Need for Worthy Expression in Chant and Sacred Music

Author: Pope Paul VI


Pope Paul VI

After the General Audience on September 18th, the Holy Father received in the Swiss Hall at his summer residence the members of the General Assembly of the "Italian Association of St. Cecelia".

Beloved Sons,

We gladly speak to you and We want to thank and praise you for the excellent dispositions with which you will receive these words. Our discourse is prompted by Our deep esteem and affection for you, and also by the consideration and solicitude which Our Pontifical and Pastoral office ceaselessly demands in relation to the sacred Liturgy, "the apex and source of the Church's life" (Const. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 16). They express the need that we have of you, to combine the lofty aims of your movement with the advancement of religious communal life, as well as of the splendour of divine worship; they speak of the timeliness of a renewed "Italian Association of Saint Cecilia", working at the same time with coherence, open-mindedness and fidelity in the glorious tradition of Church singing and music, while it is conscious of the requirements of a living and improved worship and a pastoral liturgy, continually undergoing changes and becoming more effective.

Your work is taking place at an opportune time in the history of a reform, so wisely promoted by Vatican Council II. Already it has yielded excellent results in the field that concerns you more directly. New texts and melodies have been grafted on the old trunk; promising branches sprout under the breath of a spiritual springtime, which has visibly permeated the very life of the Church.

However, in such a renewal of sacred music and liturgical chant, grievous opposition and difficulties are not lacking. In the first place, we have not always succeeded in upholding, with due respect, the ancient and priceless heritage of the past; nor do the recent musical compositions always accord with the worthy tradition of the Church, a tradition which, from the point of view of culture, is still valuable. Moreover, simple and accessible compositions have been introduced; yet, they lack inspiration and nobility of expression; we are also facing a novel and bold experience, which leaves Us, to say the least, perplexed and dubious. It is up to you then to contribute to this difficult and urgent task of reasoning and judging; encouraging or checking, as needs be.

In the pursuit of such a task, it is necessary, above all else, that one keep in mind the function of sacred music and liturgical chant. Otherwise, vain would be the attempts at reform; impossible it would be to utilize in a correct and appropriate manner, the various elements of high and holy undertakings. These are, as you well know: Gregorian chant; sacred and profane polyphony; the organ and other musical instruments; texts in the vernacular or in Latin; sacred ministers, the "scholae cantorum" and the congregation; the official and popular church singing (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, chapter VI; the Sacred Congregation of Rites, Instr. de musica in sacra Liturgia, 1967).

Both music and singing are at the service of worship and subordinate to worship. Therefore they should at all times be fitting: lofty but simple; occasionally solemn and majestic: always as worthy as possible of the infinite sovereignty of God to Whom they are directed, and of the human mind of which they are the expression. They should enable the soul to contact the Lord, by awakening and expressing sentiments of praise, impetration, atonement; of joy and sorrow, hope and peace. What a rich gamut of inner melodies and of still more varied harmonizations!

If this is the essential role of sacred music, how then could we accept wretched and trivial manners of expression? How could we be indulgent towards an art that distracts or approves a technique that goes to excesses, reflecting one of the peculiarities of our times. Without doubt our epoch is called upon to reach God in all its manifestation—but it needs the help of a genuine art to attain the sacred.

If instrumental or vocal music does not synthesize a sense of prayer, dignity and beauty, it bars itself from an access to what is sacred and religious.

The sublimation and sanctification of the profane, a task inherent in the Church's mission in the world of today, obviously has limits; all the more so in the case of conferring upon the profane that sacredness, which is proper to liturgical worship: we should remember that the Council of Trent, in its disciplinary decree "De observandis et evitandis in celebratione missae", forbade all kinds of music "which contain anything improper and unseemly, either in the singing or the accompaniment". Not all that is outside a profane temple should cross its threshold.

Nor should you believe that, through such ordinances, We have in mind to impose limits on, or stifle the creative ability of the artist, of the composer or the interpreter who is no less inspired. Nor do We want to isolate music and song from the character and customs of peoples whose civilizations are other than the Western. The purpose of sacred music primarily consists in praying and honouring the Divine Majesty; nevertheless, it goes hand in hand with the true greatness of man at prayer. Thus, how many new musical compositions, bearing the stamp of creative liberty—a charism—and the sign of authentic art, can emanate from an enlightened and faithful service to this high design! However, on the other hand, in the above perspective, one can better understand and learn Gregorian chant and the classical polyphonic chant: religious values of the past, whose perennial actuality and matchless perfection can hardly be disregarded.

It is a particular function of sacred chant to infuse greater strength into texts to be proposed to the minds and tastes of the faithful, in order to revive their faith and devotion (cf. St. Pius X, Tra la sollecitudine).

The word, the interior song, the word expressed or sung, all constitute a problem inserted into a much vaster one, that of contemplation and liturgy, both interior and exterior, at the service of divine worship: a problem which is imbedded in the very nature of man, and thus recurs in the history of various religious-cultural experiences, especially the Christian. Saint Augustine (cf. "De Musica", Conf. 9. 6; 10, 33; Ep. 166, 5, 13; Retract. 1, 11) and Saint Thomas, to cite but two masters, did not bypass this topic (cf. IIa, IIae, q. 91, art. 2).

To overcome the difficulty and to avoid possible errors, it will be necessary, in the first place, to select and prepare—by drawing from the treasury of faith and art things "new and old"—adapted texts of solid religious content, sublime inspiration and excellent literary form. It will also be necessary to set these texts to music, to see that they are executed in a coherent fashion, without obscuring them with useless redundancies of dangerous wordiness, both of which were more appropriate in former times. Likewise, care must be taken lest they be impoverished and harmed—We would say—by defects. Moreover among "hymns" and "things sung": (Saint Augustine, Confessions, X) we discover that fruitful parallelism which succeeds best in directing the minds and hearts towards God.

Finally, We shall mention the community role of sacred and religious chant, connected with the social aspect of the Liturgy, an aspect strongly stressed nowadays, and rightly so.

Liturgical singing is pertinent to the whole Church: "a community of feelings", manifested in "a single voice" (Saint Clement, Letter to the Corinthians, 37, 7). Thus, because of this factor, singing is strengthened and invigorated. What beneficial fruits of Christian and human solidarity, of charity and brotherhood in Christ can sacred music produce, when it is properly rendered! From another viewpoint, the carrying out of this end will aim at excluding modes of expression that only the initiated can understand, modes that are also incompatible with a music which, because it is the people's, should be "popular"

However, singing interests all the Church in its organization and must, therefore, bring out very prominently the essential structure reflected in the hierarchical and community character of Sacred Liturgy. Just as in the common priesthood of all the faithful, the Spirit distributes a variety of gifts, so in the congregation, we find the ministry of the choir, young men and adults; those charged with composing, playing the organ and directing the singing: such are your duties, dear sons! In this respect, there are so many roles to be attended to, so many functions to be encouraged. In this way, the singing unfolds in a unanimous and orderly manner, according to the function of each one. This brings to light the collaboration and harmony that prevail at the same Service, in building up the Church together, in constructing, through a unified action, a living temple to the honour and glory, of the Father.

Such, beloved sons, is the ultimate purpose of your mission, upon which We have wanted to dwell rather lengthily, not only because of Our love for you, but more so because of the duty of Our apostolic office, and an oft-repeated meditation on this basic criterion, which should inspire your work. We are certain that you will not withdraw from the influence of this light and the impulse of this strength. You should be stimulated by the thought that your role is mighty and helpful, in the sight of the Church; that singing expresses and strengthens the faith of the Christian people, in the sight of the world. Our contemporary world is direly in need of a beautiful and fearless testimony, to bring it to a realization of the religious, of the sacred, of the divine. With Our Apostolic Blessing.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
26 September 1968, page 5

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