What is Sacred Music? Historically it’s a bit more complex than you may think.

120913-PopeRecently  there was a discussion on my Facebook page about Church music. My parish, Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, here in Washington DC, was featured on EWTN’s nightly news (video is below), and discussion centered on that report.

Among the many forms of music we use here the parish, gospel music is predominant at our 11:00 AM Mass. While many of the comments on the Facebook page were encouraging and supportive of this music, there were a significant minority of comments that spoke of gospel music, as being inappropriate for Catholic liturgy, and of it not being sacred. Chant, polyphony, and traditional hymns were held up as being sacred, whereas is Gospel, and other modern forms of music, are “not sacred,” and /or not appropriate for Catholic worship.

While everyone is certainly entitled to personal preferences, the question arises, what do we mean by sacred music, and how have some forms of music come to be more widely regarded as sacred than others?

The answer to this is a little more complex than most people today realize. With the exception of chant, almost every form of music today regarded as sacred, had a stormy reception in the Church, early on, before being admitted to the ranks of music called “sacred.”

That music is controversial in Church, is nothing new, as we shall see in this modest survey that I make of the history of music in Catholic liturgy. I list the sources for the survey at the end of the article, but I gleaned this basic description of the history of Church music from many years of reading and studying.

At some level, it is my hope to provide perspective on the problem that is often raised today that certain modern forms of music are inadmissible, because they are not “sacred.” In no way do I intend to baptize every form of modern music and encourage its admission into the liturgy. But it is worth appreciating that the category “sacred, music” has varied and grown over time, and there have been, sometimes reluctantly, new forms admitted into the exulted status that we refer to as “sacred music.”

Here then, is a brief (probably not brief enough) look at the history of Church music in terms of what has been considered sacred, and what is not been.

I. The early, pre-Constantine Period. Chant reigns supreme – While little if any music survives in written form from the earliest days of the Church, it seems clear, as Johannes Quasten records, that the leaders of the early Church, (The Fathers and Bishops) preferred monophonic music,  that is to say, music with little or no harmony. This seems largely due, to the association of harmony with the excesses of the pagan world, and pagan worship.

It is also worth mentioning that the rich harmonies of the modern 12 tone scale which we have today, were unknown in the ancient world. The harmonies that were used were of a more pentatonic nature, using lots of hollow fourths and  some fifths.

Thus, given its association with pagan and secular music and its less appealing quality, the use of this sort of harmony was largely resisted in the early Church and would not reappear until the late Middle Ages.

Another reason that the early Church seems to have favored non-harmonic singing was somewhat rooted in the cosmology of the time wherein the early Christians emphasized the unity of all things. Whatever diversity was discovered, it all came from the one hand of God. Monophonic, (non-harmonized) music seemed to better express this unity, at least to the ancient Christian mind.

This cosmology of unity, still finds its expression in the way that most Prefaces in the Mass are ended. The Latin text speaks of the multitude of the choirs of angels, joining with the voices of the many saints (cum Angelis, et archangelis, cum Thronis, et Domininationes….et òmnibus Sanctis). And yet despite the vast multitude of voices it says, at the end of the preface that they all sing “as with one voice saying” (una voce dicentes): Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts!

And so, at the earliest stage, the sacred was associated with what we call today chant. To the ancient Church, harmony was widely considered to be secular, even pagan.

II. The Church after Persecution. Chant develops – The earliest chants, it would seem were quite simple, largely monosyllabic, (with one note per syllable) and only a few elaborations. However, as the Church came out of a more hidden worship after the Edict of Constantine (321 AD), the use of large cavernous buildings began to influence the singing. Cantors began to elaborate the chant, making full use of the echoes in the larger basilica-like buildings. Syllables such as the end of the Alleluia (ia….) began to take on an extended quality of longer and longer melismas, especially in festival seasons.

Singers also “yielded to the spirit,” and the long melismas became a  kind of an ecstatic “singing in tongues.”  Eventually as these melodies became increasingly elaborate, they were written down and collected by, among others, Pope St. Gregory;  hence our modern designation of “Gregorian Chant.”

It is less clear, as these chants became more and more elaborate, how they were regarded in terms of the question of sacredness. What is clear, is that they became so increasingly elaborate that the faithful in the congregation were less able to join in most of the chants, and special choirs, called Scholas,  had to be developed.

And thus sacred music began to move from the people to specialized choirs, in the period of late antiquity and into the early Middle Ages.

III. The High Middle Ages. Harmony enters. – The next major development in Church music takes place in the high Middle Ages, generally speaking in the 13th century. The first developments of harmony  centered in the musical schools around Paris and other places in France. It here that we see the first widespread introduction of harmony into Church music.

Several factors influenced the introduction of harmony. First there was the reintroduction of Greek philosophy and some of its views back into the Western world through Scholasticism.

Among the Greek notions, was a cosmology that spoke of the planets circling the sun in perfect circles, each of them ringing out a different tone, and creating a beautiful celestial harmony in the heavens as they did so. Here was the “music of the spheres” and the idea of a great and beautiful harmonic sound in the heavens. And thus the identification of harmonies and the sacred began in the imagination of Christians to seem more plausible.

The first experimentation with harmony seem to have been singing the Gregorian melodies and adding a hollow harmony of a fourth or fifth. Sometimes this involved several singers singing the words in those harmonies. Other times the harmonizers simply “droned” in the background, something like the sound that bagpipe drones make today.

Architecture was another factor that influenced the harmonies. The soaring new Cathedrals that began to dot the landscape of Western Europe seemed to demand a music more soaring, even as the vaulted ceilings soared upward, ever higher. They were the skyscrapers of their day.

Interestingly enough, as a harmonies began to sound pleasing to the ears, scholars worked to study harmony, using, of all things, the Pythagorean theorem to mathematically set forth the harmonic scale. Thus math and music came together to quantify a kind of music theory. As the years just prior to the 16th Century tick by, we come gradually to have what we know today as the 12 tone scale.

As with most things musical, in the Church, the introduction of these harmonies was not always without controversy, and some complained that the words were harder to understand, a problem that would plague polyphonic music and it’s early stages.

Nevertheless, as a general rule, the new harmonies from the Paris school swept through Europe to widespread acclaim. Many flocked to the cathedrals to hear this splendid new music.

IV. Late Middle Ages to Renaissance, Musical Revolution and growing crisis for polyphony- It is hard to describe what took place in music from the late 1300s to 1500 as anything less than revolutionary. The modern harmonic scale as we now know it came in full realization, harmony from two-part, to three-part, and then to four and more parts amazed listeners everywhere.

The incredible development of music in this period,  paralleled also the remarkable developments in painting with shadow and light, perspective and depth. By the early 1500s Renaissance Polyphony was in all of its glory. Composers such as Isaac, Lassus, Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, Byrd and many others, brought this art form to an amazing richness.

The music was not without controversy. Two main problems seem to presents with this new style called polyphony (=many voices).

The first problem, was the intelligibility of the text. With multiple harmonies being sung, the Latin text, often being staggered across many parts and voices,  became harder and harder to understand. Clergy especially complained of this, arguing that the sacred text was taking a backseat to musical flourishes,  and a kind of “theatrical showiness”  seemed secular to many.

The second thing that troubled many about polyphony was that many of the composers of the day drew their melodies from secular melodies that were often heard in the taverns, in the streets, and  in theaters. They would often take these recognizable melodies and set them as a cantus firmus (musical theme or foundation) of sacred compositions, including the parts of the Mass.

Heinrich Isaac, as early as the 1400s in his Missa Carminum drew from many of the songs heard in taverns. But perhaps the most egregious example of this, and an incident which almost caused all polyphony to be utterly banned from the Catholic Church, was an incident caused by the composer Orlando De Lassus.

The Mass in question was his Missa Entre Vous Filles. Here he drew, for the main melody of both the Kyrie and the Gloria, from a secular piece by the French composer Clemens non-Papa. The song featured a text that was so lewd that it cannot be translated here. To be frank, the text was  outright pornographic. As the Mass grew widely popular (for it is a lovely melody), the Church authorities discovered its source and a great uproar ensued.

This controversy took place during the years of the Council of Trent, and though some scholars are dubious of all the details, it is reported that there were Council Fathers who were serious about seeing that sacred polyphony was forever banned from the Catholic liturgy.

Among those who came to the rescue, I am happy to report, was my patron Saint, St. Charles Borromeo. For some increasingly dubious bishops and cardinals who attended some of the sessions of the Council of Trent, Borromeo assembled them for hearing of the Pope Marcellus Mass by Palestrina. The Mass seems to have been specifically composed to address some of the critiques about the intelligibility of the text and the secular origins of many melodies. The presentation to the select Cardinals seems to have calmed some of the controversy regarding this new music. And thus, the crisis seems to have largely passed.

Nevertheless, this incident goes a long way to show how, what many today consider a very sacred sound, namely Renaissance polyphony, was quite controversial in it’s day, and had something of a stormy relationship with the Church at first. It was thought of as sacred in a widespread way only later. Polyphony, generally after passing this first crisis, became less “florid” and gave emphasis to the intelligibility of the text, secular melodies were also excluded. Later Palestrina is more austere than the works from his earlier period, for these reasons.

Hence, we see how our notions of what makes for sacred music, had already passed through two major periods. The first, where harmonies were considered secular. The second, where harmonies were introduced, but only slowly accepted as sacred in nature.

V. The Renaissance to the Baroque – New controversies, old problems – In the period of the middle  Renaissance, A new cosmology began to replace the perfect symmetry of the planets revolving the sun in perfect circles. Astronomy began to reveal that most of the planets revolved the sun, not in a perfect circle, but had elliptical orbits,   some of them rather steep ellipses. And thus the perfect circles of the planets, symbolized by  the “music of the spheres”  and imitated by Renaissance polyphony, began to give way to the understanding of the mathematical progression of elliptical orbits, a kind of Bach Fugue in the sky. This change in cosmology helped usher in the rather more elaborate, yet mathematical music of the Baroque.

Yes, here we find the wonderful and mathematically precise music of Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Gabrieli, Schubert, Scarlatti and so many others. Perhaps the Fugue most exemplifies the kind of mathematical cosmology of the time. In the fugue, mastered by Bach, but not wholly unique to him, a musical theme is set forth.  For example, quarter notes may annouce the theme of the fugue. And this theme is repeated in the left hand, then in the feet (of the organist) and also adapted mathematically, sub-dividing it to eighth notes, then sixteenth, even 32nd notes. Math meets music. Other forms like canons emerged similarly. Symphonies also grew to have movements often named for their time: Allegro, adagio, presto, etc.

The classical and baroque periods brought in the great orchestral or “Classical” Masses, by composers such as Mozart, Schubert, Scarlatti, and many others. Even Bach and Beethoven set the Catholic Mass in great symphonic and orchestral renderings.

Great controversies accompanied these newer forms. Principle among the concerns was, once again, the intelligibility of the text, and also the rather lengthy quality that many of these masses tended to have. Some Glorias and Credos could go on for  twenty minutes or more.

Some complained to these musical settings of the Mass sounded more like being at the opera, than  Church. Indeed, they often broke the sacred text into movements, speckled with Soprano or tenor solos and duets, grand choral sections and all most often supported by a full symphonic accompaniment. It was quite the sonic experience!   These masses were generally so elaborate, that they could only be performed in the larger city churches that were well endowed.

The controversy concerning these kinds of Masses continued for many years, such that,  as the liturgical reforms began at the turn the last century, Pope Pius X, referring to these orchestral Masses as “theatrical”   (see Tra Le Sollecitudini # 6), frowned on their usage. This led to a de facto banishing of the form at that time from the Catholic liturgy. Only after the second Vatican Council was this form rehabilitated in a small way.

Here too we see that what many Catholics today consider unquestionably sacred, for example a great Mozart Mass, had to endure much of its own controversy and even a kind of banishment. What is thought of as sacred today, has not always enjoyed that rarefied distinction!

VI. The Modern Era – New Musical forms, new controversies. And this leads us to the modern era. As we have seen,  those who think that debates about what constitutes sacred music are new, would be sadly mistaken. These debates have been quite consistently a part of church life almost from the beginning. To simply place them at the feet of the Second Vatican Council is to lack historical perspective.

It is true Musicam Sacram, and Sacrosanctum Concilium, documents of the Second Vatican Council, opened the door to newer forms with a greater freedom toward inculturation, (e.g. MS #s 18 & 63) but it also reasserted the special accord to be given to Chant (# 50a), polyphony and the Pipe Organ (# 4a).

The fact is, debates continue about newer forms and what is sacred, but such tensions have long existed. Some newer forms have already been tried and found wanting (e.g. Polka Masses). Other forms such as “folk” or contemporary music have, with adaptions along the way, remained a mainstay.

As for “Gospel Music,” the debate about which occasioned this rather lengthy article, a few things can be said.

  1. Simply saying “It is not sacred” or “It is not appropriate for Catholic liturgy” does not make it so. As we have seen, the judgement about what is sacred often takes time to be worked out. The notion of what sounds or seems sacred also changes, and what was once dubious is later admitted to the ranks of the sacred.
  2. Gospel music, unlike many other modern forms (e.g. Polka or Mariachi) has real sacred roots. It emerged from the Spirituals and hymns of antebellum and early 20th century time periods. And while not strictly Catholic in origin, it does not per se offend against what is allowed in Catholic liturgy.
  3. One virtue of Gospel music, unlike most other contemporary expressions, is its focus on God. Too many modern contemporary “worship songs” speak more of us and the “gathered community” than God. Not so Gospel, which almost wholly focuses on God.
  4. Like almost any form of music, Gospel can have its excesses, but this does not mean the whole form is flawed, only that certain rational limits should be observed. This was the case with early polyphony and the Classical Masses, and it is also true of Gospel.
  5. Many complain that Gospel looks too “performed.” Generally however most “outsiders” confuse the exuberance of congregation and singers, with performance. Applause is also not for the performer per se but is directed to God and in gratitude for this manifestation of the Spirit.
  6. As is the case with many previous forms, discussions will and should continue.
  7. If one does not “prefer” or even like Gospel Music, they are free to stay away from it. But mere preference or taste does not mean that Gospel is intrinsically lacking in sacred qualities.
  8. Similar things can be said for the use of hymnody. To this author’s mind, the use of metrical hymnody is a good way to once again engage the faithful in the singing of sacred texts in ways that are melodic, memorable, appropriate, and easily learned. Yet for others the Protestant origins of this form and most of its repertoire remains a sticking point.   Here too time must prove where wisdom lies, and over time, many of these hymns are finding a solid place in Catholic liturgy.

Summation: Historically we can see that, except for Gregorian Chant, no form of music currently considered sacred, was without its controversy. Time ultimately proves where wisdom lies and mediates for us what is ultimately sacred in a way that transcends mere passing tastes or preferences. Music has made several revolutionary leaps in the age of the Church, as we saw above. With necessary and rational limits, there is no need to rush to exclude every newer form. Were that the case, ONLY Chant would exist in the Church and we would be deprived of a great treasury of music from the era of polyphony and the classical period.

I do not, in saying this, mean to indicate that all music is just fine and that all modern forms are here to stay or should be unquestioned. It is clear that some forms are wholly inimical to the Sacred Liturgy. Rather, I seek to remind of this fact: that what we call “sacred music” is historically more complex than many understand. It is the result of often long and vigorous discussions, refinements, and other factors as diverse and remote as cosmology, architecture, mathematics, and culture.

We do well to let some of the conversations and controversies work themselves out, lest in too quickly ending them by mere judicial fiat, we impoverish ourselves and block what might bless others, and even our very self.

Some of my sources for the above article are

  1. Johannes Quasten, Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity
  2. Msgr Robert F. Hayburn, Papal Legislation on Sacred Music
  3. BBC Four Part Production Sacred Music
  4. Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way
  5. Thomas Day, Why Catholic Can’t Sing

Here are the videos that sparked the discussion on my Facebook page.

55 Replies to “What is Sacred Music? Historically it’s a bit more complex than you may think.”

  1. Charity in the comments please! Remember real people are in these videos, people I happen to love and admire and who love God.

    Also, please remember, while we all have preferences, preferences are not the same as prescriptions that should bind everyone. The Church currently allows latitude and variety in sacred music within certain limits, even while expressing a special place for Chant.

    Caritas !

    1. Msgr. Excellent article, if I may I’d like to use some of this information in a history conference which I teach at our parish. It’s a 2 hour course that goes over music history from the beginnings of the church to today. Your information coincides with my own regarding the subject but you have examples and more detailed information than I do. Your article was just what I needed.

      Rick Wheeler – Music director, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish – Littleton CO.

  2. Thank you Msgr. Pope! Sadly there is so much division in the body of Christ. I am so blessed to see you enlighten us all as to the complexity of what is “sacred” music. Too often people become judgmental and polarized ove their own preferance! Personally, I feel that if it is blessing God and makes one feel closer to God in their worship then whatever music style one prefers, is a blessing. That is to say, so long as it is accepted by mother church. I appreciate the way you show that much of what is now considered sacred was once seen as not so. Praise be to God!

  3. I’m wondering if there are any Catholic Mongolian throat singers willing to take sacred music to a new level.

  4. All other things being equal, Gregorian chant has pride and place. This was given to us by an ecumenical council, Vatican II of course, in a document on the nature of the liturgy and especially the Roman liturgy following 60 years or so of teaching in the ordinary Magisterium. The only other form mentioned, nay, praised, is sacred polyphony, for it is a form with a long and venerable tradition in the Roman liturgy. Yes, as you state, polyphony had to develop and you point out “intelligibility of the text.” Chant especially and polyphony illuminate the text through their respective musical characters, and they are parts of the Mass! This brings me to my next point
    Latin was to be retained in the liturgical rites according to Sacrosanctum Concilium. It is a unifying language and one that very adequately expresses the Faith. We should chant the Latin Ordinary as often as possible-on special occasions, polyphonic or perhaps orchestral settings are in order- and use the chanted Propers (never all polyphony; 50-50 or 60/40 should be the aim, with the balance in favor of chant). If not then we should use the sung vernacular propers followed by the missal Propers and good vernacular settings of the Ordinary. The problem is that so many modern settings of the Ordinary are lackng, as they subordinate the text to music, necessitating the repetition of phrases (often it’s “…have mercy” in the Gloria and the Agnus Dei) Hymns are not texts of the Mass, no matter the style, although they certainly have a place in the Church’s rites elsewhere (the style of those is up for debate elsewhere!).
    As to orchestral settings, some are more appropriate than others, and it’s necessary to judge on a case-by-case basis.
    Catholics used to be able to sing, even in a country dominated in many cities by the Irish-American Low Mass only mentality. Let’s change that, with the texts and settings that the Church values the most.

    1. OK, but I am glad that you begin with the phrase “other things being equal” I have great love of chant and Latin and use it wherever and whenever I can. But I also seek to engage people in what connects with them, even as I seek to broaden horizons, theirs, and my own!

      The answer is both/and

  5. Msgr.,

    Thank you for the great post and video from the Office of Liturgy in your Diocese. As a devout Catholic Music Ed. (Choral) major in college, I relate very well to your blog and your insights, especially on music considering your background. I’m struggling right now to be patient as I work in several parishes in my area, fighting the good fight against the nostro-centric hymns that are tacked on to entertain us at the “boring” parts of Mass.

    Please, if you could spare a prayer for me, and the pastors I work with at these many parishes, that we may follow the will of God and lead many souls into His Eternal Kingdom, I would appreciate it.

    Also, as a follow-up question: How important do you think the priest singing the Mass is?

    1. I think it is very important and that more should be done to foster skill in clergy in terms of singing the parts of the Mass. Here is one resource I often point to when my brother clergy ask how to sing the prefaces:


      I usually,on Sunday sing the orations, the preface and the the mysterium fidei, and the per ipsum. I also intone the Kyrie litany if the deacon cannot.

      Thanks for fighting against the “nostro-centric” problem too, it is crucial problem in modern liturgy to get us back to a more Theocentric focus.


  6. Monsignor, I thoroughly enjoyed this ! …I have always loved music … of all kinds… and have sung in a variety of choirs and guitar groups. I even learned Gregorian chant in the 6th grade of my Catholic school many many years ago. I have ( too often) witnessed beautifully “performed” and “technically correct” music in liturgies which was just that –(” technical and performed”.) Yes, there may be some who do not consider gospel music as “solemn” but it truly blesses me and has often helped me to glorify God. Some of the negro spirituals (especially those that you frequently post) have often been so powerful and so sincere that they have moved me to tears. I find them to be very prayerful and often go to YouTube in order to earnestly sing along. I believe that St Augustine was attributed with the saying that “He who sings prays twice” and I consider any music which prompts me to sing in praise and worship of Our Mighty and Merciful God to be “sacred” . God bless you and all of our Catholic priests.

    1. Sounds like you and I are similar in finding blessing in a wide variety of music and forms. I am so grateful to God for all the gifts he bestows and that somewhere God granted me the mercy to appreciate legitimate diversity in the liturgy. I am so blessed by Chant, Polyphony, both Latin and English, and also by Gospel and the Spirituals, along with the magnificent treasury of hymns. I LOVE to go over to the Church and play hymns on the Organ! Thank you Lord!

  7. That’s entertainment as is the banal music we hear at non-black parishes. Those parishioners are very active, but are not actively participating in Holy Mass. BTW few would argue that Gospel is not sacred. It is just not appropriate for Holy Mass.

    1. Now here is an example of the kind of comment that I would cite as rude, uncharitable and out of line. I only post it as an example of what not to do in making comments here. You offend in the follow ways:

      1. The use of the word “banal” in association with Gospel Music is wholly out of line for a musical form that is as old and culturally important to many people.
      2. You are not the judge of who is “actively participating.” You don’t even know these people. The video shows people celebrating in the house of the Lord. Are they just “in the groove, enjoying the music, or are they in touch with God and praising him? You don’t know by looking at a video clip.
      3. And your final point about Gospel being inappropriate for Holy Mass, You are not the judge of that. And thank God, who would want someone with your unjust and uncharitable and just plain rude assessment to be the judge of what is the appropriate of the sacred liturgy?

      Jesus has this to say “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy more than sacrifice.'” (Matt 9:13) IOW liturgical norms are important and necessary, but they do not exist to bludgeon others, and do not override the charity that should prevail, especially in matters where there is legitimate diversity.

      For the record, the Church, which unlike HAS the authority to prescribe in these matters has this to say (from Musicam Sacram) :

      9. In selecting the kind of sacred music to be used, whether it be for the choir or for the people, the capacities of those who are to sing the music must be taken into account. No kind of sacred music is prohibited from liturgical actions by the Church as long as it corresponds to the spirit of the liturgical celebration itself and the nature of its individual parts, and does not hinder the active participation of the people.

      10. In order that the faithful may actively participate more willingly and with greater benefit, it is fitting that the format of the celebration and the degree of participation in it should be varied as much as possible, according to the solemnity of the day and the nature of the congregation present.

      From Sacrosanctum Concilium:

      37. Even in the liturgy, the Church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not implicate the faith or the good of the whole community; rather does she respect and foster the genius and talents of the various races and peoples. Anything in these peoples’ way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy and, if possible, preserves intact. Sometimes in fact she admits such things into the liturgy itself, so long as they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.

      40.1-2 The competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, must, in this matter, carefully and prudently consider which elements from the traditions and culture of individual peoples might appropriately be admitted into divine worship. Adaptations which are judged to be useful or necessary should then be submitted to the Apostolic See, by whose consent they may be introduced. To ensure that adaptations may be made with all the circumspection which they demand, the Apostolic See will grant power to this same territorial ecclesiastical authority to permit and to direct, as the case requires, the necessary preliminary experiments over a determined period of time among certain groups suited for the purpose.

      119. In certain parts of the world, especially mission lands, there are peoples who have their own musical traditions, and these play a great part in their religious and social life. For this reason due importance is to be attached to their music, and a suitable place is to be given to it, not only in forming their attitude toward religion, but also in adapting worship to their native genius, as indicated in Art. 39 and 40.

      1. Msgr., this fellow traveler obviously just hasn’t traveled the gospel road very thoroughly given his relegation of the whole category as “banal.” Even if he’d studied Trans-African-American musicology through to Burleigh and Hairston, and reached the same conclusion, he’d remain ignorant of the music of Leon Roberts, Moses Hogan, Andre Thomas and a host of both black and white gospel writes and arrangers whose theoretical genius is every bit as complex as a Bach fugue. And at the same time, the late, lamented Roberts’ “CANTICLE OF MARY” is a paramount achievement of portrayal of her fiat as an outcast teenager from a strong faithful family, who well knew what rigors awaited her for saying yes to God. It’s there in the music for all to hear with open ears, much more so than the more popular and gentle “HOLY IS HIS NAME” by JM Talbot.
        And yes, gospel styles tend to be more “Deo-centric” than the horizontal, Sarah’s circle priesthood of all believers-style of rhetoric. And this can be evidenced not only by gospel examples, but by some of the P&W stuff that movements like Hillsong composers churn out. We could learn a thing or two.
        Point is, don’t become a pedantic. Great essay.

        1. I think if you look back, the poster did not use “banal” to describe Gospel, but the usual music in American Catholic parishes. Like it or not, well-performed Gospel is anything but banal. And I’m afraid the word does fit a lot of current Catholic service music, though perhaps there’s a gentler term.

  8. I can fully understand why this kind of music has its place in the Church. It is not to my taste. I happen to have a daughter-in-law who is an African. If we had such Masses around here I am sure that she would be drawn to attend them and perhaps convert. She is a christian. She loves God. She prays, but the kind of church which attracts her is more of the Pentecostal kind. Our western style Masses just do not have that overt vibrancy and exuberance which is depicted in your video clips. I must confess though that they would drive me many miles away.

    1. Thanks. Here is a comment that can serve as a model of charity. It is fine to have and express preferences, as you have. But your comment and heart also makes room for others and that some reach the Lord in different ways. I understand your concerns, and well realize that charismatic forms are not appealing to all, that many appreciate more quiet and traditional settings.

      1. We all naturally have preferences, especially about music and visual art, and even concerning homiletic style. These seem to be the places for human creativity of worship and evangelization in the mass. In large cities in the north there are parishes built with deference to the style and language of the immigrants who created those Polish or Irish (or other) communities. Back in those days, it seems, parish boundaries were more strictly defined, and you went to the church of your geographical parish whether you resonated with that culture or not.

        Now it seems that more Catholics seek out parishes whose art forms please them more. But is this enough reason to choose a parish outside of one’s own geographic boundaries? It seems like this kind of personal preference could trump the spiritual commitment that should exist between the Catholics of one’s own geographic community, but in this digital age, “geography” seems to mean less and less. What do you think? To what extent do we stick with a parish for better or for worse? (Our own family has attended a parish other than our “own” for 17 years now, and it was chosen for subjective reasons.)

  9. How I wish we had such participation and music in our churches here in my city. The so-called Christmas music is especially grating…Most of it is sung as though we are at a funeral….I have attended Spanish/Mexican Masses in California that have the entire congregation involved in the singing and the ‘sacred silence’ during the Canon of the Mass is almost ear-splitting.
    How I’d love to attend at least one of these Washington Masses….

  10. I will state upfront that my understanding of music is minimal and, thus, my comments may stem purely from ignorance.

    First, for me, one of the takeaways from this article was the consistency of the problems regardless of the particular musical style. Namely, (1) intelligibility of the text, (2)the performance / theatrical / “nostro-centric” (stealing that term from another comment) nature and (3) the association with secular (or non-Catholic) themes /styles. In each case above, the problems seems to appear to one extent or another, and each musical style had to prove itself by overcoming the problems with examples that did not succumb to those problems. [I think this is why some of those early Church documents preferred specific composers.]

    Second, it occurs to me to wonder whether certain musical styles are more or less likely to have these problems. For example, I have ended up at what one might term a “praise and worship” or “rock band” mass. I believe that all three complaints could be legitimately leveled against it and I think that that form may not be able to demonstrate a “Palestrina” of rock music. In other words, that particular style may be so prone to the problems mentioned that it may not be redeemable as sacred music. In any case, it seems to me worthwhile to promote those styles that are less susceptible to the above mentioned problems (if there are some).

    Third, I think every piece of the liturgy should help the congregation to participate in the sacrifice of the Mass. I often here that we need this or that sort of music to bring this or that group to church, but then I wonder what are we bringing them to? The Mass is not entertainment and as entertainment it will always be second to what the world offers. It is only when our liturgy helps people understand that we are really and truly present at the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ that we will truly be able to bring people to Mass (and not just a community event). To this end, I have begun to ask twin questions: (1) If a secular movie maker were making a movie about this Passion, what would that person choose so as to enhance the communication about the event and avoid jarring the audience? (2) As I am a Catholic, who believes that I am truly present during that Passion, how would I act (including what music would I sing) if I could look into Mary’s eyes as she watches her son die? Shouldn’t I be at least as sensitive as a secular film maker? Could I really stand between John and Mary and break out into most of the music I hear in church these days (complete with tambourines, drums, and whatnot)? More and more, I find my answer is no.

  11. Excellent essay, Monsignor. I’ve been following this blog for a while and I had no idea you know so much about Church music! I agree with those who maintain that plainchant is the privileged music of the Church and always should be, but I am also open to other forms of music in Church, as long as they are not inappropriate in the sacred context.

    It’s interesting that you mentioned the Tridentine reaction against polyphonic music, largely as a result of composers’ practice of basing their polyphonic masses on a “cantus firmus” derived from secular songs, some of which were decidedly non-sacred!

    However, even a lot of these secular-dervied cantus firmus masses are quite beautiful and entirely appropriate in Church. One of the most popular songs of the late Middle Ages was the “L’homme armé” (“the armed man should be feared”). Many composers set masses to this tune. One of the earliest and greatest was by Guillaume Dufay in the 1460s. I think it’s a magnificent mass setting and would dearly love to see it performed at High Mass some time by a good choir. Here is the Kyrie:


    1. Thanks, I was an organist/choir director before seminary and continued in those roles in seminary. In that capacity I have studied the topic for many years (30+) and have always been fascinated by music and its development. It is a remarkable expression of the human soul and rather mysterious too especially for its interactions with cosmology and math! Despite all my studies I have never felt satisfied that I have grasped the topic satisfactorily. Perhaps that is good, it keeps me searching and, afterall, who can ultimately exhaust any mystery, such as the expressiveness of the human soul.

  12. I was agreeing with you until I came to number five and you mentioned applause in church. I just can’t see David getting applause after singing before the Lord 🙂 . As soon as people applaud it has become a performance and not sacred music, no matter if it is Chant, Haganhaus, or Gospel.

    1. It is interesting, we even applaud at the end of congregational hymns and the gloria. It is another way of saying “praise the Lord!” As for David, he wrote in the psalms: Omnes gentes plaudite manibus! Jubilate Deo in voceferatione! (All you nations clap your hands! Cry out to God with loud voice!) (Psalm 46:2)

      1. I served for some years in an old German ethnic parish that maintained the tradition of the orchestral Mass. No matter what anyone said or did, when the final hymn was concluded, the people applauded. I finally came to the conclusion that if we had provided a worthwhile and God-centric experience for them, how else would they tell us?

      2. I agree that, though not to my taste, clapping one’s hands can be a means of praise to the Lord, especially accompanied by “Amen! Alleluia!” etc. that clarifies the intended object of the praise. But in practice, applause in church (in the US anyway) is almost always not directed toward God :”great job choir”, “nice service altar servers”, “spot on homily, Father”, “pretty flowers, altar guild”, “welcome to an hour of liturgical abuse, visitors”, “happy 8th birthday Jimmy”, or “nice win on the gridiron, Crusaders”. I have no reason to doubt that Msgr. Pope’s congregation is exceptional in this regard, but I think for most parishes it should be banned outright.

  13. Msgr. Pope. You give a nice historical perspective. It brought back memories of my “History of Christian Music” course in seminary. Good stuff!

    It seems that your point is that, because one other style of music, other than chant – namely, polyphony – was allowed, that this kind of fissure granted permission for all styles to be on the table. And, I do believe we are talking about “styles” … whether the biblical texts are properly used seems a given in our discussion.

    You serve the good people In Washington D.C., and I have noticed your great displeasure with those who raise a question whether Gospel Music is a fitting style for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Well, I serve the good people in rural America, and I take exception to your characterization of the style of polka as “being found wanting.” While Gospel music seems to elevate the spirit of your good people – seemingly over chant and polyphony – the style of polka has the very same effect here in rural America.

    You point to the style of Gospel music as having “sacred roots” from the early 20th century. Well, the style of polka has its sacred roots only a few decades later. And, as a portion of my congregation is from suburban America, their preferred style is, what some term as vulgar and sappy, 1970s folk music. Moreover, “now” Christian rock has its sacred roots from only a while later.

    I can see that you are offended by those who question whether Gospel Music is appropriate for Mass, but please know that we are equally offended out here in rural America that the style these good people have grown up with and love, is characterized as “found wanting.” As you say, if you don’t like it, don’t come to that Mass.

    The point is this … who is the “Sacred Music Police” anymore? You have a deep love and respect for the rich heritage of the people you serve. Well, I have the same with mine. We are not allowed to ask questions about what you allow in D.C., but using the style of our people’s heritage is fair game.

    Finally, please note that we are not using any of these varied “styles” here. Our people have absolutely fallen in love with chant and polyphony.

    1. Fr. Heilman;

      Excellent! Obviously Msgr Pope has a blind spot when it comes to others. I do believe that “Gospel music” is performance, not worship.

      1. Not sure what you mean when you say I have a blind spot when it comes to “others” What doe you mean by “others?” Also I intend no offense by saying that Polka Masses have been tried and found wanting. I thought I was reflecting a consensus. At least in the Northeast, this sort of music has fallen away as far as I understand. I am less familiar with the rural midwest. Also, I DO distinguish the genres to this degree, Polka never had sacred roots, but rather was taken up, and as far as I can tell, has mostly fallen away. Gospel and the spirituals however do have sacred, though not Catholic roots. That is an important difference.

        But both of you kind of puzzle me. Are you saying polka masses are good? Or that they are bad? I think Fr. H and I actually agree on the main point, namely that the Sacred Music Police ought to at least withhold quick judgements. But you Dave, seem to imply that Fr. and I are opposed. Polka aside, I read Father’s remarks to be an affirmation of the main point of the article which is that we should allow some things to work out and see if the sacred can find room for them or not, and that time will prove where wisdom lies.

        Am I missing something? Also I am not sure where or to what I am blind.

        As to your performance remark, I don’t suppose you can generalize as you do. I will let my remarks and that of the video stand. But part of your assessment requires you to know the inner intentions of the singers, which I don’t suppose you can and it is not for you to say who is worshiping God or not. It may not SEEM as worship to you, but you would have to be able to know the inner moves of their heart, which I do not think you reasonably can.

        1. I was not intending to place a value, good or bad, on the “style” of polka. I was intending to point to a kind of liturgical relativism. Again, while you respect the heritage of your good people, I respect the heritage of mine. Believe it or not, Polka Masses are alive and well out here. However, there is an effort to look again at how much the preferred styles of each culture, and various trends, should determine what in fact deserves to be called “sacred music.”

          While some find the style of polka to be profane and wanting, others find the style of contemporary songs written for Mass profane and wanting. Which, by the way, do not have “sacred roots,” yet you are willing to give these (but not polka) “a wait and see.” While you find polka wanting … ask one of my farmers what he thinks of Gospel Music.

          It’s all just liturgical relativism.

          1. I still don’t get it. What do you want? Polka or no? I don’t really know anything polka and did not know it was still going on. Do you like polka. Frankly I don’t care that much, its just not on my radar. I just used it as an example that, to my mind was all the rage but has now gone. You say it hasn’t, fine, then I guess it hasn’t. But I still don’t get your point, you decry liturgical relativism but then seem offended that I don’t like polka masses. (Which I didn’t really say – I’ve never been to one). I don’t follow you at all.

          2. The style of polka is just used to make a point. My point is simply … if one “style” is allowed due to preference, than all “styles” need to be allowed. That is liturgical relativism. And, I fear that is the pandora’s box going forward. Relativism has run amuck in our times. Is it about time we reel this in?

          3. Only problem Father, you are not the judge of that. Rome is. The Church permits a range of liturgical expression. You are free to call the pope or some the curial guys in the Noble City. But until they rescind the permission looks like you’re stuck. Relativism it is not, it is rule by Rome, that’s not relativism, Fr., that’s authority.

          4. It’s the text of the Mass that matters, not so much the music.

            Gospel, folk, jazz, polka, pop – whatever – will be “sacred” and appropriate to use for the Mass if they are fitted with the correct Ordinary and Popers texts. Think “Missa Luba.”

            Propers are difficult to execute but are integral to the Mass. Most sets of Propers are used only once a year, so musicians don’t want to invest so much in them. But they are not called “propers” for nothing. Hymns cannot adequately substitute for the Propers at Mass therefore the priest must recite them.

            Until we come up with the Propers texts set to Gospel, folk, jazz, pops, polka, rock music, etc. let’s call such music merely as devotionals, good for the four-hymn sandwich. They may be sacred but not necessarily liturgical.

  14. Several points from my experience as a layman who loves to praise God in song: It is not so much that I object to what is new, as I miss what has been displaced, ignored and forgotten. In my parish, where the Novus Ordo is celebrated with dignity and propriety, all Latin and Greek are now gone. Two generations have gone by who do not know how the sing the Kyrie, Sanctus, Pater Noster, or Agnus Dei, because they do not know the words.

    Among the new, I love gospel music at Mass, because it is rooted in deep faith and love of God, the rhythms move the soul and the melodies are simple and singable. What really bothers me is the Andrew Lloyd Webberizing tendency in many newer hymns in which the doctrine expressed is fuzzy, has an agenda, or is sentimentalized and the high notes are beyond the range of most adult men. Many Sundays I feel marginalized and unable to sign. Someone has called this the “chickification” of liturgy. That is harsh, perhaps, but it feels right.

  15. “it also reasserted the special accord to be given to Chant (# 50a), polyphony and the Pipe Organ (# 4a).”

    Interestingly, in my 30 years as a Catholic in places such as the suburbs of Chicago, Northeastern PA, and the DC Metro area I can say I’ve heard Gospel or related music far more times than chant in church (and typically chant only from the priest or an antiphon during something special, and the antiphons have only popped up during the last 2 years).

    Never heard polyphony anywhere other than my Spotify playlist.

    1. Yeah, I guess I’m lucky, as a regular Telepan of Latin liturgies throughout the diocese I get a pretty wide variety including chance, polyphony, and even some classical masses!
      Add to that the gospel music in our 11 o’clock mass at my parish and I walking a pretty wide variety, a very blessed place for me thanks be to God. Also, I should add, the gospel choir and my parish also sings a good bit of classical including the Vivaldi Gloria, a few years ago and regular selections from Handels messiah and some Italian masterworks. I often count my blessings, in this regard of variety, and deep immersion in the traditions of the church such as chant and polyphony.

  16. Thank you, Monsignor. I’m a church organist and pianist, and my tastes lean traditional (though as a professional, I’ll play nearly any church music put in front of me), but it frustrates me to no end to hear and read all that sniping. Thank you for providing a very, very helpful big picture.

  17. I have abundant experience with orchestral Masses by Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert — not in concert halls, but in actual solemn Masses (x-form) in which I’ve served as MC. In my opinion they are excessively theatrical (excessive reliance on individual virtuosity as opposed to the body of singers as a whole) and frequently lacking in respect for the liturgical text (excessive repetition in some areas, omission in others; overall a single-minded preoccupation with the music for its own sake rather than as a servant of the Church’s liturgical needs), and therefore are not appropriate for liturgy.

    I’ve never been to a gospel Mass, but fear many of the same problems would apply, along with a degree of emotional and physical engagement that’s incompatible with recollection and receptivity.

    Liturgy should be neither entertainment nor personal achievement. Outside of Mass I’d be fine with gospel music as a pious entertainment (same would apply to bluegrass gospel, of which I’m a great fan), but IMHO incorporation into liturgy is as inappropriate as it would be for Bach’s Mass in B minor or Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

  18. Being part of the great unwashed, musically untrained masses, I found this article enormously informative. Interestingly, it has helped me understand why I instinctively find some music so inappropriate for the Mass. It is the music that tends to draw attention to itself and disrupts one’s ability to deeply experience the mystery being reenacted.

    Richard above expressed it best when he talked about the sensitivity required of music whose mission it is to help us contemplate our presence at the foot of the Cross.

    It seems to me that it will take honesty and courage and a willingness to set personal preferences aside, on the part of pastors, parishioners and music ministers, if we are to get the kind of music the Mass deserves. It is not very difficult to figure out what music simply tickles our senses and what is truly holy and conducive for contemplation.

    In the meantime, there is one thing that pastors can do that will help enormously — change the location of the choir or screen it. Choirs can inadvertently present a maddening distraction at Mass!

  19. This was a very informative and, at times, very amusing read.

    Even Leonard Bernstein wrote a Mass of sorts. If The Beatles had stuck together a little while longer they might have written one.

    Monsignor, at times, you have reminisced (thanks spell check!) for the Church of the 1950’s. Was there a place for gospel music in that Church?

    Whatever we bring to the liturgy in terms of music/singing, gestures, dress, etc., and even piety, will always be severely lacking in comparison to what we are given at the Mass.

    What is neat about the everything you laid out in this piece is how it all stands aside the unchanging and unchangeable prayers of Consecration.

  20. This is Monsignor Pope on the money once more. Thank you! If I have a residual concern it is this: if plainchant is to have a privileged place in the Church’s celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, as mandated by SC 116, can we (should we?) have a legitimate discussion about other forms of music in worship before that fundamental element has been restored? Two things I would ask in this regard: first, have we yet seen the restoration of plainchant as the primary form of music in liturgical worship? Secondly, have we supplemented that sturdy plainchant base with Sacred Music of other genres (I happen to think this is often a question of taste, be it for polyphony or gospel music), or have we supplanted the tradition of plainchant in favour of something else? This is not a quality judgement on what has replaced the chant, on the whole, but a simple recognition that most parishes are yet to implement this principle, even 50 years to the month after the promulgation of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. The truth of the matter is that we have not yet realized the vision of the liturgical movement nor that of council, both of which (as Msgr Pope’s history shows) are based essentially on principles of reform and renewal. We have not only supplanted chant – which has a musical worth alone which is held up as exemplary – but we have supplanted scriptural texts (the propers) for, generally, poorer texts (even those written well). We should stop to ask ourselves if there is any real justification for removing these elements of scripture from the Mass, simply in order to sing a hymn or song.

    The beauty of chant, and to a lesser extent those forms of Sacred Music which grew from that tradition, is that it is entirely universal and entirely timeless. Chant (with few exceptions like the Ludus super Anticlaudium in Lille) has never become a secular idiom in the way that polyphony did (listen to Palestrina Madrigals, for example); it is indisputably sacred in character, and we should similarly ask ourselves if – before we explore what can supplement it – we have truly sought to give it the place it deserves in the Sacred Liturgy. In my experience, we have not. Before exploring other styles, whatever they be and however legitimate the reason, we should return to this firm foundation.

  21. Dear Msgr. Pope,

    Thank you for your thought-provoking article; you have indeed challenged my thinking! I have a few questions/thoughts that I’d like to offer for the discussion:

    1. Since you are familiar with Gregorian Chant, I’m assuming that you appreciate the value of the sung Propers of the Mass. Contemporary musicological research shows that many of these proper texts were set in the 5th century, and the melodies by the 8th century. It seems, then, that the sung Propers of the Mass are an essential element of the theology and spirituality of the Roman Rite. They grew from within the liturgy, as liturgy in and of themselves; not as accidental features tagged on to the liturgy. Not to mention that as the Roman Rite has organically developed over the centuries, these propers, along with the Roman Canon, have formed a backbone to the rite throughout it’s various stages of development. With this in mind, how can one claim to be genuinely experiencing the Roman Rite as something handed down to us through centuries of development and tradition, when this essential aspect is being totally dropped and substituted for “another appropriate chant.” Of course, this question does not pertain just to your ministry – it’s for 99% of the Catholic population – but I have yet to find a response that fully acknowledges the value of our liturgical heritage.

    2. Silent contemplation is an essential aspect of the spiritual life that has been totally lost among ordinary faithful today, and we see the result of it in our culture. For most Catholics in this fast-paced and noisy culture, their only opportunity for contemplation is in the Sunday Mass, so should not the mass itself foster some sense of it, thus giving the faithful an opportunity (maybe their only one in a given week) to slow down and seek God deep within the silence of their hearts? If so, I don’t see how this is possible with music that does not seem to promote a silent, active listening. I’m not questioning the authenticity of the devotion of the people singing it, nor am I denying that this music is authentically Christian and uplifting. I wholeheartedly believe that there is a place for it in the lives of the faithful, but I disagree with its use in the Liturgy. Catholics today have lost an appreciation for the fact that at Mass, we’re handed something from an ancient tradition, and that we’re entering into a mystery within which we spend a lifetime growing and being formed. Chant fosters contemplation in a way that no other music does; hence, all chant traditions – East and West (and even Muslim, for that matter) – share the same fundamental quality of free rhythm which brings about that sense of transcendence. And as a side note, in hopes of sounding consistent, I am completely against the use of orchestral masses (at the Liturgy) for all of the same reasons.

  22. On the topic of legitimate diversity, I would encourage those who can to attend the Divine Liturgy in one of our Eastern Catholic churches. The liturgy is sung and it’s easy to join in (90% of the responses are “Lord have mercy.”) We have much to learn from the beauty, joy, and ecstatic mystery of the Eastern liturgy. When it comes to singing hypnotically joyful litanies, I don’t think anyone does it better!

  23. I’m pretty shocked at Msgr. Pope’s non-answer article here. Simply saying that there were controversies and that history shows that people disagreed in the past is not the same as rigorous, theological inquiry into the nature of things. Here is the real question: what is the nature of the liturgy–ontologically–and what music fits that nature. If you read the great minds of the Liturgical Movement which fed into Vatican II, the primary song of the Catholic liturgy is the *texts of the Mass* themselves. Not hymns. Hymns were an accommodation to give the people something to do when they were not speaking at Mass. (Hence the Liturgical Movement expressions “Don’t sing at Mass, sing the Mass.”) Hymnody, properly speaking, belongs to devotional practice and to the Liturgy of the Hours. Moreover, the Mass is *not * primarily the place for emotional self-expression. Chant always uses the texts of the Mass (or relevant given text) and develops a melodic line around the cadence and meaning of the text. It lets the voice of the Mystical Body be dominant as it should. It channels the individuals emotional idiosyncrasies into a unified, controlled whole of exquisite beauty. Guardini spoke beautifully of this in The Spirit of the Liturgy.
    As for gospel music, one has to ask the fundamental questions. It is indeed part of the historical legacy of people. That does not by definition make it appropriate liturgical music. Loud, emotionally self-expressive music not using the texts of the Mass would more properly fit the category of devotional music…whether it’s Gospel or “praise and worship.” Gospel music comes out of an 18th century, emotion-drive, Protestant experience that encounters with God are verified by intense emotional experience intensely expressed. This simply isn’t the sober, noble simplicity of the Roman tradition. It’s great, motivating extra-liturgical sort of music. But liturgical it isn’t. Devotional it is.

    1. Isn’t “shocked” kind of a strong word for an article like this? I mean why be shocked? That seems like such an extreme reaction to what is essentially a historical survey. This is a blog post, not a “rigorous theological survey.” I don’t intend it as such. Its just my own reflection. Take it or leave it, but no need to be shocked. Most of your own observations are just points of view as well, not “rigorous theological surveys.” For example you set aside hymns, but the Church allows them. Granted the chanting of the Introit is preferable, but other options are allowable. Wouldn’t a rigorous theological survey point this out. Is your mention of “emotional idiosyncrasies” and your simple exclusion of emotion (however you define that) rigorous theological survey? Are you and I not just doing the same thing, i.e. expressing a point of view, both of which the Church allows?

      I am not sure why you refer to my essay as a “non-answer.” I don’t ask “What is Sacred Music” as a closed question, but rather as a rhetorical question. The second half of my title makes that clear wherein I state that the matter is a little more complex that simply what Joe W or Charles P think today. Rather the category of Sacred has permitted some additions over time that were at first resisted. Hence, I would guess that you call my essay a “non-answer” because you missed the rhetorical nature of the title.

      At the end of the day I would argue that a little patience is required as the debates (which have marked every stage) work out.

      Also, If I were to understand your question: “What is the nature of the liturgy–ontologically–and what music fits that nature?” in a non-rhetorical manner, I think I would have to argue that you have not answered the question either. For I would wonder then, as a rigorous theological inquirerer as to your understanding of the ontology of music. And, since Jesus wasn’t singing Gregorian Chant on the Cross, neither his Mother at the foot, I wonder how the ontology of the Mass equates to the Ontology of music? Should we sing at all. And if we should, what of harmony or not. What of instruments or not, how long should a melisma be? Is the Petantonic scale more ontologically correct than the 12 tone scale, or how about a hepatonic scale. Ontologically how are these different and which is more excellently suited to the ontology of the Mass? And if we leave chant and go to polyphony, ontologically how many parts are acceptable. Also is monosyllabic singing preferable to melismatic in attaining the ontological fit? What too of the Pipe organ? Since the texts are all that matter, is an instrumental prelude Okay or not, ontologically speaking. If it fits ontologically, how many ranks should a proper organ have. Is the vox humana stop to be forbidden as it once was (too luscious), or is it okay? If that be the case, is a Trompette en Chamade (once used for royal entrances) too bold, ontologically speaking? I think rigorous theological inquierers need to know this if we are going to talk ontology.

      Well, OK I hope you get my point. There are a LOT of things to consider and this is just a blog post. Perhaps you and I are a lot alike, just two dudes making some points about the liturgy and music in a Church that permits diversity. I think the difference is I would counsel a little more wait and see. You seem to think the matter is already settled. I don’t think the current legislation backs you up on that, but you are certainly entitled to your own preferences, ontologically or otherwise.

  24. Monsignor, thank you for a thorough, historically informed article. As a Catholic, a church musician, and doctoral candidate in music, I have a few thoughts which I submit most respectfully. I should also note that I am studying voice, and church music history, while one of my interests, is not my field.

    First, the narrative you put forward in this article contains certain interpretations of the historical record which if interpreted differently, do not as strongly support your narrative of the history of church music. These include: 1. the assertion that ancient musics featured multi-voiced harmony, an assertion which is perhaps a fair guess, but for which in my understanding there is just no physical, historical evidence; 2. the assertion that over the centuries chant has progressed from simple to complex, an assertion which while popular today, is not universally believed; 3. the assertion that harmonization of church music was first used in the middle ages, which, while commonly taught, fails to note that our first physical, notated chant manuscripts coincide with our first physical evidence of organum practices – thus it is possible, if not probable, that chant was “harmonized” in preceding eras as well; and 4. the implication that harmony was popular before the common adoption of the consonance anglais and the rise of the Flemish style, a style which spread over Christendom only when it began to exemplify more the pietistic influence of humanism than it did the mathematical and medieval “harmony of the spheres.”

    In this narrative of music history, then, there is a certain march from simple to more complex which, while in many respects true, is undercut slightly when the above points are interpreted in a different light. Also, the narrative expounded in the article of new musical styles continually needing to be accepted as sacred, belies the fact that the new styles were quite often composed with the intention of their being sacred, i.e. the music displayed the historical attributes of sacred music (or at least the composers thought so), and the compositions were meant to stand in that tradition.

    Second, I am concerned with the idea of Catholic church music looking for inspiration to musical traditions that contain none of the historical attributes of sacred music, but which instead value musical attributes of distinctly different sorts. The historical attributes of sacred music are primarily nobility and beauty, of form and substance, and stem from the theological and liturgical principles of awe, reverence, and personal abasement in the presence of divine majesty. Several Christian traditions besides Latin Rite Catholicism share this attitude which as far as I can tell was endemic to Roman liturgy and theology before the modern era, and which – to me – seems to come to it from the Jewish faith. These traditions would include the Orthodox churches and some Protestant denominations, including the Lutheran and Anglican traditions (with the sometime inclusion of Reformed churches and perhaps even some Methodist ceremonies). While not all musics from these traditions fulfill this theological and musical attitude (and to be fair, a great deal of Roman Catholic music both from the present and from past centuries does not either), there is quite a lot that does. I would even go so far as to assert that the true repertory of sacred music is the best of what can be drawn from any of these traditions, that the best liturgical music compositions and the music most appropriate for the mass will quite often be found to be the same.
    Thus, I would suggest that musical repertories demonstrating the historical attributes of sacred music are the traditions upon which we should draw, rather than traditions such as gospel music which values not the theology and historical attributes of sacred music.

    I suppose it would also be possible to adapt gospel numbers in such a way that they would exhibit historical attributes of sacred music, but I fear that they would then lose their gospel identity.

    1. Well Johanes Quasten Is a pretty reputable character. I would suggest you read the book I list wherein he deals with the early Church attitudes, especially the chapter “Una Voce dicentes.” History is often debated, I’ll grant you that.

      Your second point is opinion. You are entitled to it. But the record is pretty clear that Liturgy doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that Sacred Music is effected by and affects culture. Some things last, others recede. You may argue that Gospel is outside the tradition from which we should draw. But really neither you or I are in a position to determine that yet. I remain among those who would have a wait and see attitude. If this is of God it will remain. If not it will pass. Time will prove where wisdom lies, the Lord will render a verdict. The Church does not forbid the use of Gospel etc. This is not for you or I to decide, other than to have preferences.

  25. I would be careful and not rely too much on Johannes Quasten. His book was written almost 90 years ago. Even the update of almost 30 years ago was not thorough. It is not the age of the work, but rather the scholarship and discoveries in the meantime that render some of his and therefore your positions untenable, particularly the discussion on multi-voiced harmony.

    1. Well, to use your logic, this is an old post I wrote weeks ago. So frankly I don’t even remember what I wrote and what you are talking about. I know it must be something patristic and related to music, but I am forward about 45 yards at this point and do not remember the details of that play. Quasten remains a reliable source despite your doubts.Johannes Quasten I know, but who is Ted K ?? For now, I choose Quasten. Is there some reliable person you can reference to overrule Quasten or is this just a Ted K issue?

  26. I’d like to comment a little on Pius X and the Motu Proprio. I’m far from being a music historian, but these are thoughts developed after much reading.

    I think we’re justified in analyzing who said something, what he or she knew, and what the setting was. We know that Pius was heavily influenced by advocates of Caecelianism. (And that movement’s music, especially by Haller, is ripe for reconsideration.) We are also told that Pius was not a scholar, particularly. So when Pius says that polyphony is sacred in nature is it fair to ask if he was aware of the madrigals by, frequently, the same composers and the purely secular and sometimes pretty racy? If a sacred motet and a bawdy madrigal were sung in front of Pius on “La La La,” would he have seen a difference? This is not an argument against polyphony, which I have used with enthusiasm. It’s an argument against assuming too much about the origins of what now is firmly established as sacred.

    Likewise, Pius implies that orchestral Masses are “theatrical.” This is because, and people make this comment still today, “Mozart’s Masses sound like Mozart’s operas.” And what would Mozart sound like other than Mozart? Mozart’s Masses, in fact, contain traditional forms such as the fugues at the ends of the Gloria that almost never appear in his operatic music. In composing church music, Mozart was, in fact, very much a traditionalist. He was much more forward-looking in his secular music. Much the same goes for other composers of orchestrally-accompanied Masses both before and after Mozart. That said, some judgement has to be used in today’s Catholic parishes. The Beethoven Missa Solemnis or the Verdi Requiem simply are too much for Mass, too long if nothing else, even if they were intended for the Mass.

    And the question about whether Mozart could or should sound like other than Mozart also applies to Monteverdi or Palestrina and their sacred and secular works.

    Just some ramblings…

    There is a parish near my home that has the most enthusiastic Gospel group I’ve encountered. As far as i can see, they’re wonderful people, wonderful Christians, and wonderful musicians. Not my cup of tea, but, in myh view, beyond criticism.

  27. Many things forced upon congregations by bishops and priests are NOT mandated by the documents of Vatican II. Read them in the original Latin, if possible. The English translations are questionable (may one dare to say “dishonest?”)

    Mass facing the people is nowhere mandated.

    Destruction of altars, shrines, and statues are nowhere mandated.

    Moving choirs to the front of the church is MENTIONED, but it’s usually a visual and acoustical disaster, as are large pipe organs placed where the high altars used to stand.

    St. Pius X was probably one of the first to articulate “style consciousness.” Composers before him wrote in the style of their time. Almost no one considered the music of Palestrina, Lassus, Mozart, Haydn, etc. to be “out of the way.”

    I do agree that the big Masses of Haydn require a VERY patient congregation AND a comfortable sedilia .

    I also agree that Michael Haller’s music is worth a second look. He wrote some ravishingly beautiful music. When one of my choir members visited Regensburg, he brought back a big stack of Haller scores, which we DEVOURED .

    My guilty secret: I also own probably one of the last surviving complete sets of Peter Griesbacher’s “Repertorium Chorale,” which the schola used to sing in the summer “just for fun” when the Gallery Choir was on holiday. It certainly fit the 1841 Baroque / Rococo splendor of Old St. Mary’s (chuckle).

    Just TRY telling my German-American congregation at Old St. Mary’s, Cincinnati OH that orchestral Masses are inappropriate. In my time, the partially-paid Latin Mass choir had virtually all of Mozart’s short Masses and the smaller Masses of Haydn in their repertoire, as well as Schubert, Beethoven in C, Peeters, Langlais, Duruflé, de Klerk (I hope Annie Bank still publishes his “Missa ad modem tubae” … it calls for a brass quartet, but it’s written so that an organ with good reeds can accompany it), etc.

    OSM had Latin Mass right through “the Troubles;” imposing the Novus Ordo (still at the high altar, still in Latin, and still with full choir, sung Propers and sung Ordinary) nearly destroyed the parish, and occasioned the rise of a very large schismatic SSPX parish in the diocese. Attendance at our Latin Mass went from 1,000 to 100 in the course of a single week (!).

    It still hasn’t recovered, but the people are very generous … the almost-one-hundred-year-old Austin organ was recently rebuilt from top to bottom and enlarged to four manuals, using pipes I salvaged from the Cincinnati Music Hall Hook/Austin when it was wickedly destroyed some forty years ago.

    We used to have a steady procession of Deacons from the Major Sem who wanted to serve as Deacon at the Latin Solemn Mass … they WANTED to learn how to do it. The last Latin First Mass (until recently) was sometime in the late 1970s (!).

    NB: the parish has NEVER lacked for vocations. That speaks for itself.

    I don’t know how to NOT “perform” church music, OR not seek perfection in its execution. I think that is a silly argument, albeit one that got me fired from a church ironically named “St. Pius X” in Chula Vista, CA, because the choir sang the VERSES of the Responsorial Psalm in (gasp!) HARMONY … Anglican Chant or Renaissance fauxbourdons.

    Well, I’m old, and I’m rambling …

    In Domino,

    Bud Clark (retired)
    Cathedral City CA USA

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