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Music at Mass:

What the Church Teaches about Liturgical Music
Part 2

by Matthew C. Hoffman  March 24, 2002

The Modern Liturgical Reform Movement: 1903-1958

The modern liturgical reform movement began in 1903 with the motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini, issued by Pope Saint Pius X. What followed was a series of Papal statements on the liturgy, which culminated in Sacrosanctum concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II. Despite the belief of some that Vatican II nullified previous teaching on the liturgy, Vatican II explicitly reaffirmed the preconciliar liturgical documents in #112 of Sacrosanctum concilium:

112. ...Holy Scripture, indeed, has bestowed praise upon sacred song [Footnote 42: "Cf. Eph 5:19; Col 3:16."], and the same may be said of the fathers of the Church and of the Roman pontiffs who in recent times, led by Saint Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord.

In his Letter to Cardinal J. Garibi y Rivera, Archbishop of Guadalajara (1969), Cardinal Villot, the Vatican Secretary of State under Pope Paul VI, also clarified that Vatican statements concerning the liturgy that precede Vatican II, particularly those of the twentieth century, remain authoritative:

During the last seventy years, from Saint Pius X to Vatican Council II and since then, the Apostolic See has expressed itself repeatedly on the place of sacred music in the liturgy. As a result the documents issued on this topic constitute a very sizable doctrinal corpus. Anyone interested in the theme should pause attentively over this teaching in order to penetrate and take hold of its riches (see SC ch. 6; the Instruction Musicam sacram, 5 March 1967).

Moreover, the serious problems now besetting sacred music and thus disturbing the harmony belonging to it could be solved by taking as the key the doctrinal principles and practical guidelines contained in the conciliar and postconciliar documents.

The following pages will review the teachings of the Popes and the Holy See during this period, demonstrating that this teaching has been consistent throughout, was reaffirmed at Vatican II, and remains authoritative during the post-Vatican II era. Although some disciplinary rules concerning the liturgy have changed (for example, vernacular Masses are allowed), the basic guidelines concerning liturgical practice remain unchanged.

Pope Saint Pius X and Tra le sollecitudini (1903)

In 1903, Pope Saint Pius X began the modern liturgical reform movement with a brief papal letter (a motu proprio) entitled Tra le sollecitudini. This document is not only important because it was issued by a Saint-Pope, but because he gave it the force of law in the church,30 and because its principles have been explicitly reaffirmed by the Church repeatedly since then. When later Popes addressed the problem of liturgical music, they consistently referred to Tra le sollecitudini, and Vatican II and the postconciliar implementing document on sacred music also referred to it, demonstrating the continuity of Catholic teaching in this area. Tra le sollecitudini is arguably the most important document on the Sacred Liturgy in the 20th century.

In the introduction to Tra le sollecitudini, Pius X decries the abuses in liturgical music that were taking place in his time. His statements are worth quoting at length:

Among the cares of the pastoral office, not only of this Supreme Chair, which We, though unworthy, occupy through the inscrutable dispositions of Providence, but of every local church, a leading one is without question that of maintaining and promoting the decorum of the House of God in which the august mysteries of religion are celebrated, and where the Christian people assemble to receive the grace of the Sacraments, to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar, to adore the most august Sacrament of the Lord's Body and to unite in the common prayer of the Church in the public and solemn liturgical offices. Nothing should have place, therefore, in the temple calculated to disturb or even merely to diminish the piety and devotion of the faithful, nothing that may give reasonable cause for disgust or scandal, nothing, above all, which directly offends the decorum and sanctity of the sacred functions and is thus unworthy of the House of Prayer and of the Majesty of God. We do not touch separately on the abuses in this matter which may arise. Today Our attention is directed to one of the most common of them, one of the most difficult to eradicate, and the existence of which is sometimes to be deplored in places where everything else is deserving of the highest praise – the beauty and sumptuousness of the temple, the splendor and the accurate performance of the ceremonies, the attendance of the clergy, the gravity and piety of the officiating ministers. Such is the abuse affecting sacred chant and music. And indeed, whether it is owing to the very nature of this art, fluctuating and variable as it is in itself, or to the succeeding changes in tastes and habits with the course of time, or to the fatal influence exercised on sacred art by profane and theatrical art, or to the pleasure that music directly produces, and that is not always easily contained within the right limits, or finally to the many prejudices on the matter, so lightly introduced and so tenaciously maintained even among responsible and pious persons, the fact remains that there is a general tendency to deviate from the right rule, prescribed by the end for which art is admitted to the service of public worship and which is set forth very clearly in the ecclesiastical Canons, in the Ordinances of the General and Provincial Councils, in the prescriptions which have at various times emanated from the Sacred Roman Congregations, and from Our Predecessors the Sovereign Pontiffs.

We consider it Our first duty, without further delay, to raise Our voice at once in reproof and condemnation of all that is seen to be out of harmony with the right rule above indicated, in the functions of public worship and in the performance of the ecclesiastical offices. Filled as We are with a most ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish in every respect and be preserved by all the faithful, We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church. And it is vain to hope that the blessing of heaven will descend abundantly upon us, when our homage to the Most High, instead of ascending in the odor of sweetness, puts into the hand of the Lord the scourges wherewith of old the Divine Redeemer drove the unworthy profaners from the Temple.

Then, Pius X lays down the basic principles of liturgical music:

1. Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.

2. Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality. It must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.

Anticipating Vatican II, Pope Saint Pius X affirms that Gregorian chant has pride of place in the Church, and that sacred polyphony (which is similar to Gregorian chant, but has multiple voices) is also permitted:

3. These qualities [proper to the liturgy] are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity.

Perhaps most importantly, he proclaims that all sacred music must be measured by the standard set by Gregorian chant; a form of music is appropriate for use in Church to the degree that it is similar to Gregorian Chant.

3. ... On these grounds Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.

The ancient traditional Gregorian Chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship, and the fact must be accepted by all that an ecclesiastical function loses none of its solemnity when accompanied by this music alone.

4. The above-mentioned qualities are also possessed in an excellent degree by Classic Polyphony, especially of the Roman School, which reached its greatest perfection in the fifteenth century, owing to the works of Pierluigi da Palestrina, and continued subsequently to produce compositions of excellent quality from a liturgical and musical standpoint. Classic Polyphony agrees admirably with Gregorian Chant, the supreme model of all sacred music, and hence it has been found worthy of a place side by side with Gregorian Chant, in the more solemn functions of the Church, such as those of the Pontifical Chapel.

Pius X also explicitly states that some forms of music are, by their very nature, not appropriate for liturgical use:

5. The Church has always recognized and favored the progress of the arts, admitting to the service of religion everything good and beautiful discovered by genius in the course of ages-always, however, with due regard to the liturgical laws. Consequently modern music is also admitted to the Church, since it, too, furnishes compositions of such excellence, sobriety and gravity, that they are in no way unworthy of the liturgical functions.

Still, since modern music has risen mainly to serve profane uses, greater care must be taken with regard to it, in order that the musical compositions of modern style which are admitted in the Church may contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theaters, and be not fashioned even in their external forms after the manner of profane pieces.

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

Particularly, musical "bands" are strictly prohibited, as well as all "frivolous" instruments:

19. The employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells and the like.

20. It is strictly forbidden to have bands play in church, and only in special cases with the consent of the Ordinary will it be permissible to admit wind instruments, limited in number, judiciously used, and proportioned to the size of the place-provided the composition and accompaniment be written in grave and suitable style, and conform in all respects to that proper to the organ.

The music must never be allowed to take precedence over the liturgy itself:

23. In general it must be considered a very grave abuse when the liturgy in ecclesiastical functions is made to appear secondary to and in a manner at the service of the music, for the music is merely a part of the liturgy and its humble handmaid.

Pius X also lays the foundations for the inclusion of the musical traditions of various ethnic groups in the liturgy, clarifying that they must be "universal" and seem "good" to the peoples of all nations:

2. [Sacred music] must, at the same time, be universal in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.

Pope Pius XI and Divini cultus (1928)

Pope Pius X's letter of 1903 was followed in 1928 by the apostolic constitution Divini cultus, issued by Pope Pius XI. The Holy Father denounces the stubborn refusal on the part of many in the Church to comply with the directives in Tra le sollecitudini, and repeats that certain musical forms are not appropriate for the Sacred Liturgy:

It is, however, to be deplored that these most wise laws in some places have not been fully observed, and therefore their intended results not obtained. We know that some have declared these laws, though so solemnly promulgated, were not binding upon their obedience. Others obeyed them at first, but have since come gradually to give countenance to a type of music which should be altogether banned from our churches. In some cases, especially when the memory of some famous musician was being celebrated, the opportunity has been taken of performing in church certain works which, however excellent, should never have been performed there, since they were entirely out of keeping with the sacredness of the place and of the liturgy.

Again, the profane styles of music prohibited in the Liturgy by Pope Saint Pius X are prohibited by Pius XI:

We cannot but lament the fact that, as in the case of certain types of music which the Church has rightly forbidden in the past, so now attempts are being made to introduce a profane spirit into the Church by modern forms of music; which forms, if they begin to enter in, the Church would likewise be bound to condemn. Let our churches resound with organ-music that gives expression to the majesty of the edifice and breathes the sacredness of the religious rites; in this way will the art both of those who build the organs and of those who play them flourish afresh and render effective service to the sacred liturgy.

The pride of place due to Gregorian chant, which was affirmed by Pius X, is reaffirmed, and familiarity with Gregorian chant is required for all those who are "bound to office in choir":

In this connection it should be observed that, according to the ancient discipline of the Church and the constitutions of chapters still in force, all those at least who are bound to office in choir, are obliged to be familiar with Gregorian Chant. And the Gregorian Chant which is to be used in every church of whatever order, is the text which, revised according to the ancient manuscripts, has been authentically published by the Church from the Vatican Press.

In order that the faithful may more actively participate in divine worship, let them be made once more to sing the Gregorian Chant, so far as it belongs to them to take part in it.

Pope Pius XII and Musicæ sacræ (1955)

The most extensive papal letter on sacred music is the encyclical Musicæ sacræ (On Sacred Music), issued by Pope Pius XII in 1955. Musicæ sacræ again refers to Pius X's Tra le sollecitudini, and upholds the principles it contains. It also repeats the Church's prohibition of secular styles of music in the Sacred Liturgy:

41. First of all the chants and sacred music which are immediately joined with the Church's liturgical worship should be conducive to the lofty end for which they are intended. This music — as our predecessor Pius X has already wisely warned us — "must possess proper liturgical qualities, primarily holiness and goodness of form; from which its other note, universality, is derived." [Acta Pii X, loc. cit., 78]

42. It must be holy. It must not allow within itself anything that savors of the profane nor allow any such thing to slip into the melodies in which it is expressed. The Gregorian chant which has been used in the Church over the course of so many centuries, and which may be called, as it were, its patrimony, is gloriously outstanding for this holiness.

Pope Pius XII makes it clear that, although the Church doesn't lay down ""technical rules" or "laws of aesthetics," liturgical music must obey certain "laws" that apply to all forms of religious art. He calls the use of inappropriate music in the liturgy "deplorable conduct":

21. Certainly no one will be astonished that the Church is so vigilant and careful about sacred music. It is not a case of drawing up laws of aesthetics or technical rules that apply to the subject of music. It is the intention of the Church, however, to protect sacred music against anything that might lessen its dignity, since it is called upon to take part in something as important as divine worship.

22. On this score sacred music obeys laws and rules which are no different from those prescribed for all religious art and, indeed, for art in general. Now we are aware of the fact that during recent years some artists, gravely offending against Christian piety, have dared to bring into churches works devoid of any religious inspiration and completely at variance with the right rules of art. They try to justify this deplorable conduct by plausible-looking arguments which they claim are based on the nature and character of art itself. They go on to say that artistic inspiration is free and that it is wrong to impose upon it laws and standards extraneous to art, whether they are religious or moral, since such rules seriously hurt the dignity of art and place bonds and shackles on the activity of an inspired artist.

Pius XII also states clearly that liturgical music must have "dignity," reflecting the awesome fact that the Mass is a participation in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ:

34. It is easy to infer from what has just been said that the dignity and force of sacred music are greater the closer sacred music itself approaches to the supreme act of Christian worship, the Eucharistic sacrifice of the altar. There can be nothing more exalted or sublime than its function of accompanying with beautiful sound the voice of the priest offering up the Divine Victim, answering him joyfully with the people who are present and enhancing the whole liturgical ceremony with its noble art.

Pius XII allowed traditional vernacular hymns to be used in the liturgy, but only if they could not be prudently removed from the practice of a particular diocese:

47. Where, according to old or immemorial custom, some popular hymns are sung in the language of the people after the sacred words of the liturgy have been sung in Latin during the solemn Eucharistic sacrifice, local Ordinaries can allow this to be done "if, in the light of the circumstances of the locality and the people, they believe that (custom) cannot prudently be removed." [Footnote 21: "Code of Canon Law, Can. 5."] The law by which it is forbidden to sing the liturgical words themselves in the language of the people remains in force, according to what has been said.

Three years later, the Sacred Congregation of Rites would issue an implementing document for Musicæ sacræ, which would clarify that traditional vernacular hymns could only be used in isolated parts of the liturgy, and could not be used for the actual words of the liturgy. This fits well with the principle laid down by Pope Saint Pius X: that the appropriateness of a musical form for use in the liturgy is determined by its similarity to Gregorian Chant.

The Sacred Congregation of Rites and De musica sacra (1958)

The Vatican's Sacred Congregation of Rites (SCR) in 1958 issued an implementing document for Pius XII's Musicæ sacræ, titled De musica sacra. The SCR classified sacred music according to the following breakdown:

4. By "sacred music" is meant: a) Gregorian chant; b) sacred polyphony; c) modern sacred music; d) sacred organ music; e) popular religious singing; f) religious music.

De musica sacra went on to say that the first two kinds of music, Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony, are acceptable in the Sacred Liturgy. The third kind, "modern sacred music," which is a modern form of polyphony that sometimes uses musical instruments, can be used if it is "pious and preserve[s] a religious character." The fourth kind, "Sacred organ music," which is music for the organ only, can be used "if the laws of sacred music are scrupulously observed." The fifth kind, called "popular religious singing," which consists of traditional vernacular hymns, is not to be used in the liturgy unless "it cannot prudently be discontinued because of the circumstances of the locality or the people."31

The sixth kind, called simply "religious music" absolutely cannot be used in the Liturgy. Here's the way De musica sacra put it:

10. By "religious music" is meant that which, either because of the intention of the composer or because of the subject and purpose of the composition, is intended to express and arouse pious and religious sentiments and is therefore 'most salutary to religion.' [Footnote 4: Musicæ sacræ disciplina, AAS, XLVIII (1956), 13 f.] But, since it is not destined for divine cult and is expressed in a very free form, it is not admitted to liturgical functions.

It repeated this in paragraph 20: "Religious music then absolutely must not be admitted into any liturgical function..."

De musica sacra regarded "religious music" as a form of entertainment, although it recognized that such music outside of the liturgy could be beneficial to Catholics:

55. The proper places for religious music compositions are in concert halls, or in the assemblies of congress, but not in churches intended for the worship of God.

De musica sacra specifically denied the use of what it called "raucous secular music" in the liturgy, when discussing the use of various instruments:

68. Other instruments besides the organ, especially the smaller bowed instruments, may be used during the liturgical functions... However, the following rules derived from the principles stated above (no.60) are to strictly observed: a) the instruments are truly suitable for sacred use

b) they are to be played with such seriousness, and religious devotion that every suggestion of raucous secular music is avoided, and the devotion of the faithful is fostered

c) the director, organist, and other instrumentalists should be well trained in instrumental techniques, and the laws of sacred music

De musica sacra adds this about the proper use of instruments in the liturgy:

60. The following principles about the use of musical instruments in the sacred liturgy are recalled:

a) In view of the nature of the sacred liturgy, it's holiness and its dignity, the use of any kind of musical instrument should in itself be perfect. It would therefore be better to entirely omit the playing of instruments (whether the organ alone or other instruments) than to permit it to be done indecorously...

b) It is also necessary to know the difference between sacred and profane music, it is to be noted as well, that there are musical instruments which by origin and nature--such as the classic organ--are directly fitted for sacred music: or others, as certain string and bow instruments, which are more easily adapted to liturgical use; while others, instead, judged by common opinion so proper to profane music that they are entirely unfit for sacred use.

70. Those musical instruments which by judgment and usage are used only for profane music must be absolutely prohibited in liturgical functions and pious exercises.

De musica sacra also forbids the use of any sort of "automatic" instrument for liturgical music:

71. The use of "automatic" instruments and machines such as the automatic organ, the radio, phonograph, dictaphone, or tape recorder and other similar devices, are absolutely forbidden in liturgical functions or pious exercises, whether put to use inside or outside the church, or used only to transmit sacred discourses or music, or used to support or help the singing of the choir or faithful...


  1. "We do therefore publish, motu proprio and with certain knowledge, Our present Instruction to which, as to a juridical code of sacred music (quasi a codice giuridice della musica sacra), We will with the fullness of Our Apostolic Authority that the force of law be given, and We do by Our present handwriting impose its scrupulous observance on all." -from the introduction to Tra le sollecitudini.
  2. De musica sacra 14. The full text of the summary of musical forms is as follows:

    "4. 'Sacred music' includes the following: a) Gregorian chant; b) sacred polyphony; c) modern sacred music; d) sacred organ music; e) hymns; and f) religious music.

    "5. Gregorian chant, which is used in liturgical ceremonies, is the sacred music proper to the Roman Church; it is to be found in the liturgical books approved by the Holy See. This music has been reverently, and faithfully fostered, and developed from most ancient, and venerable traditions; and even in recent times new chants have been composed in the style of this tradition. This style of music has no need of organ or other instrumental accompaniment.

    "6. Sacred polyphony is measured music which arose from the tradition of Gregorian chant. It is choral music written in many voice-parts, and sung without instrumental accompaniment. It began to flourish in the Latin Church in the Middle Ages, and reached its height in the art of Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina (1524-1594) in the latter half of the sixteenth century; distinguished musicians of our time still cultivate this art.

    "7. Modern sacred music is likewise sung in many voice-parts, but at times with instrumental accompaniment. Its composition is of more recent date, and in a more advanced style, developed from the previous centuries. When this music is composed specifically for liturgical use it must be animated by a spirit of devotion, and piety; only on this condition can it be admitted as suitable accompaniment for these services.

    "8. Sacred music for organ is music composed for the organ alone. Ever since the pipe organ came into use this music has been widely cultivated by famous masters of the art. If such music complies with the laws for sacred music, it is an important contribution to the beauty of the sacred liturgy.

    "9. Hymns are songs which spontaneously arise from the religious impulses with which mankind has been endowed by its Creator. Thus they are universally sung among all peoples. This music had a fine effect on the lives of the faithful, imbuing both their private, and social lives with a true Christian spirit (cf. Eph 5:18-20; Col 3:16). It was encouraged from the earliest times, and in our day it is still to be recommended for fostering the piety of the faithful, and enhancing their private devotions. Even such music can, at times, be admitted to liturgical ceremonies (Musicæ sacræ disciplina, Dec. 25, 1955; AAS 48 [1956] 13-14).

    "10. Religious music is any music which, either by the intention of the composer or by the subject or purpose of the composition, serves to arouse devotion, and religious sentiments. Such music 'is an effective aid to religion' (Musicæ sacræ disciplina, idem.). But since it was not intended for divine worship, and was composed in a free style, it is not to be used during liturgical ceremonies."

Copyright © 2002 by Matthew C. Hoffman.
Reprinted with permission.

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