Recently 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- As is the case with many previous forms, discussions will and should continue.
- 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.
- 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
- Johannes Quasten, Music and Worship in Pagan and Christian Antiquity
- Msgr Robert F. Hayburn, Papal Legislation on Sacred Music
- BBC Four Part Production Sacred Music
- Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way
- Thomas Day, Why Catholic Can’t Sing
Here are the videos that sparked the discussion on my Facebook page.