Taken from The Catholic Herald
In recent times the Church has developed uneasy relations with its musicians. Growing up in the 1960s and 70s I was aware of a creeping separation between my serious engagement with the study of music, the application and practice of assiduously honed skills, and what the Church seemed to need and want for its liturgy.
I soon discovered that most serious Catholic musicians were being repulsed by an increasingly rigid misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council’s reforms on music. Clergy and “liturgists” began expressing a scarcely veiled disdain for the very expertise and learning that musicians had sought to acquire. Serious musicians were more and more caricatured as elitists, reactionaries and Tridentinists by a new philistinism in the Church. Many of those who were not subdued into a state of quietism defected to Anglican and Lutheran parishes where their skills as organists, choral directors and singers were greatly appreciated.
These other churches now regard the Catholic Church as having engaged in a cultural vandalism in the 1960s and 70s – a destructive iconoclasm which wilfully brought to an end any remnant of its massive choral tradition and its skilful application to liturgical use. In short, music in the Catholic Church is referred to with sniffs of justified derision by these other denominations which have managed to maintain high standards of music-making in their divine services.
Is this negativity justified, and if so, how did this sorry state of affairs come about? Discussions of this issue usually throw up divided opinions about the state of Catholic liturgy before the 1960s. Reform certainly seems to have been overdue. The pre-conciliar liturgy by all accounts seems to have been a ritualised expression of the moribundity that had so calcified the Church. We were certainly ready for the rejuvenating breath of the Holy Spirit to cleanse, renew and refresh every aspect of Catholicism in the modern age. However, even although the pre-conciliar liturgical experience could be an alienating endurance for some, others speak fondly of how widespread the practice of choral singing was, even in the most lowly provincial parish. Performance of major composers, from Palestrina to Mozart, seems to have been natural practice from Aberdeen to Kilmarnock, from Glasgow to Cumnock.
The Second Vatican Council was certainly not the beginning of the Church’s desire in recent times to improve musico-liturgical practice. The Church has worried away at the question of appropriate music for centuries, dating back to its earliest days. The constant centrality in the Roman rite, though, since these days has been the chant. The motivation of the Church, since the mid-19th century, to re-establish a more fully authentic liturgical life has been wrapped up with a concern for the chant.
In 1903 Pope Pius X issued his motu proprio on sacred music. Gregorian is not the only form of the chant that has been used by the churches. One need only look to the Anglicans or to Byzantium to see the shadings of a great multiplicity. There is also great potential for new forms to suit the vernacular liturgies. Gelineau and Taizé are the most obvious examples of how the modern church can respond to its great musical calling.
Although Pius was aware of the plurality of the chant, he nevertheless stressed that the attributes of holiness, goodness of form and universality were pre-eminently embodied in Gregorian chant. Since then it has been regarded as the paradigmatic form of Catholic liturgical music. Pius’s words speak of its classic nature: “The more closely a church composition approaches plain chant in movement, inspiration and feeling, the more holy and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with this supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple. Special efforts should be made to restore the use of Gregorian chant by the people so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times.”
The chant, Gregorian or otherwise, has cropped up in recent news stories about Pope Benedict’s hopes and fears for the Church’s liturgy. As to be expected, the media have given these stories a spin of bogus controversy and have traduced the Pontiff’s words and motivation. “An end to modern worship music” and “Pope abolishes Vatican’s Christmas pop concert” are two such headline examples. A number of liberal liturgists have rushed to condemn Benedict’s “cultural authoritarianism” and have found willing accomplices in the institutionally anti-Catholic BBC and other media outlets. The Pope is presented as a stern-faced, party-pooping disciplinarian, stamping out electric guitars, pop-crooning, and the sentimental, bubble-gum “folk” music used in many of today’s Catholic churches. Consequently we will now all have to “endure” his much-loved Mozart, Tallis, Byrd and Latin plainsong. The people queuing up to attack the Pope are the very ones who were responsible for the banal excrescences enforced on us in the name of “democratisation of the liturgy” and “active participation” over the last few decades. They claim that the Pope is forcing through a narrow, one-dimensional vision of liturgy, and imply that chant is beyond the capabilities of ordinary people. They are wrong on both counts.
First, Benedict has been quite clear that updating sacred music is eminently possible but “it should not happen outside the traditional path of Gregorian chants or sacred polyphonic choral music”.
Clearly, there are living composers who know and respect this tradition and context and can allow their contemporary work to be infused by it, and there are other composers who don’t and can’t. It is quite straightforward to understand with whom the Church can and should be working. Secondly, congregations in and outside the Catholic Church have been singing chant in Latin and in the vernacular for centuries. In Britain, the monumental efforts to keep alive the plainchant tradition over the last century have not been nurtured by the authorities. When Plainsong for Schools was published in 1933 it sold over a 100,000 copies in the first 18 months. The Society of St Gregory organised regional chant festivals throughout the land and held summer schools. Between 1937 and 1939 congregations of 2,000 and more met at Westminster Cathedral and sang the Ordinarium Missae from the Kyriale, with a schola of male amateurs singing the Proper. This shows what can and what could still be done.
There is a new momentum building in the Church which could be directed to bringing about this new, creative “reform of the reform”. Part of that momentum comes from a widespread disgust at what was described recently as “aisle-dancing and numbskull jogging for Jesus choruses at Mass”. The days of embarrassing, maudlin and sentimental dirges such as “Bind us together Lord” and “Make me a channel of your peace” may indeed be numbered.
Are we seeing the end days for overhead projectors, screaming microphones and fluorescent lighting and their concomitant music, complete with incompetently strummed guitars and cringe-making, smiley, cheesy folk groups?
The American writer Thomas Day describes this kind of liturgy as “a diet of romantic marshmallows indigestibly combined with stuff that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you into submission with its social message”. “What was the rationale of such music?” asked John Ainslie, one-time secretary of the Society of St Gregory, writing in the 1970s. “Many well-intentioned nuns, teachers and later priests thought that such ‘folk music’ would appeal to teenagers and young people generally and so encourage them to participate in the Liturgy instead of walk out from it.
“The term ‘folk music’ is, of course, misleading. There is nothing, for example, to link it with the English folk-song tradition... The name was no doubt coined partly because some of the early repertoire was imported from the United States, where it might have been called folk music with some justification, partly because it was felt that the style had something in common with the musical tastes of today’s younger generation and their sub-culture. But it has never been persuasively shown that whatever young people may find attractive to listen to in a disco, they will find attractive to sing in church."
“Further, the style is unsuitable for singing by large congregations... more so if the only accompaniment provided is a guitar rather than the organ, since guitars, even amplified, have insufficient ‘bite’ to keep a whole congregation singing together and to give them the support they have come to expect from the organ.”
Liturgy as social engineering has probably repulsed more people from the modern Catholic Church than any of the usual list of “social crimes” trotted out by the Church’s critics. Like most ideas shaped by 1960s Marxist sociology, it has proved an utter failure. Its greatest tragedy is the wilful, de-poeticisation of Catholic worship. Our liturgy was hi-jacked by opportunists who used the vacuum created by the Council to push home a radical agenda of de-sacralisation and, ultimately, secularisation. The Church has simply aped the secular West’s obsession with “accessibility”, “inclusiveness”, “democracy” and “anti-elitism”. The effect of this on liturgy has been a triumph of bad taste and banality and an apparent vacating of the sacred spaces of any palpable sense of the presence of God. The jury is still out on any “social gains” achieved by the Church as a result. It may be timely and sobering to reflect on what we have lost.
In the early 1970s Victor Turner, the cultural anthropologist, wrote of the old Roman rite: “One advantage of the traditional Latin ritual was that it could be performed by the most diverse groups and individuals, surmounting the divisions of age, sex, ethnicity, culture, economic status, or political affiliation.
“The liturgy stands out as a magnificent objective creation if the will to assist both lovingly and well was there. Now one fears that the tendentious manipulation of particular interest-groups is liquidating the ritual bonds which held the entire heterogeneous mystical body together in worship.”
In the light of this, the reformed liturgy can be seen as yet another glaring failure by the Leftists in the Church to deliver, even according to their own agenda. It was not meant to be like this. Reading the Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s document on the liturgy, one realises just how much the spirit of true reform has been betrayed by the wilful misdirection of liturgical activists in recent times:
“Servers, readers, commentators, and members of the choir also exercise a genuine liturgical function. They ought, therefore, to discharge their offices with the sincere piety and decorum demanded by so exalted a ministry and rightly expected of them by God’s people.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC] Chapter 3, Section 29)
“The treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and cultivated with great care. Choirs must be assiduously developed.” (SC, Chapter 6, Section 14)
“The faithful are also to be taught that they should try to raise their mind to God through interior participation as they listen to the singing of ministers or choir.” (Musicam Sacram, Part 2, Section 14)
“Because of the liturgical ministry it exercises, the choir should be mentioned here explicitly. The conciliar norms regarding reform of the liturgy have given the choir’s function greater prominence and importance. Therefore: (a) Choirs are to be developed with great care, especially in cathedrals and other major churches, in seminaries and in religious houses of study. (b) In smaller churches as well a choir should be formed, even if there are only a few members.” (MS, Part 2, Section 19)
“The Church recognises Gregorian Chant as being specially suited to the Roman liturgy. Therefore it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” (SC, Chapter 6, Section 116)
“Other kinds of music, especially polyphony are by no means excluded.” (SC, Chapter 6, Section 116)
“The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem in the Latin Church, for it is the traditional musical instrument, the sound of which can add a wonderful splendour to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up men’s minds to God and higher things.” (SC, Chapter 6, Section 120)
“Pastors should see to it that, in addition to the vernacular, the faithful are also able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass belonging to them.” (MS, Part 2, Section 47)
It is clear, therefore, that Vatican II did not abolish choirs, the great choral tradition, Gregorian chant, organs, prayerful liturgy, or even Latin. In fact as the documents make clear here, all these things are positively encouraged. So who did abolish them?