The Tablet says that Benedict XVI will celebrate Mass with large parts in Latin when he visits the UK in Sept. Pray Tell says that this is the first time since the Mass went vernacular, which doesn’t sound quite right. In any case, even if the decision is tied to the current transition to a new translation in English, this is a very good sign. Vatican directives have long specified Latin for large international liturgical events.
All Christians embrace the claim that the Bible constitutes the definitive book of Christian truth. This idea is so ingrained in Christian communities that many people without historical understanding suppose that the earliest Christians had the book somehow handed to them directly from the Apostles or perhaps even from the Heavens.
Catholics have a more refined understanding. Truth came before the text, and this is one reason we revere tradition. The Bible as a unified book emerged from deliberation by learned theologians and clerics over the course of four centuries, as many writings were investigated for soundness and excluded or included based on conformity with Christian truth.
Absolute discipline was required during this process since this was a time of remarkable creativity for heresy as well. Bogus texts, pseudo-prophets, vagrant doctrinal amalgams, counter-churches, peculiar practices, and outright hoaxes were everywhere. Sorting through this textual chaos was a priority for the Christians but it took centuries.
The nucleus of what later became the New Testament is in evidence from the late 2nd century. The earliest dateable inventory of canonical Scriptures is from Athanasius’s Easter Letter of 367. The Council of Hippo of 393 was the first to require a specific canon of scripture to be used for public readings.
It was during this very period when the music of the Christian Church was being codified as well. This is hardly surprising, if you think about it, but while we tend to think and write often about the origin of the Bible, very little of the same effort is put into thinking about the origin of Christian song. We know that the earliest Christians took over Psalm singing from Jewish worship, while eschewing the secular dance styles of Greeks, but in what way was the use of music regulated as text were?
The Council of Laodicea, a regional synod of bishops held in the 4th century in Asia, was the first to overtly regulate the production of music. Given the times and the emphasis on rooting out error, writes Christopher Page in The Christian West and Its Singers (2010), “the bishops at Laodicea could not possibly regard the canonicity and textual authority of materials used by their singers with indifference. The time had come for decisive intervention.”
The council said that music could only be sung by “regularly appointed” singers who could also read from parchment (not merely papyrus, which was cheaper and more likely to include fraudulent texts). The singers, regarded as more than mere hirelings for an occasion, could not visit taverns. Most importantly for our purposes, there could be no singing of improvised or made-up songs in services. Only canonical books could be sung. The ban was emphatic: there could be no singing of Gnostic gospels, hymns celebrating then-popular angel worship, much less poetry made up on the spot by some popular mystic.
Why is this?
The bishops understood that what was sung was just as important as the printed texts, perhaps even more important, for what people came to believe about Christianity teaches. Inevitably, then, the music had to undergo a process similar to that which took place concerning the texts. The matter that had to be first addressed was: what texts? And that matter of the source material was settled in approximately the same time frame as the issue of the what constituted Christian texts too.
The council did not address the issue of style. That was left to later Church legislation. But that is perhaps because there was no real controversy here. It had long been established that rhythmic music drawn from the world of taverns and commerce and theater were not admissible. The chant was of a musical structure free enough to accommodate the text, and that is for a reason: the word is given priority over the tune. The silence of Laodicea seems to indicate the absence of a problem in this respect.
It is Professor Page’s opinion that the strict regulation of text was a response to an immediate problem that “there were churches were psalmody was no longer regarded as a form of reading.” The bishops sought to reinforce the long-standing practice in which the purpose of singing in liturgy was inseparable from the practice of praying and teaching from scripture (the term lector later came to be used interchangeably with singer).
There was the further matter of the organization of texts within the liturgical calendar. That would be addressed and codified in later centuries, most famously by Pope Gregory (hence Gregorian chant refers not only to the music itself but the liturgical organization and purpose of the music). The rendering exact shape of the melodic structure of the chants in the Roman Rite would take place centuries later, and, in fact, this is still an ongoing process. But in general, the question of the music book of the Roman Rite of Mass was and is a settle matter: the Graduale Romanum (a book that not 1 in 100 Catholic musicians today has ever hear of).
The analogy between the Bible and liturgical texts can’t be pushed too far, since with music we are dealing with a changing and evolving art and not something frozen in time. There is always room for new composition and organically evolving style that builds on the chant foundation. Still the analogy reveals something that is widely forgotten today: that the music of the liturgy is part of and inseparable from the liturgy itself, as important as the Scriptures read in lessons or the doctrine taught in sermons.
It makes no sense to place a high emphasis on authentic texts, sound teaching, good doctrine, and leaving all aspects of music to the whim of musicians and commercial music publishers, as if the Church should have nothing to say about the matter. In fact, throughout the history of the Roman Rite, this has been largely a settled matters. The music that would be sung at Mass, for example, would be rooted in chant and use the texts of the propers and ordinary of the Mass. Later on, the sequences were permitted as part of liturgical music. None of these texts were options. Any additional music was permissible only as a much lower level of priority.
This understanding was in place from the earliest centuries up to our time. In fact, when Pius X’s motu proprio on music came out in 1903, the director of music for St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York told the press that the Pope’s insistent on Gregorian chant would not imply any changes in their existing program. They sang all the propers of the Mass with Gregorian chant, and the ordinary similarly used the texts of the Mass with polyphonic and other music. The cathedral’s music program would proceed exactly as before.
In our own times, we have extreme problems in the area of both style and text. The undisputed understanding that had been with us from the earliest centuries has been smashed by convention and culture. A tiny proviso of the Missal of 1969/79, one that permitted the propers to be replaced by other “appropriate songs” unleashed a kind of chaos that reminds us of what the bishops gathered at Laodicea must have faced.
But contrary to what many people think, this is not just a postconciliar problem. Legislation from the 1950s permitted vernacular hymnody, with no regulation of texts, as part of Low Mass in special circumstances (this practice was widespread long before). Many of the fathers of the Second Vatican Council actually sought to put an end to this problem and thus did the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy put such a strong emphasis on singing Mass texts and on Gregorian chant.
I had a long discussion with Fr. Samuel Weber earlier this year in which he really brought home to me the point that we really do face a two-part problem that can easily be divided into text and style. It’s his own view that the textual issue has received too little attention. We need to be singing the propers of the Mass itself, and whether we do that in English or Latin is not as central (right now) as the problem that most musicians believe that they can sing anything they please.
The natural response of many to this is: let’s have more legislation. I would personally like the permission to replace propers with other unspecified songs to be completely and immediately repealed. That change requires legislation. Beyond that, change can occur without big decisions from on high. Education in the very meaning of liturgical music itself is the most important priority.
The core point that needs to be emphasized: not just any music is appropriate for Mass any more than just anyone’s scribblings are entitled to be called the Word of God. When Luther decided to take on the Catholic Church, he produced his own Bible that raised fundamental questions about the canon of books. And when modern secularists seek to debunk settled Christian teaching, the wave silly Gnostic texts around. So too, the opponents of sacred music can be found hocking their own texts and their own musical styles that have nothing to do with the treasury that Vatican II called on us to preserve and pass on to the next generation.
Here is David Byrne (once of the band “Talking Heads”) speaking on how precisely the music is crafted to fit the venue. His treatment of cathedral acoustics is as superficial as his understanding of liturgical music. But his point is still a strong one: the space and the music are one. This is critical to remember when we try to make sense of the historical coincidence of strange church architecture, carpeted rooms, amplification systems, and pop music in liturgy. This issue also weighs heavily on new scholas who are attempting to sing in church environments that have been constructed around the expectation of pop music.
Fr. Lawrence A. Donnelly beautifully puts it all into perspective with excerpts from 100 years of Church teaching. People are always saying that Rome should speak out on the music question and put an end to all the nonsense that is driving people away from their parish and keep the liturgy from singing in its true voice. Well, Rome has spoken out, again and again and again.
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Everyone once in a while I receive word from a traditionalist congregation that someone has discovered Pope Pius X’s motu proprio on music and insists on imposing it on the parish to the letter, with no knowledge of the long history of controversy in the United States when the document first came out or of any of the qualifiers and conditions embedded in the document’s structure. The press, even when the document first appeared, was full of claims that the Pope had banned all music but chant and forbid women from singing in choirs. Neither was true but confusion was everywhere in the days before one could easily look things up online. Why confusion continues to this day is another issue.
In any case, the following interview with the music director at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York appeared in 1904 in the Kansas city Star (June 12) and it helps clarify matters. I have this from Fifth Avenue Famous, a new book on the topic of St. P’s. Incidentally, note the matter-of-fact mention that chant has always been central to the liturgy at St. Patricks.
“There is nothing in Gregorian music that women’s voices cannot do most effectively,” said Mr. [James] Ungerer, the New York choirmaster of St. Patrick’s cathedral. “The public seems to be laboring under erroneous ideas of the whole subject of Gregorian music and the purport of the Motu Proprio. It seems to think all figured music is to be abolished, and that church music of the future will in consequence partake of requiem – something mournful and monotonous. Unless there come from Rome explicit orders to abolish women they will certainly be retained at the cathedral.
“The cathedral, in probability, will have no more Gregorian chant than it always has had. The Introit, Gradual, Hallelujah, Tract, Offertory, Communion, which change with the feasts, have always been Gregorian at the cathedral. This has not been the case in other churches in this vicinity and elsewhere, and it is to effect this that the pope evidently wishes to make it compulsory. The Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei will continue, as they always have been at the cathedral, to be figured music, but we trust of a higher order of composition. There is a lot of splendid modern music to displace Haydn, Mozart, etc. — music that sustains all the simplicity and solemnity of Palestrina. To bring the figured music to a higher standard of excellence, it would seem, is one of the chief objects of the pope’s decree, and it has not come too soon.”
You might be interested in Fr. Anthony Ruff’s defense of the term performance in the context of liturgy, which I find persuasive. Too often people use the term performance, always in snarling tones, to music they do not like – and the forbidding of anything at all resembling a performance has been used to rule out anything artistically accomplished from taking place at Mass. See page 383 of Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform (1987).
There was once an institution in the United States called the Gregorian Institute of America, and it published some great books among which An Applied Course on Gregorian Chant by Joseph Robert Carroll. If anyone has a clean copy that we can scan and perhaps print, please write me. In the meantime…
Haaretz runs a fascinating article on the life and work of Pierre Boulez:
Boulez became familiar with contemporary non-European music through his teacher, pathbreaking composer Olivier Messiaen, at the Paris Conservatoire, where Boulez enrolled in 1942 against the wishes of his father, who had wanted him to attend a technical college. It was there that Boulez encountered the music of Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok and the highly innovative Edgard Varese. The sudden acquaintance with these composers shook up the 19-year-old Boulez.
“In Messiaen’s regular class, we studied harmony, the way one does at any music academy, but he would pick five or six of his best students for courses in composition and analysis that took place outside regular hours,” Boulez said, recounting what can now be found in books about the history of new music.
“We would get together in someone’s house, and study the evolution of music from Mozart to Schumann to Debussy and the new music of that period,” he said. “Messiaen showed us how the genius composers created their own rules. He was the only one; the other teachers were academics, unimaginative, who taught tricks but not the secrets of style and evolution. This is the way I began to understand composition.”
Music wasn’t something Boulez could pick up at home, though there was a piano in the house. “My family wasn’t musical,” he said. “I played and I sang in the choir at school. Because it was a religious school, we sang religious music. I mostly remember Gregorian chant, because it was so different from the other music, and I like it to this day.”