AN ANY serious Catholic choirmaster or composer not find inspiration in the Renaissance polyphonists―composers such as Josquin, Palestrina, Lassus, Victoria, Tallis, and Byrd, whose music is a veritable miracle? They have an unparalleled gift for setting liturgical texts with a serene lyricism that remains, throughout, a form of evangelical proclamation of the word. No period afterwards ever quite equals them in that regard, although of course the Baroque is overflowing with gems of religious music. But it is certainly not coincidental that the main forms of the Baroque, the opera, oratorio, and cantata, are not Catholic liturgical music. The Baroque is going for drama, and the liturgy, though it has points of comparison with a drama, is nevertheless something inherently different: a contemplative ritual.
Monsignor Richard Schuler pointed out many times that sacred music was strong when the Church was strong, and weak when she was weak. After the Renaissance―more specifically, after the Protestant revolution―the Church lost hold of a part of what it had, the parts that broke away turned more and more secular over the centuries, and the Church has yet to regain the strength and influence over society that would be necessary to turn the tides in favor of sacred forms of expression. Starting with the Baroque (or late Renaissance, depending how you look at it), secular forms ascended to the fore where the sacred forms once stood.
This led, in time, to composers writing “sacred” music that sounded very much like all the secular music being written and enjoyed in their secular societies. Even the mighty Viennese Masses of Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven aren’t written in a genuinely sacred style, but are more operatic, theatrical, audience-oriented. None other than St. Pius X considered these works, despite their masterful artistry, not truly fitting for the sacred liturgy. Oddly enough, however, in our own day―“the most sinful age since the time of Noah,” as Pius XII put it―we find a resurgence of chant and polyphony and a driving desire for the truly sacred. Perhaps this is a new illustration of St. Paul’s ancient principle: “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.”
Monsignor Schuler’s observation can be generalized thus: Catholic culture is strong when the teaching and practice of the Faith are strong, and weak when they are weak. Since the fine arts are one of the most important elements of a culture, they will serve as a barometer of the ideals, or lack of ideals, by which a group of people live. This means that we can accurately gauge the spiritual health of the Church on earth by looking at the physical churches Catholics build, listening to the music Catholics sing, watching how Catholics celebrate their liturgy. A frightening prospect, indeed.
But it is no less true that one can prophesy future healing from the Divine Physician by looking at the beautiful churches beginning to be built, listening to new choirs and scholas springing up to sing chant and polyphony, and watching as an irrepressible wave of traditionalism inches up the enemy’s beachhead. This consolation is not given to us without the sorrow of setbacks and the cross of challenges, but we can be certain that since the Church on earth cannot perish, our Lord will always find ways to bring about genuine renewal―in spite of even the worst decisions of His own representatives. A new springtime will never come from a derailed aggiornamento, it may very well come from the dedicated efforts of a new generation of Catholics who, having rediscovered their own tradition, will never let it be taken away from them again.