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Peter Kwasniewski’s “Good Music, Sacred Music, and Silence” is one of the most substantive books on the topic of music and the sacred I have read. He leads us on a sort of spiritual ascent from good music (music for enjoyment) to sacred music (music for worship) to the beauty of silent contemplation, arguing that all three are necessary for the Christian.

Good Music, Sacred Music, and Silence: Three Gifts of God for Liturgy and for Life, by Peter A. Kwasniewski (321 pages, TAN Books, 2023).

Music possesses an immense and mysterious power, a power beyond reason yet able to be channeled and used rationally. To quote from the book under review, “[Music] speaks a certain message, or better, creates an atmosphere; it conveys an implicit worldview, stirs up feelings, evokes chains of ideas.” Immaterial, elusive, and evanescent—perhaps as close to pure spirit as we can get here on earth—music nevertheless can form associations with other objects and ideas. And yet the world of music and the world of intellect tend to touch each other only rarely. Professional musicians (I’m speaking very generally) tend to have little dealing with the world of thought, having plenty on their hands with the practice of their art. On the other side, there are a number of books by conservatives addressing the spiritual and philosophical dimensions of music; but these can be stronger on philosophizing than on genuine musical expertise, with overgeneralizations and superficial judgments as the casualty. Rare is the person with the knowledge and ability to put music together with culture more broadly, who is conversant with aesthetics, with philosophy and religious thought, and with history, and can relate music to all these things. I’m not talking here about musical academics who can write you a neat paper on some arcane musicological topic—there are plenty of those. I’m talking about someone imbued with the spirit of humane learning in the broadest sense. Such writers would seem to be a thing of the past (Sir Roger Scruton comes to mind).

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, who wrote the present book and whose essays have appeared in The Imaginative Conservative, is something of a throwback in this respect. The holder of a PhD in philosophy with a specialization in Thomistic thought, Dr. Kwasniewski has taught not only philosophy and theology but also music and art history at Wyoming Catholic College. What’s more, he is himself a practicing musician and a composer with over a hundred works to his credit, predominantly choral music. In short, Dr. Kwasniewski has it all, and I will say that this is one of the most substantive books on the topic of music and the sacred I have read. Its organization presents a beautiful hierarchical ordering of topics, reflected also in the book’s title. Part I is titled “Music Fit for Kings” and deals with the role of good music in general in the life of a Christian. Part II is titled “Music Fit for the King of Kings” and deals with the role of sacred music in the life of the church. The third and final part is about silence, the state of quiet contemplation to which, in a sense, all music aspires. (Silence, as it happens, is itself an integral element in music; music comes out of silence and returns to silence, and it derives much of its power from the interplay of sound and silence.)

Dr. Kwasniewski thus leads us on a sort of spiritual ascent from good music (music for enjoyment) to sacred music (music for worship) to the beauty of silent contemplation. He argues that all three are necessary for the Christian. Music as such, whether secular or sacred, is a “character-forming force,” something that philosophers all the way back to Plato have recognized. Music envelops us in a way that no other art does. It becomes a part of our soul and psyche; our relationship with it is more intimate than any other art. As Dr. Kwasniewski puts it, music “becomes a part of us, shapes us in its image.” And that is why the ethical nature of music, its power to affect the human soul for good or ill, is such an important topic, and in our era a particularly urgent one. For we live in an era awash with music of all kinds, reproduced and disseminated by every means; but only a small portion of it can be considered truly worthy on an artistic and spiritual level, and the sheer quantity and omnipresence of all of it runs the risk of diluting and dulling our experience of it.

Thus, Dr. Kwasniewski has stepped in to restore some much-needed order. He argues in favor of classical, or art, music in the Western tradition as the best kind of music we can listen to. Yet he is not content to speak in generalities about the ethical and spiritual power of this type of music. He gets down to specifics, including recommending works and performers to seek out. Good Music avoids the heavy-handed or haranguing tone that can afflict conservatives and traditionalists when they write on cultural topics like this. Indeed, this is very much a personal book in which Dr. Kwasniewski recounts his own experience discovering good and great music, and in particular beautiful sacred music, and how this changed his life. The book is also a useful guide and an enunciation of grand philosophical principles for the listening and performing of music, especially in a sacred setting. Dr. Kwasniewski writes from the heart as well as from the head and is not afraid to be opinionated (for example, Wagner’s Ring Cycle is magnificent music despite a “vapid storyline and pompous libretto”!) His helpful suggestions include a guide for how to introduce children to good music by various modern media resources.

We are here reminded of how vast the world of “classical” music is. Not in any sense a “genre” (as the commercial world would have it), classical music is an entire cosmos, and no one listener can possibly absorb all of it. Specialist listening is not only acceptable but necessary when it comes to something so vast.

In addition to encouraging readers along the path of appreciation of classical music—secular and sacred, vocal and instrumental—Dr. Kwasniewski also appraises nonclassical genres of music. Here he extols authentic folk music but strongly censures rock, presenting a detailed case for its defects as music and its spiritually harmful dimensions. These consist in rock music’s primitive use of rhythm and harmony and “repetitious, unlyrical ‘melodies’” calculated to “stimulate the concupiscible and irascible sense-appetites.” Rock music is, for Dr. Kwasniewski, “deliberately primitive and passionate, simplistic, and sensual.” I certainly won’t argue with this general thesis, but I do have some questions. Knowing almost nothing about rock music (my musical life has centered on the classical violin), I’ve been told by others in the know that there do exist more mature and artistically serious phases of the genre, “progressive” or “art” rock and even “Baroque pop.” Perhaps these substyles deserve a second look?

In any case, Dr. Kwasniewski’s point is well taken: we must form and cultivate our taste in music, follow what is noble and good and shun what is base. And between the extremes of the noble and the base are a whole series of gradations of “good” and “great” and “holy.” Ideally, one should be exposed to good works of music from early on. If this didn’t happen, Part I of Dr. Kwasniewski’s book provides an excellent remedial course.

As mentioned, Good Music embraces both the philosophical and the practical. Here is a sampling of the chapter and section headings to give you an idea of its breadth: “Nourishing Our Souls on Beauty,” “The Journey into Great Music,” “Sacred Music as An Occasion of Grace for Modern Man,” “A Blueprint for Parish Musical Restoration,” “Why do we sing liturgical texts?”, “How we should sing—and why people don’t sing.” Dr. Kwasniewski goes so far as to include a model letter such as a bishop could sent to his priests to reinstate traditional sacred music in his diocese—practical service indeed.

On the more theoretical side, there are so many riches here; one passage that particularly struck me was Dr. Kwasniewski’s analysis of a single Gregorian chant. It is a communion antiphon based on the Gospel miracle of the Wedding Feast at Cana. Dr. Kwasniewski unpacks the intricate melodic construction of this little piece, pointing out instances of “word-painting”—places where the melodic line seems to depict the filling of the water jars, the surprise of the groom at tasting the water made wine, etc. I had never realized how much went into the composition of this seemingly simple music; yet this happens time and again as one studies the history of art. One discovers that artistic qualities that one had assumed were products of a much later time period were present right from the beginning.

 ***

Any book about music and the sacred will inevitably discuss liturgy, that great and controversial subject. Dr. Kwasniewski states at the outset that he intends to discuss liturgical reforms in the Catholic Church only to the extent that they bear on music. However, Parts II and III are just as much about liturgy and theology as they are about music, and there is often a sincerely polemical tone here. Dr. Kwasniewski is one of that honorable party in the Catholic Church who not only favor the older liturgical forms but will argue that the Traditional Latin Mass (or Tridentine Mass, or Extraordinary Form, or vetus ordo, or usus antiquior, or whichever synonym you prefer) is the way to go forward. This argument is maintained with the strictest logic and with reference to an array of ecclesiastical documents up to and including those of the Second Vatican Council.

Not being a liturgical expert, I can’t argue about those issues. All I can do is comment on stylistic matters as a layman sees them. I hope the reader will pardon me if I digress a bit. I’ve been reading for most of my life about the trials and tribulations of people suffering through dispiriting modern-style liturgies, not least in the matter of music. I don’t need to rehearse here the banal depths to which liturgical music has fallen in many places. Many have proposed a return to the Tridentine Latin Mass as a solution. Now, the whole argument has been quite lost on me because it doesn’t reflect my experience. At my home parish, in which I grew up and where I still worship, we have a small choir, composed of professionals and volunteers (including myself) that sings classical choral pieces, chant, and traditional hymns, and have always had a skilled organist who can give you Bach or Duruflé during Communion. Every Sunday we chant the Mass Ordinary in Latin, and the chants are so familiar that the congregation is well able to join in. Other parts of the Mass such as the Pater noster are also chanted in Latin, and there is a good deal of chanting in English as well. The vestments and the use of incense, the tabernacle and altar furnishings, are all up to par. The atmosphere is reverent, transcendent, traditional. All this is done in the context of what is styled a Solemn Novus Ordo Mass, the modern rite of Paul VI done in a highly ceremonious manner. The Traditional Latin Mass was never part of my upbringing. I did have occasion after college to attend, and sing for, a number of Traditional Latin Masses at different parishes, and I always sat politely by wondering why I wasn’t more moved or affected by the rite. I would simply have to say that the specific liturgy that is the spiritual mainstay of thousands of self-described traditionalist folks simply doesn’t mean a whole lot to me just now.

Now, Dr. Kwasniewski and others might argue that my parish liturgy, while good and laudable, is ultimately second-best, a sort of hybrid or compromise between two incompatible styles of worship. All I can say is that I never experienced it as anything less than unified and coherent. The Sunday Mass at my parish formed me into the person I am today, such as that is.

So, appeals on behalf of the Traditional Latin Mass as the only and necessary escape from modern vulgarity are a bit lost on me. I realize that those who jump straight from the postmodern doldrums into the arms of the TLM must find incredible consolation in it. My own trajectory has been different. Catholic Lite was never part of my experience, and neither was the Tridentine Liturgy. I am an odd case.

Hybrids and compromises, it seems to me, exist at every level of art and life. And I stand with Thomas Day, an author cited by Dr. Kwasniewski, when he says in one of his books that “it is not the revised rites but their implementation that is so often a mess.”

In any case, the general principles Dr. Kwasniewski enunciates are sterling, whether or not you follow him straight through to his conclusions about the older form of Mass. These general principles include the conviction that music itself is sacred and thus forms an integral part of divine worship; that only quality music—whether simple and “popular” (like many old hymns) or complex and “artistic”—should find its place at Mass; and that a beautiful treasury of music exists in the Roman rite which we should appreciate and use. One particularly valuable point Dr. Kwasniewski makes is that Gregorian chant is a quite simple type of music that most anyone can learn, including children. There is nothing “elite” about it, it carries no cultural “baggage,” and it is a timeless form of heightened prayer, the original “liturgical music of the people.”

Certainly, the whole notion of classic standards, and of music as a serious accompaniment to a serious act (which religious worship is), has suffered in the last half century under modernist and counterculture influence. But lest you think that the liberal hostility to aesthetic beauty in worship came out of nowhere or that the deterioration of liturgical music is a strictly recent thing, I urge you to read the writings of Thomas Day, also recommended by Dr. Kwasniewski, starting with Why Catholics Can’t Sing. It turns out that non-excellence in liturgical music and indifference to the aesthetic generally is a longstanding tradition in U.S. Catholicism, predating Vatican II by some time and the result of many sociocultural factors. I mention this only to advert readers of the historically complex nature of the issue.

While the “sacred” portion of Dr. Kwasniewski book is strongly geared toward Catholicism, the principles enunciated should have appeal among other groups and individuals, a fact acknowledged on the dust jacket; and although there are a few (minor) slighting remarks about Protestantism in that later portion, I would still maintain that no thoughtful person, Catholic or otherwise, should stay away from Good Music.

One of the book’s strongest accomplishments is to draw sacred music together with secular art music as part of a complex of “good music” and “holy music” that can enrich our lives on every level. This holistic attitude can serve a very humane purpose in our world. Millions of people do without painting, without sculpture, without poetry or the theater. Very few do without music. Because it is the pulse of our lives, the one really indispensable fine art, music needs wise defenders and philosophers. And for that reason, Good Music, Sacred Music, and Silence is an important book indeed.

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