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Choosing the music for your wedding: think Schubert not Swift

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Taylor Swift. Photo:  Featureflash Photo Agency/
Taylor Swift. Photo: Featureflash Photo Agency/

I have seen it too many times; the couple’s eyes widen in disbelief as the parish priest/church musician rejects the music chosen for the big day.

“But, we’ve already printed the booklets” “We’ve already booked the band!” “Johnno composed this song for us.”

It’s an awful process. Emotions run high. The couple feels resentment as visions of their perfect day crumble to parochial micro-management.

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The priest or musician feels like the Grinch who stole Christmas.

It seems mean, pedantic even, to choose this moment to outline the theological inadequacies of Wind Beneath My Wings.

If only we could have this conversation sooner.

So here are four points to keep in mind when choosing the music for your wedding ceremony.

The process will be smooth – fun even – as you see the work that goes into putting together the soundtrack for the mystical union of two souls.

1. The church you’re getting married in is a sacred place

In its broadest sense, sacred means “kept apart” or “separate”. When we speak of a Church being sacred, it is the space “kept apart” for worship.

On the flip side of sacred is the “profane”. Nowadays the word profane conjures images of something dirty or illicit, of mothers complaining about their teenagers’ language.

However, it used to have a broader, less negative sense, in that it simply referred to anything that was not sacred.

So, while profane music (that is, the music you might listen to every day on the radio) is not necessarily bad it is, by definition, not sacred.

For this reason, it is out of place in a church, or any sacred space.

It is like hip hop in a library, R&B in an art gallery, or a boppy ringtone interrupting a dramatic movie. It is a jarring intrusion from one realm into another.

For all those profane music lovers out there, the good news is that the wedding day has many different elements and the sacred ceremony is just one of those.

If you have your heart set on a certain song (I will be shoehorning Stuck in the Middle with You into my day somehow) try mixing it into the reception, wedding dance or speeches.

2. Words do actually matter

So, you are now inspired to YouTube some sacred music. The next challenge lies in the words.

One of my favourite pieces of music is Miserere by Allegri.

To give you some idea of how beautiful it is, legend has it in the 17th century it was forbidden (on pain of excommunication) to copy it for fear it would be damaged in transcription.

It was only when the young Mozart heard and transcribed it that it was made available to the world.

In short, it is a lovely song. The sopranos’ high C sounds like an attempt to shatter the boundaries of earth into heaven. What a perfect bridal entrance hymn!

Unfortunately, the text is one of penitence and mercy, and reserved for the most solemn days of the year.

While the problem is masked by the fact that it is in Latin, it is the liturgical equivalent of the choir belting out Eric Carmen’s All By Myself during the vows.

In a church service, the words are always at the service of the liturgy, so beware the funereal dirges masquerading as love songs.

3. Public or private?

Recently, I attended a friend’s wedding. After the couple promised “I will”, the priest turned to the congregation and asked: “Do you promise that you will support this couple in their marriage?” and there was a hearty “We will!” from the congregation.

It was a beautiful reminder that marriage is not just a contract between two people.

It is a joining of two families, supported by a community.

A particularly good example of this was at a wedding I played for in May.

The young couple had chosen Immaculate Mary (the Lourdes Hymn) for signing the registry. As we began our first round of Aves I heard strands of exquisite bass harmonies floating from the congregation.

This allowed my singing partner and I to kick it up a notch, and we added descants and flourishes of our own while the congregation thumped out Aves in a steady stream.

As the last echoes of “Ave Mariaaaa” faded, we glimpsed many grins flashing around the church before the traditional stoic Anglo-Saxon reserve was resumed.

It is not imperative, but it is a good practice to think about ways to include the congregation in the selection of the sacred music. These are the people who will accompany you through your married life – they may as well begin by accompanying you in song.

Taylor Swift. Photo: Featureflash Photo Agency/
Leave Tae Tae out of the ceremony. Photo: Featureflash Photo Agency/

4. Forever meets eternity

As Catholics, we hold that there are two types of time.

There is the time that we live in, where the future melts into past in that moment we experience as “present” and there is eternity, where God and the Blessed dwell.

During the Wedding Mass there are moments when these two “times” interact.

The first is during the consecration, where the Word becomes flesh, and the Eternal God is made present in time. The second is when the man and the woman promise to “have and to hold” each other “until death”.

The couple’s whole lifetime is somehow contracted into the actions of that single moment of promise. It is incredible, and deserves our full musical attention.

Therefore, the last that you should consider when choosing your music is that it should be timeless.

By ‘timeless’ we mean something that has stood the test of time, something that unites this bride and groom with all brides and grooms that have stood nervously at the altar in the past. This is why Taylor “Tae Tae” Swift should not be the maid given the honour of walking you down the aisle. She is too time-bound.

Instead, imagine having the same music weaving through your wedding day as was sung at the wedding of Mary and Joseph, the days stitched together by song. Is there a comparison?

So, there we have it, four handy things to keep in mind when talking to your parish priest/church musician about the music for your wedding ceremony.

I guarantee the musicians will be so excited about your knowledge, they will fall over themselves to make your day the special, joyous and blessed occasion it is.

But, for now, keep We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together for the reception.

Don’t know where to begin? 

The following list includes some of the most beautiful – and appropriate – songs and music for a truly Christian wedding:

  • Ave Maria (Franz Schubert)
  • For the Beauty of the Earth (John Rutter)
  • Ave Verum (Gabriel Fauré)
  • Hail Queen of Heaven (Fr John Lingard)
  • Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring (JS Bach)
  • Panis Angelicus (Cesar Franck)
  • Sicut Cervus (Giovanni Palestrina)
  • The Lord is My Shepherd (Bach/Gounod or Franz Schubert)
  • Ubi Caritas (Gregorian chant)
  • Wedding March (Felix Mendelssohn)
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