Some Saw and Warned

After a great calamity such as the loss of the sacred music tradition — ironically, this followed a Church Council that made bond statements in support of this tradition — it is sometimes supposed that no one could have anticipated what happened. This is far from true. The musicians at the time knew what could happen and, in fact, what was happening. The liturgy of the Roman Rite was on the verge of being reformed without due regard to the implications of the musical component.

If you know something of the way the organizational structures interact with musicians, you can intuit what went on here. Liturgists and theologians, untrained in the musical tradition, supposed that music was a specialization of a few, a kind of special interest, and those who care intensely about the issue form a kind of pressure group not unlike many others. This group might have some valid points but they certainly shouldn’t be permitted to carry the day. Whatever the results of the liturgical reform, it was widely supposed, the musicians will adapt somehow. These were changing times and musicians have to get with it like everyone else.

But what if there is no way to conceptually separate the liturgy from its musical component? What if they are so bound up with each other — in history, in text, in liturgical theology — that disturbing the structure and text without due regard for music would threaten to blow up and destroy the artistic work of more than a thousand years? What if unleashing one generation of enthusiastic and agenda-driven liturgists on the Mass structure and language might be a bit like sending a child with matches to repair a gas leak in a home?

The longer the time that passes since the 1960s, the clearer the picture becomes. The intentions were noble in their broad outlines. But on the details, there was confusing and mixed agendas. Many were working at cross purposes. The wholesale unleashing of the vernacular without proper preparation led to crazy confusions and a loss of direction and identity. This loss mixed together with a cultural upheaval in the world and led to forty years of wandering around in the aesthetic desert. We are still working to find our way back.

This document from 1963, one of the last official statements of the Society of St. Cecilia before it merged with the St. Gregory Society to formed the Church Music Association of America, illustrates that some people knew the dangers and warned about them:

The American Society of St. Caecilia respectfully submits to the consideration of their Eminences and their Excellencies, the Most Reverend Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, the following petitions.

1. Regarding the place of music in the liturgy:

In view of the fact that the church has always regarded the function of the cantor and the trained choir, as well as that of the singing congregation, as an integral and necessary element of public worship, this Society is sincerely hopeful that the Fathers of the Council, before making any changes which might affect the structure of the services, will give earnest consideration to the importance of these traditional elements. While this tradition is not founded upon recent documents, we should desire the retention of the principles so clearly outlined in Pope St. Pius X’s Motu Proprio and in the Musicae Sacrae Disciplina of Pope Pius XII.

2. Regarding the Propers of the Sung Mass:

If any changes are to be made in the structure of the Proper of the Mass, this Society respectfully urges that the Fathers of the Council give careful thought to the fundamental structure of the service, and therefore to the meaning and value of each part, clearly preserving the roles of the cantor and trained choir. This Society also begs that art and beauty, which are inherent and not foreign to the casting of the Proper parts, not be sacrificed to the single issue of simplicity and brevity.

3. Regarding the Ordinary of the Sung Mass:

Since the necessity of a clearer insight into what worship really is presses for a greater sharing by the people in the song of the Church, this Society earnestly recommends that the congregation be encouraged to share in the singing at Mass, not necessarily according to the medieval and mistaken norm of the Ordinary as a unit, but with due regard for the place the various chants have in the fundamental structure of the service. It therefore also pleads that the great treasures of medieval chant and classical polyphony, as well as the riches of modern and contemporary music, not be discarded on the untraditional plea that there is no place for participation by listening.

4. Regarding the music at Low Mass:

This Society respectfully urges that consideration be given to maintaining the sung mass as the norm for congregational service, and where necessity demands, that provision be made for a simplified form of sung Mass that requires only the service of a trained cantor to supplement the singing of the congregation. The singing of hymns at low Mass, a solution suggested by the 1958 decree, is not completely satisfactory, because it remains extraneous to the action at the

5. Regarding the use of the vernacular in the sung liturgy:

The Society of St. Caecilia recognizes that the vernacular problem is a pastoral problem, but even more basically a problem involving the proper attitude toward worship. Because music is an integral part of worship, the problem is necessarily also a musical one. This Society therefore urges care and caution, since the musical problems involved are certainly very great, whether in creating a new music for a vernacular text or in adapting a vernacular text to the rich store of chant and polyphony and other music from the past. The Society especially suggests vernacular adaptations to the offices of the church which have fallen into disuse, notably parish Vespers.

6. Regarding the practical realization of a sung liturgy:

The Society of St. Caecilia urges the Fathers of the Council to implement the repeated wishes of the Holy. See by encouraging the musical training of both clergy and laity, and especially of choirmasters and organists, according to the norms laid down in the decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites of September 3, 1958, so that the ideals of a reverential and artistic musical worship may be realized.

The above articles have been approved by the Most Reverend Gerald T. Bergan, Archbishop of Omaha, the. Liturgy and Music Commissions of the Archdiocese of Omaha, and by the Boys Town Liturgical Music Institute’s eleventh national session.

For the Society of St. Caecilia:
September 12, 1963
Msgr. Francis P. Schmitt, President
Rev. Francis A. Brunner, C.Ss.R., Secretary
James P. Keenan, Treasurer