If Music Be the Food of Love

In the opening words of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night Duke Orsino declares that music is “the food of love”. Although these beautiful words are said by a somewhat shallow and flippant character, they nonetheless signify a great truth. In another altogether more serious comedy, The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo makes the case for the importance of music in one of the most wonderful speeches that Shakespeare ever placed on the lips of any of his characters:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

In writing these lines, Shakespeare was making a scarcely concealed reference to those powerful Puritans in English culture who were seeking to abolish the use of music in the liturgy. As Shakespeare shows us, such people have spirits as dull as night and as dark as hell.

How different are such Puritans to the great St. Augustine who noted that praying in song is like praying twice. In other words, since prayer is beautiful and is the offering up of the mind and soul to God, it is appropriate that prayer and praise should be united to the beauty of the sung voice. It is for this reason that Timothy S. McDonnell, director of the Institute of Sacred Music at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, is a great advocate for Gregorian chant, the traditional form of sung prayer used in the liturgy.

Although Dr. McDonnell, who composes sacred music as well as teaching it, is an admirer of Renaissance polyphony, “with its elaborate texturized harmonies,” he stresses the primacy of chant, acknowledging the great benefits to the Church’s liturgy arising from the privileged place of chant in the liturgical reforms initiated by St. Pius X in his motu proprio, Tra Le Sollecitudini, promulgated in 1903, which were buttressed by Pius XII in the encyclical Mediator Dei issued in 1947 and reaffirmed by the documents of Vatican II.

“The tradition of sung prayer dates back to the first millennium,” Dr. McDonnell says, “with Gregorian chant becoming the proper music of the mature Roman rite.”

“The chant is traditionally sung a capella in plain, monophonic tones,” he told Catholic News Service, “making the text the focal point of the music. However, there are exceptions to that unofficial chant rule, and some choirs add harmonies and occasionally insert musical accompaniment.”

Although chant is still not the principal form of music in most U.S. Catholic parishes, in contravention of the explicit teaching of Church documents, it has steadily been regaining popularity in recent decades. In order to nurture and nourish this healthy return to tradition and to the authentic expression of music in the liturgy, the work of Dr. McDonnell at Catholic University is not only important but should be emulated by Catholic educators throughout the country.

“Gregorian chant can be incredibly advanced, complicated, involved and with a high level of artistic value,” McDonnell says. “At the same time, so much of its beauty resides in its simplicity and the fact that much of it can also be accessible to the congregation and by children.”

“Anybody can learn to sing some amount of Gregorian chant,” he continues, “and the Church over the years has categorized the chants according to their accessibility. So, there are many chants that are expected to be sung as part of the liturgy by the faithful and those chants really are every bit as much Gregorian chant as the more florid and elaborate ones.”

In other words, Gregorian chant is accessible and is easy to teach. Although it should be taught at the more advanced level, alongside sacred polyphony, at good Catholic colleges and universities, such as the Institute of Sacred Music at the Catholic University of America which Dr. McDonnell directs, it could and should be taught at the simpler level at grade school and at the intermediate level at high school. In this way, Catholic schools can work in harmony with good Catholic parishes to feed the liturgical life of the Church with the rich nourishment of its musical heritage. To return to the words of Shakespeare, good sacred music can be the food of love, helping us celebrate and worship the great Food of Love that is given to us in the Eucharist.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on Faith & Cultureand is reprinted here with kind permission. 

Avatar photo


Joseph Pearce is a Catholic author and biographer who has written about subjects as various as GK Chesterton, economics, and Shakespeare. His latest book, Race with the Devil, chronicles his conversion from racial hatred to Catholicism. He is also the Director of the Center for Faith & Culture and as Writer-in-Residence at Aquinas College in Nashville as well as the editor of St. Austin Review.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage