Sacred Music Reform Leading Up to the Second Vatican Council

11-05-2017This Week in Vidi DominumFr. Will Schmid

In his previous article from October 1st, Fr. Will discussed the contributions of Pope Pius X regarding Liturgical Reform in the Church. Here, he takes us through the next several decades of contributions in the area of Sacred Music.

The immediate decades following the release of Pope St. Pius X’s encyclical, Tra le solicitudini, in 1903 produced very little change in the American liturgical music scene. The phrase, “active participation,” inspired great optimism and led to many theological reflections and discussions, but the picture of worship in American Catholicism remained largely the same. The low Mass without congregational participation remained the norm and parishes struggled to help the people of God participate in singing the prescribed chants of the Solemn High Mass.

Fr. Gregory Walsh, commented, “The theory is good, it just doesn’t work out so well in practice.” By and large, the people remained lethargic. Many well-intentioned musicians tried to teach the chant without having received adequate instruction themselves, which made it even more difficult for people to desire to learn it. Common responses to attempts to teach the people how to sing the liturgical chants were: “I’m not a singer - I’ll just ruin it,” and “It doesn’t sound as good as when the choir sang the Mass.”  

In addition, the people of God complained that music caused the Mass to “take too long” and disrupted their “peace and quiet.” Many parishioners also felt that participation within the Liturgy caused them to appear as a “Holy Joe,” or “holier than thou.” For a variety of reasons, resistance was the normal Catholic response. Other than the establishment of some exceptional cathedral boys choirs, the average parish liturgical musical scene struggled greatly to implement Pope St. Pius X’s encyclical. This was not only true for America but for many other countries as well.

On December 20, 1928, Pope Pius XI commemorated the 25th anniversary of Tra le solicitudini with a letter of his own (Divini Cultus) to support the continued efforts for sacred music renewal by acknowledging the various struggles of implementation and encouraging the faithful to remain persistent in implementing it. Pius XI wrote, “We are all well aware that the fulfillment of these injunctions will entail great trouble and labor…Let the difficulties of this sacred task, far from deterring, rather stimulate and encourage the bishops of the Church.” For Pope Pius XI, the struggles should be perceived as opportunities and blessings and should inspire the bishops to work even harder to implement the reform.   

In addition, Pope Pius XI reminded the Church of the past success that sacred music had earned concerning the church’s efforts for evangelization: “The liturgical chant played no small part in converting many barbarians to Christianity and civilization…At Milan, St. Ambrose was accused by heretics of attracting the crowds by means of liturgical chants. It was due to these that St. Augustine made up his mind to become a Christian.” Although Pope Pius XI was aware of the difficulties of rediscovering the Church’s treasured chant, he was also aware of the evangelizing power of its rediscovery. For him, this power made the sacred music revival efforts worth the struggle.   

On Christmas Day, 1955, 27 years later, Pope Pius XII released an encyclical of his own (Musicae Sacrae) to continue progress toward a sacred music revival in the Church. In this encyclical, the Holy Father affirmed the writings of both Pope St. Pius X and Pope Pius XI, and offered a more lengthy and orderly explanation of sacred music. Although much can be said concerning this encyclical, there are three particular noteworthy points that help us better understand how Pope Pius XII advanced a revival of sacred music.

First, Pope Pius XII gives a brief, but significant account of how Gregorian chant and Classic Polyphony became the great chants of the Roman Rite: “St. Gregory the Great, carefully collected and wisely arranged all that had been handed down by the elders and protected the purity and integrity of sacred chant with fitting laws and regulations…Little by little, beginning in the 9th century, polyphonic singing was added to this choral chant. The study and use of polyphonic singing were developed more and more during the centuries that followed and were raised to a marvelous perfection under the guidance of magnificent composers during the 15th and 16th centuries.” The significance of this brief history is that it reminds the people of God that Gregorian chant and classic polyphony were not chosen arbitrarily as the music of the Roman Rite, but that this style of chant was passed down throughout the centuries as an essential part of her liturgical culture. 

Second, in a time when modern culture was promoting and advancing “artistic freedom,” Pope Pius XII desired to remind the Church that, due to the sacred nature of the liturgy, the artistic freedom of liturgical artists must be understood in a different light than the freedom of secular artists. Pope Pius XII writes, “The freedom of the artist is not a blind instinct to act in accordance with his own whim or some desire for novelty, it is in no way restricted or destroyed, but actually ennobled and perfected, when it is made subject to the divine law…These laws and standards for religious art apply in a stricter and holier way to sacred music because sacred music enters more intimately into divine worship.”

The dignity and lofty purpose and nature of the Liturgy demands that the sacred artist contextualize their artistic freedom within the laws and standards of that which has been passed on as a part of the Roman Catholic heritage and tradition. In other words, sacred musicians do not have unlimited freedom to produce whatever they want for the Liturgy. Rather, they are commissioned to produce works that are in continuity with her tradition.    

Third, although Pope Pius XII reaffirms Gregorian chant and Classic Polyphony as the standard and ideal music in the Liturgy, he also establishes directives concerning the use of hymns within the Liturgy. In many places, vernacular hymn singing within the Liturgy had become a common experience. In certain situations, prescribed Latin chants were translated into the vernacular and sung within the Solemn High Mass without proper consent from the Holy See. Pope Pius XII clarified that vernacular hymns at the Solemn High Mass were not permitted without the express permission of the Holy See. 

In the low Mass, vernacular hymns were often sung by the congregation while the priest quietly recited the prescribed Latin liturgical texts. This was not the vision promoted by the liturgical reform, but was tolerated with the local bishop’s permission, assuming the hymns were in conformity with Catholic doctrine and articulated it accurately.

It is interesting to note here that the Catholic musical landscape at many parishes today is derived from this practice. The four areas of the Mass where vernacular songs were sung (while the priest quietly recited the proper liturgical texts) are the entrance antiphon, the offertory, the communion antiphon, and the recessional. These four areas, when the chants are replaced by hymns, create a kind of “four-hymn sandwich,” which characterizes the common musical arrangement for Sunday Masses in America today.   

Through his encyclical, Pope Pius XII sought to clear up any confusion concerning the usage of hymns and correct some of the common liturgical abuses. He did this so as to continue to encourage the people of God to learn and participate in the prescribed chants of the Liturgy. 

The significance of these directives concerning hymnody within the Liturgy is that it laid the foundation for a clearer interpretation of the expression, “active participation,” introduced by Pope St. Pius X in Tra le solicitudini. As mentioned earlier, this powerful expression had produced many theological discussions and reflections, and came with a variety of interpretations. Pope Pius XII did not want this expression to be interpreted as the abandonment of the chants of the Church’s rich tradition.

Pope Pius XII, like his predecessors, was filled with an optimistic spirit that authentic liturgical reform was underway and would bear great fruit in the life of the faithful. Like Pope Pius XI, he knew this was a challenging process that would take time and patience, but that great blessings would come from the struggles. During the time of Pope Pius XII and in the midst of the reform, one monk stated, “This process…takes time. The chasm between the modes and modern music, between free and measured rhythm is so vast that it will take many years, a generation or two before Gregorian chant will be a living prayer again.”

In future bulletin articles I will examine the Second Vatican Council document, Sacrosanctum Concilium, and the continued liturgical reform efforts following the Council.