Chant first but no particular style of art?

Fr. Anthony Ruff writes in his piece in GIA Quarterly that certain statements in Sacrosanctum Concilium are in tension with each other. Of this he is certainly correct. But an example he provides – one I’ve seen many times – doesn’t fly. He writes that this is an illustration of the tension: “Gregorian chant is to have first place, but the church has not adopted any style of art as its own (nos. 116, 123).”

You have to look this up to see the error. Section 116 famously said that Gregorian chant is to have first place. But to get to section 123, you have to move past the section on music and here you discover that the sage statement about style concerns architecture and furnishings, not the core music of the Roman Rite.

The Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her very own; she has admitted styles from every period according to the natural talents and circumstances of peoples, and the needs of the various rites. Thus, in the course of the centuries, she has brought into being a treasury of art which must be very carefully preserved. The art of our own days, coming from every race and region, shall also be given free scope in the Church, provided that it adorns the sacred buildings and holy rites with due reverence and honor; thereby it is enabled to contribute its own voice to that wonderful chorus of praise in honor of the Catholic faith sung by great men in times gone by.

We think here of the many Churches in Europe that were converted from the Gothic to the Classical style during the Renaissance (changes that were truly tragic in retrospect). I’m thinking too of the Art Deco at the Loyola University chapel or the Byzantine style of the National Shrine or the modernism of the Oakland Cathedral. All of these are admissible and signs of life and change in art. Rome has no set of blueprints for buildings, no stack of approved patterns for vestments, no molds for statues that everyone must copy. It true to some extent in music, as motets and Mass settings reflect the style of the times (Haydn vs. Palestrina vs. MacMillan). This are always subject to change.

But Gregorian chant is not a style. It is not music that is identified with a particular time or place or people. It is the foundational music of the ritual itself, the music that has lasted throughout the whole history of the rite. It can be substituted with another form but its status as the core, the model, the ideal, never changes. This in fact is what is meant by the seeming proviso “all else being equal” – it means that even if circumstances change that merit some other approach, the status of the chant as the number one form of music is unchanged.

But here we must consider that there is a reason why the Church put this section on changing art styles in the section under architecture and furnishings. It is precisely to avoid the confusion that chant can be entirely displaced. Gothic styles and Art Deco styles can be entirely displace; Gregorian chant cannot be, which is why section 116 says what it says. This was a major contribution of the Second Vatican Council: to settle this issue once and for all.

The upshot of Fr. Ruff’s article is to argue that if we take Gaudium et Spes seriously, we must be open to modernity and adapt our ways to fit it. However, I find nothing in Gaudium that would unseat Gregorian chant from its primary place in liturgy. No, chant does not make Mass a “museum piece” any more than reading the Gospel means that we are somehow stuck in the past. The Gospel and liturgical chant are timeless things.

I really do not understand why people have such a difficult time understanding these distinctions, but apparently this confusion is common. I receive many emails from people who are somehow under the impression that this blog is all about promoting our personal taste and displacing the personal taste of others. Again, the opinion here is not unlike what Vatican II says: there are certain features of liturgy that are beyond taste, and chant is certainly among them.

33 Replies to “Chant first but no particular style of art?”

  1. Thank you, thank you, thank you for your comments! Gregorian Chant is not a musical style to be imitated by liturgical composers – it is the "real deal" to use a trite expression. The Church has consistently, especially in the last couple of centuries, reaffirmed the pride of place that is to be held by Gregorian Chant. There is no mixed message or messages "in tension" with each other here.

    And yet, those who advocate the reintroduction of Gregorian Chant into the liturgy are ridiculed and condemned for wanting to impose our own "personal taste" on the liturgy.

    God grant that we will all be more and more open to hearing what the Church, who gives us the liturgy, calls us to. Amen. (T.P. Alleluia)

  2. This was also the comment by Ruff that struck me and I had the same response. It makes me think of other parts of Sacrosanctum Concilium that are also conventionally taken out of context.

    For example, the infamous SC 14, on active participation. This is found in a chapter on liturgical instruction! The context here is education, not activity! To a non-Catholic who read SC for the first time they would say, "Oh, so the Church really wanted people to study the liturgical texts and rites more closely so that they could be more engaged in the liturgy, I get it." But we're so used to this quote being hijacked for other purposes that we can forget the context.

    If the writers of SC wanted to discuss musical style in more detail they certainly would have put it in chapter 6!

  3. What is worse, that view–that the church has no normative style as applied to music rather than art and architecture–is stated forthrightly in Sing to the Lord, one of the more egregious missteps of that document.

  4. I'll just add my two cents worth, but some one said that Freud never listened to any music because it was too powerful and persuasive. I don't disagree with this statement, especially as a musician. With that in mind it is no wonder that the battles surrounding music, especially in the Church (lex orendi, lex credendi, lex vivendi) can be so bitter. Music seems, of all the arts, to penetrate and affect the soul in the deepest and most profound manner. If the real battle for souls is between heaven and earth, then musicians are deep in the trenches. The question becomes, whose trench are you in?

  5. tangential caveat ALERT-

    Jeffrey, if we want to ensure that people not regard Cafe "is all about promoting our personal taste and displacing the personal taste of others," we (including me) need to be vigilant by not inserting references to the interior architecture of say, Oakland's Christ Our Light Cathedral in proximity to an expression like "truly tragic."
    Like Father Keyes, I've gotten passed the exterior and taken in the interior of said cathedral, and not found it wanting, and in fact quite a powerful statement about worship, spirituality and worship. And that is, simply, a matter of subjective taste on my part. Otherwise, your retort to Fr. Anthony's seemingly relentless and inexplicable crusade is spot on. Thanks.

  6. I know and got that, Jeffrey. If you re-read my brief comment, I just pointed out how "the others" might perceive the "truly tragic" remark in CLOSE PROXIMITY to the cathedral mention, and predictably, perpetually conclude that it WAS a slam, though in fact, not.
    It's all good.

  7. What is truly tragic is that so many pepole on Fr. Ruff's blog site think that his article is well balanced.

  8. What is truly tragic is that so many pepole on Fr. Ruff's blog site think that his article is well balanced.

    Indeed. That would appear to be the balance of the argument there.

  9. pom-poms, pom-poms rah rah rah!

    "As Noel once quoted, 'We have met the enemy and he is us.'"

    Sums it up, I think. Thanks, Charles. Good call.

  10. Father Ruff's argument is baffling given his personal dedication to Gregorian Chant.

    But it does remind me of folks who make moral equivalence arguments when there is no moral equivalence, e.g., abortion is morally equivalent to capital punishment, when the former is an intrinsic evil and the latter is not. Gregorian Chant is indigenous to the Latin Rite and other forms of sacred music are not.

    Perhaps that is why Sacrosanctum Concilium requires that the people of God learn to chant, in Latin, the parts of the Mass proper to them. SC doesn't ask the people to learn to sing polyphony or other forms of sacred music.

  11. Todd, what's up? How did I wander into your cross sights?
    I truly can say I've taken a pretty magnanimous perspective on all things AWR here, there and everywhere.
    That apparently makes me Neville Chamberlain between my friends and "enemies."
    Wow. Thanks.

  12. "How did I wander into your cross sights?"

    I actually agree with you, my friend. I wasn't being sarcastic. My first sentence describes the self-congratulatory narcissism in this thread. I then moved on to the only CC regular with a decent take on this and tried to affirm. Sorry to have given offense.

  13. JT

    I am glad you clarified this often mistaken summation. The other "contradictictions" within SC that Fr. Ruff speaks about… well, if you examine them more closely are not contradictions either.

    Concerning SC nos. 23 and 21 He states:

    “The first quotation is cautious and even skeptical toward liturgical change. The second quotation suggests that texts and rites will need far-reaching changes for the sake of the people.”

    Actually, the "skepticism" of which the document addresses is put forward as a protection against opening the liturgy to abuse. Should that we had paid a bit more attention to that one!

    And then Fr. Ruff forgot to include the last half of the sentence in #1. The completion of that sentence  says "; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing."

    Shoot! We totally blew that one too. 

    There is no contradiction here. It is simply a flag to proceed with caution about introducing innovations to the sacred rites while maintaining the continuity of which it tries to uphold.

    He then says “The contradiction or tension between seemingly opposed positions is found throughout the liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum concilium. Latin is preserved, but vernacular is permitted (no. 36).

    Actually, number 36 of SC reestablishes that Latin is still to be the norm, but vernacular can be used to aid in parts that will help to increase the understanding of the participants in certain prayers and chants, and never to the exclusion of the Latin. It is not setting one against the other, it is allowing a limited use of vernacular in the rites, under the jurisdiction of the authorities that approve translations.

    He continues, “Choirs are to be promoted, but active participation of the people is the aim to be considered above all else (nos. 114, 14)."

    The truth is “Actuoso Participatio” is widely misunderstood to mean that the congregation is to sing as much as possible in exclusion of the choir, soloists or even instrumental music. More accurately, each part(icipant) has a separate role that contribute toward "actual participation" and do not in any way contradict one another. One compliments and enjoys the other.

    As for the contradictory nature that he implies in SC, nos. 116 and 123, well you have dispelled that notion.

    Unfortunately, Fr. Ruff has fallen prey to the very thing he accuses others of doing within his very own article where he says, "Various factions in the church are able to appeal to their favorite passages, while conveniently overlooking passages which are not to their liking."

    What is worse is that he has changed the very meaning of these passages and construed something entirely different than what the Council intended.

  14. We can't escape the fact that the Council opened the Gregorian, the Latin, and the Vernacular genii bottles. The vernacular genii guaranteed and with the full knowledge then of Pope Paul and now of Pope Benedict, that it would be the triumphant genii in the end. Relegating the other two to secondary status.

    I don't think we've seen that happen yet, but you'll see it occurring more and more as the Church finally gets it right, and a vernacular (that is to say an English) liturgy triumphs.

  15. So, I know he was a leading drafter of the statement, but this is the same logic used in the USCCB's "Sing to the Lord."
    I understand the "That's not authoritative" and all that, but it's worth noting that the Bishops agreed with the argument enough to vote for it (as well as it's other statement- "All things are not equal.")

    You might disagree with the logic or the conclusions yourself, but I think it's worth trying to understand why reasonable people (including a renowned scholar with a personal devotion to Gregorian Chant, as well as a number of Bishops) would understand this the way that they do.

  16. Perhaps that is why Sacrosanctum Concilium requires that the people of God learn to chant, in Latin, the parts of the Mass proper to them.
    "Sarsanctum Concilium" has been overtaken by events. For all intents and purposes, it is dead letter. Killed by the last four popes. The vernacular is here to stay.

    Latin will be relegated to those who enjoy attending concert masses and concert halls. Where it belongs. Trying to bring it back into full flower is a fool's errand. You might as well try to resurrect the wearing of togas and laurel wreaths.

  17. Charles, nothing other than wry observation of an historical analogy that came within a gnat’s whisker of Godwin's Law. Interestingly (but in no way relevant to your question), references to Chamberlain on this side of the pond tend to be critical rather than approving, though not invariably so.

  18. "vernacular (that is to say an English) liturgy triumphs. "

    Secularized liturgy? maybe only in haeven, not on this earth. Latin will last as long as the Liturgy remains sacred.

    "The day the Church abandons her universal tongue (Latin) is the day before she returns to the catacombs." Pope Pius XII

  19. Just reiterating how Francis Koerber pointed out to us that Fr. Ruff LEFT OUT AN IMPORTANT PHRASE OF THE PASSAGE HE WAS QUOTING in order to promote his own agenda.

    So sad.

  20. ANON @ 8:41 am

    "Latin will be relegated to those who enjoy attending concert masses and concert halls. Where it belongs. Trying to bring it back into full flower is a fool's errand. You might as well try to resurrect the wearing of togas and laurel wreaths."

    What planet are you living on? Ever hear of the Society of St. John Cantius, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King, etc? These are religious orders that are dedicated to the preservation of the Latin Liturgy and their are others as well, throughout the US and the World. These orders are growing and the number of diocesan clergy learning to celebrate the Liturgy in Latin is growing. So I think your "requiem" for the use of Latin in the Liturgy is a bit premature.

    Also, the biological solution is taking care of the Latin and chant haters, most of whom are greying and in their 60s and 70s. If Sacrosanctum Concilium can be discarded so casually by alleged Catholics, then why not discard other Conciliar Decrees that are "inconvenient"?

  21. In my experience (and many people I know)Latin hepls the sprititual growth of our faith. Instead of limiting God by trying to contain Him to a small box of my reasoning, the sacred language truly lifts me up and helps me to sense God who transcends the time and place. Only- vernacular liturgy can never do this.

  22. I've talked about this elsewhere, but perhaps this story might be helpful in this context as well. A few years ago I attended the Colloquium in Chicago, and one of the campus maintenance men stopped into the chapel. He was wearing a walkie talkie that kept going off so he stepped outside of the church. I was also outside because of a coughing fit, and we got to talking. He said that he loved the music, that it was beautiful, and that the music at his parish was just silly.

    I always think about this good Catholic man when arguments from populism and inculturation arise. They are mistaken, however well-intentioned they may be.

  23. Kathy-

    Ah ha!
    This is an important point, and will (I believe) ultimately prove more important that "we should do such and such because it is right and legal and the Church says so."
    The point being…
    If the so-called populists were really committed to giving people the liturgy that they want, Mass would almost certainly look (and SOUND) different than it does now.
    Perhaps not quite Westminster Cathedral or St. Peters- but certainly not St. Kumba of Ya.

  24. Some obey and trust the Church's wisdom, and others trust their own ways more. Ultimately all will find out the truth.

  25. If Fr. Ruff is right, then the CMAA needs to be renamed. If Fr. Ruff is right, there is no such thing as "Church music." Because ALL music is Church music, according to Fr. Ruff's article… However, this is not what we read in SC, MS, and other Church documents.

  26. The following is an extract of a letter published in The Furrow in February, 1973, by JF Foyle, discussing his experience of the vernacular:

    "When things were in Latin, we followed the words in the vernacular in our missals, often pausing to reflect even if that meant not being in line with the priest's words, though we made sure to be in line for the three peaks — offertory, consecration and holy communion. Sometimes we filled in, in between the peaks, with Rosary-reciting, favourite prayers (often from prayer-books or leaflets).

    Reading, informal praying and reflecting, in between the peaks, played dominant parts in our Mass participation. We had tremendous scope for using our own individual initiative to fill the in-between spaces. The vernacular changed all that and what was designed to increase our participation in the Mass has, in fact, made it awkward for us to participate to our satisfaction.

    We were suddenly left without missals and expected to attend to the priests' words all the time. This ruled out reflecting, as we were kept going keeping up with the words the whole way through Mass. Also, we had little to reflect on — we are far from expert in catching a series of sentences while they are flying. We were virtually forbidden to switch off the words (to reflect or pray via reading or thinking parallel to the priest). It was uncomfortable deliberately switching off, anyway, since the words, being in English, kept obtruding in snatches, something that didn't happen with the Latin (except with some students of the language, and then only when words were said specially loudly). We felt obliged to attend to English words, whereas it was optional with the Latin. We felt inferior at being unable to attend, whereas we felt superior when we succeeded with the Latin.

    This was, and is, a far from pleasant Mass experience. It also resulted in the three peaks ceasing to be peaks in the Mass — they are just parts of the series of words, almost, often (especially the middle one) passing unnoticed, as our minds wander.

    What this suggests is that the liturgists equated the scope for being aware of what was being said with scope for participation. Apart from the Latin allowing for similar awareness (even for illiterates), the equating erred in wrongly estimating the strain going with non-stop listening. It did not allow gaps for reflecting, nor for having another look at the words for that purpose. Nor did it recognize that participation is very much an individual matter, made-up around the priest's Mass words but not rigidly tied to them. The Latin facilitated such individual participation. The vernacular hinders it.

    Liturgists ought to have been aware of such effects of the change-over, since they were predictable from awareness of how those in the pews participated in the Mass. […] Those in the pew automatically, now, mind-wander most of the time when subjected to amplified voices in churches or halls. Their recall of things said in the liturgy of the word, for example, is nearly nil most of the time, just as their recall of newscasts and radio-television discussions is very fuzzy.

  27. …Further, Mass is not attended with very little forethought about the theme of the liturgy and even less afterthought about it. There is little time for thinking about religion, anyway, and seldom is a special attempt made in advance of Mass. Getting there quickly by car lessens the scope for forethought, too. Watch the aftermath — as everybody rushes for cars and papers to provide food for some other kind of thought. The Mass words are part of the pattern of information flow which envelops us daily. They get even less attention than the other words, since so few have them in print for fore and after thought. This has contributed in no small away, I find, to very, very little reading about things spiritual. The taking-away of the missals (or their too slow replacement, which amounts to the same thing, in effect) broke the habit. And it is well and truly broken, now.

    […] Those of my generation who believe in the power of the Mass, and in it being a mortal sin not to participate in Sunday Mass, keep going on that account. It is in spite of the vernacular, not with its aid.

    […] The Rosary beads and the devotional prayers could have a place, again, for individual participation between the peaks. […] All the amplified talking of the introductory rite, liturgy of the word and the homily is a nuisance, when we could be reading and reflecting quietly. Let the Bible readings be relayed to us, maybe, and let the rest be read silently or, at least, with the amplifiers turned off. That way the homily (unamplified) will have a chance of getting attention, too. Let the rest of the Mass be silent mainly, apart from the three peaks and 'Our Father', say, relying on us in the pew to participate in our individual ways, reading and reflecting."

  28. Well, Gregorian chant, as opposed to other types of western chant, is certainly associated with a continent, Europe, and the western portion of that continent, and with Rome in particular, as opposed to France, Spain, Milan, Britain, or other places that had their own style of chant.

    I can respect that church musicians like many of those on this site see it as more than just music, but music+liturgical text. So you are also right: it is a bit more than just a genre.

    I will disagree with my friend Adam: active participation is not only mentioned in SC 14, under the heading of "II. The Promotion of Liturgical Instruction and Active Participation," but also 12, 19, 26, 27, 30, 41, 50, 55, 113, 114, 121, 124. You all know well I quote SC 30 regularly to get at the particular ways the council bishops foresaw the promotion of active participation. Active participation was clearly more on the minds of the council bishops than one particular musical means to get them participating.

    "What is worse, that view–that the church has no normative style as applied to music rather than art and architecture–is stated forthrightly in Sing to the Lord, one of the more egregious missteps of that document."

    I disagree. Music is an art, and while I did think Fr Ruff misstepped in his application of SC, it is true that the Church has promoted by many means, including direct patronage, music of styles other than chant and polyphony. Pride of place does not mean the only place.

    No serious Catholic church musician disagrees about the use of chant in theory, only in degree. And to that end, active participation is simply a higher value than particular musical styles and genres. That said, I also find plainsong to be eminently friendly in the pastoral sphere. I wouldn't think that a 100% chant community would have any problem with an active singing assembly.

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