I feel inclined to offer a few reflections on the beauty of the liturgy. I’m far from being the first, as I do little more than resume a theme of Benedict XVI:
The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.
It is the second idea with which I am concerned – the role of art and beauty, which both have their role in the liturgy. At the same time, beauty does not have to be elaborate or difficult, but there are certain objective rules for beauty, as for language and musical harmony. Many people perceive beauty to be subjective. What is extremely ugly for some is held to be beautiful by others. I think particularly of brutalist sculpture or atonal music.
I battled for a long time in my teens to learn to appreciate the atonal music of composers like Arnold Schönberg and more recent modernists. One young composer told me that I needed new ears for new music! The ears I have are quite good enough… Schönberg invented a system called the twelve-tone row – total chromaticism, which he saw as a development from the extreme chromaticism of post-Romantic composers and the Wagnerian school. This kind of music is also called atonal: without tonal reference, without harmony or rhythm, without any objective communication. The effect is random noise made with musical instruments or other objects that produce sounds, like a child who has never had a music lesson bashing away on a piano keyboard. The assumption is made that each listener will “compose” his own music or hear things in it that others do not hear. The same principle goes for the kind of modern “art” that involves throwing paint onto a canvas! Modernist artists and composers will deny that their work is random and unskilled, but I doubt their sincerity. I remain convinced that beauty and ugliness are governed by immutable and eternal rules, harmony, melody and rhythm in music – and form and colour in art.
I have met a number of composers who have broken with the tyranny of atonalism. One I have known is Nicholas Wilton, a music graduate of London University, who has done some beautiful church music. Recordings and scores can be ordered from his site. Most importantly, this music is not a pastiche of older styles, even if some pieces are reminiscent of Bruckner or the Renaissance English tradition. Some of his music has a melancholic Germanic feeling about it, and the sense of harmony is there. I remember long discussions with Nicholas in which he told me about composers he knew who were returning to the objective laws of music and harmony. Harmony was studied by the ancient Greeks, and both Plato and Aristotle expounded at great length on the laws of aesthetics – objective beauty.
I very much believe in objective beauty, based on harmony, form, symmetry and many other aspects we all notice and to which we are sensitive. As is evidenced by the monastic tradition of liturgy, beauty can be sober and simple, but it follows laws of objective beauty. This is the genius of the Roman rite, following the Curial / Franciscan tradition as well as the northern European and French variants. Compared with the Byzantine tradition, the Roman tradition in all its local uses is sober. Its simplicity is noble and leads us to contemplation.
Simplicity is perfectly compatible with beauty. I have never hidden my love for the Arts and Crafts movement of a hundred years ago. Here are some previous posts of mine tagged with the term. See my Arts and Crafts: an influence in Anglican aesthetics in particular. It is an aesthetic reaction from the over-decorated and tedious style of Victorian industrialism, aspiring to a humanisation of work and a renewal of craftsmanship. We find simplicity and a feeling of the medieval. Was this the noble simplicity that some of the Vatican II Fathers thought of through the so-called other modern? I rather like some of the churches built in Europe in the 1930’s and 40’s and the monastic vestments inspired by the Liturgical Movement. The spirit of Arts & Crafts pervades as mankind once again reacted from the industrialised inhumanity that produced Nazism and World War II! Again, man sought his soul and God through the madness.
There is a distinction to be made between noble simplicity, on one hand, and banality and aesthetic dissolution on the other. It is not simply a question of plainness and lack of decoration. It is above all clarity and harmony – objectivity and communion.