Volume 118, Number 3, Fall 1991
WHAT IS SACRED MUSIC?
Monsignor Richard J. Schuler
The question, "What is sacred music," put to the average Catholic, will no
doubt elicit the answer that "sacred music is hymns." And in the lived
experience of most Catholics today, that is the extent of what they know to
be sacred music. On Sunday, they sing four hymns at Mass. In most parishes,
is there anything else?
For those people who attend symphony orchestra concerts, and those who
have an interest in recorded music, there is the possibility of developing
a knowledge of and an appreciation for the vast repertory of sacred music,
the inheritance of centuries and a veritable treasure house of beauty,
because many of these compositions, written originally for the Church, have
become standard repertory in most concert series and record catalogs. Some
may have sung one or the other great choral masterpiece of religious music
in college choral ensembles, and even some high school groups have
performed a few challenging selections.
The II Vatican Council clearly ordered the preservation and fostering of
the great treasury of church music, beginning with the Gregorian chant up
to the most modern compositions. This is to be done within the setting of
liturgical worship, not merely in concert form. Most of this vast repertory
that spreads across centuries of human achievement demands trained groups
of singers and instrumentalists to perform. It is art and demands skill and
training in the musicians needed to perform it. It is the highest form of
human artistic endeavor, worthy of God and His worship.
The Vatican Council did, indeed, order the singing of the congregation in
all those parts of the liturgy that truly belong to the competency of all
the people. This order is not in contradiction to the other decree of the
conciliar fathers demanding the fostering of choral music. The same body
cannot be in opposition to itself in its decrees. Both the singing of the
choir and the singing of the congregation have their proper places in
It is a strange spirit (perhaps the "spirit of Vatican II"?) that has led
to the dismissal of choirs, the abandoning of polyphonic music, especially
in the Latin language. In order to justify such a position, some (Rev.
Frederick McManus, for example) have announced that the treasury of church
music is to be fostered "in concerts." Others (Fr. Joseph Gelineau, for
example) have simply stated that polyphonic choral music is not intended
for use in the liturgy, nor should church music even attempt to reach the
perfection one might well expect in concert performances.
Thus the hymn has replaced the settings of the Mass texts; the
congregation has been substituted for the choir; the vernacular has
superceded the Latin language; the guitar and piano have pushed aside the
pipe organ and the orchestra. What is left of the treasury of sacred music
for the parish liturgy? Four hymns!
Sadly, this is the present state of church music, its study and its
performance, not only in the parishes, but in the schools, especially those
for the training of future priests. Again, a direct violation of the
conciliar decrees on sacred music by seminary authorities, done knowingly
and willingly, has deprived the Catholic people and their future priests of
their rightful inheritance.
One keeps asking "why?" The first and most charitable answer is always
that those who are implementing the conciliar decrees in this country are
ignorant of the treasury of sacred music, a terrible indictment of
professional educators. There is no question that many seminaries
functioning before the council had inadequate music programs of study and
performance, headed by incompetent instructors, but at least the norms were
acknowledged even though the efforts to fulfill them were inadequate.
But another reason for the attack on sacred music as we have known it for
fifteen hundred years is an anti-Roman position that wants to eliminate the
ancient Roman liturgy and all it has professed and taught, especially what
was transmitted through the medium of sacred music. The liturgy is the
greatest teacher of the faith. Those who wished to change that faith
understood that the changing of the liturgy (and its music) would result in
the "protestantizing" of the Church. If one admits that the results of the
liturgical reforms of the past twenty-five years can to some extent be laid
to the ignorance of those in this country who made the rules following the
council, it cannot be denied either that there was also a degree of
hostility toward sacred music involved in the process.
The attack on the "sacred" was aimed directly at sacred music. Many denied
the existence of anything that could be called sacred, despite the opening
words of the 1967 instruction, "Musicam sacram." We have become used to
secular tunes, secular instruments (piano, guitar, drums), secular
performance practices as musical combos and performing soloists and
dancers; all found their way into the liturgy, not enhancing its holiness
but directly destroying the sacred quality that only truly sacred art can
contribute to liturgical action.
The major question, "What makes music sacred?" has been answered in these
pages a number of times (e.g., Vol. 107, No. 3 (Fall 1980); Vol. 112, No. 2
(Summer 1985). Last summer's symposium at Christendom College faced the
very same question which is basic to all church music. But just as basic is
the other major question, "What makes music art?" Involved in that is the
vast area of musical training and education. Only the trained musician can
answer what makes a given piece of music art. But many of the reformers
have stumbled into this area without the proper knowledge or experience. A
whole generation of poorly trained (or not trained at all) composers has
appeared, producing words and notes that many publishers continue to hawk
as sacred church music, even when most of it fails by both critera: it is
not sacred and it is not art. But it makes money! Some of it even parades
as hynms on Sundays in our parishes and more often in the seminaries.
To give an answer to the question, "What is sacred music?," we must answer
that it is the great treasury of music, written over the ages by the
greatest composers for use in the sung liturgy of the Roman Catholic
Church, beginning with the Gregorian melodies and continuing on through the
polyphonic pieces of the middle ages and the renaissance, up to the
orchestral settings of the last three centuries and into our own time; it
is simple for the singing congregation and more elaborate as the degree of
musicianship increases. Pope Pius XII in his encyclical, "Musicae sacrae
disciplina," beautifully summarized the role of sacred music.
"Thus, at the instance and under the sponsorship of the Church,
sacred music, through the course of centuries, has traversed a
long road by which, though sometimes slowly and laboriously, it
has finally reached the heights: from the simple and natural
Gregorian modes, which are, moreover, quite perfect in their
kind, to great and even magnificent works of art which not only
human voices, but also the organ and other musical instruments
embellish, adorn and amplify almost endlessly. Just as this
progress in the art of music shows clearly how dear to the heart
of the Church it was to make divine worship more resplendent and
appealing to Christian peoples, so too it made clear why the
Church also must, from time to time, impose a check lest its
proper purposes be exceeded and lest, along with the true
progress, an element profane and alien to divine worship creep
into sacred music and corrupt it."
Would that we might put into practice what Pope Pius XII called for and
what the fathers of the II Vatican Council decreed, basing so much of their
document on the great encyclical of Christmas 1955.