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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

What Is Sacred Music?

by Msgr. Richard J. Schuler

This article first appeared in Sacred Music, Volume 118, Number 3, Fall 1991.

The question, "What is sacred music?" put to the average Catholic, will no doubt elicit the answer that "sacred music is hymns." And in the lived experience of most Catholics today, that is the extent of what they know to be sacred music. On Sunday, they sing four hymns at Mass. In most parishes, is there anything else?

For those people who attend symphony orchestra concerts, and those who have an interest in recorded music, there is the possibility of developing a knowledge of and an appreciation for the vast repertory of sacred music, the inheritance of centuries and a veritable treasure house of beauty, because many of these compositions, written originally for the Church, have become standard repertory in most concert series and record catalogs. Some may have sung one or the other great choral masterpiece of religious music in college choral ensembles, and even some high school groups have performed a few challenging selections.

The Second Vatican Council clearly ordered the preservation and fostering of the great treasury of church music, beginning with the Gregorian chant up to the most modern compositions. This is to be done within the setting of liturgical worship, not merely in concert form. Most of this vast repertory that spreads across centuries of human achievement demands trained groups of singers and instrumentalists to perform. It is art and demands skill and training in the musicians needed to perform it. It is the highest form of human artistic endeavor, worthy of God and His worship.

The Vatican Council did, indeed, order the singing of the congregation in all those parts of the liturgy that truly belong to the competency of all the people. This order is not in contradiction to the other decree of the conciliar fathers demanding the fostering of choral music. The same body cannot be in opposition to itself in its decrees. Both the singing of the choir and the singing of the congregation have their proper places in solemn liturgy.

It is a strange spirit (perhaps the "spirit of Vatican II"?) that has led to the dismissal of choirs, the abandoning of polyphonic music, especially in the Latin language. In order to justify such a position, some (Rev. Frederick McManus, for example) have announced that the treasury of church music is to be fostered "in concerts." Others (Fr. Joseph Gelineau, for example) have simply stated that polyphonic choral music is not intended for use in the liturgy, nor should church music even attempt to reach the perfection one might well expect in concert performances.

Thus the hymn has replaced the settings of the Mass texts; the congregation has been substituted for the choir; the vernacular has superseded the Latin language; the guitar and piano have pushed aside the pipe organ and the orchestra. What is left of the treasury of sacred music for the parish liturgy? Four hymns!

Sadly, this is the present state of church music, its study and its performance, not only in the parishes, but in the schools, especially those for the training of future priests. Again, a direct violation of the conciliar decrees on sacred music by seminary authorities, done knowingly and willingly, has deprived the Catholic people and their future priests of their rightful inheritance.

One keeps asking "why?" The first and most charitable answer is always that those who are implementing the conciliar decrees in this country are ignorant of the treasury of sacred music, a terrible indictment of professional educators. There is no question that many seminaries functioning before the council had inadequate music programs of study and performance, headed by incompetent instructors, but at least the norms were acknowledged even though the efforts to fulfill them were inadequate.

But another reason for the attack on sacred music as we have known it for fifteen hundred years is an anti-Roman position that wants to eliminate the ancient Roman liturgy and all it has professed and taught, especially what was transmitted through the medium of sacred music. The liturgy is the greatest teacher of the faith. Those who wished to change that faith understood that the changing of the liturgy (and its music) would result in the "protestantizing" of the Church. If one admits that the results of the liturgical reforms of the past twenty-five years can to some extent be laid to the ignorance of those in this country who made the rules following the council, it cannot be denied either that there was also a degree of hostility toward sacred music involved in the process.

The attack on the "sacred" was aimed directly at sacred music. Many denied the existence of anything that could be called sacred, despite the opening words of the 1967 instruction, Musicam sacram. We have become used to secular tunes, secular instruments (piano, guitar, drums), secular performance practices as musical combos and performing soloists and dancers; all found their way into the liturgy, not enhancing its holiness but directly destroying the sacred quality that only truly sacred art can contribute to liturgical action.

The major question, "What makes music sacred?" has been answered in Sacred Music magazine a number of times [e.g., Vol. 107, No. 3 (Fall 1980); Vol. 112, No. 2 (Summer 1985)]. A symposium at Christendom College faced the very same question which is basic to all church music. But just as basic is the other major question, "What makes music art?" Involved in that is the vast area of musical training and education. Only the trained musician can answer what makes a given piece of music art. But many of the reformers have stumbled into this area without the proper knowledge or experience. A whole generation of poorly trained (or not trained at all) composers has appeared, producing words and notes that many publishers continue to hawk as sacred church music, even when most of it fails by both critera: it is not sacred and it is not art. But it makes money! Some of it even parades as hymns on Sundays in our parishes and more often in the seminaries.

To give an answer to the question, "What is sacred music?," we must answer that it is the great treasury of music, written over the ages by the greatest composers for use in the sung liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, beginning with the Gregorian melodies and continuing on through the polyphonic pieces of the middle ages and the renaissance, up to the orchestral settings of the last three centuries and into our own time; it is simple for the singing congregation and more elaborate as the degree of musicianship increases. Pope Pius XII in his encyclical, Musicae sacrae disciplina, beautifully summarized the role of sacred music.
Thus, at the instance and under the sponsorship of the Church, sacred music, through the course of centuries, has traversed a long road by which, though sometimes slowly and laboriously, it has finally reached the heights: from the simple and natural Gregorian modes, which are, moreover, quite perfect in their kind, to great and even magnificent works of art which not only human voices, but also the organ and other musical instruments embellish, adorn and amplify almost endlessly. Just as this progress in the art of music shows clearly how dear to the heart of the Church it was to make divine worship more resplendent and appealing to Christian peoples, so too it made clear why the Church also must, from time to time, impose a check lest its proper purposes be exceeded and lest, along with the true progress, an element profane and alien to divine worship creep into sacred music and corrupt it.
Would that we might put into practice what Pope Pius XII called for and what the fathers of the II Vatican Council decreed, basing so much of their document on the great encyclical of Christmas 1955.

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