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The Cistercians in Yorkshire title graphic

Aelred of Rievaulx: The Mirror of Charity

Where, I ask, do all these organs in the church come from, all these chimes? To what purpose, I ask you, is the terrible snorting of bellows, more like a clap of thunder than the sweetness of a voice? Why that swelling and swooping of the voice? One person sings bass, another sings alto, yet another sings soprano. Still another ornaments and trills up and down on the melody. At one moment the voice strains, the next it wanes. First it speeds up, then it slows down with all manner of sounds. Sometimes - it is shameful to say – it is expelled like the neighing of horses, sometimes manly strength set aside, it is constricted to the shrillness of a woman’s voice. Sometimes it is turned and twisted in some sort of artful trill. Sometimes you see a man with his mouth open as if he were breathing his last breath, not singing but threatening silence, as it were, by ridiculous interruption of the melody into snatches.(1) Now he imitates the agonies of the dying or the swooning of persons in pain. In the meantime his whole body is violently agitated by histrionic gesticulations – contorted lips, rolling eyes, hunching shoulders – and drumming fingers keep time with every single note. And this ridiculous dissipation is called religious observance. And it is loudly claimed that where this sort of agitation is more frequent, God is more honourably served. Meanwhile ordinary folk stand there awestruck, stupefied, marvelling at the din of bellows, the humming of chimes and the harmony of pipes. But they regard the saucy gestures of the singers and the alluring variation and dropping of the voices with considerable jeering and snickering, until you would think they had come, not into an oratory, but to a theatre, not to pray but to gawk.

… sound should not be given precedence over meaning, but sound with meaning should generally be allowed to stimulate greater attachment. Therefore the sound should be so moderate, so marked by gravity that it does not captivate the whole spirit to amusement in itself, but leaves the greater part to the meaning. Blessed Augustine, of course, said, ‘The soul is moved to a sentiment of piety on hearing sacred chant. But if a longing to listen desires the sound more than the meaning, it should be censured.’ And elsewhere he says, ‘When the singing delights me more than the words I acknowledge that I have sinned through my fault, and I would prefer not to listen to the singer.’

Aelred of Rievaulx: The Mirror of Charity, bk. II, ch. 23: ‘The vain pleasure of the ears’, tr. E. Connor, (Kalamazoo, 1990), pp 209-212.