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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 resides with his wife and children.
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“Vatican II did not say anything about the direction of the celebrant. […] I love both directions of celebrating Mass. Both are full of meaning for me. Both help me to encounter Christ—and that is, after all, the purpose of the liturgy.”
— Christoph Cardinal Schönborn (February 2007)

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Very Great Mischiefs Which Arise From The Use Of Polyphony By Religious Orders (1610)
published 25 August 2017 by Jeff Ostrowski

4556 Sperabo HESE DAYS, it’s easy to find foolish statements made about church music. This can be discouraging, without a doubt. However, when I was in college, we had to read a lot of material from the Renaissance, and I discovered that throughout history, bishops and cardinals have fought over sacred music—and some of them even published absurd comments!

Did you know Pope Gregory XIII commissioned two of the greatest polyphonic composers—Palestrina and Zoilo—to destroy the Gregorian repertoire? Some felt that plainsong was full of “barbarisms, obscurities, contrarieties, and superfluities.” The king of Spain tried to prevent such destruction:

On 25 November 1577, a Spanish composer named Fernando de las Infantas wrote King Philip II from Rome, advising the king that a new edition was contemplated, Palestrina and Zoilo having undertaken the task of revision at the behest of Pope Gregory XIII. lnfantas complained that the melismas were to be retrenched, ligatures revised to conform with accent, and certain chants to be rewritten so that they would remain within a single tone. Philip II became genuinely alarmed. He not only wrote the Spanish ambassador, instructing him to intercede with the pope, but even dispatched a personal missive to Gregory XIII. Infantas, meanwhile, sent the pope a memorial in Italian in which he said that even Palestrina, after conversation on the matter, agreed that what he had previously deemed “errors” in the chant were not so in reality. “Far from being errors, they were actually admirable musical artifice, which the maestro to whom Your Holiness entrusted the task [of revision], after further study, agreed should in no wise be altered.” lnfantas appealed to Gregory XIII not to undo the work of his great namesake, Pope St. Gregory the Great.

In the end, however, Palestrina’s students did great harm to Gregorian chant—but that’s another story for another day.

Dr. Robert Murrell Stevenson’s awe-inspiring book (Spanish Cathedral Music, 1961) has a captivating footnote which I’d like to share with our readers. Having described 1 the various fights between musicians and theologians over polyphony, Stevenson then includes a tract which appears circa 1610AD.

Although the use of plainchant is a laudable custom, polyphony should not be allowed in religious houses under any circumstances.

First: the singing of polyphony requires special talent of a sort that is quite unrelated to the religious vocation. Then again where part-music is sung, novices are all too often given the habit solely because of their fine voices. Moreover they often rise to positions of authority. But both SS. Gregory and Thomas inveighed against entrusting musicians with such responsibility. The better the singer, the more unlikely he is to be himself either an acceptable preacher, teacher, or exhorter. At best, he attracts other singers into a house, rather than preachers and exhorters.

Second: polyphony of the kind nowadays sung contravenes the very object for which music was first introduced into the church, which purpose is to convert rather than to entertain. SS. Augustine and Bernard considered it sinful to give ear to church music on account of its beauty rather than because of its call to contrition. Navarro has treated of the same sin most learnedly and piously. Singers interested in beauty of sound never pay much heed to the sense of a text and indeed scarcely ever care whether the words can be understood or not. Villancicos sung in the vernacular are a still worse abuse. […] Then to further compound the abuses that polyphony engenders, the majority of religious must invariably sit mute as statues while only a select few gargle their runs. Heaven is better pleased with the sound of a plainchant, even if “there is no beauty in it nor comeliness.” Doctor Navarro made the same point when he told of an old raucous religious who dared to open his mouth at a principal feast. The polyphonic singers stood aghast because of the ugliness of his voice. Suddenly, however, a voice from Heaven interrupted, saying: solus raucus auditur [“only the raucous voice is heard”]. Now, if someone should aver that we would exclude all polyphonic singing from churches administered by secular clergy, we deny the charge. Let the secular brethren have their polyphony if they insist. But religious orders must aspire to higher ideals. They should be nearer angels than men.

Third: religious houses that allow polyphony must usually admit outside singers to eke out parts on important feast-days, at special thanksgivings and the like. These outsiders never fail to sully the purity of the cloister.

Fourth: musicians who inveigle their way into religious orders are for the most part silly, idle, vacillating, vain, effeminate, and even vicious individuals. Ovid well knew the pernicious influence of music when in his Remedia amoris, lines 753-754, he wrote: “The sound of citharas, lyres, flutes, and voices has an enervating influence.” The Greeks always required that instruction in gymnastics be joined to music in order to overcome the effeminacy that music alone induces. When musicians wheedle their way into religious orders they always shy away from work, refuse to arise betimes (especially in winter), insist on favored treatment such as delicate food and other special privileges “in order to preserve their voices.” If not coddled, they apostasize, or desist from their vocation. In any event they never fail to make nuisances of themselves.

Fifth: the strictest groups such as Carthusians, Recollects, and Discalced Friars, have never known such a thing as polyphony. Several Franciscan generals have proposed its abolition. At the recent Friars Minor chapter meeting in Segovia its use was utterly condemned. The Dominicans long ago gave it up absolutely so that they might devote themselves without let or hindrance to sacred learning and to the preaching of the Gospel.

Needless to say, I disagree with this tract—but it’s still fascinating. Leave aside the part saying that plainsong is devoid of beauty. Is this section not hilarious?

When musicians wheedle their way into religious orders they always shy away from work, refuse to arise betimes (especially in winter), insist on favored treatment such as delicate food and other special privileges “in order to preserve their voices.” If not coddled, they apostasize, or desist from their vocation. In any event they never fail to make nuisances of themselves.

Whoever wrote that Tract did not like musicians! Are we really “vicious” individuals?




NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:

1   Bishop Cirillo Franco’s attack on “modern” church music, first published in Lettere volgari di diversi nobilissimi huomini…terzo libro (ed. by Aldo Manuzio [Venice: 1567]), took the form of a letter (dated 16 February 1549, at Loreto) to Ugolino Gualteruzzi sopra l’improprietà delli musici moderni nelle loro compositioni delle messe e canto ecclesiastico.

This letter, which was promptly translated into Spanish, began with a frontal assault on Josquin’s Hercules Mass. As late as 1649 the king of Portugal, João IV, felt the necessity of parrying Franco’s thrusts with a Difensa de la musica moderna contra la errada opinion del Obispo Cirillo Franco. An Italian translation of João’s “Defense of modern music” was published at Venice in 1666. No such defense of church composers from Josquin to Palestrina would have been required, however, had not the Italian bishop’s criticisms found their echo in the writings of certain Spanish moralists. Typical of these “echoes” was a treatise entitled Ynconvenientes, y gravisimos daños que se siguen de que las Religiones tengan Musica de canto de Organo (“Troubles and very great mischiefs which arise from the use of polyphonic music by religious orders”). This tract, which belonged to a collection formed by the historian Gil González Dávila (ca. 1578-1658), dates from the first decade or so of the seventeenth century. A copy is to be seen in MS 14059.11 at the Madrid Biblioteca Nacional. Because of its intimate bearing on the decline of church music after Victoria’s death, this tract is summarized in the following long paragraph. [QUOTED ABOVE with five sections.]

Perhaps the most important official pronouncement on church music, so far as sixteenth-century Spain is concerned, was delivered at the Toledo Provincial Council of 1565. The Actio de Reformatione passed at this council (which brought together prelates from all of Spain) may be seen in Joseph Sáenz de Aguirre’s Collectio maxima conciliorum omnium Hispaniae, Vol. IV (Rome: J. J. Komarek, 1693), p. 50 (par. 11). “Whatever is sung in church must contribute greatly to the glory of God and be understood by the people. Words must not be obscured. Polyphonic singing may be retained but the text must be clearly intelligible. Above all, theatrical music (sonus quid theatrale) and any type that arouses the venereal or warlike passions or those sentiments associated with certain classic modes (classicos modulos) must be rigorously excluded.”