ISHOP RACOZONUS, speaking at the Council of Trent’s final session (1563), declared: “You have removed from the celebration of the Mass all superstitions, all greed for lucre, and all irreverence…removed its celebrations from private homes and profane places to holy and consecrated sanctuaries. You have banished from the temple of the Lord the more effeminate singing and musical compositions.” But twenty years later, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was still composing using secular tunes; e.g. in 1582 he wrote a L’homme armé Mass but called it “Missa Quarta.” Yet those involved with the Council of Trent specifically recommended the music of Palestrina (along with that of the composer-priest, Vincenzo Ruffo), and more will be said about this below.
Scandals In The Church: At Mass yesterday, we had the parable of the wheat and the cockle. Why are so many sinners involved with the Catholic Church? Fulton J. Sheen used to say: “If the Church were as holy as some people wish, we’d be too ashamed to join because of our sins.” The reality is, some Church leaders are ignorant and sinful. Consider a 1968 USCCB document—The place of music in Eucharistic celebrations—which said: 1
The assembly—or many of its members—are still in need of evangelization. The liturgy, which is not meant to be a tool or evangelization, is forced into a missionary role. In these conditions, the music problem is complex. On the one hand, music can serve as a bridge to faith, and therefore greater liberty in the selection and use of musical materials may be called for. On the other hand, certain songs normally called for in the climate of faith (e.g. psalms and religious songs), lacking such a climate, may create problems rather than solve them.
Problematic To Sing Psalms? It was scandalous for the Bishops’ committee to declare that singing psalms at Mass “may create problems.” Moreover, notice their document foolishly and arrogantly refers to sacred music as a “problem.” That reminds me of a damning statement (“they begin by despising everything that is actually there”) by Cardinal Antonelli, who served as the Secretary of the Conciliar Commission on the Liturgy. To give you some context, 1968 was the same year the Sacred Congregation of Rites introduced eight further Prefaces and released several Eucharistic Prayers—which could substitute for the ROMAN CANON. According to Monsignor Schmitt, that USCCB statement (“greater liberty” etc.) was used to justify using bizarre secular songs during Mass, including songs from a 1968 movie called Funny Girl.
Recognizing Reality: This would not be the last time Church authorities would publish a foolish liturgical statement. We must recognize this reality, just as we must understand that former popes have done horrible things. For example, Pope Stephen VI excavated the dead body of a previous pope, put his corpse (!) on trial in the Lateran Basilica, appointed a deacon to supply the “voice” of the dead pope, and cut off three fingers of the corpse as “punishment.” The recent publication of Traditionis Custodes—which ignores thirty years of scholarship on the 1970 Missal—is yet another sad example of a pope being ill-served by his ghost writers.
Missa “My Little Pony” Speaking of Church scandals, consider Dan Schutte’s Mass of Christ the Savior (2011 © Oregon Catholic Press). It should never have been approved by ICEL, since it changes the official text—but please understand that “big” publishing companies don’t follow the same rules as the little guy. People refer to this Mass as “Missa My Little Pony,” and here’s why:
Contrast that with a strong statement found in the American Ecclesiastical Review (1951): “It is absolutely forbidden that any music should be performed in Church, however brief it may be, which contains themes drawn from theatrical works … or profane pieces such as national hymns, popular songs, etc.” And this was in response to a “Fatima Song”—what would they have thought of My Little Pony?
A False Argument: Some might object: “But Renaissance composers based their Masses on secular tunes, so that makes what Dan Schutte did okay.” Others point out that Pietro Cerone (d. 1625)—in his famous treatise—begins the chapter on how to compose a Mass with: “Take a good chanson tune.” However, this is nonsense. Dr. William Mahrt, a Stanford professor, has reminded us: “the process of incorporating [a secular cantus firmus] was to transform it thoroughly by the context of the contrapuntal sacred style.” In other words, the Renaissance composers elevated and ennobled the secular tunes they used, transforming them into something unambiguously sacred. Consider the following examples:
All three of those compositions are based upon a secular chanson tune—but would any normal person in the year 2021 recognize them as secular? Remember that the pipe organ was originally a secular instrument, and its use for the Mass was strictly forbidden. But as the centuries passed, it lost its secular associations. Eventually, it was adopted by the Catholic Church as the preëminent sacred instrument (Sacrosanctum Concilium, §120).
Council Of Trent: I had originally intended to write about what the Council of Trent said vis-à-vis sacred music, but I see my article is already too long. Therefore, let me be brief: The Council of Trent made very few statements on music. The official statement from the Council of Trent simply said: “Keep out of your churches the kind of music in which a base and suggestive element [“anything lascivious or impure”] is introduced into the organ playing or singing, and similarly all worldly activities, empty and secular conversation, walking about, noises and clamorous cries, so that the house of God may truly be called and be seen to be a house of prayer.” My friends, that’s not very specific, is it?
The “Spirit” Of The Council: However, it’s possible to discern “the spirit” of the Council of Trent by reading the conversations that took place behind the scenes. Generally speaking, the “spirit of the Council of Trent” was interested in the following:
1. Clarity of Text :
That is, making sure the words were intelligible. The Missa Papae Marcelli makes the lyrics “comprehensible” because the phrases usually start out in chords before breaking into a more polyphonic texture. [Palestrina perhaps wrote his Pope Marcellus Mass in response to an event that took place on Good Friday in 1555, when Pope Marcellus II (d. 1555)—three days after starting his reign—called all his singers together and requested that “the music for Holy Week should be more in keeping with the character of the occasion and that, as far as possible, the words should be clearly understood.”]
2. Elimination of Tropes :
Towards the end of 16th century, composers such as Guerrero stopped using tropes in their settings for the Ordinary of the Mass. An example of a “trope Mass” would be Father Guerrero’s Missa De Beata Virgine I (1566).
3. Nothing Obscene :
Orlando de Lassus once wrote a Mass based on a a secular chanson that was lascivious.
4. Nix Multiple Languages :
That is, elimination of motets which used multiple languages simultaneously: e.g. Latin, French, and German.
5. Curtailment of Liturgical Compositions :
That is, making sure the pieces were not excessively lengthy, sometimes repeating the same word or phrase over and over. Also discouraged were “worldly and lengthy organ compositions.”
6. Recommend Specific Composers :
Several composers were put forth as exemplary. That is to say, other composers were encouraged to imitate Masses by Giovanna da Palestrina, Jacobus de Kerle, Vincenzo Ruffo, Orlando de Lassus, and Giovanni Animuccia.
7. No More “Representatives” :
From what I can tell, Cathedral Canons often had somebody else (!) do their singing at the Divine Office. The bishops complained: “The first abuse of these singers arises from the fact that many of them do not even know one note from another, as they say, and are in fact unskilled in any phase of music.” In 1563, the Council of Trent declared: “It is decreed that all clerics are obliged for the future to take part in the Divine Office personally, and not through a representative; they are, moreover, obliged to … sing in Choir the prescribed hymns and chants in praise of God reverently, distinctly and devoutly.”
Saving Polyphony: Some bishops at the Council of Trent wanted to eliminate polyphony and have plainsong only. At the insistence of two “musical” cardinals, the Papal Choir assembled on 28 April 1563 Vitellozzo Cardinal Vitelli’s home to sing some Masses and see whether the words were intelligible. André Pons claims three Masses by Palestrina were sung that day. (If only recording devices were around in the 16th century!) It would seem the “test” was a success, because polyphony was not eliminated. Indeed, a Mass by Palestrina was sung prior to the motu proprio of Pope Pius IV (2 August 1564). Furthermore, on 19 June 1563, Palestrina was requested to conduct a Mass in the Sistine chapel for Pope Pius IV. Afterwards, the Pope declared that such music should continue in the Catholic Church.
So what’s the point? First of all, the Catholic Church has never been “perfect”—it has always had to struggle against “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” So we must never pretend we’re the first Catholics to experience a crisis of faith; indeed, our Redeemer Himself chose Judas as one of His disciples! These days, it’s become fairly common to read about Catholics who decide to abandon the Catholic Church because they discover Church leaders who commit sin. I’m sorry, but that’s not a valid reason to renounce Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact, that’s the whole point. We’re fighting against sin, and it’s serious business! This is not a game—in spite of how certain “Catholic” bloggers act online. Nobody is “immune” from sin. If somebody told you Catholic priests or bishops are immune from sin, you were lied to.
Secondly, I’m not convinced it’s extremely difficult to discern what music is appropriate for the Holy Mass. I think any serious Catholic will “sense” that a Mass based on My Little Pony is wrong. Nor do I believe that somebody needs a doctoral degree to locate the treasury of sacred music. I admit that after the Second Vatican Council, it was difficult to locate a decent Catholic hymnal, but that problem has been 100% solved by the Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Please don’t email me attempting to prove the “NCCB” is significantly different from the “USCCB.” I have zero patience for Nomenclature Nonsense. Numerous valid ways of referring to the “United States of America” exist, such as: USA, the nation, the country, the homeland, and so forth. Whether you call me “Jeff” or “Jeffrey” I’m still the same person. Full stop. — By the way, the quote here is courtesy of Monsignor Francis P. Schmitt, and you can verify his accuracy by comparing it to this newspaper article from 1968.