. Do these modalities enhance or undermine the characteristics of the liturgical rites that you suggest are potent with meaning? I’m thinking of the spatial, tangible, and aural dimensions of ritual relationships between all members of the liturgical assembly.

    1. @Kevin Vogt:

      Messiaen referred to the grand orgue (distinguished thus because there’s another at the other end of the church) of La Trinité as his laboratory, thus providing another sense in which the liturgy was the fons et origo of his art. I’m a great admirer of several of the current improvisors in Parisian churches, where great ingenuity is on display. I have to admit that I am disturbed, however, by the fact that the great preponderance of what I’ve heard, both live and abundantly online, is of the nervous excitable (not to mention ultra-loud) varieties. Not that there isn’t a place for all that, but the balance of serene musical interactions that characterize much of the liturgy’s spirit (not to mention what is often cited as the very basic quality of French musical art historically) is all too often missing.

      Nadia Boulanger, who of course was not only a major colleague of Messiaen but also a parishioner of La Trinité, told a friend of mine that she avoided the main Mass at which the master’s latest discoveries and experiments were on display (however sincerely and piously meant). She said that it reminded her as an aural simile of her experience of World War II (understandably not a happy memory). She said that, at the earlier Mass that she frequented, he improvised beautifully in a 17th-century style on the choir organ down front. I see her point, having made a point of attending that early Mass a few years ago. The woman who played (who was not the titular) did everything, it seemed to me, that a sensitive musician could do to collaborate with the liturgy. It happens that I’ve heard several young musicians improvise equally happily on the choir organ at Notre Dame for daily Vespers and Mass. But the famous performances of much-admired (and admirable) virtuosos on the grand orgue are mostly of a very different sort.

      1. @Roger Evans:
        Thank you for your fascinating comments, which indeed illustrate how a “Balthasarian” appreciation of some ideal may result in the perception of the tail wagging the dog. The liturgical experience of no less a musical artist than Nadia Boulanger seems unimpeachable…but I suppose from a “Rahnerian” starting point no one’s experience is irrelevant.

      2. @Kevin Vogt:
        If in a “Rahnerian” starting point, no one’s experience is irrelevant, is that a potential flaw of a Rahnerian starting point? My reasoning is this: because no community is homogeneous, it would be impossible to relate to every person who is in the Mass. Consider the fact that we must always strive to reach out to those who are NOT part of the community, and that adds another layer. Attempts to reach the people often reach the majority of the people, but not everybody. We can infer from reading the Gospels that we should really be paying attention to the minority, not the majority. If there are 99 people who love a certain thing, and 1 loves something completely different, is that 1 person wrong? Of course not. So why should the the liturgy reach the 99 but not the 1? Given that, is it better to at least start with a more Balthasarian stance and then temper it? Anthony’s lecture gave me more clarity about what it is I am trying to do in my teaching. At the outset, I make a judgment, not based on what I think will appeal to people, but what I judge universally good and beautiful. That very idea that there are standards by which to judge music would be Balthasarian, no? If something is universally good, then the matter of how many it speaks to is irrelevant. But then I consider it my duty as a teacher to open up that music, to allow people to discover the inherent joy and depth of the music. That is experiential, Rahnerian, yes? The younger the people are, the more Balthasarian I can be, because they have few preconceived notions. Then they have a deeply personal connection (I hope, anyway) with it, and the music is not distant and incomprehensible. Of course, that does not mean that everybody in the community is yet ready to receive it in a Rahnerian sense, but in my mind, if those people are catered to, they are blocking the children from achieving their full potential. From my experience at the Madeleine Choir School, I would say that most in the community do not…

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