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A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two children.
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“If the right is given to African tribes to include their pagan traditions in the liturgy, I think the same should also be given to the rite of a thousand year-old Christian Church, based on a much older Roman tradition.”
— Professor László Dobszay

Church music need not sound “Catholic” says drafter of USCCB guidelines
published 9 March 2014 by Jeff Ostrowski

749 NPM Mag N 2009, NPM PUBLISHED a lecture by one of the drafters of Sing to the Lord. Generally speaking, I think STL is quite a good document, so I was surprised and troubled to read certain statements made by a key player in its creation.

The lecture itself is by Fr. Anthony Ruff and much could be said about its various sections. For example, he calls Catholics who favor chant “conservatives” and those who don’t “liberals.” I’m not accustomed to seeing such language in a scholarly liturgy paper and, for myself, I find it unhelpful. However, more extensive analysis will have to wait, because today I will focus on just one concept.

Fr. Ruff does not consider “some styles or genres to be holier than others.” Specifically, he says attempting to “distinguish sacred music from secular music” constitutes a “throwback to the 19th-century Cecilian reform movement.” He goes on to assert that the repertoires held up by Sacrosanctum Concilium (Gregorian chant & Roman polyphony) do not, in fact, possess “greater sacrality” than other musical styles. He feels that efforts to make such distinctions are “on thin ice philosophically, historically, and musicologically” and gives as evidence a paragraph from his 1998 doctoral dissertation:

In Franko-Flemish polyphony of the fifteenth century, there is the same vocal style throughout and the same musical technique of cantus firmus development, with no difference in style between church music and secular music. Similarly, one is unable to find any clear stylistic difference between Palestrina’s Masses and his secular madrigals … Monteverdi borrowed the orchestral music from the prologue to his secular opera “Orfeo” for the “Deus in adjutorium” of his Vespers. One is unable to establish a clear stylistic difference between Mozart’s chamber music and his sacred music.

I’m surprised the NPM editors allowed such an inaccurate statement to be printed.

First of all, it is absolutely wrong to assert that secular genres of the Renaissance — frottola, rondeau, villancico, etc. — are composed in exactly the same style as sacred music. While some madrigals certainly resemble sacred works (especially to ears unfamiliar with Renaissance compositions), more diligent study reveals differences: e.g. stronger emphasis on “tone painting” in madrigals. Furthermore, much secular music from that period was improvised, so we have no record of it. Even when it was written down, people of that time often did not preserve it, since it was considered somewhat unimportant. Even Church compositions were frequently discarded in a way that seems strange to us. (To correctly assess the situation, it is necessary to avoid looking at things through a “Year 2014” lens.) Without a doubt, secular music may possess great dignity, and sometimes may resemble sacred styles, but this has no effect on the fundamental distinction. To misconstrue this is every bit as illogical as saying, “My dog is black, so all dogs must be black.”

Some Renaissance composers did use secular melodies for cantus firmi, but they “elevated” the tune by adding elaborate polyphony (in essence “burying” the secular tune). By the way, even this concept can be complex, as you’ll discover if you read about this scintillating discovery regarding the “secular” tunes of Machaut.

Fr. Ruff’s overall claim was often put forward during the 1970s. In essence, it says that if we can prove certain secular forms in the past resembled sacred music of the time, this will “legitimize” the full-scale adoption of secular styles we observe in so many Catholic churches today. For example, a 2011 Mass setting by composer Dan Schutte — extremely popular in the United States — was probably lifted from the My Little Pony theme song.

FOR THE SAKE OF ARGUMENT, LET’S ASSUME that Fr. Ruff is correct. Let’s assume one can find historical periods where little distinction was made between sacred and secular music. (I have often pointed to the Classical period in this regard.) In the end, it makes no difference. Think, for example, of the reform under Pope Pius X. That good Pope wasn’t trying to maintain the status quo — he attacked the status quo! He demanded major changes! The argument for dignified liturgical music and more reverent liturgies rests on whether the genres held up by the Church are intrinsically appropriate for worship, not whether Monteverdi used part of Orfeo for his Vespers.

Let us carefully consider words spoken by Pope John Paul II in June of 1980:

“To the extent that the new sacred music is to serve the liturgical celebrations of the various churches, it can and must draw from earlier forms — especially from Gregorian chant — a higher inspiration, a uniquely sacred quality, a genuine sense of what is religious.”

I hope to explore other troubling statements from that lecture at a later date. In particular, I’d like to examine the following assertion made by Fr. Ruff:

The question is not whether a particular piece sounds like chant or Palestrina or whether it sounds “Catholic.”

This article is part of a series:

Part 1   •   Part 2