“The first problem was the intelligibility of the text.” Msgr. Charles Pope reflects on the historical reception of new forms of sacred music.

I’d forgotten about this fantastic essay until yesterday. Msgr. Pope thinks about the modern musical controversies by looking backwards over the centuries.

This controversy took place during the years of the Council of Trent, and though some scholars are dubious of all the details, it is reported that there were Council Fathers who were serious about seeing that sacred polyphony was forever banned from the Catholic liturgy. Among those who came to the rescue, I am happy to report, was my patron Saint, St. Charles Borromeo.

Read the whole thing here.

8 Replies to ““The first problem was the intelligibility of the text.” Msgr. Charles Pope reflects on the historical reception of new forms of sacred music.”

  1. A significant commentary on Msgr. Pope's article was posted by 'David' (a Catholic, a church musician, and doctoral candidate in music) on Dec. 10, 2013. Among other things, after raising some debatable aspects of Msgr. Pope's account of the earliest church music history, this commentary by 'David' points out:

    "… the narrative expounded in the article of new musical styles continually needing to be accepted as sacred, belies the fact that the new styles were quite often composed with the intention of their being sacred, i.e. the music displayed the historical attributes of sacred music (or at least the composers thought so), and the compositions were meant to stand in that tradition."

    I think that this observation about the intent behind new styles is often overlooked and misunderstood.

    Upon reading the article, I also posted a reply (still to be moderated) about the false assertion that "scholars worked to study harmony, using, of all things, the Pythagorean theorem to mathematically set forth the harmonic scale." The fact that Pythagoras proved his eponymous theorem of geometry as nothing at all to do with his discovery of the natural overtone series and his application of this knowledge to fashion a (then) modern harmonic scale.

  2. Methinks the good monsignor doth protest too much. Why does Msgr. Pope find it necessary to present such an extensive argument in defense of the Gospel-music liturgies at his parish?

    Justice Stewart famous observation "I know it when I see it," also applies to sacred music: "I know sacred music when I hear it." We shouldn't need pages of documentation to prove that a certain style of music possesses "holiness, beauty of form and universality." (Tra le sollicitudini)

    It's not rocket science. Sacred music ought to be instantly and universally recognizable as sacred music. I maintain that if you take any five year old and play different types of music and ask him/her, which is "church music" and which is "party music," the answers would be pretty consistent.

  3. Julie, as sympathetic as I am towards your sensibilities (as you well know,) your last paragraph and maybe the "pornography" axiom in this era ultimately fails in a universal sense due to our informed and cultural biases. You don't even have to travel to Papua New Guinea to find a five year old who would not make that distinction, I can find them in my Kindergarteners here in Central California, as I'm sure there are plenty in the Big Apple.
    The key word is era. The perspective of time and timelessness is measured in eras in ecclesia. It is not so in this current era ex ecclesia, hasn't been since circa 1870, much less 1903.
    The "success" of cultural grafting of polyphony into indigenous cultures in the New World during the era of exploration had more to do with direct culture conflict and indoctrination. And as admirable as those goals and product are now romantically recalled via films like "The Mission," one has to remember that as time moved from discovery to colonization, the cultural ties to Europe were loosened. Out here one only needs to cite S. Junipero Serra for the eventual establishment of newer idioms of sacred music in the mission system that went far beyond accomodations of "villancico" and such permutations of polyphony.
    I don't want this comment to be a treatise, so I'll just close by saying it's our job to re-orient (pun intended) our five year olds away from the iPod mentality (cafeteria model) of anything goes. When they squirm their ways through the church door, they need to hear, absorb and integrate the idioms you and I cite as obviously sacred into their cells. That's easier said than done. But with folks like you, MACW, KP, David Hughes, Wendi Schroeder and places like the Madeleine and Boston's school, we are making headway.

  4. Charles, thanks so much as always for your fascinating reply. You add so many different layers to a discussion that I never suspected were there. I was actually thinking of how the indigenous cultures in South America easily assimiliated Gregorian chant and polyphony. Pope Benedict XIV spoke in 1749 enthusiastically of chant (and even accompanied chant, if I'm not mistaken!) having reached the shores of Paraguay.

    Another probably less-known example of native Africans embracing chant and sacred music can be found in the life of Arbp. Marcel Lefebrve who, as a missionary everywhere he went, taught the people of Dakar, in Senegal, the chanted ordinaries of the Mass. When he re-visited them decades later, they could still sing them perfectly.

    I know I can't prove it, but I believe people in any era, in any place, in any culture possess a primal instinct which enables them to differentiate between sacred and secular music. No matter who you are or what your background, authentic sacred music will produce a different response from you than secular music.

    You can see it in the video of Msgr. Pope's congregation. Gospel music (which I love) invariably evokes clapping, swaying, and dramatic emotional response from people. You'd have to be made of cement not to get emotionally involved in it—-but, and I mean no disrespect by this question—-is that the proper behavior for Mass?

    On the other hand, well-performed chant and polyphony and the great standard hymns also invariably evoke much more of a spiritual/contemplative responses from people, no matter who they are or what their background is. Heck, I've seen music of this type will produce the same peaceful, soulful response in dogs and cats!!

    Ditto for other types of music which produce their own characteristic emotional responses, so if you're seeking to program a particular response from people, you must plug in that kind of music. Stores do it, offices do it, and parish DM's do it, too.

  5. Just one more point, if I may, to clarify even more:

    When I make music selections for our EF Missa Cantata, I very much consider, besides textual questions, what atmosphere is created by a specific composition and the emotional response it generates.Overall, I strive to create as much as possible a rich, contemplative, dignified musical setting. In other words, I don't want my Latin Mass congregation swinging in the aisles, but I also don't want music that is saturated with sentimentality, even if it is "Catholic" music.

    I had a nice conversation with our vocal teacher who suggested that my husband sing Pieta, Signore at Mass someday since it has beautiful Catholic sentiments. Besides the fact that it isn't in Latin, I had to explain that the Mass wasn't the most appropriate place to display such a surfeit of drama and passion—as magnificent as it is.

    I've almost forgotten the point of all this, but I think what I'm trying to say is sacred music is sacred when it elicits in most people restrained and refined sentiments of peace, devotion, holy joy, piety, spirituality,and contemplation and "programs" them to be ready to participate with their whole heart, mind and soul in the Mass.

  6. Beautifully, expertly stated, and we are in consensus!
    Ethos? A must.
    Pathos? If warranted.
    Bathos? Anathema.

    "Aren't those guys the Three Musketeers?" Nope, as I am Porthos!

  7. Thank you, Charles, and that's a real winning formula you have there for more things than sacred music, though you might want to stick Logos in there somewhere.

Comments are closed.