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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Marking the Reform of Modern Sacred Music

by Kathleen McCann

This article is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and Robert P. Lockwood, General Manager of The Pittsburgh Catholic, the diocesan newspaper where it first appeared.

"When you sing this music, there are moments when you can tell that you are joinging with the angels."

The words of freshman Pauline Smith at Franciscan University of Steubenville are right on: I am sure I heard angels joining in with the chant and sacred polyphony at the Mass that concluded the Conference on Sacred Music recently held at the university.

The conference commemorated the centenary of Pope Pius X's motu proprio — a document promoting the reform of sacred music — that would later have a great influence on the musical reforms of Vatican II, according to Dr. Susan Treacy, director of the Schola Cantorum Franciscana and member of the Bach Choir of Pittsburgh.

The sweetness of the music — the Mass setting by Victoria and the contemporary motets of Robert Kreutz and Charles Callahan — left a silence so reverent that many of the hundreds of students, instead of rushing off after Mass, took advantage of the moment to kneel in prayer as if reluctant to leave the presence of their Beloved.

I am reminded once again how spiritually fruitful it is when chant and polyphony are sung in their original context. Singing chant and polyphony well requires humility: trying to outsing others ruins everything. It is not a performance. Unless the voices blend into a single voice, the otherworldly quality will not emerge.

And it is just as spiritually nourishing for the congregation, since chant and polyphony allow for "internal" as well as "external participation" (Musican sacram: instruction on sacred music by the Congregation of Rites, March 5, 1967). Other styles can inhibit this interior union. Like an icon, this music can appear one-dimensional to the untutored eye, but it is a vessel bearing the sacred, says Treacy.

According to Dr. James Yeager, professor of sacred music at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, the motu proprio criticizes the Romantic style of the time for skewing liturgy into performance; the style blurred distinctions — between the sacred and the secular, genuine emotion and sentimentality, and holiness and false piety. (Sound familiar?) In its place, the motu proprio promotes chant as revived by the Monks of Solesmes, giving it "pride of place" along with a special nod to polyphony in the style of Palestrina and holds their sacred quality up as a model for new compositions.

The young people at the conference persisted in asking Yeager what could be done to address the deficiencies they perceive in church music today and to make Catholics aware of the spiritual advantages of chant and polyphony.

"The seminary, naturally, is the place to begin," he says.

At the Josephinum, Yeager has been in a position to make excellent music "the sine qua non of the seminarian's life." After ordination, they report back to Yeager that the powerful liturgical experience they encounter in the seminary continues to sustain them and becomes a model to emulate throughout their ministry. Seminaries like the Josephinum are reversing a trend by implementing the "true progressive solemnity of Vatican II."

There has always been that curmudgeonly resistance to change that argues that beauty is too difficult.

"It is a mistake to think that we have to choose between usefulness and beauty," Yeager says.

"High art is not necessarily impractical: simple elegance is the solution."

And, really, as Benedictine Father Samuel Weber, another conference speaker and celebrant of the conference Mass, put it, "We could survive on a diet of pretzels and maraschino cherries, but why would we want to?"

Copyright © 2003 The Pittsburgh Catholic. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission of copyright owner.

Kathleen McCann is a member of Our Lady of the Angels Church in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood.

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