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September 05, 2006

Sacred Music, part VI

Perhaps you think I am going to say that the problem came from the 60s.  It didn't, at least not originally.  As far as I can tell, the state of church music has its ups and downs over the centuries like everything else, but the beginning of this big down cycle came in the 1700s or so.  Reformers, most notably Pope Pius X, tried with might and main to remedy the situation.  They made some progress, but it was almost all undone by the conservative reaction of the 60s, which most people think of as liberal, but I say was reactionary since it tried to bring back, in a different shape, the bad old days (sacred-musically speaking) of the 1800s.

How do I get off saying this?  Because at that time, as now, the sacred music tradition of the Church was largely ignored for non-sacred religious music, including what was basically entertainment music with (most of the time) religious words - a musical-spiritual dislocation.

One of the important principles for what can be allowed as sacred music, that you'll see from the Fathers of the Church down to the present has always been that the more it puts people in mind of the marketplace or the theater, the less appropriate it is for the sanctuary.  Different music symbolizes different sorts of stuff.  Some of the associations are a bit arbitrary, some are deeper reaching and more based on human nature, but even the former ones are still very powerful, as I wrote about in an earlier.

There is a sense that the things that are the best should be used to worship God, being "baptized" if necessary.  This impulse, that the best should be used to worship God, is why such things exist as beautiful churches and beautiful altars and sacred vessels and beautiful sacred music.  It shows visibly what we think of God and the worship of God.  So many good things have come into the Church this way, in music, art, architecture, and other ways.  But it can be abused.  One mistake is to enforce an excess of strictness in the interest of preserving purity, the other extreme is an excess of permissiveness.  The East perhaps tends more towards the first; they have their own problems.  In the West, the Latin branch of the Church, we have been more guilty of the latter.

At the end of the Medieval era, Gregorian chant, the sacred chant which is the music par excellence of the Western Church, was suffering through a period of decadence.  The need for reform and "resourcement" was not so urgently felt though, because around the time of the Renaissance really great music was being developed which combined the same sacred spirit and power as the chant with the special genius of Renaissance polyphony.  Palestrina is the most famous composer in this genre.  The music is justly famous and is cited in the Vatican II constitution on the liturgy as an exemplar of true sacred music.  It is an example of how new types of music can properly be adapted by the Church into her treasury of sacred music.  After its heyday, though, chant was not revived.  The next cultural big thing was opera.  Apparently, people decided that opera was the best music, and the best should be used to worship God, so opera music should be used at Mass.

This wasn't the best choice, but it wasn't a stupid idea either; so that I don't make too big a digression maybe I'll write about it later.  But opera music is very, very theatrical.  Opera held sway for quite a long time, I guess, as the cultural apex of European music, and things kind of went downhill until people weren't judging the church-opera music on the basis of how good sacred music it was, but sacred music on the basis of how theatrical and entertaining it was.  Whatever church music "horror story" you may have, I've probably heard stories from the 1800s that can match it (ok, except the one I heard about using John Lennon's Imagine as a communion piece).

When Pope St. Pius X ascended to the chair of Peter, he was dismayed to observe that although one would expect that visitors to Rome would find the sacred liturgy celebrated best and most properly there, it was actually where they would find the most egregious abuses, musically speaking.  St. Pius was not some artistic or musical nitpicker; he was noted for being a pastor first and foremost, and he saw inappropriate music contributing to a pastorally bad situation.  So he focused on the on the core of Catholic sacred music - Gregorian chant - and tried to restore it.  Tried.  Hard.  He actually banned opera music.  But he met with a lot of resistance and inertia.  His successors carried the torch through Vatican II.  To hear some people talk, it was all chant in parishes before Vatican II.  But I think that even though I wasn't alive then I can conjecture a more accurate picture that fits the facts.  More on this later, if I think of it.

After the Council people took advantage of their new freedom to go back to the old ways of entertainment music.  But now there was no consensus of what the "best" entertainment music was.  Some thought that it was pop music.  Some thought that it was folk music.  Some thought that it was Broadway musical-like music.  Some thought that it was other things, like rock music, or polka.  Most everyone just wants to go his own way and hardly anyone wants to find out what the Church teaches and why it might be important.  Thus when you open up the typical hymnal you get an assortment of all different things - showtune or other such-inspired stuff, folk and pseudo-folk, wannabe pop, adapted Protestant hymns (many of which are more explicitly Catholic than the stuff written today for Catholic hymnals [but I digress]), and more.  How the hymnal situation in America came about is an interesting story in itself.  Maybe I'll talk about that later.  I've tried to give a rough sketch of things here, but I know I've oversimplified and left lots out.  I haven't even talked about the "Liturgical Movement" (which if you think that there was no attempt at reform before the Council, you've never heard of), or the development of music in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to the faithful on sacred music ("chirograph" implies that he "wrote" it with his own "hand," not that someone else prepared it and he signed it), but who's read it?

Posted by Thomas A. on September 5, 2006 at 01:34 PM | Permalink


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