WHY NOT SILENCE?
By Karoly Kope
Here's perhaps our last hope for saving the liturgy: eliminate all
music! Why not? Why have any music at all?
Historically music was justified. It represented solemnity, ritual,
joy. It lent any event it assisted an aura of "specialness." Silence
was the normal state; music was the festive or ceremonial exception.
Today silence has become the exception and music the rule. In our
homes, in restaurants and supermarkets, in cars and airplanes and
taxis; on the street, in elevators, hospitals and lobbies and
dentists-even in restrooms-everywhere we go we are subjected to the
same curse: omnipresent music.
It takes nowadays greater effort and time (and sometimes wealth) to
find some silence, than it required once to have music. Music is
everywhere. It has lost all meaning. It has become like traffic noise
or like the wallpaper in our living room: we no longer even notice
it. What we do notice, though, is silence. For it has become so rare
that now silence becomes the treat, the rare thing that music once
was. If, therefore, we are to be with the times, ought we not try to
create a special atmosphere in church through an absence of music?
Let us start with chanting by the celebrant. Why were things chanted
in the first place? For a practical reason, among others: chanting
has greater carrying power than reciting. Reading a text, even in a
loud voice, never projects as chanting it does. Look at the Moslem
muezzin. For centuries he has been chanting his call to prayer from
the top of a minaret. His instructions were only to send forth his
call "in a clear and audible voice." The call is still chanted
(sometimes with elaborate flourishes), and it is heard at
considerable distances, which would never occur if he only shouted
it. Another good example is the street vendor in the Near East. He
announces himself and his wares by hawking in a chant-like fashion,
and he is heard from afar.
Today's celebrant uses the microphone. He no longer needs to project
through chanting. Besides, one needs a good voice and some training
in order to chant well. Today's priests are no longer trained for
that. Why, then, should they continue to chant, and to chant often so
poorly? Wouldn't reciting with devotion make more sense than chanting
One could also suggest that the "readings" be done in silence.
Reading aloud made sense when few could read. Most were unable to
acquaint themselves with the scriptures except through those
readings. Today we all can read. Would it not be better to let the
faithful read the lessons in silence? Read them at their own pace and
with a better grasp than when an amateur lay reader delivers an often
obscure text in a manner that confuses more than it enlightens? Doing
it in silence might even envelop the readings in an aura of greater
reverence. Silence during the readings (as formerly silence during
the consecration) would certainly heighten the sense of awe of the
Responses. They are desirable. Why must they be chanted? If we look
around us we find no other occasion, not even at solemn events, when
people chant public utterances (allegiance to the flag, swearing-in
oaths). Why expect a non-singing crowd to chant what they could just
as well recite, nay, what they could recite better, since most have
no singing voices and never sing anywhere anyway? Whoever saw Moslems
pray in a silence broken only by an occasional (God is
great) and felt shudders at the sudden rumble of hundreds of voices
between silences, will appreciate silence more than music.
Hymns and the like? Let's face it: American Catholics, unlike their
Protestant brethern, never had a singing tradition. I speak from
experience. During my organist years I struggled long and in vain
trying to overcome the congregation's aversion to singing, although
traditional hymns were known by most in those days. Today, with the
invasion of new and manufactured hymns, things are even worse: how
can people sing what they don't know, what they never heard before
and probably never care to hear again?
And now we come to what affects my own trade as a musician: the
organist and the choir leader. What is the choir's function? We might
get a clue from looking at the Eastern (Byzantine) Church. In their
liturgy, a group of psalters (singers) chant certain responses or
hymns. They represent the congregation, but they perform a task they
are better equipped to do than the average believer. They must have
good voices and be trained in their work. I have often observed that
the congregation quietly hummed along with the psalters, especially
during a better known hymn, but I have never heard anyone say that
"the people" would prefer to do the chanting themselves. On the
contrary, they put great value on the psalters' performance, since
the psalters were more inspiring in their singing than the
congregation would be. The same is true of Jews, who would not dream
of abolishing the job of the cantor, to whose singing they listen
with devotion and whom they would not want to replace with their own
Our own choirs performed more or less the same task. Choirs can bring
to the ceremony a greater artistic and esthetic contribution by
praising with the tongue of a Mozart or a Palestrina. Today the choir
seems obsolete. In a misunderstood interpretation of "participation,"
it has been decreed that "the people" should do as much of the
singing as possible, never wondering if "participating" meant forced
singing by people who never sing otherwise, instead of devout
listening to a beautifully sung prayer.
What can we say about the organist, that orphaned heir to the mantle
of Frescobaldi and Daquin and Bach and Franck and Bruckner and
Messiaen? He was never more than a necessary fixture in Catholic
America, much like plumbing or air conditioning, and he has now
become a misfit in an environment where the guitar player and a "song
leader" are the fashion. Why bother to be a fine organist any more?
Where is the place for good music during Mass? Give the poor devil
some silence. Let him use at least that opportunity to fill the air
with sounds that he knows how to produce, sounds that would at least
underline silence with appropriate commentaries. Give us some
In any act of devotion, one needs to collect oneself. Again, I think
of Moslems. Their prayer (five times daily) begins with a ritualistic
touching of the ears, the closed eyes, the forehead, the lips. This
symbolic act insulates them from the outside world-closing off their
ears, their eyes, their lips, their thoughts to the world-the better
to immerse themselves in prayer. They thus create a silence in which
to concentrate on God alone. They know that there can be no intimacy
with God, not even with our own selves, without silence. Where do we
stand by contrast? It seems that we can no longer endure silence.
People are scared of it. They must have some noise, they need
something in order to feel protected against what they are not used
to: silence. Would it not be a salutary thing if we introduced
silence in the one place we need it most, during our worship? Instead
of hearing sounds that remind us of the world we live in and being
drawn back into it, might it not be better to observe a silence that
would force us to look inside ourselves and make us see the need we
have of Him?
The "reformers" thought of everything to break with tradition, yet
they failed to take note of what was traditionally meaningful but no
longer is: music. And since music of the streets is all they knew,
they have achieved what defeats worship altogether: they turned
worship into an occasion for worldly noises. What has become of
Would I really want to see all music banished from church? Of course
not. But if music in church is to be no more than what it has become
today, then I would welcome silence in its stead. One can at least
pray in devout silence, while I personally find it impossible to
worship to the sounds imposed on me on too many occasions. I'm
afraid, though, that even the most revolutionary reformers would shy
away from what I suggest. They think they are novel, while they
demonstrate their inability to be really with the times and use what
can no longer be found in normal life, silence. Becoming more like
the world will not be conducive to better worship. Insulating
ourselves from the outside world through silence might. I should
know. I am a musician.
This article appeared in the Spring, 1994 issue of "Sacred Music."
Published by the Church Music Association of America, 548 Lafond
Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55103.