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On Wine and Music

by Gary D. Penkala

Wine I was reading an article by Matt Kramer, wine critic and contributing editor to Wine Spectator (without a glass in my hand), and a parallel with sacred music struck me. This may go far to explain the musico-liturgical wars that often rage in the United States.

Mr. Kramer writes about typicity, which he describes as "what makes a wine from a particular grape variety or appellation true to type." Winemaking in Europe differs significantly from that in the United States. Europe's long and profound history in wine (especially France, Italy, Spain and Germany) has produced rather stringent "rules" about viniculture and everything that flows from it. We're all familiar with the "champagne" rule: only that wine produced by a very specific method in the region of Champagne (France) can legally be labelled "Champagne." All other similar bubbly libations are called something else: Cava in Spain, Prosecco or Asti in Italy, or simply Sparkling Wine in California. In France, legally dating to 1905 but with historical roots much earlier, a regulating body "guarantees that all AOC (appellation d'origine contrôlée) products will hold to a rigorous set of clearly-defined standards. The organization stresses that AOC products will be produced in a consistent and traditional manner with ingredients from specifically classified producers in designated geographical areas."

Other European countries have similar wine production laws. Part of the goal of these laws is to protect terroir, the attributes of a wine dependent on the region where the grapes were grown. Another is to ensure that wines made from Cabernet sauvignon grapes taste like Cabernet, and wines made from Viognier grapes taste like Viognier — that they are not so radically treated in the wine-making process as to obscure their grape heritage. This treatment has occurred "in Burgundy, in the Loire Valley and seemingly everywhere in Italy," as Mr. Kramer notes. "Sometimes producers have been denied the right to use an (often valuable) appellation name by local tasting panels established to ensure — you guessed it — typicity."

This situation does not exist in our independent, non-conformist American mentality. The United States Department of the Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau simply defines geographical boundaries for 230 American Viticultural Areas (AVA), covering as much area as four states or as little as a 60-acre ranch. The "rules" are much looser than the French counterparts. For a producer to name an AVA on the wine label, at least 85% of the grapes need to be grown in that area. That's it! No typicity whatsoever is implied. As long as the grapes come from the region, you can make them taste however you like.

Typicity, then, is what makes a Merlot taste like a Merlot, and a Zinfandel taste different than a Pinot noir.

Is there a parallel between typicity and sacred music? Do answers to this question align on European and American sensibilities?

Many assert, particularly in the Catholic Church in the United States, that all styles of music may be admitted to liturgy. Indeed the USCCB in its document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship states, "Liturgical music today must reflect the multicultural diversity and intercultural relationships of the members of the gathered liturgical assembly" [#60]. This pan-cultural diversity of style has led, over the past fity years, to a staggering variety of music seen in worship. Not uncommon in post-conciliar decades were folk songs, secular tunes with religious words, rock and nightclub instrumentation and a general casual ambiance concering liturgical music. Much as the idea of typicity was rejected (that Cab taste like Cab), so did many dismiss the notion that music sung in church should sound "sacred." So just as the free-wheeling American wine industry is happy to produce Moscato that tastes like 7-Up, so the progressive American parish sings emotional music as much at home on Broadway as in the choir loft. While the US AVAs ensure minimal standards, what might be considered a "least common denominator" for sacred music — that it speak of God — does not even exist. Witness the wildly popular Haugen hymn, "Gather Us Is," which in its four stanzas mentions God not even once!

But does "typicity" exist in sacred music? Yes, and on a tier much higher than the French Institut National des Appellations d'Origine and the American Department of the Treasury: popes and councils have established such.

Pope Saint Pius X:

  • 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.
  • Sacred music must possess holiness and beauty of form: from these two qualities a third will spontaneously arise — universality [Tra le sollecitudini 1903].
  • Sacred music must be true art, otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.
  • Gregorian chant is the supreme model for sacred music and the music proper to the Roman Church.

Vatican Council II:

  • The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action [Sacrosanctum concilium #116].

Pope Blessed Paul VI:

  • If music — instrumental and vocal — does not possess at the same time the sense of prayer, dignity, and beauty, entry into the sphere of the sacred and the religious is [thereby] precluded.
  • Musicians [composers] will enter on this new work with the desire to continue that tradition which has furnished the Church, in her divine worship, with a truly abundant heritage. Let them examine the works of the past, their types and characteristics, but let them also pay careful attention to the new laws and requirements of the liturgy, so that "new forms may in some way grow organically from forms that already exist," and the new work will form a new part in the musical heritage of the Church, not unworthy of its past [Instruction: Musicam sacram, 1967].
  • In liturgical matters, therefore, no real opposition should occur between the present age and previous ages; but all should be done so that, whatever be the innovation, it be made to cohere and to concord with the sound tradition that precedes it, and so that from existing forms new forms grow, as through spontaneously blossoming from it.
  • Music and song are servants of worship and are its subordinates. Accordingly they must always possess the qualities befitting their place: grandeur yet simplicity; solemnity and majesty; the least possible unworthiness of the absolute transcendence of God, to whom they are directed, and of the human spirit, which they are meant to express. Music and song must possess the power to put the soul in devout contact with the Lord, arousing and expressing sentiments of praise, petition, expiation, thanksgiving, joy as well as sorrow, love, trust, peace.
  • Pope Paul VI has expressed often, and even recently, the wish that the faithful of all countries be able to sing at least a few Gregorian chants in Latin (for example, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei). In compliance, this Congregation has prepared the enclosed booklet Jubilate Deo, which provides a short collection of such Gregorian chants. I have the honor and office of sending you a copy of this booklet as a gift from the Pope himself. I also take this occasion to commend to your own pastoral concerns this new measure intended to ensure the carrying out of the prescription of Vatican Council II: "Steps should be taken enabling the faithful to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass belonging to them."

Pope Saint John Paul II:

  • Not all musical forms can be considered suitable for liturgical celebrations [Chirograph on Sacred Music, 2003].
  • Musicians should make an examination of conscience so that the beauty of music and hymnody will return once again to the liturgy. It is necessary to purify worship of ugliness of style, careless forms of expression,ill-prepared music and texts, which are not worthy of the great act that is being celebrated.

Pope Benedict XVI:

  • Not every kind of music can have a place in Christian worship. It has its standards, and that standard is the Logos. If we want to know whom we are dealing with, the Holy Spirit or the unholy spirit, we have to remember that it is the Holy Spirit who moves us to say, "Jesus is Lord" [Cor 12:3]. The Holy Spirit leads us to the Logos, and he leads us to a music that serves the Logos as a sign of the sursum corda, the lifting up of the human heart. Does it integrate man by drawing him to what is above, or does it cause his disintegration into formless intoxication or mere sensuality? That is the criterion for a music in harmony with logos, a form of that logike latreia (reasonable, logos-worthy worship) [The Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000].
  • In no other cultural setting is there music of equal greatness to that which arose from the environment of the Christian faith: from Palestrina to Bach, to Handel — all the way to Mozart, Beethoven, and Bruckner. Western music is something unique that has no equal in other cultures. And this — it seems to me — should make us think.
  • An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.
  • Certainly, western music goes far beyond the religious and ecclesial environments. But, in any case, it finds its most fundamental origins in the liturgy and the encounter with God. In Bach, for whom the glory of God represents the ultimate end of all music, this is quite evident. The great and pure response of western music grew within the encounter with that God who, in the liturgy, makes himself present to us in Christ Jesus. To me, such music is a demonstration of the truth of Christianity. In order for such a response to have developed there was an encounter with truth, with the world's true Creator. For this reason, great sacred music is a reality of theological rank and of permanent significance for the faith of all of Christendom, even if it is not at all necessary that it should be performed always and everywhere. However, it is also clear that it cannot disappear from the liturgy and that its presence can be an entirely special way to participate in the sacred celebration, in the mystery of faith.

So battles in the Liturgy Wars have been fought over whether there is "sacred music," and if so, what defines it. If you argue that there is indeed a typicity regarding sacred music, you are indeed in fine company. I'll drink to that!

Article written 18 July 2016

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