SACRED MUSIC Volume 118, Number 2, Summer 1991
STYLE Monsignor Richard J. Schuler
The dictionary defines "style" as a distinctive manner of writing, a characteristic mode of expression, fashion or manner. In the arts and in music, style is a mode of expression or of performance. In a musical composition, style has to do with the manner in which all the elements are treated: form, melody, rhythm, harmony. We speak of a composer's style, distinguishing Mozart from Gounod, for example. We separate instrumental style from vocal or choral writing. We often list national styles, and we refer to a sacred style as distinguished from the secular.
Style exists in every part of life. We immediately think of style as it applies to clothing, and today the term "life-style" is found often in common usage. Students of literature are required to identify the styles of various writers and various centuries, as, for example, one can note the English of Shakespeare is different from that of Dickens. Students of music must distinguish Bach from Stravinsky. Students of musical theory must be able to write in the style of Bach as well as in the contrapuntal style of Palestrina. Chinese food is not French cooking, and a military march is not Gregorian chant. Style exists in everything. It is, in a word, the sum of characteristics inherent in a particular art at a given moment, but since these characteristics are ever-changing, and dependent on time and developments in society, new styles are constantly emerging. As the purpose for which the various art forms are created changes, so does the style into which they are cast change.
Early studies of musical style date to the seventeenth century, and the resulting distinction made between a sacred and a secular style in music continues to influence musical practice to this day. The Italians invented the terms "stile antico" and "stile nuovo." The first referred to the contrapuntal writing of Palestrina and the Roman School, which was also called "stile grave" and "stile romano." Contrasting it was the new music, called "stile moderno," "stile rappresentative," or "stile espressivo." The new experiments of the seventeenth century took place chiefly in the music being written for the stage, especially the fast developing opera, while the Church continued to favor for liturgical use the older manner of Palestrina and the other Roman church composers.
Basic to the distinction between the two styles was the treatment accorded in the "stile nuovo" to words that expressed emotion, passion, suffering or even joy. The use of various devices in operatic composition to emphasize human emotion crept into writing for the liturgy and was found to be alien to the purpose of church music, which was intended to adorn a text rather than interpret it. As a result of opposition on the part of the Church to the affective writing in the new music, only the style of the Roman School was accepted for use in the liturgy and thus it became the sacred style while the new devices were confined to the opera and became the secular style. With the baroque era a distinction in the manner of composing for the liturgy and for the stage came into being, setting up between them a dichotomy that marked two styles: secular and sacred, a phenomenon that did not exist before. It continues in our time and is still a factor in judging all sacred music.
Basic to the distinction in sacred and secular styles is the phenomenon of connotation. The response to style is a learned response 1(Meyer, p. 270). It is the understanding by the community of musical sounds that establishes an agreed meaning about their significance. Most people will react to a military march, knowing what the sounds are intended to convey. So also with music intended to express funereal or sad emotions. In general, people will think of music in a major mode as joyful and that in a minor mode as sad. This is the result of years of living within a community for whom these sounds have become basic.
There is nothing "per se" in the music itself that determines such meaning. Rather such interpretation of sound or musical composition rests upon the experience of the hearer usually extended over some time. It is impossible to say that certain sounds in themselves are holy and others not. But because of education or simply lived experience, one comes to accept certain sounds as expressing sanctity and other sounds giving profane or worldly ideas. It is not the individual who determines this connotation, but rather the community together with the individual who is a part of that community. One may break with the common idea and attempt to establish another style, but time is necessary to move a community. One individual, convinced as he might be of his own ideas, does not effect a change in community connotation alone or in a short time.
In the area of church music, connotative ideas are deeply set. The community uses church music for prayers. The secular community uses music for entertainment, the display of technical virtuosity and for the promotion of advancing musical ideas. A concert-goer may well be content with hearing a new work which he does not understand, but finds interesting and perhaps with repetition may come to know and even like. The church- goer, on the other hand, cannot be content with the music used in the liturgy if it merely interests him or amuses him. Music in worship must be a prayer, immediately grasped and appreciated, used for one purpose, the adoration of God at that very moment. The style cannot be new or strange, or the purpose of prayer will not be achieved. Music will become a distraction, not a help in coming to God.
Why then is style so important in music for Church? The Church herself is not interested in style as such. The II Vatican Council says clearly that all kinds of truly artistic music that are sacred and useful have a place in the liturgy. Each generation has contributed its genius and left a treasury of sacred music that the council ordered to be used and preserved. While giving its own Gregorian chant (which in its turn has many different styles) a primacy of place in the celebration of the liturgy, the Church welcomes the styles of the many schools of composers, the various national styles, writing that is polyphonic, monodic, with or without instrumental accompaniment, new and old. She is not primarily concerned with style for its own sake. What she seeks and demands is that music be true art and sacred. Those requirements can be fulfilled by many diverse styles.
Music may exist in an authentic style and be well-performed and stylistically correct, but not be acceptable for the liturgy. A well- trained brass band playing the marches of Sousa demonstrates a fine example of military style music. A well-rehearsed combo can show what contemporary folk or western music should be, an example of those styles. A great symphony orchestra, playing the best of the orchestral literature, can be in first place in performance of classical or romantic or contemporary styles. But the judgement about such efforts for church use must cause us to reject them all, since they do not fulfill the requirement of sacredness. They may be art; they certainly show a good performance practice.
On the other hand, some music, while taken to be sacred because of the sacred texts or because the melody is known as a sacred song, fails because of the lack of true art, either in the composing of the piece or in the manner of performance. Regardless of the century, the vocal or instrumental requirements, or the good intentions of the composer and the performers, it is unacceptable since it lacks a goodness of form. It is not art.
Because the Vatican Council allowed for a wide freedom in the music used for liturgical worship, many have thought that to permit all styles has meant permission to employ all music in the liturgy. The criterion established by connotation must be maintained, and it will exclude everything that is not sacred. The baroque distinction remains at the basis of connotation. What is meant for recreation, entertainment, military purposes, ostentatious technical display by soloists, advertising, opera, stage or concert use is easily detected because it does not denote a sacred purpose. It is for that reason that the vast majority of Catholic people sense an irreverence in the use of secular music in church. It is for that reason that the "sensus ecclesiae" affirms the holiness of Gregorian chant.
Will these ideas ever change? They might, so that the twenty-first century may develop its own style. It may well invent a style that is truly art and is sacred. What that style may be we do not know; the twentieth century failed to establish its own. But even in the twenty-first century the same criteria will be used to judge compositions of every style: are they true art and sacred?