Music to elevate the soul

Courtesy of an iTunes gift card won at a Christmas white elephant gift exchange, I recently purchased the soundtrack to the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim video game. With 53 tracks, it clocks in at about 3 1/3 hours of music, only one track of which is actual singing. That song alone (covered wonderfully by Peter Hollens) is simply amazing.

The story behind the creation of the soundtrack for the game is fascinating. Jeremy Soule, the composer, put together a choir of 30 people and recorded it three times to create a 90 voice song. The lyrics were written to convey an epic story, the sound designed around a mythos built over several generations of the series, and style built to invoke the common aspiration to be heroic. The result is a song that captures the imagination – evidenced by the many covers of the song (do a Google video search for Dragonborn Skyrim theme).

Movies have been investing heavily in music since the advent of synchronized recorded sound in the mid-1930s. Music didn’t have to be provided on-site – a limitation that kept movies from having the grand sound tracks to which we’ve become accustomed.

There are a great many movies that have music worth revisiting, but none from recent history stands out in my mind more than the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The scores for all three movies were composed by Howard Shore, for which he won three Academy Awards, two Oscars, two Golden Globes, and four Grammys. There are other awards too, but after 10 pages of scrolling down I decided to stick with the ones most of us will recognize!

What is extraordinary about the Lord of the Rings music is how expertly Shore took the text of a 3-volume work and crafted music to match the characters, races, scenes, and stories throughout. No one who hears ‘Concerning Hobbits‘ would confuse the theme therein with the elven theme present in ‘Lothlorien‘. And who can forget the heart-rending scene of Denethor sending Faramir on a suicide run, closely followed up by Faramir’s sacrifice, intercut with Pippin’s song.

Whether it is the instruments (that soulful pipe!) or the voice of Billy Boyd (yes, the actor really sang that song), the music serves well it’s purpose of pointing the viewer back to the story being conveyed.

Television too has taken advantage of the power of music, though not always with the scale (or budget!) of a AAA video game or epic movie. But one doesn’t have to look far to find amazing music, and one of my favorites comes out of an anime inspired by the popular manga Fullmetal Alchemist. All of the music (including that from the movie), is striking – but the theme song, ‘Bratja’ or ‘Brothers’.

Though the anime and the manga it is based on are both based on Japanese culture and values, the theme song is written in Russian and performed by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir. Other music in the soundtrack – each track tailored to various characters, locations, or themes – includes varied instruments, voices, and styles. The Warsaw Philharmonic makes at least one appearance!

All of this points to the great talent and skill that goes into telling a story, drawing us into the narrative, and helping us to participate in adventure – even though we have perhaps the most passive of all roles: simply watching and listening!

Regretfully, I find myself irritated in the face of all of this – because it is entirely possible for me to be driving to Mass and listen to one of these amazing pieces, this music that has been thoughtfully composed, is textually relevant to its setting, and performed with care…..and then to re-present the sacrifice of Christ on the cross while being serenaded by ‘King of Glory‘ or ‘Rain Down‘.

Surely this is not the height of music after 2000 years of tradition! How can the greatest story ever told, the epic tale of salvation beginning from the creation of mankind and culminating in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ our Saviour, have been reduced to such camp?

The reality is that amazing music in fact exists – one of my favorites being the Exsultet, the Easter Proclamation. Sung only on the Easter Vigil Mass, proclaimed by a deacon, the priest, or a cantor, the work of God from Genesis to today is proclaimed in a chant that has been passed down for hundreds of years. Like so many, I only fairly recently discovered the existence of this chant. As a newly ordained deacon the local pastor asked me to chant this thing called the ‘Exsultet’ – to which I responded ‘the what?’. What a glorious discovery, and a delight to sing!

Despite the fact that very few, if any of us, would put up with it in our entertainment, so many of us have settled for mediocre and even insultingly poor music in the moment where heaven and earth come together.

We’re long overdue for a renaissance of music in our parishes. The tradition is there! There are beautiful, complicated, soaring chants like the Exsultet. There are simple psalm tones that people of any skill level can learn and apply to prayer & worship. The ICEL Mass parts are available for any priest to learn & sing, as well as the ICEL Chant Mass parts for the faithful (the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Memorial Acclamation, Amen, the Our Father and Agnus Dei, to name a few).

What does it take to elevate our music? Willing hearts, for one. There are very few priests who would assert that they are satisfied with music at their parishes. But of the three untouchable m’s of parish life (that’s music, Mass times, and money), change in music always elicits a swift and powerful response – the loudest voices often being those against any movement from the banal and boring.

Never underestimate the power of a few supportive voices, of even a small group of parishioners who are willing not only to say the kind word that a priest needs to hear, but who are willing to dedicate time and effort to bring about change. Who of us wouldn’t like to have our hearts stirred at the sound of Mass, to hear the voices of not 30 or 90, but hundreds of parishioners joining to sing the story of Christ?

It starts with you and me, learning the music of our faith and introducing it to our fellow Catholics. Now is the time to embrace anew sacred music, so that we may be lifted up – and honor Him who was lifted up for us.

Author: Father Jacob Maurer

I'm a Latin rite priest of the Archdiocese of Seattle, enjoy most things nerdy, love reading and occasionally have the wherewithal to actually write something around here.