RECENTLY, while staying at a friend’s house during our rough weather in Texas, I was browsing their bookcase, as I am rudely wont to do when in other people’s houses. I noticed that they had on their shelf a collection of the churches’ historical documents on Liturgy and Music. Most of the newer ones I was familiar with, however, when I encountered the Motu Proprio of Pius the X (promulgated in 1903), I realized it had been many years since I had read it. As I delved into this document, I realized that there is much here to contemplate, written by a man with a deep reverence for the Sacred Liturgy and Music of the church, and that there was a great deal of good here that could be applied regarding our present-day liturgical situation. What follows here are some assorted reflections and especially pertinent excerpts from this notable document. What strikes me about this document is the prophetic nature of the vision, and how it clearly speaks to us in our time as well.
The musical praxis of the universal church, when Pius became pontiff on August 4, 1903 was in a very depressed condition. At the turn of the century, and of course, considering the culture of Italy and the city of Rome, opera reigned supreme as the musical genre that was most imitated and admired. This genre, with it’s compositional style, tradition of solo singing, and all the culture surrounding the ethos and tragedia of stage music, had infected the church and her liturgy like a kind of cultural parasite. For many years, Gregorian Chant, Sacred Polyphony such as Palestrina, Victoria and Lassus was replaced by psalms written in the style of romantic opera arias, the chanting of psalms to modal psalm tones of ancient use was replaced by opera singers soloing with psalm pieces written in the style of cavatina, barcarolles, arias, marches and other such secular compositions. Choirs, when they existed, performed music inextinguishable from opera choruses of Meyerbeer and Rossini. At Low Mass, desultory and saccharine vernacular hymns reigned. The practice of Gregorian Chant was almost totally curtailed, and where chant was actually sung, it’s performance practice had nothing to do with an historical interpretation, as indeed, a performance practice based on historical models had been lost. As we can observe, the chief nemesis of the Holy Father’s struggle was…popular music.
The mission of Renewal
It is clear that the pontiff considered carefully about what was needed to restore musical dignity to the liturgy. He sought no temporary measures, but in effect, desired a total overhaul and renewal of the practice of sacred music. It seems that the pontiff must have known what an enormous undertaking that this was. But he needed help, allies in this mission, and he decided to enlist the order of Solesmes, and charged the Solesmes with nothing other than the entire restoration of the corpus of Gregorian Chant , to musicologically investigate the manuscripts of ancient chant, to produce a reliable, universal and useful performing edition, and to reclaim the style of interpretation that was proper to the genre. This took … at least fifty years for this gargantuan task, a task that the Solesmes are still involved in, for their work did not end with the pontiffs’ passing, but of course remains a powerful facet of the charism of their order.
Another observation that occurs when reading this document is that this in no mere cold pronouncement of liturgical law as one might encounter in a folio of canon law. Rather it is a plea, an extortion, a charge to the faithful and their ministers. In beautifully written and often poetical language the pontiff sets forth his sacred vision for renewal. By many phrases, one can see the great affection and esteem that the pontiff held for Chant and the musical treasury of the Church.
Our first quote here, is so commanding, that it struck me that I have never found a better statement which sums up what Sacred Music should be. NOTHING else is needed, and if this advice was heeded, no other instruction would be necessary.
Nothing should have place, therefore, in the temple [which is] calculated to disturb or even merely to diminish the piety and devotion of the faithful, nothing that may give reasonable cause for disgust or scandal, nothing, above all, which directly offends the decorum and sanctity of the sacred functions and is thus unworthy of the House of Prayer and of the Majesty of God.Tra le Sollecitudini, Pius X, November 22, 1903
Can a better summa be found? Just imagine, if this first principle had been followed, what ugliness, bad and painful music, what bad taste and unworthy music would have been avoided! In one paragraph, the pontiff artfully encapsulates the matter.
However, reading on, we find indeed, that the pontiff has a few specific bones to pick, even in a charitable but straightforward way. He levels his sights at the influence and practice of theatrical and operatic liturgy:
6. Among the different kinds of modern music, that which appears less suitable for accompanying the functions of public worship is the theatrical style, which was in the greatest vogue, especially in Italy, during the last century. This of its very nature is diametrically opposed to Gregorian Chant and classic polyphony, and therefore to the most important law of all good sacred music. Besides the intrinsic structure, the rhythm and what is known as the conventionalism of this style adapt themselves but badly to the requirements of true liturgical music.
There is much here to elucidate, but I merely point out what has been pointed out by others, that musical genres which originate outside the church and are ‘dragged in’ often do not adapt well to the liturgical requirements and the sacred sense of the liturgy, the “sensus ecclesiae” mentioned by St. John Paul II.
On the other hand, the Gregorian repertoire is indigenous, to the Roman Rite, and indeed, originated from it in an organic and complimentary way, and so needs, no ‘adaption’ to be suitable.
He laments the “fatal influence on Sacred Art by profane and theatrical music” Continuing, he expresses his personal frustration with the hard heartedness concerning his sheep, the flock in his charge sheep, which as their universal pastor, desires their spiritual well-being, however, in vain:
Even a little reflection on the end for which art is admitted to the service of public worship, and on the supreme fitness of [1.] offering to the Lord only things in themselves good, and [2.] where possible excellent, will at once serve to show that the prescriptions of the Church regarding sacred music are but the immediate application of those two fundamental principles. When the clergy and choirmasters are penetrated with them, good sacred music flourishes spontaneously, as has been constantly observed, and continues to be observed in a great many places; when on the contrary those principles are neglected, neither prayers, admonitions, severe and repeated orders nor threats of canonical penalties suffice to effect any change; for passion, and when not passion a shameful and inexcusable ignorance, always finds a means of eluding the will of the Church, and continuing for years in the same reprehensible way. The liturgical prescriptions of the Caeremoniale Episcoporum and the beautiful musical traditions of the classical Roman school are no longer to be found. For the devout psalmody of the clergy, in which the people also used to join, there have been substituted interminable musical compositions on the words of the psalms, all of them modeled on old theatrical works, and most of them of such meager artistic value that they would not be tolerated for a moment even in our second-rate concerts”
OW! Not tolerated in even a second rate concert?
Any doubt that this pontiff was prophetic can be dispelled by this paragraph…Indeed the French have a saying….the more things change, the more they stay the same.
So, while we have established that the good pontiff wishes for a return and restoration of the treasures of the ‘deposit’ of the past, you might think, that based on his comments and preferences that he would certainly like to purge the Holy Mass of all modern expressions, and banish all modern music from the temple… But wait!
Consequently modern music is also admitted to the Church, since it, too, furnishes compositions of such excellence, sobriety and gravity, that they are in no way unworthy of the liturgical functions.1
I close with this final quote – comparing the need for reform in the Liturgy to the cleansing of the temple by Christ:
And it is vain to hope that the blessing of heaven will descend abundantly upon us, when our homage to the Most High, instead of ascending in the odor of sweetness, puts into the hand of the Lord the scourges wherewith of old the Divine Redeemer drove the unworthy profaners from the Temple.
So, with this beautiful letter to the church, I end my little reflection, and hope that you might consider these issues that the Pontiff puts forth – so apropos for today, written 118 years ago!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 St. John Paul II takes this thought even further: in his Letter to Artists that…“contemporary music even of the most modern kind should be permitted in the liturgy”