Cardinal Sarah on Syncopation

Now here’s an interesting connection between a medieval papal decree on music and a recent statement of Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

In the Liturgical Music Seminar I teach to our graduate liturgical music students, we recently studied the famous 14th-century decree of Pope John XXII, Docta sanctorum . It condemned the ars nova (“new art”) and cutting-edge musical techniques of sacred music composers. Wild stuff – using chords with intervals of 3rds and 6ths. John XXII thought they should stay with the “consonant” intervals such as 4ths and 5ths and octaves. And their rhythms – if you can imagine, they were using short notes and triplets.

Everyone ignored the papal decree. Thank heavens. We never would have gotten to Palestrina and Byrd and Victoria (or Mozart and Bruckner and Messiaen) if composers had obeyed the pope’s misguided mandate.

Here’s some ars nova (click to hear) for you, courtesy of Machaut.

I had Docta sanctorum  in mind when I came across this news report. Cardinal Robert Sarah recently delivered a message to the Association Pro Liturgia, “From the Silence of the Soul United with Christ, to the Silence of God in His Glory.” Here’s what he said about rhythm:

It is clear that the syncopated rhythm—which consists of starting a note on the weak beat of a measure or on the weak part of a beat and continuing it on the strong beat of the following measure or on the strong part of the following beat—so typical of contemporary music, especially of commercial music, ever since the appearance of jazz, is little suited to meditation that leads from silence to adoration of the living God. Someone who does not perceive this is likely already tainted by this blindness and deafness that are a result of our immersion in a profane and secularized world, without God and without faith, saturated with noise, agitation, and barely-contained fury. Therefore, musical rhythm tends to disclose an undeniable reality: the presence or absence of contemplation. In other words, it is symptomatic of the manner in which liturgical singing flows or does not flow from silence and prayer.

I think my favorite example of sacred music “starting a note on the weak beat of a measure … and continuing it on … the strong part of the following beat” – what Cardinal Sarah objects to – is probably this 1937 Sanctus (click to hear it) by Francois Poulenc. X marks the spot where the “strong part of the following beat” falls.

Or there is the lovely 16th century carol “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.” In the Praetorius setting that’s been in use since 1609, the bass movement makes it a pretty clear instance of syncopation.

If your theory of sacred music would banish Poulenc and Praetorius from the liturgy, something’s probably gone wrong.

I get it that Cardinal Sarah wants the liturgy and its music to be more worthy, more spiritual. So do I. But I think there is a better way to go about it.

It doesn’t quite work to start with intrinsic qualities of music. One needs a broad foundation, and it needs to be theological. And the theology in this case needs to be functional. And “functional” shouldn’t be a red flag – it doesn’t need to mean less artistic or less holy or less anything. “Functional” simply means that the music functions in accord with the purpose of the liturgy. It means that the music functions to draw people into the paschal mystery made present in the liturgy.

In place of an agenda such as the cardinal’s, which pits holy silence against the evils of the modern world and the people who live in it, and then attempts to draw a musical conclusion apparently valid universally across cultures, one needs a comprehensive reading of all the relevant official documents of liturgical reform. Plenty of trivial, merely entertaining music will not measure up – but for more pertinent reasons.

In evaluating liturgical music, the right kind of questions to ask are not aesthetic-spiritual. They are more properly evangelical, ecclesiological, and missiological. In practical terms, this means asking what kind of music draws people into the rite, empowers them to be agents of the rite, forms them into the Body of Christ, draws them into Christ’s self-gift, empowers them to give their lives for the sake of the world.

Hint: your answers will vary depending upon your cultural context.





  1. It is sad, sad, sad to hear an African, of all people, say such a thing. Why is this person still in an office providing liturgical guidance to the universal Catholic Church still escapes me. It’s utterly ridiculous and curiously ironic that Sarah would rule out the musical heritages of sub Saharan Africa, African America as “little suited to meditation that leads from silence to adoration of the living God.” Wholesale, and without equivocation. This kind of cultural imperialism assumes that contemplation of the living God didn’t really exist pre westernized Christianization of west Africa, let alone in the indigenous Christianities of Egypt, Ethiopia and perhaps the Kongo. Or certainly not in the post colonial period or among Africans in the Americas. To say this is insulting is too obvious. Black self hatred is a sad, sad thing.

    1. Is he actually saying that the musical heritages of sub Saharan Africa and African America are “little suited to meditation that leads from silence to adoration of the living God,” though? His quote specifically mentions modern commercial music written since the invention of Jazz. While I suppose one could draw this conclusion by lumping all syncopated music together, I’m not sure I would.

      I feel like this PrayTell piece quickly jumps to conclusions so as to roundly declare Sarah “wrong.” However, my favorite quote from AWR’s piece would have to be “If your theory of sacred music would banish Poulenc and Praetorius from the liturgy, something’s probably gone wrong.” I’ll have to remember that one next time anyone suggests a choral sanctus in Latin is opposed to the active participation of the reformed liturgy.

      1. Two different issues here.

        To ban Poulenc because its syncopation is inappropriate for the liturgy is one thing. To ban it because it does not allow for active, sung participation in a part of the liturgy calling for it is another.

        The cardinal’s argument is that music is inappropriate for the liturgy if it’s syncopated. That’s the topic of this post.


      2. Then you should amend your piece to be more specific, as I do not think one can read that statement any other way, even within the broader context of the piece. Your words as they currently stand would apply to any theory of liturgical music that would exclude Poulenc.

        Thanks for the clarification, though.

        I also wanted to add, that you did not address the Cardinal’s specific mention of syncopation as used in commercial music. Is the use of syncopation by Poulenc different than that used in popular music, or is it largely the same as you suggest? I honestly am not knowledgeable about it.

  2. Here’s an example from the immediate post-Tridentine generation:“Ab Oriente Venerunt Magi” by Jacob Gallus (aka Jacob Handl). It’s starts with musical mystery, and ends in musical splendor. The concluding alleluia section has a certain syncopated rhythmic splendor (I cannot think offhand of any alleluia from the period quite like it in that regard), perhaps easier to hear in this vocal quartet at the 1:30 mark:

  3. Perhaps you misunderstood his quote above? He states the syncopated rhythm is not conducive to meditation and silence which leads to adoration of God. I suggest that this statement is in fact true. There is a place for the syncopated rhythm – in praise and worship where it lends itself well to inducing awe and from there adoration. In Cardinal Sarah’s view liturgy should be more about silence and contemplation leading to adoration. How often have I wished for this, especially after receiving Jesus in the Eucharist…..

    1. The cardinal does not make the distinction you do, and I do not see where he affirms syncopation as you do.

    1. At the risk of perhaps justified accusations of pedantry (not to mention of missing the point of the post…)

      Bear in mind that rhythm, meter, and the bar line as we know it didn’t really come into play in music notation until the seventeenth century or so, so that which to our ears might sound like “syncopation” in some earlier music (Palestrina, Byrd, Gallus, Praetorius, etc all mentioned in this post) would not have been perceived as such in the same way in their own time.

      (An argument could be made for what’s going on in a lot of Poulenc as well, that he is shifting stress within bars rather than strictly syncopating–which would entirely change the way one would perform the music–but that’s one to argue about over a bottle of Bordeaux late into the night and emerge with no one satisfied and no mind changed.;-) )

      All of which both bypasses and in a way illustrates the point: that perception of a certain kind of sound or musical technique, as AWR mentions in his original post, owes much to the culture, time, and context not just of the composer but also the hearer.

      (Mozart on the other hand……)

  4. I agree with Anthony — Card. Sarah’s criterion would rule out a lot more than Poulenc. Do we also start excising works of Bach, Mozart, Handel from liturgical use?

    But in my view the deeply problematic sentence in his address is this one:

    Someone who does not perceive this is likely already tainted by this blindness and deafness that are a result of our immersion in a profane and secularized world, without God and without faith, saturated with noise, agitation, and barely-contained fury.

    A self-sealing statement like this has all sorts of parallels:

    Someone who does not perceive this…

    … has unresolved Oedipal conflicts [Freudian]

    … suffers from the false class consciousness of the bourgeoisie [Marxist]

    … has been deceived by the Catholic Church, agent of Satan [Jack Chick].

  5. Attempts like this often strike me as “a bit of knowledge in the wrong hands” – as it plays out when theologians get hold of a technical musical term and attempt to use it to give an objective definition of what makes music unsuitable. There is a desire, especially in more traditional circles, for a black-and-white definition of suitable and unsuitable music. “Technical analysis” and terms are a tempting route to this goal (for a more scholarly, but still not convincing example IMO, see Joseph P. Swain – “Sacred Treasure”). The problem is, any particular musical element that you zero in on and define as bad can immediately be countered by many examples from the repertoire of “good music.”

    Interestingly, in some of those same traditional circles hymnody would be frowned on because it is TOO regular in its beat, when compared to the example of chant with its lack of meter. And we come full circle when a composer like Durufle makes constant use of syncopation and hemiola to disrupt and obscure a sense of regular beat. Why? In large part to give a more faithful evocation of the unmetered spirit of chant.

    In Sarah’s defense, though, there is a difference between syncopation as rhythmic elaboration (it is what we would call “rhythmic dissonance” in theory contexts) and syncopation as the primary and foundational characteristic of a piece of music. Sarah, although he does not make this distinction clear, is likely denigrating music that is primarily characterized by syncopation, with its rhythmic focus and drive.
    A perhaps more valuable point that could be made is that it is difficult for groups to sing syncopated music together – whether choirs or congregations. Syncopation is more sophisticated rhythmically than singing on the beat.
    Both of these last points might be a more fruitful starting point for discussion.

    1. Jared Ostermann states: “Sarah, although he does not make this distinction clear, is likely denigrating music that is primarily characterized by syncopation, with its rhythmic focus and drive.”

      While he doesn’t spell it out, I took that as the more obvious meaning of what he said. Most of the reactions here, including that of the original article, seem to stem from wanting to read Sarah in the most uncharitable way possible.

    2. Jared, I like what you are saying here.

      I imagine Cardinal Sarah is talking about music in which constant syncopation becomes a defining feature, as it is in a good deal of secular music (with rock being the most obvious example). This indeed is distracting, as it is very physical and emotionally exciting — it does not, in fact, conduce to reflection and meditation. The great composers tend to use syncopation as a “flavoring,” not as a staple.

  6. To elaborate on my earlier comment (and drawing on that venerable scholarly resource Wikipedia because I’m pressed for time):

    “The defining characteristic of ragtime music is a specific type of syncopation in which melodic accents occur between metrical beats. This results in a melody that seems to be avoiding some metrical beats of the accompaniment by emphasizing notes that either anticipate or follow the beat (“a rhythmic base of metric affirmation, and a melody of metric denial”). The ultimate (and intended) effect on the listener is actually to accentuate the beat, thereby inducing the listener to move to the music. Scott Joplin, the composer/pianist known as the “King of Ragtime”, called the effect “weird and intoxicating.””

    With this perspective in mind, and considering the development of interrelated (especially American) traditions (ragtime – jazz – swing – blues), it’s possible to see how one could have an informed conversation about the suitability of syncopation in liturgy. But the issue in discussion would not be syncopation itself, but rather the specific compositional use of it and the suitability of the intersection between liturgy and certain predominantly syncopated musical traditions. Unfortunately, the way in which Sarah mentions these matters is more likely to provoke a dismissal of the whole topic as silly.

  7. Indeed.

    (Image coming to mind of congregational efforts at clapping during Catholic liturgical music, as it were, with different sensibilities about what beat or off-beat is best, and whether rubato is shunned or embraced….)

  8. AWR: “In evaluating liturgical music, the right kind of questions to ask are not aesthetic-spiritual. They are more properly evangelical, ecclesiological, and missiological. In practical terms, this means asking what kind of music draws people into the rite, empowers them to be agents of the rite, forms them into the Body of Christ, draws them into Christ’s self-gift, empowers them to give their lives for the sake of the world.”

    I would never claim to have your level of expertise in the field, but I find your first sentence in the above quote rather astonishing. In talking about music, we shouldn’t question the aesthetic components of a piece? In evaluating liturgical items, we shouldn’t consider their spirituality? I’m left scratching my head. All the fine arts deal with aesthetics–you could say that it’s part of their “job”. How can we discuss a painting or a poem or a song without at some point talking about this? In the same way, how are liturgy and spirituality not linked together? To an average layman like myself, your statement is very confusing and seems inherently contradictory.

    Your follow-up statements in that paragraph feel strangely utilitarian in this context, as though we’re a business, evaluating our productivity standards. I can’t help thinking that the essence of those sentences could be boiled down to “Get them in, keep them there, and get them to come back.” While that is certainly part of what evangelizing can do, focusing on that, specifically to the detriment of aesthetics and spirituality, sounds too commercial to my ear.

    Do I agree with everything Cardinal Sarah said (and has said)? Nope. At the same time, your closing statements give me as much pause as the Cardinal’s statements do. While they express some points with which I would agree in a different context, juxtaposing them next to your “aesthetic-spiritual” comment sets the two thoughts at odds with one another. In my humble opinion, that action feels unnecessary and even undesirable.

    1. To defend Fr Anthony’s critique here, I’d say that sacred music has a purpose other than “art for art’s sake.” The primary considerations are indeed the proclamation of the Gospel and its lived experience in the context of lay people in the world: seekers, believers, disciples, etc. and how to keep people moving along that pilgrimage.

      When the beauty and spirituality of music moves people (not physically, but closer to Christ) then it has achieved the purpose of liturgy. Otherwise any pretty song would do.

      Speaking to the post, I find Cd Sarah’s statement disappointing but not really surprising. The curia has not been particularly known for its competence as of late. I wonder how he would react to Matt Maher’s musical setting of his episcopal motto.

      1. @Todd and AWR:

        Oh, don’t get me wrong. I understand the “art for art’s sake” statement and I agree that sacred music has additional (key word) goals beyond pure beauty and pure spirituality. I didn’t intend to swerve that far. However, AWR’s last paragraph seemed to me to be taking the opposite approach–aesthetics and spirituality are not material considerations–which appeared a bit extreme and a strange comment. There should be room for both approaches.

        Also, I have been bumping into quite a few people who are taking an increasingly utilitarian view of Mass, liturgy, music, and church life in general, which is disturbing to me. It’s almost an “end justifies the means” line of thinking, thinly veiled with a religious veneer. I’m not accusing anyone here of that, but it worries me that similar themes keep coming up in conversation, so I’m beginning to listen a bit more keenly when people speak about these topics.

      2. Context is key. When music directors like you, me, and AWR are talking, I think we have a presumption of beauty, spirituality, and quality in music. Likewise Catholicity. Sometimes when I hear protests against these lines, it reminds me of various skirmishes in the liturgywars suggesting that if you’re not doing plainchant and polyphony you’re not Catholic. Or, in another setting, if you haven’t professed Christ as personal Lord and Savior in an evangelical way, you’re not even a Christian.

        My additional concern with non-evangelical music is that it tends to navel-gazing country clubbers who have the inside track to salvation, to the exclusion of the unwashed, uneducated. That is a flaw across the ideological spectrum

        That said, none of Fr Anthony’s stated priorities excise beauty from the liturgy. But for some music directors, they may have more work to do in terms of developing repertoire.

  9. Has Cdl Sarah ever been to the renowned Benedictine Abbaye Keur Moussa, outside of Dakar? Or come across their music? The monks there for more than half a century have brilliantly blended indigenous music, French hymnody, and Gregorian chant into a unique and, dare I say, meditative and edifying, form of liturgical music.

    Comments like this from the head of the world’s liturgy office are insulting generalizations that succeed in reducing to irrelevance that office while also doing great disservice to people who authentically seek to praise God on weak and strong beats, with all the instruments and voicings God inspires.

    Keur Moussa and the nation of Senegal are worth a trip! I was there in 2007 and returned in 2014. Who’s going with me in 2021? 😉

  10. You all are can go on and on trying to nuance the statement and offer many, many examples of European musics that use syncopation. But, the fact is that Sarah is of African descent, born and raised in Guinea. I have never really heard ANY African music that wasn’t syncopated and complex rhythmically. He is fundamentally rejecting his own cultural and religious patrimony, saying that his own people were incapable of communioning with the living God. This is crazy and antithetical to any decent theology of culture. As if his parents and their parents, Animists according to Wikipedia, could not pray.

    This is the fundamental problem with the cultural imperialism that’s inherent in this kind of perspective on Catholic litutrgal theology. It idolizes western cultural form.

    People of African decent do not need Western justification and example to vailidate our religious genius. It stands on its own two feet. Among those of us who came to America, enslaved, we developed a distinctly African and American religious tradition that fundamentally depends on syncopation and complex rhythm. And our tradition has been so influential that it has permeated every aspect of worldwide popular culture. All from the wails and prayers of enslaved Africans. Cardinal Sarah’s ideas are a rejection of all that, in Guinea, in all of Africa, in the Americas. To entertain him is to entertain the idea that Africans pre-Christianity were savages, dumb, and unsophisticated, incapable of knowing God in a truly transcendent, human way.

    Black self hatred.

  11. I’d put this alongside whichever US bishop said that all the “feminine” arpeggios in the left hand of much “contemporary” (1980s/1990s commercial – sometimes known as “lounge” style – Catholic) music were the reason for all the gays in the seminaries.

    But this does make me remember the joke about the guy who came home drunk & told his wife he was suffering from syncopation. She went to the dictionary: “Irregular movement from bar to bar.”

      1. It does remind me of certain days in the choral trenches with a sometime accompanist who would offer rushing 16th/32nd note scales/arpeggiations under/over the park-and-bark sustained choral bleats of “One Bed, Two Bodies”, as it were. The feature of contemporary liturgical music that favored the park-and-bark sustained choral bleats while the instrumentalists strut their stuff never did not tend to serve ensemble music ministry well, without intentionally parodying Michael Fox’s parody of the ending of Johnny B Goode in Back To The Future….

  12. Not all syncopation is created equally. When I first read the Cardinal Sarah’s words, my brain went straight to Vicki Sue Robinson’s old disco hit “Turn The Beat Around.”

    “And when the drummer starts beating that beat
    He nails that beat with the syncopated rhythm…”

    It’s great for many things, but meditating or reflection isn’t one of them. The song’s purpose is to spur movement. Music designed to make your dance or tap your feet isn’t good for quiet meditation, and that shouldn’t be a controversial observation. It’s not made for that purpose. Other songs clearly are. For example, it’s Advent. What’s a classic post-communion hymn in Advent? “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” I have no idea whether Picardy has syncopation in it, but it’s pretty clear the tune wasn’t designed to give you the wiggles.

    So, rather than playing “Ha, ha. Look at the silly Cardinal,” I think we can find common ground and agree that Coltrane or bossa nova probably isn’t the right feel for Mass, especially during moments conducive to silent reflection.

  13. Reading this I was reminded of something in Gregory Dix’s ‘Shape of the Liturgy’ about someone in the Anglican Church of South Africa remarking that ‘in our church we are governed by Synod and not by the whims of elderly eccentrics.’

    Not that I would wish to describe His Eminence thus, of course …

    I too love ‘There is no rose …’


  14. I tend to agree with Jared. My first reaction upon reading Cardinal Sarah’s piece was that it was an interesting premise, but that he should have had it vetted by a music theorist and musicologist. He seems to be identifying syncopation with jazz, and I think there’s no doubt that the kind of tribal rhythms present in early jazz were meant to be provocative. Still, it’s hard to pinpoint the rhythm as to why the music would be inappropriate – we also have its association with the seedier culture of New Orleans, for instance. Even then, one has to ask – as jazz has lost its association with that culture and entered the concert hall as serious art music, can it be made appropriate? I’d say the short answer is yes; the long answer is it’s complicated. Still – the nature of syncopation is to disrupt the regular steady pattern; that’s pretty much the point. That leads to a larger question – is it appropriate for the music in the Mass to be disruptive? Sarah seems to assume that it should’t be, but that could be challenged. This is the problem with making sweeping judgments. When the Church was making pronouncements on what kind of music was appropriate, and what instruments should be playing, there were inevitably flaws in logic. Now that we are in a time when many kinds of music can be appropriate if they can be made suitable for divine worship, somebody has to make a judgment – it’s just not the Church anymore. That system has its flaws as well, because it’s not firmly established as to who should be making those judgments. I think Cardinal Sarah is on to something, but his thesis could use some refinement.

  15. Everyone, no matter how exalted needs a trusted friend to hold them back when they are in danger of looking silly because they have exceeded their competence.

  16. Setting aside the issue of syncopation, I am troubled by the reification of “silence” as the alpha and omega of prayer; this is supported neither by experience nor scripture.

    1. Just as the usual justification for diminishing the activity of the laity in the liturgy is “reverence.” Yet one of the core themes of the Last Supper Discourse is that we are no longer servants/slaves but friends.

  17. Instead of playing in a garden in which he obviously knows little, his eminence might have simply said, “I don’t find strongly rhythmic jazz- pop-style music at Mass appropriate”.

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