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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Defining Genuine, Sacred Music

Over the course of 40 years, it seems that somehow, the concept of authentic, sacred music for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has lost its way.  Gregorian Chant, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, gave way to what pretty much amounts to a mishmash of folk music, soft pop and, in some cases, a full-blown rock genre (complete with drums, electric guitars and keyboards).  A lot of it can be attributed to well-meaning folks who paid more importance and gave more credence to the alleged "Spirit" of Vatican II than what the actual documents of the Second Vatican Council really said.

According to the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy:
"Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites. But the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into Divine Worship."
"True art" is an interesting term, something which will be looked at later, as interpreted by two Pontiffs, one who preceeded the Council by 60 years and the other who was actually at the Council.Of course, the problem of bad music infiltrating the Mass cannot be attributed to the 1960s.  It actually goes back to the first couple of years of the 20th century.  Pope St. Pius X issued a Motu Propio, an apostolic document, defining what Sacred Music should be.  In his time, operatic motets and theatrical music made their way into the Mass.  These compositions, the saintly pontiff wrote, do not belong in the Holy Sacrifice.

"Among the different kinds of modern music, that which appears less suitable for accompanying the functions of public worship is the theatrical style, which was in the greatest vogue, especially in Italy, during the last century. This of its very nature is diametrically opposed to Gregorian Chant and classic polyphony, and therefore to the most important law of all good sacred music. Besides the intrinsic structure, the rhythm and what is known as the conventionalism of this style adapt themselves but badly to the requirements of true liturgical music."
How does Pope St. Pius X define Sacred Music?  He writes that:

"Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.

It must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.

It must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.

But it must, at the same time, be universal in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them."
It seems as though the more things change, the more they stay the same.  What Pope St. Pius X faced back in 1903 still rears its ugly head today, some 107 years later.  This is the same concern that his successor, the now Venerable Pope John Paul II, lamented when he wrote his Chirograph on Sacred Music, which he released back in 2003 to commemorate the MP's 100th anniversary:

"In continuity with the teachings of St Pius X and the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary first of all to emphasize that music destined for sacred rites must have holiness as its reference point:  indeed, "sacred music increases in holiness to the degree that it is intimately linked with liturgical action"[11]. For this very reason, "not all without distinction that is outside the temple (profanum) is fit to cross its threshold", my venerable Predecessor Paul VI wisely said, commenting on a Decree of the Council of Trent[12]. And he explained that "if music - instrumental and vocal - does not possess at the same time the sense of prayer, dignity and beauty, it precludes the entry into the sphere of the sacred and the religious"[13]. Today, moreover, the meaning of the category "sacred music" has been broadened to include repertoires that cannot be part of the celebration without violating the spirit and norms of the Liturgy itself.

St Pius X's reform aimed specifically at purifying Church music from the contamination of profane theatrical music that in many countries had polluted the repertoire and musical praxis of the Liturgy. In our day too, careful thought, as I emphasized in the Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, should be given to the fact that not all the expressions of figurative art or of music are able "to express adequately the mystery grasped in the fullness of the Church's faith"[14]. Consequently, not all forms of music can be considered suitable for liturgical celebrations."
Now, neither Pius X nor John Paul II dismissed new compositions.  In fact, both of them welcome new works.  However, even the most modern compositions, John Paul writes, should
"respect both the liturgical spirit and the true values of this art form. I make my own the "general rule" that St Pius X formulated in these words:  "The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savour the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple"[33]. It is not, of course, a question of imitating Gregorian chant but rather of ensuring that new compositions are imbued with the same spirit that inspired and little by little came to shape it. Only an artist who is profoundly steeped in the sensus Ecclesiae can attempt to perceive and express in melody the truth of the Mystery that is celebrated in the Liturgy."
Sadly, these words seem to have fallen on tone deaf ears, insofar as the publishers are concerned.  Week in and week out, they suggest using songs like "Gather Us In", "O Love of God", "Shine, Jesus, Shine" (which is not even Catholic), and "Be Not Afraid."  While some may make the case for "Be Not Afraid" as being fit for use because it is based on Sacred Scripture, the musicality of the piece still sounds rather folksy. 

Pope Benedict XVI, himself an accomplished and classically-trained pianist, also lamented the current state of the Church's liturgical music.  In Sacramentum Caritatis, he wrote that,
"Certainly as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another. Generic improvisation or the introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided. As an element of the liturgy, song should be well integrated into the overall celebration (128). Consequently everything -- texts, music, execution -- ought to correspond to the meaning of the mystery being celebrated, the structure of the rite and the liturgical seasons (129)."
Music used for the Mass needs to fit the Holy Sacrifice and not the other way around.  Pope Benedict does not mince words here.  His comments came as a result of concerns that the Fathers of the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist aired when touching upon the subject of music used at "youth Masses".  The Synod Fathers wrote that
"in other responses some lamented the poor quality of translations of liturgical texts and many musical texts in current languages, maintaining that they lacked beauty and were sometimes theologically unclear, thereby contributing to a weakening of Church teaching and to a misunderstanding of prayer. A few responses made particular mention of music and singing at Youth Masses. In this regard, it is important to avoid musical forms which, because of their profane use, are not conducive to prayer. Some responses note a certain eagerness in composing new songs, to the point of almost yielding to a consumer mentality, showing little concern for the quality of the music and text, and easily overlooking the artistic patrimony which has been theologically and musically effective in the Church’s liturgy."
Unfortunately, a lot of the publishers seem to have yielded to that "consumer mentality." When they issue their musical planners, the publishing houses give preference to their own works, rather than what constitutes traditional, sacred music.  Music directors should not have to be tied down to a publishing house's musical planners.  The publishers carry no real weight.  They do not have ecclesial authority.  Sure, they can make suggestions, but, that does not mean that the parish musicians' hands are tied.  The Church has a 2,000-year-old treasury of Sacred Music that awaits to be used.  Venerable hymns like "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name", "Shepherd of Souls", "All Creatures of Our God and King", "Attende Domine", "Come, Holy Ghost", "Alleluia, Sing to Jesus (the complete version)," "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" and "For All The Saints" should be brought back to the parish musical repertoire.

Now, Liturgiam Authenticam, the authoritative document of the Holy See that addresses liturgical translation, mandates that all national episcopal conferences (such as the USCCB) submit a common repetoire of music for use in the Mass.  The USCCB has submitted its directory to the Congregation for Divine Worship and and the Discipline of the Sacraments (which oversees the Universal Church's liturgical practices) some three years ago.  However, the recognitio has not yet been granted.  Perhaps this directory will help rectify the situation. 

Let us ask for St. Cecilia's intercession to help restore the "Sacred" in Sacred music.

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