The Excellence of the Mass

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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 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 in 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—i.e., 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—who we may assume is not honored, praised, nor pleased by shoddy work, whether in the choir loft or from the ambo. (Catholics who condemn pleasure taken in this sense as “enjoyment” need to define the term, which certainly describes the sensations experienced by devotés of chant.) Excellence in execution (why should anyone call it “performance”?) should not be reflexively conflated, in church or elsewhere, with “showing off.”

Doubtless many Church musicians (like everyone else with a prominent role to play at Mass) do enjoy the attention they inevitably draw. That is only human nature. But we ought not to confuse the motive with the action itself. God must judge in the first case, and the Massgoers in the second. Is it axiomatic that a singer’s or instrumentalist’s primary motive is self-exhibition? If so, we should assume further that a painter paints a canvas, a sculptor sculpts a statue, a composer writes a score, and a novelist writes a novel from the same cheap motive. To approach the artist and the art this way suggests a profound ignorance of the nature of the creative impulse and of artistic motivation.

The misconception of the artist as an attention-seeking show-off was not as prevalent before the twentieth century as it has since become when the chances of artistic success, and its rewards, were immeasurably increased by mass society, mass communications, popular culture, and the enormous fees and royalties these make possible. Even today, whoever devotes a career to music, the plastic arts, or literature is taking a vow of poverty, or at least risking it. The legendary artistic ego is as much a necessary psychological propellant and a source of psychic and emotional strength as it is of personal vanity. To succeed in the arts, one must believe in oneself and one’s abilities absolutely. No artist who lacks that belief stands a chance of accomplishing anything or getting anywhere.

The notion that “performance” before an audience of any sort is a lascivious indulgence in the vulgar pleasure of sheer self-display, or simply an act of the ego, is not held by the “performers” themselves. Having sung, or played, or danced, or acted well in a public forum gives great satisfaction—and also a huge relief since every performance carries the risk of disaster. The writer who writes a bad paragraph strikes it out (nowadays, he deletes it) and rewrites it, no one the wiser for his error. The performer who has a train wreck can only put his head down, metaphorically, and bull ahead, sometimes to jeers, boos, and flung programs. The greatest musical artist makes mistakes—almost always in unexpected places—and he is always conscious that possible disaster lurks in the wings. Many an operatic soprano has had to be literally pushed onstage to begin her scene. No musician is so confident of himself as to be immune to stage fright, and I’m willing to bet that the large majority of performers have awakened on performance day with feelings of trepidation, unwillingness, a strange neurotic lassitude, and even dread.

A former teacher of mine who had had a major career singing in the great German opera houses in the 1950s and ’60s once told me that, for her, practice at home suddenly became a performance when someone passed by on the street outside. “Performers,” like everyone else, take plenty of satisfaction from work well done, but their satisfaction is also balanced by their deliberate temerity in regular self-exposure. Someone who has never suffered disaster in performance cannot quite imagine the devastating horror of it. A first-class classical guitarist I know came in two measures early in a performance of Rodrigo’s “Concerto de Aranjuez” and was months getting over the shame and humiliation of it. Whether you’re an international star or a humble cantor at Mass, the emotional risks are the same.

We live in hyper-democratic times and in a hyper-democratic era, and I suppose that a good part of the prejudice one finds in the modern Church against single musicians at Mass is rooted in distrust of anyone who stands out as being “different,” meaning, in too many cases, “superior.” (A priest in Denver once told me that he couldn’t put his choir into choir robes because the singers wanted to be “the same” as the congregation. Apparently so does the large majority of Sunday Mass attendants in their dressed-down attire.) However, the faithful are not all “the same,” as St. Paul taught by his comparison of the members of the Body of Christ in their “diversity” of form and function with the bodily human organs. The liver does one thing, the spleen another, and the brain something else. The Church’s members have each their own virtues, their talents, and their abilities—all of them needed or welcome in the celebration of the Mass, which is at once a memorial and a reenactment of the Crucifixion, in giving the greatest possible glory and honor to God to the best of everyone’s ability.

In doing this we need to bear in mind that God is the sublime Poet and consummate Artist who created the material with which human artists, in his image, work. Self-conscious and even deliberate mediocrity cannot be pleasing to him; nor can we be assured that he altogether excuses the “good intentions” behind the shoddiness. If he doesn’t appreciate the best music best rendered in his name, who can?

Among my daily prayers is a petition to God that when singing anywhere, but at Mass especially, I am singing his praise and not my own. I can only keep praying, and hoping, that my prayer is heard.

Editor’s note: Picture above is “Three Singers” painted by Adam de Coster between 1607 and 1643.


Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior contributor at Crisis. He is the former editor of Chronicles magazine, and his column "Prejudices" appears in The Spectator USA. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review. He blogs at

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