Why an exclusive return to Gregorian Chant and Sacred Polyphony is not solution to the woes of Catholic Church music

Sandro Magister makes available to the English speaking world the interview with Domenico Bartolucci, the reinstated capelmeister of the Sistine Chapel, first published in L’espresso.

Regular readers of this column will know that I would be the first to blow the whistle on the current mess which is Catholic liturgical music (if it were not for the fact that there have been literally thousands before me who have done so, not the least of whom is Thomas Day, the author of the excellent book “Why Catholics Can’t Sing”).

But the solution cannot be that which Mons. Bartolucci seems to propse, ie. the restriction of Catholic liturgical music to Gregorian Chant and Polyphony. It is true that Pope Benedict himself, after a concert conducted by Bartolucci on 24th June, declared sacred polyphony “a legacy to be carefully preserved, kept alive and propagated, for the benefit not only of scholars and enthusiasts, but of all the ecclesial community”. Nevertheless, it cannot have been Papa Benny’s intention to abolish all other forms of music. What he said was that “a true aggiornamento of sacred music cannot be achieved except by following the great traditions of the past, of Gregorian chants and sacred polyphony” (my emphasis).

Indeed, polyphony was a development in the history of western liturgical music which ‘followed’ the tradition of Gregorian Chant, rather than slavishly reproduced it. More to the point, we do not today know how the music of St Gregory the Great actually sounded. The tradition of chant in the Church has always been one of development and fluidity as much as preservation and antiquity.

The interview with Bartolucci runs through a whole list of Western composers: Verdi, Palestrina, Beethoven, Puccini, Mozart, Brückner, Mahler, Bach, Lasso, Victoria—but the works of all these men were never the music of the masses, let alone “The Holy Mass”, as it was performed in the parish church by parish priest, choir and congregation. Is it ridiculous to suggest that one of the reasons why Catholic liturgical music has fallen into such a hole while music in Protestant churches continues to thrive is precisely this “professionalisation” of liturgical music? Bartolucci speaks of liturgical music as “art” at the end of the interview, but our parishes are not made up of artists. Our organists and choirs, even when we have them, are not artists. They are ordinary little old ladies, and earnest young folk who enjoy singing.

Don’t get me wrong. I am in full support of Gregorian Chant and sacred polyphony where it can be managed. Dr Geoffrey Cox, the capelmeister at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, has demonstrated very well what a local Church is capable of given the right resources. But we cannot believe that what works in the Cathedral will work in the parish except in very exceptional circumstances.

I am also all in favour of parishes learning to sing the liturgy of the Mass to simple and dignified Gregorian tones. I grew up chanting the liturgy in the Lutheran Church. It was strong and robust (even “manly”), but it was simple and unchanging. The Catholic Church needs again a standard Gregorian setting for the mass which all its people throughout the world can sing. If you want an idea of the sort of thing I mean, just listen to the Lord’s Prayer as it is sung in Latin, English, German, Spanish and just about every other language. For goodness sake, the version used by the Romans is only a little different from that which I grew up with in the Lutheran Church.

But we should not kid ourselves that our parishes are going to be able to perform Palestrina or Lasso, or even that they will be capable of more than one ferial and one festival Gregorian setting of the ordo of the mass. In the meantime, we cannot banish other forms of music that have come to serve us well, most particularly “the hymn” form which has, since the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, become a central part of the Christian repertoire. We also need to be open to new forms of liturgical music, such as that developed by the Taize community.

So what do we need in terms of liturgical music for the 3rd millenium? Let’s make a few suggestions:

1) Music that “follows” the tradition of Gregorian chant. Our liturgy was, for about 1500 years, synonymous with the chant. The Chant formed the liturgy and vice versa. We need to respect this symbiotic relationship.
2) Music that can be learned and sung, not by artists, but by ordinary worshippers. This does not mean that the music need not be skilful, nor that it should be effortless to learn, but it must be within the reach of bulk of the people.
3) Music that can be owned by the community and, to a certain extent, define the community in much the same way that the Gregorian Chant once did. It should be the “sound” of the community’s heart beat.
4) Music that is bi-lingual, ie. that uses both Latin and the vernacular and can switch between both. I am sick to death of hearing that Gregorian chant can only be used with Latin. I know from experience that this is nonsense. It is the opinion of “experts” who have never seriously attempted otherwise. It is this insistence that killed the Chant when the English liturgy was adopted. Lutherans went from Latin to German to English with the same unchanging tunes. They still sing the liturgy. Catholics don’t. Go figure.
5) Music that can be sung unaccompanied, and is strong enough to be memorable. Such music will be able to be used anywhere and will sing deep into the hearts of the people.

So, that’s the sort of music we need. Will the new St Gregory please stand up and invent it? You don’t have to start from scratch. The old Chant will do nicely as a launching pad. But unless we want to retreat into a situation where the liturgy is a museum piece, we can’t go back. We can only go forward.

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