A century ago, Pope St. Pius X took on the reform of liturgical music in a big way. Late nineteenth-century liturgical music had largely pushed Gregorian chant aside, and the patrimony of the Roman Rite’s most distinctive musical form was in danger of fading away. His 1903 motu proprio on sacred music “Tra Le Sollecitudini” sought to reclaim chant and minimize the damage that had been done by the “theatrical” or “concert” music that had made its way into liturgy via composers of secular classical music who also wrote beautiful performance works with religious content—Masses, oratorios, and the like—that were never appropriate for liturgy but had infiltrated it nonetheless.
The long-term project was to rediscover and reclaim the authentic root of chant, which had become covered in the overgrowth of centuries of adaptation and neglect. Thankfully, this pursuit was undertaken wholeheartedly by several key groups, and real progress was being made in allowing the Roman Rite to, once again, rely on its distinctive musical form in twentieth-century liturgy.
However, this all-important step was really only tenuously connected to another all-important question related to liturgical music: how might the recovery of chant impact the existing state of congregational singing at Mass?
Some Assembly Required
To my surprise, I’ve only recently come to learn that the Roman Rite has had a bit of an on-again/off-again relationship with the whole notion of liturgical singing done by anyone other than the clergy (remember, pre-Vatican II “clergy” included those in minor orders) or established choirs of the day. The people in the pews were not at all central to the notion of “liturgical” music, any more than they were at all central to providing the liturgical responses at Low Mass or High Mass (“Sung” or “Solemn”).
Yet the twentieth-century Magisterium did come down in favor of giving formation to the faithful such that they could at least minimally learn and participate in the chant that was being rediscovered. Granted, congregational singing of vernacular hymns was happening, but this was seen as distinct from the ceremonial-liturgical music that existed exclusively in Latin, not the vernacular.
Mass Movement—From “Hearing” to “Praying”
Fast-forward to the era immediately preceding the Second Vatican Council, with the “Liturgical Movement” of that time focusing on getting people to move past the realm of “hearing” Mass amid favored private devotions prayed during it toward “praying the Mass” by at least following along with personal missals in the vernacular that could help a Catholic understand the spoken Latin. However, the reform of the liturgy took a turn headlong in the direction of accessibility—despite the Council’s insistence, in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, that “The use of Latin is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (36), and that Gregorian Chant “should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (116).
If any single thing could essentially derail the century-long project of reclaiming the Roman Rite’s chant and finally getting it into the pews, the unrestrained plunge into the vernacular could, and did, in my view. It’s pretty simple. If priest and assembly are no longer bound by a requirement to learn and use Latin in liturgy, and if liberation from Latin takes the shape of a tsunami throughout the Church, from priest to pewsitter, access to the patrimony of Latin-text music—both chant and polyphony—becomes utterly short-circuited.
Furthermore, that huge, whooshing, sucking sound we all heard by the mid-1960s was the immense vacuum created by the absence of any music in the vernacular that could really fill the void created by severing the connection to both the Church’s universal language and its universal music. It was also, in my view, the death rattle for the ambitious decades-long effort to restore and reconnect not only clergy and choirs but congregations to Gregorian chant.
“Attention, All Personnel….!!”
Thus, the Church in the US was treated to the musical “M*A*S*H” unit that was first to arrive on the scene, offering not “meatball surgery” but offering “meatball liturgy.” And it wasn’t very life-saving—at all. As the Mass hemorrhaged its Latin, the wound, scarcely cleaned, received the Bandaid of the banal texts and melodies that at least initially came largely from the pop-folk era previously inaugurated by the 1957-1958 Kingston Trio smash hit “Tom Dooley.” By the mid-1960s, the exuberant and carefree folk revival had given way to protest music and politics, and that volatile mix of elements gave us that visceral novelty of “now” liturgical music (so called) in the vernacular—guitars and even banjos mercilessly subjecting the faithful to everything from “Sounds of Silence” to “Let It Be” to Catholic “youth” music like “Wake Up, My People,” “Till All My People Are One,” “Allelu,” “To Be Alive,” and “Joy Is Like the Rain.”
Now, fifty years later, the discontinuity does indeed seem staggering. It leaves liturgical music in a sort of limbo. The legitimacy of the pre-conciliar effort to restore chant must be reconnected with the legitimacy of the post-conciliar openness to organically growing new liturgical music from that root.
How much different would things have been if there had been real continuity? Well, I’m pretty sure a young believer like me, destined to be a liturgical musician for more than 30 years, would have benefitted greatly from hearing way more Latin, more chant, more Latin polyphony—anything that would have made it clear to me that these are truly the hallmarks of our Roman-Rite tradition. In my view, it’s not merely a missed opportunity for the Mass itself, but it’s a missed opportunity for me as a Catholic.
Mass is not supposed to make me musically comfortable—it’s supposed to make me more holy.
Some may say that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but I’m here to tell you: singing “If I Had a Hammer,” “Get Together,” and “Day by Day” at Mass never, not once, made me feel stronger—or holier. Let’s reclaim our rightful patrimony and try to rediscover—yet again—the liturgical music roots of the Roman Rite.
Full story at Crisis Magazine.