Chant: Song of the Sacrifice
“And so they sang a hymn, and went out to mount Olivet.”
Sacrifice gives to chant its reason for existence, and not only because it stirs up our devotion and moves us to offer.
We read in Psalm 21, after the narration of the passion of our Lord, that divine praise is a fruit of His sacrifice: “In the midst of the Church will I praise thee.” Derived in part from the joy of glorifying His Father and redeeming souls, this praise gives a perfection to His sacrifice. Likewise when the Church offers sacrifice with our Lord, the divine praises sung in her sacred music lend something to the perfection of that sacrifice.
Song as Musical Art
St. Thomas’s elevated teachings about song will be clearest if we first examine closely today’s common usage. Some today employ the term “song” as a gauge of value, and they reveal a wide discrepancy in their appraisals. One figure of speech found in dictionaries belittles songs: “for a song, very cheaply.” To make one only requires a breath and a voice and a school-boy’s training, if that much. Thus the expression, “I got it for a song,” which indicates that it cost me almost nothing.
The contrary estimation recognizes something in the song that is beyond price. An example appears in Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens, where a cabinet maker ingenuously charms a dolls’ dressmaker: “I’ve heerd tell that you can sing most beautiful; and I should be better paid with a song than with any money, for I always loved the likes of that.” Perhaps this second evaluation stems from a greater appreciation for things of the spirit.
A musician makes of the mind an interior studio. There, he fashions and orders the sounds into a spiritual composition within the soul. The concert artist Pablo Casals was asked how he would set out to learn a new piece. He explained that he would take the music and study it at his desk; then he would put the music down and go to his cello and play it. A violin student asked Peter Salaff, violinist of the Cleveland Quartet, “So when you perform quartets, you are constantly pre-conceptualizing the pitch and the sound quality and the expression?” That teacher replied, “Well, if I don’t, I’m soon reminded that I should!” Students of music know that music is not just an exterior work, because their directors and teachers declare time and again that they should “hear it in the head” before they sing or play.
The song in this way already precedes the breath and the voice. As a word is first inside the intellect before it passes through the voice into something sensible, so the song is complete, in a way, inside the higher part of the soul before it becomes an external work. This power to reproduce the song in the mind is a virtue called art. So when St. Thomas had occasion to define song, he could have referred to the art somewhere in the definition by calling it a work of musical art or “a musical composition for singing,” as we find it defined in one of our own dictionaries.
But St. Thomas’s definition has a surprise...
The Thomistic Definition of Song
According to the prince of theologians, song is an “exultation of the mind,” a joy in the higher part of the soul. If song proceeds from a sorrow of the mind it is “improperly so called.” Concerning the canticle of the beloved’s vineyard in the fifth chapter of Isaiah, St. Thomas writes: “Properly, a song is a thing of exultation, whence here the song is improperly so called, since it’s one of sadness, like the lamentation that David made for Saul and Jonathan.”
Exultation is not a hidden joy, but rather a joy that must get out. It can express itself in numerous ways, for example through a smile, through a dance, or through the gesture of throwing down the football in the end-zone. “Exultation of the mind” has many possible specific differences. Song is an exultation “bursting forth into vocal sound.”
The author of this definition could have toned down his description of the passing of joy from the quiet interior of the soul to the exterior world of things apparent. But without any apology, he chose a word that we could apply to a torrent, suggesting a wild uncontainable energy, “prorumpens in vocem,” “bursting forth into vocal sound.”
According to its full notion, a song requires one more specific difference, but here a word of caution is in order. By a way of thinking that is too “black and white,” we might infer falsely that travel songs, sea shanties, harvest songs, etc., are not songs at all, and that would be a false conclusion. St. Thomas does indeed call secular songs by the same name, for example when exposing the literal sense of the harlot’s song in Isaias 23. Hers is a song, but not according to the complete sense.
For St. Thomas, the full notion of song is present if it is a spiritual joy that is possessed, not from things temporal or worldly, but from things eternal, “de aeternis habita.” Something of eternity moves the mind to rejoice, and the man who has it inside him has to put it out, and the result is a song.
Thus the three parts of the full definition: “exultatio mentis de aeternis habita, prorumpens in vocem.” Song according to St. Thomas is an exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, an exultation bursting forth into vocal sound.
The Reason for Distinct Definitions of Song
Now compare this definition with the dictionary definition: “A musical composition for singing.” Not quite the same thing, is it? Notice that the two definitions are not completely different; common to both is at least something of the “prorumpens in vocem” idea.
One consequence of this difference has already appeared in the kind of division that his definition generates. What is the salient source of distinction among songs? In the music classroom, songs usually divide according to differences of function or form, because we regard the song chiefly to be a kind of art. But because St. Thomas instead grounds the very nature of song in its fullest meaning in the disposition of the mind, his division of songs follows more from their greater or lesser share in that complete meaning. It’s as if to say that songs are in no way equal, but that there is a paradigm of song, and all others are songs in the measure that they bear a likeness to the paradigm.
The difference in the two definitions also carries implications for our notion of sacred vocal music. Is chant a species of musical art that is regularly joyful, or is it rather a species of spiritual joy that passes into vocal sound? Perhaps the difference is not so important if we regard sacred music only as something that adds beauty to the ceremonies. If, however, we regard sacred music according to its purpose of giving honor to God, the difference becomes very important, because the chief way in which we honor God is through the act of religion called sacrifice. Now to St. Thomas’s notion of sacrifice, art is not necessary, but joy is.
Joy Belongs to the Perfection of Sacrifice
A sacrifice is a work of love, and the sure mark of a loving sacrifice is the quality of cheer, which gives to the sacrifice a certain splendor and perfection. Our Lord provides this example of praise that is derived in part from the joy of His Father’s glory and our redemption. Jesus “having joy set before Him, endured the cross,” says St. Paul.
It is because joy is necessary for any who would approach the heavenly altar that priests begin Holy Mass with the recitation of Ps. 42 with its reference to approaching “the altar of God, the God who gives joy to my youth.” St. Thomas goes so far as to say that through grief a man becomes unfit to offer sacrifice, citing the example of Aaron. While he was mourning the loss of his two sons, Aaron would not finish the food that was sacrificed: “...how could I eat it, or please the Lord in the ceremonies, having a sorrowful heart.”
There are martyrs who sang on their way to their death; did not their songs manifest an undisguised exultation that made the splendor of their sacrifice more evident? Maximilian Kolbe and companions, upon being locked into the starvation bunker, astonished the guards by their singing. The Sisters of the Compiègne Carmel sang for more than an hour, all the way to the square where the guillotine stood waiting. Among the songs chanted on their way were the “Salve Regina” and the “Te Deum.” At the foot of the scaffold they sang the “Veni Creator.”
The generous offering of tribulations should also be cheerful, and its joy can be a song. In the Roman Missal, the Church represents to us this ideal through the example of the young men of the Book of Daniel who were cast into a fiery furnace for refusing to adore a golden statue. Their song is called “the hymn of the three young men, which the Saints were singing in the furnace of fire.” It is a kind reminder to the priest: “You are a sacrifice in a fiery furnace that forges saints. Your sacrifice has a song: ‘All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord. O ye angels of the Lord, bless the Lord. O ye heavens, bless the Lord....’ Keep singing.”
Chant Is the Song of the Sacrifice
Much of what this conclusion asserts could be claimed for other forms of sacred music, but it is hoped that we would enter into the higher reason of the chant, the paradigm of all sacred music. To clarify our common use of the term chant, we could, dictionary-like, define it as a liturgical text set to a melody and adopted by the Church for the solemn celebration of her liturgy. But such a definition falls short of the reality.
For St. Thomas, chant is an exultation of the mind no different from the joy that accompanies the sacrifice and makes our own part in it more perfect. The song by itself may cost us nothing, but if it is rendered with true devotion then it is a sign of an invisible sacrifice that costs us dear. Whenever we chant the sacrifice of praise, we cheerfully offer everything that we are and everything that we have.
Moreover, since the sacrifice of praise is a prayer by which the Word Himself honors the Father, the chant in its proper context is a participation in the prayer straight from the heart of the King, exulting exceedingly in His power and rejoicing in the salvation of God. Our poor voices are brought up into this most noble work; our poor voices unite to represent the song of the Word and our union with Him. This song of the Church is a great swell of holy laughter, a confident torrent of felicity exulting in the folly of the cross. For centuries the Church has continued to pour forth this song of the sacrifice of Christ from the rising of the sun to its setting, because of the great glory that sacrifice gives to God, because of the many benefits we have received and hope to receive through its power, and because through it we are brought into the work of the greatest Love; and the effect of love is joy, which sometimes is a song.