Jun 15, 2009

Music through the Ages

Online Edition: June – July 2009

Vol. XV, No. 4

Music through the Ages

What history can teach us about sacred music today

by Susan Benofy

Review of Catholic Music through the Ages: Balancing the Needs of a Worshipping Church by Edward Schaefer (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2008)


“Musicians, permit me to say that there prevails now in the churches a type of singing that is new, but eccentric, fragmented, dancing, and certainly not very religious; more suitable to the theater and to the dance than to the Temple. It seeks the superficial, and it has lost the primary goal of prayer and song.”

This assessment of the state of Church music sounds very much like criticism of sacred music we might read in current periodicals or internet discussions. But it is a critique of the liturgical music of 400 years ago by the ascetic writer Drexilius (1581-1638), and was later quoted by Pope Benedict XIV in his 1749 encyclical Annus Qui analyzing the problems of liturgical music in his own day.

More recently it was quoted by Edward Schaefer in his book Catholic Music through the Ages: Balancing the Needs of a Worshipping Church.

Dr. Schaefer is Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs for the College of Fine Arts at the University of Florida, though for many years he taught at Gonzaga University in Spokane, where he directed a schola for a regular sung Mass on campus, as well as for a seminary, a parish and a cathedral.

Since the Church has been dealing with the problems of inappropriate liturgical music throughout most of her history, Schaefer contends that the principles by which the reform of liturgical music was accomplished in past centuries should be applied to reform today.

In his search for these principles, Schaefer devotes a large portion of the book to a survey of the history of sacred music. He begins with the development of Gregorian chant, explaining that historically the primary form of Mass was the Missa cantata or sung Mass. Consequently, the chants are musical settings of the words of the Mass itself and are thus truly integral to the sacred liturgy.

Schaefer explains each part of the Mass Ordinary (unchanging texts) and Proper (variable texts), describing their function and the type of music in the official settings. He stresses the unique combination of musical characteristics possessed by chant:

In as much as the liturgy is a most uncommon event, chant, that is, the music that is uniquely bound to the liturgy both musically and historically, is also the only music that can accentuate the exceptional place that the liturgy holds in the life of every Catholic by means of the exceptional commingling of musical characteristics that it enjoys. (p. 36)

Schaefer also discusses the development of later forms of Church music: the development of polyphony, the Renaissance, the period of the Enlightenment, and the first half of the twentieth century. In each of these four eras he considers the characteristics of the secular culture (Humanism, the Enlightenment, Modernism) and how they led to developments in music that were not always compatible with the liturgy. In each of these eras, then, the Church had to undertake a reform of liturgical music, determining what traits of the new music were in keeping with its liturgical role and eliminating what was inappropriate.

This part of the book serves as an introduction to the treasury of sacred music. Specific musical examples are mentioned throughout the text, each accompanied by a recorded track. An appendix contains complete information about these recordings, which span the history of sacred music from Gregorian chant to the twentieth century, and includes texts in the original language (usually Latin) and English translations. The tracks are also available in mp3 format at Schaefer’s web site, www.edwardschaefer.net.

Schaefer notes that the Second Vatican Council did not intend a radical reform. Rather, in continuity with the historic development of the liturgy, the Council gave “pride of place” to Gregorian chant, required that new forms develop organically from older ones, and insisted on the preservation of the treasury of sacred music, while also encouraging new compositions with the qualities proper to sacred music.

The discontinuity that in practice followed the Council can be attributed in part to the overemphasis on one function of music, which Schaefer calls “expressive” at the expense of its “formative” function:

Music integrates both the expressive and the formative. It has the power to express who we are, and the ability to shape us into something beyond our present state.…

Also, we have always viewed this dual nature as an ordered one. The formative aspect of music has always been regarded, at some level, as the higher nature of music or as the ultimate goal for its use. (p. 21)

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), recognized music’s formative power, both in saying that music contributes to the “sanctification of the people” (SC 112) and with its insistence that texts to be sung during the liturgy “should be drawn chiefly from the Sacred Scripture and from liturgical sources”. (SC 118, 121)

Because of the strong emphasis on the external aspects of liturgical participation since the Council, however, there has been an almost exclusive focus on music’s expressive function, with no clear connection to Gregorian chant or any sacred style of the past. According to Schaefer:

It is a music that rejects Tradition as a key element of our faith, and that dismisses the formative capacities of chant, the sung liturgy, and artistic music. Our current music, with its strong emphasis on the popular, is highly expressive of who we are as individuals at this point in time and in very specific locales, but not particularly focused toward connecting us with anything more. (p. 167)

In his discussion of how this departure from tradition came about. Schaefer notes that documents from the Holy See such as the 1967 Instruction Musicam Sacram (MS) and the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) maintain continuity with the past, respecting the distinction between a sung and a read Mass.

In particular MS treated the reforms of Vatican II as a continuation of those reforms of Pope Pius X and his successors, not as a radical departure from them.

However, the document from the US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, Music in Catholic Worship (MCW), Schaefer observes, “broke radically from the tradition of local documents reinforcing and explicating the instructions and mandates of their Roman counterparts”. (p. 145) He believes that MCW “is largely responsible for the present-day abandonment of the historical principles that guided musical reforms until today” (p. 168); in particular because MCW denies that there is any useful distinction between a sung Mass (Missa cantata) and a read Mass (Missa lectus).

The MCW model is a read Mass with some singing, replacing the Propers with songs or hymns — many of which are theologically deficient. But, as Schaefer points out, even when the texts are acceptable, hymns and songs are not an integral part of the Mass, as the Propers are.

They are, in fact, little more than the reflections of the personal piety and taste of the individual who happens to select them. Overall, this practice contributed just as much as the practice of inserting musical acclamations to highlight certain moments of importance to the overall notion that music is rather peripheral at Mass, something inserted into the Mass but not particularly intrinsic to it — just the exact opposite of the goal of the Council. (pp. 173-174)

The recent USCCB document Sing to the Lord, which replaces MCW, resolves some of the conflicts between MCW and MS, but does not succeed in eliminating them entirely. If liturgical reform is to maintain continuity with the tradition of the Church, Schaefer believes, MS and historical principles of reform must be given more weight.

From his survey of the history of the development of liturgical music in the earlier chapters Schaefer extracts three principles common to these previous reforms:

1. Even though musical change is perhaps inevitable, new music should always embrace and exhibit long-established core values for the Church’s music;
2. These long-established values, even if somewhat difficult to quantify, are most perfectly embodied in Gregorian chant, Gregorian chant being defined both explicitly as a specific body of Medieval monophonic music and implicitly as a way of praying the liturgy;
3. Any music employed in the service of the liturgy should be music of the highest artistic quality. (p. 159)

These three principles have been constant throughout the history of the Church.

The Church has adhered to these three principles from century to century as she has navigated the waters of change in her music. They have played a consistent role in defining how we express who we are and how we form ourselves into whom we are called to be. Unless we are prepared to break all ties with the way we have expressed ourselves and formed ourselves for the better part of two millennia, these principles must be at the basis of any serious considerations regarding the future. (pp. 163-164)

Based on these principles, Schaefer suggests several steps that can be taken to improve liturgical music in parishes.

The first step, he believes, is to overcome the current emphasis on music’s expressive power by giving more attention to its formative power. Since the Council there has been a sort of “cafeteria” approach to liturgical music directives, following some and ignoring others in the interest of being “pastoral”. But real reform will require submitting ourselves completely to the directives of the Church.

The second step is returning chant to its “pride of place” in the liturgy and reestablishment of the sung Mass, including singing the Propers. Schaefer believes the technical means are available to reach this goal, but that cultural resistance will be a problem. Still, the Missa cantata ought to be the goal toward which a parish strives, even if only small steps toward it can be taken at first.

If our liturgical reforms regarding music are ever to claim a true sense of authenticity, they must be based on the historical model for public worship, of which the Missa cantata is a direct descendent, rather than the historical model for private worship, from which we have received the Missa lecta. (p. 181)

The third step is a rededication to the value of artistic music, especially Gregorian chant. Even the addition of very simple chants would raise the artistic level of the music in the typical parish. They are not difficult to sing, but again Schaefer predicts there will be resistance.

We have for the better part of the last two generations encouraged and even inculcated principles of relativism with regard to musical judgment that declare there are no qualitative absolutes. As difficult as it will be to do, the current doctrines that claim all musical styles are qualitatively equal must be exposed for the rationalization of poor quality and often egocentric music that they are. While we will certainly never be able to equal the quality of God’s gift to us, we must never allow that truth to prevent us from giving Him our best. (p. 182)

Though the Church has never developed a perfect solution to the problem of inappropriate music for the liturgy, she has always striven for perfection. Schaefer gives practical advice on how to achieve appropriate reform in various situations, based on his wide practical experience in liturgical music. He concludes:

[J]ust as it is through forming ourselves to Christ that we will come to fulfill our calling “to manifest Christ to others”, so too will our understanding of the formative power of music lead us to make choices about music that will allow our music to fulfill its full role in our liturgical lives. Our choices about music must be rooted in a deep appreciation of music’s ability to shape who we are, what we believe and, therefore, the way we enter the liturgy: so that we might be revived in Christ’s love of us and our lives more deeply rooted in Him. Indeed, this may be the single most important concept to be gleaned from this text. (pp. 203-204)

This book was commissioned for use in seminaries to give future pastors a sense of the history of the role of music in the Church and practical advice for use of music in the liturgy today. It would also be an excellent resource for study of Church music at the college level — and would be especially useful for both catechesis and practical action in any parish trying to bring to its liturgy the “true and suitable sacred music” that is “the right of the community of Christ’s faithful” (Redemptionis Sacramentum 57).


Susan Benofy is research editor for the Adoremus Bulletin.



Susan Benofy

Susan Benofy received her doctorate in physics from Saint Louis University. She was formerly Research Editor of Adoremus Bulletin.