David Gibson (below) points us to some of the emerging web commentary on the USCCB’s consideration of a new document on liturgical music. Some critics of contemporary
liturgical music are hopeful that the document will lead to a greater
appreciation for the Church’s broader musical tradition and Gregorian chant in
I am sympathetic to these concerns, but I think that Todd
Flowerday (see comment on David’s post) is correct that simply issuing documents is not going to do much to
improve the quality of liturgical music in most parishes. Even less useful, I suspect, would be the creation of another Vatican office or
An important thing to remember is that this is a discussion
that has been going on for more than a century. Amy Welborn’s suggestion that we should “sing the mass, not sing in the
mass,” is, of course, a reference to Pius X’s famous dictum to “pray the mass,
don’t pray in the mass.” Pius’s 1903 motu
proprio Tra le sollecitudini is often
remembered for its famous phrase that “active participation” in the liturgy is
the source of the “true Christian spirit.”
What is less well remembered is that the document sought to recover
Gregorian Chant as the music of the liturgy.
Among other reasons, Pius believed that chant was more conducive to
congregational participation than baroque or classical compositions.
The idea that ordinary Catholics might be taught to sing
Gregorian Chant at the mass was something of a revolutionary suggestion. Particularly in the United States,
the overwhelming majority of Sunday masses were Low Masses without music, and
Catholics—particularly those of Irish descent—tended to view congregational
singing of any type as something done by Protestants.
Many of the early figures of the liturgical movement
embraced the idea of teaching Catholics to sing chant. The Belgian Benedictine Lambert Beauduin
included the idea in a famous 1909 speech that is often cited as marking the
start of the modern liturgical movement.
In the United States,
Justine Ward founded the Pius X School for Liturgical Music in 1916 and
eventually trained more than 13,000 teachers in her method. Virgil Michel, one of the towering figures of
the American liturgical movement, later joined her faculty.
Like the liturgical movement itself, however, the movement
to encourage the singing of chant did not have a major impact on most American
parishes. There were exceptions, of
course, such as Fr. Martin Hellriegel’s Holy Cross Parish in St.
Louis and parishes in Chicago
led by liturgical pioneers Reynold Hillenbrand and Bernard Laukemper. But these were liturgical oases in a desert landscape.
By the 1930s, however, one can see a certain skepticism
about efforts to promote chant entering the writings of those involved in the
liturgical movement. Writing in the
liturgical journal Orate Fratres in
1937, Ferdinand Falque suggested that efforts to promote chant had not resulted
in singing of good quality:
Many contacts with chant enthusiasts and much patient
suffering at their “results” have convinced the writer that real damage is
being done of the cause of liturgical reform by their studied folly. When told simply that their achievements are
ugly they invariably come back with the retort:
“Ah, but you should hear chant as it should be rendered.” That’s exactly the point. It cannot be rendered as it should be,
because the knowledge and devotion that can give it life are lacking; not to
mention the more important fact, that the disposition to appreciate it has not
been created in the generality of men and women, who must nevertheless submit
to it, when they are entitled to something that would inspire them with
sentiments of prayer and devotion…People cannot be argued or commanded into
loving something which in its practical expression is definitely ugly.
Contemporary defenders of chant often argue that Vatican
II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy has been misinterpreted, citing Article
116 in Chapter 6 (“On Sacred Music”) which states that “the church recognizes
Gregorian Chant as native to the Roman liturgy.
Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place
in liturgical services.” The
Constitution, however, also made a number of other statements that weakened the
position of chant. Article 113, which deals with the language of music,
specifically references articles from other chapters dealing with the extension
of the vernacular to the liturgy. Article 114 stresses that when a service is
accompanied by chant, “the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightfully theirs.”
Article 116 states that other forms of music “are by no means excluded
from the liturgical celebration.”
Article 119 states that, in mission lands, local musical traditions
should be incorporated into the liturgy.
Taking Chapter 6 as a whole—not to mention the rest of the
Constitution—it is hard not to conclude that Gregorian Chant stood in a
significantly weaker position after the Council than it did before it, and not
merely because of the way the Constitution has been subsequently interpreted.
This is not to suggest that the Council fathers at Vatican
II foresaw the wholesale disappearance of chant anymore than they foresaw the
wholesale disappearance of Latin. What
they did foresee, however, was that the national episcopal conferences—rather
than the Congregation for Rites—would be making the decisions about what kind
of music would be appropriate in the liturgy in their countries. This they have done and we are living with
I don’t recount this history to suggest a solution
because I don’t have one. Speaking for
myself, I find a significant amount (but not all) of contemporary liturgical
music to be a barrier to prayer. But
I’m not sure that many of my fellow Catholics agree. We’ve grown used to this stuff and I agree with some of the points made by Jeff Tuckerabout there having been a general decline in musical literacy in this country over the past century. But as Todd suggests, changing our minds will
take more than statements from the USCCB or a new Vatican
institute. It will take a significant
commitment of resources at the local level.
Absent that, I expect to be bracing myself for another verse of “Sing a New Church”
for some time to come.