The Preconciliar World of Catholic Music

It is extremely interesting to look through the legacy issues of Caecilia for a gimpse into the preconconciliar world of Catholic music. Many things are familiar (not enough pay, in-fighting among musicians, focus on petty issues that do not matter) but many things are not (focus on excellence, uniformity in vision, shared understanding of what liturgical music is for, the constant striving for ideals). Three new issues are up now, one from as far back as 1930.

Here is a quotation from a 1930 issue:

0nly a limited amount of energy is given us. Perhaps we would tackle the problem better by leaving off preaching the beauty, and all that, of the Chant, and beginning to convince the world and ourselves in particular by giving the Chant a chance to talk for itself. If we admit that its exalted mood of meditation and mystic calm and all that is a bit foreign to the hip, hip, hurray spirit of twentieth-century America, then the task of making Gregorian chant prevail begins where our vocabulary leaves off. The solution seems to be: less talk and more honestly patient work.

Teaching Chant in a Space for Chant

NLM reports on St. Anthony’s High School in South Huntington, New York.

Fr. Brian T. Austin conducted a chant workshop there in February at the invitation of Miss Lynn Wilson and with the support of Br. Joshua.

As a result, a chant choir has grown up that is already singing all the propers of the Mass, and in a space very conducive for liturgical music.

Here we have a demonstration of how central education is to the liturgical experience. No workshop goes to waste. Every effort to teach yields fruit at some point.

Let the Turtle Doves Sing on Sunday

This weekend, Catholic scholas get to sing the wonderful little communion antiphon, the “Passer Invenit”–one of the more charming in the entire Gregorian repertoire. The monk who composed this was having a very good day, even a day of intense spiritual awareness and love.

See the three successive liquescent notes in the first line? They are sung with a clear sound on the lower note while the higher note is sung in a manner that causes it to evaporate very quickly on the closing consonant (in this case a “t” and two lightly rolled “r”s). See what is happening? It mimics the sound made by a turtle dove. We are ourselves are chanting like little doves at this point.

So the piece begins with announcement about a sparrow. It has found herself a home, the chant says. And then we move immediately to the turtle dove, phrased in this lovely and expressive way: it has found a nest in which to lay her young.

And how comfortable is this spot where the young are laid? You can know from the first line of notes on the second line: “reponat” is sung on a single note held through a dotted punctum and three successive repercussive notes before falling again and ending with this beautifully relaxed and expressive phrase.

But the story doesn’t end there because it turns out that this home and nest causes us to reflect on the altars of the Lord. In announcing this metaphor, we again see this long note, earlier sung to signify safety and comfort, this time sung to show that the altars of the Lord provide the same. This phrase ends with an exuberant announcement “Rex meus, et deus meus” or my King and my God!

The chant antiphon ends with song directed toward all of us: we too are invited to dwell in this house and praise God forever and ever. In this one little tune, we have covered so much and done so with charm and grace and amazing beauty.

Here is a sound file.

If Music Is Free, What Can Catholic Music Publishers Sell?

A site called Technium addresses a burning question on the minds of many Catholic publishers of music. The question is put to me all the time: if you are suggesting that we not copyright restrict our offerings, how do you expect us to make any money?

The question has always boggled my mind, mainly because it suggests that Catholic music publishers have been asleep for about 20 years during which time software writers and many recording artists have successfully used the greatest tool for evangelization ever invented while finding ways to sell their products. Either the publishers are zoned out or completely lacking in creativity because billions of dollars are transferred via digital means every day without resorting to restrictions on downloads and without hiding content behind pay walls.

I need only give the example of this blogging platform that I’m writing on right now – which is 100% free. The content is published into the commons, so that anyone can take it and repost it. And yet, the companies and creators who have encourage Chant Cafe bloggers to use it are doing quite well for themselves.

Back to Technium. The blogger points out that “When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied. Well, what can’t be copied? There are a number of qualities that can’t be copied. Consider ‘trust.'” He continues to offer many practical suggestions, all of which require intelligence, creativity, and work to implement. At least it requires something more creative than merely sitting around waiting for people to cough up money to pay for something that costs nothing on the margin to produce.

The Guido We Never Knew

The most influential musician of the last one thousand years was Guido d’Arezzo who lived in the first half of the 11th century and gave us the lined musical staff, surely the greatest musical innovation of all time. His four treatises on music were studied in great detail throughout the middle ages. If music had its own “industrial revolution,” its own period of enlightenment, Guido is surely the instigator and guide. Christopher Page’s treatise The Christian West and Its Singers: The First One Thousand Years rightly offers a massive and complete chapter on his life and influence – beautifully written and inspiring on every page.

But there is also what struck me as a blockbuster revelation buried here. I’ll just quote Page directly: “Guido is commonly regarded today as the author of four works all of them musical tracts, whereas his legacy almost certainly runs to five treatises, the last being devoted a sharply different matter, or so modern habits of thought make it seem. To be fair, the abundant transmission of Guido’s musical works gives no clue to the existence of this extra item, which is a trenchant letter on the subject of simony (the sale or purchase of ecclesiastical offices) addressed to one of the most exalted ecclesiastics in Italy…”

This was complete news to me. Guido, it turns out, was not just a musical innovator. He was a passionate advocate of purifying the life of the monastery and the Church in general. In fact, this is precisely was motivated his effort to make it possible to transmit the chant from place to place and time to time without the need of a teacher. He wanted to free the monks from endless studies of music, under the control of a single master, in order that they could have more time to purify their spiritual lives. It was the same motivation behind his campaign to end the trafficking in the Holy Spirit: the free the Church of contact with the bribes and fees associated with the offices and rituals of the pagan temples.


The book is called Epistola Widonis. In it, Guido says that simony “pollutes the chastity of Holy Church with a disgusting contagion.” He notes how Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple, how Dathan and Abiron were swallowed up by the ground for soliciting the governance of the priesthood, and how St. Peter put Simon Magus under perpetual anathema.

Guido writes:

It is excessively shameful that the Church should now, in its fullest vigour, succumb to such a bestial enemy that it had the power to conquer it its infancy with such strength…. who cannot see that the Masses and prayers of such prelates or priests [guilty of simony] will bring the wrath of Gold up on the people and not placate him in the way we believe such observances can do? For it is written: ‘Whatsoever is not of faith is sin’ … When, therefore, do we shuns such bishops, abbots, clerics, and others if we hear the Masses of those, and pray with those, with whom we take excommunication upon ourselves? Just to believe such men to be priests is to go entirely astray, as Peter said to Simon Magus: “Thy money perish with thee, because thou has thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money.”


Apparently, his treatise was highly influential and led to and was certainly central to major reforms that permitted the lowliest person to hold the powerful accountable for the sin of simony, which Guido believed to be pervasive in his time. The Catholic Church had to take a stand that the graces of its sacraments, the offices and rites of its holy spaces, were not to be subject to bribes and payments. And certainly there can be no question that Guido was very serious about this subject. He had already shown himself to be made of strong character, having endured exile from his own monastery, apparently over the innovations in music that led to his fame, and having finally gained an audience with the Pope to seek vindication (which he finally received).

Just how “sharply different” were the matters of music and simony in his time? It is hard to say. There was no printing, so no opportunity for anyone to claim private ownership over the text of the Mass, the Psalms, or the chant. No one would have done so. The institution we call copyright – that government-granted privilege to a single author and its contracted publisher – was unknown in his time. Yes, there was private ownership over the chant books themselves, and they were highly guarded and protected as nearly priceless. But the contents, the melodies, the words? It would have been unthinkable for anyone to claim to own those and seek payment for permission to pray or sing their contents.

But let us imagine that someone had, in Guido’s time, done so. In light of his views of how simony is the despoiler of the chastity of the Church, what might he have said? He stood up in his time against very powerful interests, even offering the sweeping judgement that many bishops and priests of his time were tainted with the sin of simony. He would surely have had strong words for those who would attempt to privatize the liturgy and proceed to profiteer from a restrictive legal status.  

Today, the institutions of copyright and royalties, exclusive use and fees, payments and contracts with authors and publishers, war chests of “intellectual propersy rights” held by favored publishers, are all the norm. Musicians are highly dependent on these systems. Parishes believe that they cannot participate in the life of the faith without subscribing to “rights management” software sold by private companies. Parishes are even told to destroy last year’s readings booklets because their rights to use them have expired. This system, which is not a purely private system but one that makes use of government regulations, was first used by Christians little more than a century ago. Today it is taken for granted and these “rights” are bought and sold as if this is merely part of the professionalization of publishing and the legitimization of Catholic musical life.

And yet: there is another way. There is publishing into the commons, precisely as Guido’s own books were published. This does not mean the end of property. All things that are real physical things remain property. But what is infinitely reproducable belongs to everyone. Nor does it mean the end of commerce. There are still legitimate profits to be made by selling goods and books and liturgical items. What needs to come to an end is the selling of what should belong to all, those things of the Holy Spirit such as the texts of Mass, the text of the Psalms, the music of worship, the words that make up the liturgy. What need to be subjected to commercial restriction should not be restricted.

It is strange and fascinating to me to discover this side of  Guido. A musician friend of mine suggests that we ask for his intercession to lead us out of the problems of our own time with the buying and selling of that which ought to be free gifts to all the faithful.

Peter Jeffery’s Six Point Agenda

Peter Jeffery is a top-ranked Gregorian chant scholar by any standard, making a name for himself at Princeton University and bringing serious attention to the details of early liturgical music as both an art and a science. It is very much to the credit of Notre Dame Univeristy that this institution was able to recruit him as a professor and as the leader in a new program of sacred music. Both Notre Dame and the Catholic Church in the United States is very much in need of his help and expertise. 

Speaking at the Sacred Music Colloquium sponsored by the CMAA, Jeffery presented a six-point agenda for helping Catholic liturgical music in the United States, an agenda he had thought about for many years while at Princeton. Now that he is at Notre Dame, he hopes that he can bring his influence to bear in hopes of implementation. The points in order are as follows:

1. Diocesan certification and professionalization of musicians;
2. An educational campaign to teach Gregorian chant as the music of the Roman Rite;
3. An educational campaign to explain that the music of the Roman Rite is not pop songs;
4. A new push for doctrinally sound hymns, not just songs that explain how we feel about things;
5. A push for the formation of the young in children’s choirs;
6. Train the theologians in cultural studies so that they understand that this is serious business.

He elaborated at some length on each point. All the points strike me as fundamentally sound. 

In general, I was mightily encouraged to hear an academic musicologist on his level take an intense interest in the practical application of music at the parish level. In the years since chant was banished from the parish environment – not by law but but cultural convention – an impenetrable wall has emerged between the academic specialization in chant and the parish practice. Major efforts are now underway to heal this breach, and Professor Jeffery’s lecture was certainly part of the evidence that we are starting to see results.

Most gratifying was to hear his clear statement that there is simply no possible way to be a competent Catholic musician, working in any parish, without a solid understanding of what music in the Roman Rite is for. It is not accompaniment. It is not there for cultural ambiance. It is not there to draw people in and make them happy to be at Church on Sunday morning. It is not even to be popular, to be “inclusive,” to be an open-ended “ministry” for anyone who wants to be on stage. The role of music in the ritual is to provide for a singing the texts of the Mass: the propers, the ordinary, the dialogues, and other texts from scripture.

That role is inseparable from Gregorian chant, which is the music of the Roman Rite. This is as much true in the ordinary form as the extraordinary form. As Professor Jeffery points out, a musician needs to understand all these things, even if he or she is primarily interested in vernacular plainsong or hymnody. It is just not possible to be a musician in the Catholic Church and not be able to have some degree of competence in the chant tradition. Otherwise, the musician never quite gets the point of what he or she is doing. In particular, knowledge is what helps the musician in the Catholic Church understand that the goal is not to perform pop music at Mass.

I do have a reservation about his first point. He is of course correct about professionalization. The culture of the American Catholic Church has long resisted paying musicians properly, with the result of an inferior product of untrained organists and singers. When all standards were swept away in the 1960s, the lack of professionalism invited disaster. The musicians, the serious musicians, were either driven out or left because they couldn’t take it anymore (the full story is yet to be told). To this day, Catholics have a very difficult time finding remunerative employment in Catholic parishes. Many end up serving at Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian and other communities – simply because the opportunity costs of staying at Catholic Church are too high. This must change.

However, I do not believe that pursuing diocesan certification, much less national certification, is a good idea, certainly not now. To be sure, I understand the impulse. Someone just wrote me of a dreadful “vigil Mass” performance of a sort-of pianist who played organ, more or less, and cantor singer who stumbled randomly through fits and starts throughout, and it was clear that neither had the slightest idea what they were doing. It’s not their fault; no pastor should permit this. But witnessing this kind of spectacle makes one wonder why there are no standards and how they might be brought about.

It is not at all clear that there are people at the diocesan level who are competent to be in charge of such a program. Often these bureaucracies are impenetrable and laced with strange politics that will keep concerns over excellence at bay. In any case, if it were really the case that the diocesan offices were prepared to do this, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in now.

Further, requiring certification is as likely to keep good musicians out rather than assure that quality stays in. It would certainly discriminate against non-Catholic musicians. Let’s say a fantastic conservatory-trained organist moves into town, someone with full knowledge of the Roman Rite, but this person happens not to be Catholic. Is it likely that this person is going to submit to the petty training and certification demands of the diocese before the parish is going to be permitted to pay them peanuts to play?

Knowing what I do about the reality at the diocesan level, I can easily imagine that certification program – which would inevitably be controlled in some way by the big publishers and their affiliates – would actually end up halting progress and entrenching the status quo. Let’s just say that adherents to the Jeffery-style agenda are very few and far between. I can understand the frustration with the seeming anarchy of the current situation but this liberality at least permits an opportunity for change and for excellence to rise.

To be sure, I can imagine that a diocese could issue a clear and coherent statement that explains the musical demands of the Roman Rite to musicians in the parish – but this statement would have to be free of the convoluted, pressure-group inspired, and overly qualified bureaucratic twists and turns of the usual statements that tend to be issued from on high. A statement like “Sing to the Lord” does some good but it also tends to leave people with more questions than answers. We need something short and clear, with a clean model drawn from  broad history, with a proper theological orientation, in order to achieve results.

In any case, this is probably just a quibble with Professor Jeffery’s points. In general I find his list very inspiring. His talk with beautifully delivered with expertise and humor. Perhaps his position at Notre Dame will lead some some progress toward implementation.

Jeffrey Ostrowski on Many Secrets of the Vatican Edition of the Graduale Romanum

So many people appreciated Jeffrey Ostrowski’s presentation on the notation of the Vatican Edition of the Gradual Romanum (1908). It is a special treasure with many odd accidents of history embedded in its pages – a masterpiece of precision that paradoxically leaves many open ends regarding performance practice (especially ironic given that it appeared 1000 years after Guido and his successors believed that they would bring to an end the variations in rhythm and pitch). In any case, I seriously doubt that anyone knows as much about this subject as Ostrowski. Here is his presentation.


The Secret of the Mora Vocis (Editio Vaticana) • Part 1 (of 7) from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.


The Secret of the Mora Vocis (Editio Vaticana) • Part 2 (of 7) from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.


The Secret of the Mora Vocis (Editio Vaticana) • Part 3 (of 7) from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.


The Secret of the Mora Vocis (Editio Vaticana) • Part 4 (of 7) from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.


The Secret of the Mora Vocis (Editio Vaticana) • Part 5 (of 7) from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.


The Secret of the Mora Vocis (Editio Vaticana) • Part 6 (of 7) from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.


The Secret of the Mora Vocis (Editio Vaticana) • Part 7 (of 7) from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.

O Crux Gloriosa and the Unforgettable Moment

Finally, the Vespers service is up. This was the polyphonic choir I sang in – the one with the tenor section that made me feel like a second-rate singer (Cafe poster Charles Culbreth was in the first-rate category).

It seems that every Colloquium has at least one moment that is universally regarded as amazing beyond belief. The “O Crux Gloriosa” directed by Wilko Brouwers and sung at this Vespers was that moment.

The Effort to Unify the Chant circa 1100

We don’t often think about the generation of musicians that followed Guido d’Arezzo. I hadn’t really considered what Guido’s life and work meant for their own tasks. They were charged with using Guido’s fantastic innovation — the system of reading pitches on a staff — to create books of chant in cathedrals and monasteries. This entire generation is discussed in detail in Christopher Page’s marvelously interesting book The Christian West and Its Singers (2010).

While reading I conjured mental images of zealous young monks, heads filled with wonder at the newest thing, the newest innovation in science, the 12th century iPhone perhaps, and carefully copying down chants as older monks sang them, one note at a time. “Wait just a moment…was that a Ti or a Ta?” The older monks must have had serious doubts! Of course the zealots discovered rather large variations in the chant from place to place, and this surely included rhythm too. They sought to use the new tool to unify and universalize.

One author known only as John wrote the following complaint in his De Musica sometime after 1100. He offers a passage that struck me as hilarious. Three singers are comparing chant editions and here is what happens:

One says, “Master Trudo taught me this way.” Another rejoins, “But I learned it like this from master Albinus”; and to this a third remarks, “Master Salomon certainly sings differently.” … rarely, therefore, do three man agree about one chant. Since each men prefers his own teacher, there arise as many variations in chanting as there are teachers in this world.” (p. 467).

So interesting, isn’t it? This was the situation that the Guidoian innovation was supposed to rectify, and surely it did settle many questions to some large extent. And yet the above conversation might have happened last week at the Sacred Music Colloquium. They go on every day – and we hope we can learn from each other rather than fight with each other. However, it remains true to a large extent, even 1000 years later: there are as many variations as there are teachers!

And, by the way, there is nothing particularly wrong with this. At the Colloquium, we experienced Mass with four different chant choirs in the same Mass, led by four different conductors. At the same Mass, we heard: precise and pious, rich and strong, elegant and polished,  stable and settling, each with a different approach.

The reason is fairly obvious actually: despite the enthusiasm of the post-Guido generation, print manuscripts with staffs don’t actually sing themselves. As usual with every innovation, that generation exaggerated the benefit of the new thing. Chant must come from human beings, not machines, and thank goodness. No edition can capture every subtlety, every nuance, every interpretation. Nor do I think we want it to. Variation and difference are lovely. This is not a matter of doctrine; it is a matter of application and art.

Does anyone doubt that the same arguments will be going on 1000 years from now?

When I read this passage to William Mahrt on the phone, and offer the above sentence, he replied profoundly: “and how wonderful it is to know that they will still be singing these chants 1000 years from now.”

Of what other music, of what other art, can the same be said?

The Polyphonic Gradual in the Ordinary Form

Maybe I’m a bit slow, or maybe the details of liturgical music are really complicated, but here is the truth: it took me years to figure out the relationship between the “Responsorial Psalm” that I know from the ordinary form of the Roman Rite, and the “Gradual” from the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. This is complicated by the oddities of language. There is no “Responsorial Psalm” in the old form so it becomes difficult to trace its lineage. It occurs where there Gradual (which is also a Psalm between the readings) once occurred. The term Gradual is complicated by the fact that the book that contains all the sung propers of the Roman Rite is also called the Gradual or Graduale Romanum.

The structure of the two Psalm forms is completely different. The Gradual is for reflection. Time stands still. There are long elaborations on single vowels. It is a time for prayer. The Responsorial Psalm, in contrast, has typically asked the congregation to engage in a sing along with the cantor, usually consisting of an instantly repeatable antiphon, something closer to what we might experience in the Divine Office. But, as everyone knows, in our culture and times, the Responsorial Psalm has become the most musically unfortunate event at Mass. There are ways around it, such as using the Chabanel Psalm, but generally the Psalm at Mass has not fared well under the new form.

All of this is clear to me now but it took a long time to sort it all out. Which reminds me: we still have no easy reference book that explains the relationship between music and the ordinary form of the Roman Rite. Don’t you find it incredible that after 40-plus years, no such book exists? There are several reasons: confusions, complications, and too many open-ended options. As a result, most musicians are deeply confused and end up just relying on the missalettes for guidance.

In any case, let’s take this apparatus one step further. The Gradual can be sung in the ordinary form but rarely is. Further: it need not be sung in chant only. There is a long history of polyphonic Graduals. It is extremely rare to hear these masterpieces in any form of the Roman Rite. The Colloquium actually featured one by William Byrd. And here it is, followed by the Alleuia. It is absolutely magnificent. It so happens that this occurred in the extraordinary form but there is no reason why this could not have been sung in the ordinary form. There is a substantial distance between this and, e.g. Respond and Acclaim.