Use of the Church Organ During Advent

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Use of the Church Organ During Advent

ROME, 30 NOV. 2004 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: Is it still correct to use the organ only to accompany the singing during Advent? — S.M., Lismore, Australia

A: There are several documents regarding this theme. The 1967 instruction on liturgical music, "Musicam Sacram," addresses the question of the organ and other instruments in Nos. 62-67. To wit:

"62. Musical instruments either accompanying the singing or played alone can add a great deal to liturgical celebrations.

"The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument that adds a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up the spirit to God and to higher things.

"But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority. ... This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, are in accord with the dignity of the place of worship, and truly contribute to the uplifting of the faithful.

"63. One criterion for accepting and using musical instruments is the genius and tradition of the particular peoples. At the same time, however, instruments that are generally associated and used only with worldly music are to be absolutely barred from liturgical services and religious devotions. All musical instruments accepted for divine worship must be played in such a way as to meet the requirements of a liturgical service and to contribute to the beauty of worship and the building up of the faithful.

"64. Musical instruments as the accompaniment for singing have the power to support the voice, to facilitate participation, and to intensify the unity of the worshipping assembly. But their playing is not to drown out the voice so that the texts cannot be easily heard. Instruments are to be silent during any part sung by the priest or ministers by reason of their function.

"65. [...] Solo playing (of the organ or other approved instruments) is allowed at the beginning of Mass, prior to the priest's reaching the altar, at the presentation of the gifts, at the communion, and at the end of Mass.

"66. Solo playing of musical instruments is forbidden during Advent, Lent, the Easter triduum, and at services and Masses for the dead.

"67. It is, of course, imperative that organists and other musicians be accomplished enough to play properly. But in addition they must have a deep and thorough knowledge of the significance of the liturgy. That is required in order that even their improvisations will truly enhance the celebration in accord with the genuine character of each of its parts and will assist the participation of the faithful."

According to this document, therefore, solo playing of the organ is prohibited during Advent.

However, while the above criteria are substantially still valid, there appears to be a small opening to solo playing during Advent in the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

No. 313 says: "In Advent the organ and other musical instruments should be used with a moderation that is consistent with the season's character and does not anticipate the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord.

"In Lent the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only to support the singing. Exceptions are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts."

Thus the express prohibition to solo playing of the organ found in "Musicam Sacram" is now limited to the Lenten season while during Advent it now appears possible to do so albeit with moderation and selecting music appropriate for a penitential season. ZE04113022

* * *

Follow-up:  Use of the Church Organ During Advent [12-14-2004]

Following our comment that the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal allows for some solo organ playing during Advent (Nov. 30) I received contrasting replies.

An Atlanta reader, supported by another from Taiwan, faulted my reading of the two documents in play and denied that GIRM, No. 313, loosened the prohibition on solo playing found in “Musicam Sacram,” No. 66.

At the same time, another reader from Santa Monica, California, pointed out that GIRM, No. 66, basically repeats what was already said in the Ceremonial of Bishops in 1984, so that solo playing of the organ has been permitted since that time.

They say that an Irishman is someone who can argue both sides of a question—often at the same time—but I admit that the contrast left me in something of a quandary.

Our first readers are correct in the sense that GIRM, No. 66, does not explicitly derogate or abolish the earlier law. But my line of thinking is more in accord with the second reader.

Church documents usually explicitly quote earlier documents so small changes in emphasis are often quite significant and reflect an evolution in the norms even when earlier laws are not specifically abolished.

As we saw, “Musicam Sacram,” No. 66, specifically forbade solo playing during Advent, Lent, the Easter triduum, and at services and Masses for the dead.

The 1984 Ceremonial of Bishops eschews the phrase “solo playing” but expresses the same idea, saying that playing the organ “is allowed only to support the singing.”

Like “Musicam Sacram,” it uses this formula to refer to Lent and Masses for the Dead (see Ceremonial, Nos. 41, 252, 300, 397, 824).

However when referring to Advent it no longer uses this expression but states only that playing the organ should be moderate and in line with the season (No. 41, 236).

I think therefore that this is a clear change of emphasis with respect to the earlier document, for the omission of any mention of using the organ only to support singing during Advent is certainly not accidental.

The probable reason for this, as pointed out by our Californian reader, and in contrast to what I affirmed in my earlier column, is that Advent is no longer officially included among the penitential seasons.

According to the Ceremonial, No. 41, the organ and musical instruments should be used with a moderation that is consistent with the season’s character of joyful expectancy but in a way that does not anticipate the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord.

Certainly there are elements that resemble the Lenten penitential season (violet vestments, omission of the Gloria, etc.). These are justified by Advent’s focus on spiritual preparation for Christ’s coming by recalling the mysteries of salvation history as well as the liturgy’s frequent eschatological allusions to the “last things”: death, judgment, heaven and hell.

According to No. 39 of the Introduction to the Roman Calendar: “Advent has a twofold character: as a season to prepare for Christmas when Christ’s first coming to us is remembered; as a season when that remembrance directs the mind and heart to await Christ’s Second Coming at the end of time. Advent is thus a period for devout and joyful expectation.”

The Advent season developed in the Roman Rite during the sixth century and always contained these two elements, although sometimes one element was stressed more than the other until the season reached more or less its present form.

It is true that a 1987 document, a circular letter dealing with concerts in churches, repeats the norms of “Musicam Sacram” with respect to use of the organ during Advent. But this later document has far less legal weight then the Ceremonial of Bishops or the GIRM and the lack of coherence might be considered an oversight, the primary purpose of the document lying elsewhere. ZE041214222

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