Vol. XX, No. 6
Nicola A. Montani and the Catholic Liturgical Revival of the Early 20th Century
by Lucy Carroll
As the nineteenth century folded into the twentieth, Catholic church music was in need of renewal. Chant was either non-existent or romanticized, and the music for the liturgy closely drew on the style of the time: overly ornate, dramatic, sometimes overly sentimental.
In 1903 Pope Saint Pius X issued Tra le sollecitudini [Among the concerns], a motu proprio that restored Gregorian chant, reaffirmed the use of Latin, and greatly restricted musical style and instrumental usage for nearly sixty years. Of the many composers who rose to the challenge of restoring chant and composing new works in a more sedate and sacred style, one of the most prolific was Nicola Aloysius Montani.
Montani earned a respected reputation as a composer, conductor, arranger, editor, hymnist, and publisher. His St. Gregory Hymnal is still in use in some areas today, particularly in the Philadelphia area, where he founded the Society of St. Gregory and the St. Gregory Guild. Indeed, he was considered one of the most important names in American Catholic choral music for the first half of the twentieth century.
Nicola Montani was born in Utica, New York, on November 6, 1880. Four years later, his family moved to Indianapolis. The family, a large one, formed its own orchestra, with Nicola playing cornet. Later he studied piano and organ, and in his teens he accepted the position of choirmaster of St. Anthony’s Church.
In 1903, using money he had earned playing music, he left to study music in Rome, arriving there during the ferment caused by Tra le Sollecitudini, Pope St. Pius X’s motu proprio that urged church music reform. This was to guide his entire career in church music, dictate his style of composition, and be the motivating force in all his musical endeavors.
While in Rome, he studied at the Conservatory of St. Cecilia. He studied chant with Monsignor Antonio Rella, composition with Don Lorenzo Perosi, and organ with noted organist and composer Filippo Capocci. During the summer of 1904 Montani attended a school organized by Father Michael Moloney, given by the then-exiled Solesmes monks on the Isle of Wight.
He returned to the United States in 1906, settling in Philadelphia. His musical career immediately became a busy and diverse one. From 1906 to 1923, he was organist and choirmaster at St. John the Evangelist on 13th Street. He was choral director at Hallahan High School, West Philadelphia Catholic Girls High School, and St. Mary’s Academy. He served as editor-in-chief of liturgical music for both G. Schirmer Music Publishers and the Boston Music Company.
In 1907 he married Catherine Sherwood, a singer who trained the boys choir at St. John’s. Together they published Essentials of Sight Singing and The Art of A Cappella Singing.
In 1914 Montani founded the Society of St. Gregory in America, the aim of which was “primarily to further the liturgical revival inaugurated by Saint Pius X in his motu proprio of 1903.”1 The society’s magazine was The Catholic Choirmaster, and Montani himself was editor for more than twenty-five years, until persistent ill health forced him to resign in 1942. He continued to teach, commuting as far as Immaculate Conception seminary in Darlington, New Jersey.
He often spoke of the need for a good Catholic hymnal, and in 1920 he produced one. He edited and arranged many hymns, included chant and full service rituals, with many original works. He called it The St. Gregory Hymnal in the hope that the society would publish it.2 The society, however, had no such funds, so he established the St. Gregory Guild, a business venture entirely separate from the society, solely to publish the hymnal. The guild later published other important documents and music. The hymnal was one of the first to have a version printed in Braille.
Montani was driven by the spirit of reform. At times he took it to extremes. In 1919, the society prepared a White List of music recommended for Catholic choral and organ use which “in the opinion of the members of the said committee, conforms to the standards set up by the Sovereign Pontiffs and ecclesiastical legislation.”3
It is necessary to know the directives of Pius X’s motu proprio to understand Montani and his life and works. He and the society went by the absolute letter of the law.
The motu proprio stated that the Latin text was to be clear and uniform, solos were only to be within the context of a choral composition, a true liturgical choir was to be composed of men and boys only, and the primary musical medium was choir with organ accompaniment. No piano or “Noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells and the like”4 or bands should be heard in church.
Pius X stated that the music must have “sanctity and goodness of form” and be “holy” in its composition and performance — a nebulous decree at best. It further stated that chant was primary, with poly-phony to be encouraged. As to modern music, it had to “… contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theaters, and be not fashioned even in their external forms, after the manner of profane pieces.”5
Pius X prescribed Gregorian chant not just for choirs, but for the faithful: “Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices.”6
Since chant had been rather non-existent for some time, this was difficult, and materials were scarce. Montani’s hymnal, putting the chants into modern and accompanied notation, made chant accessible to all church choirs. (Today we are experiencing the same situation in trying to restore chant, despite the fact that materials are plentiful).
Pius X also praised and favored polyphonic works which had mostly disappeared in the late romantic era.
In his 1903 motu proprio, we were told:
… it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical office and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir. Whenever, then, it is desired to employ the acute voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church.7
The employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells and the like … only in special cases with the consent of the Ordinary will it be permissible to admit wind instruments … [that must] conform, in all respects to that proper to the organ.8
However, by the 1955 Musicae Sacrae of Pope Pius XII, much of this had been modified. Other chants, such as Ambrosian, Gallican, Mozarabic, and various Eastern chants were also recommended. And Pius XII reminded everyone that:
Where it is impossible to have schools of singers or where there are not enough choir boys, it is allowed that a group of men and women or girls, located in a place outside the sanctuary set apart for the exclusive use of this group, can sing the liturgical texts at Solemn Mass, as long as the men are completely separated from the women and girls and everything unbecoming is avoided.9
Today most of that still applies. As to musical instruments, the pipe organ was preferred, though the piano restriction was never specifically lifted. Men and women can now sit together in choir. The goal of music that is sacred in nature rather than profane is still to be fostered.
Several years ago I played for a wedding at Montani’s church, St. John the Evangelist. The pipe organ was gone, replaced by a baby grand piano and a small little electronic keyboard. How sad that this once-center for grand organ-accompanied music had lost its pipe organ!
Before Pope Pius X’s motu proprio the music in many churches had become very dramatic and services took on the nature of concerts. Thus Pius X had also given these pronouncements: hymns and psalms were to be used in hymn form, not in a manner that the first strophe be, say, an adagio and the next a separate segment in allegro. The music had to be consistent. He also wrote that Vespers — if figured music rather than chant was used — must never be in the form of a concert, motet, or cantata.
With that document, the pope had wiped out years of music and a sort of musical inquisition followed. Many parishes ignored the decrees, and music of such “profane” composers as Albert RoSewig and Carlo Rossini continued to be sung.
But Montani and the Society took seriously the writings of Pius X:
Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.
It must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.
It must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.10
While this may appear very precise, it actually left quite a space for subjectivity. What is “true art”? What is “goodness of form”? Montani and the St. Gregory Society believed they knew the answers, and formulated a White List of music that, in their expertise and opinion, fit the qualifications for liturgical music as laid down in the motu proprio, Tra le sollecitudini.
In the “Preface to the Fourth Edition of the White List,” the Reverend John Selner, SS, DD, then-president of the Society of St. Gregory of America, defended their choices:
It should also be apparent to a musician of good taste and religious sense that trivial and paltry tunes cannot be sacred; that unusual and tortuous intervals are too distracting to be reverent; that trite and conventional progressions are, as a rule, wearisome and without the inspiration required of true prayer; that hysterical and dramatic music is out of place in the expression of the realities of religion; that aimless and unresolved dissonances are against the laws of nature and thoroughly inartistic. These he should see, are all failures to attain sanctity, goodness of form, and universality and certainly they do not have the movement, inspiration or savor of the supreme model, the Gregorian form.11
The White List was meant to encourage Catholic musicians to use music that was sacred in nature. In 1922 the Black List was published by the society. In it, and in reprints, the pieces listed were said to be “clearly antagonistic to the principles enunciated in the document issued by Pope Pius X” and later by Pope Pius XII.12
Of course, personal opinions were strong, and not everyone agreed. Montani’s voice was a strong one, and his determination to rid the liturgy of anything that even smelled of the profane was his driving force. Masses by Charles Gounod, August Durand, and Luigi Cherubini were black-listed, with many traditional hymn collections.
Works by Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Franz Schubert, Rossini, and Carl Maria von Weber were outlawed, although Montani wrote, “their musical value … does not enter into the question. The exception taken is their purely liturgical unfitness according to the principles outlined…”13
Other works outlawed by the society were Rossini’s Stabat Mater, the Ave Maria settings by Schubert, Bach/Gounod, Verdi, Mascagni, RoSewig, Lambillotte, and others; all works by P. Giorza, and such songs as O Promise Me. Also on the black list were the Wagner and Mendelssohn wedding marches.
Today we might say that the society went overboard. Of course, despite their best efforts, some of this music continued and continues. While Schubert did not write the Ave Maria as a sacred song (the original lyrics are from Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake), it is truly considered by many to be absolutely sacred in nature when used with the Latin Ave Maria words or even as an instrumental piece.
Montani then, was able to influence American Catholic musicians in their choice of music, and excluded some music widely considered sacred. Paradoxically, however, in his own St. Gregory Hymnal, he included arrangements of works of the Masters that he considered within the bounds of papal restriction — diluting them, simplifying them, making them accessible to the average church choir. He accepted the melodies, but not the accompaniments of the original pieces. One must question the artistic integrity of such radical revision.
His arrangements for choirs included works of Edward Grieg, Englebert Hump-erdinck (the opera composer, not the pop singer), Franz Schubert, Camille Saint-Saëns, Tomás Luis de Victoria, Theodore Dubois, Mozart, Heinrich Isaak, César Franck, Jacques Arcadelt, and Charles Gounod — all with his notation: “edited and arranged by NAM,” “adapted and arranged by NAM,” or, most popularly, “liturgically arranged by NAM.”
His whitewashing affected other works as well. Such pieces as the Schubert Ave Maria were published elsewhere with simple chordal accompaniment rather than with the original beautifully arpeggiated chords Schubert wrote, completely changing the character of the music. In doing this to the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria, the actual Bach part — the accompaniment that was originally a keyboard piece in its own right — disappeared. That left only Gounod’s melody. (Someone else had set the Ave Maria text to the melody.)
While he had a too-heavy hand, it is impossible to minimize the importance of Montani’s work and his influence among Catholic choirs. His St. Gregory Hymnal was a popular book in its time. It included “liturgically proper” music, with clear directions for the then-complicated rituals for Mass, Holy Week, Requiems, Installations, and so on.
The book enjoyed widespread use for more than forty years, until the vernacular Mass and other innovations led the society itself to close in 1964.14 Carroll Thomas Andrews prepared a much-abridged edition of the St. Gregory Hymnal in 1979, still available today through GIA Publications.
It is perplexing that Montani, who vehemently condemned the works of Paolo Giorza because “He did not change his style one iota when he put sacred words to these utterly secular melodies,”15 nonetheless did the very same thing himself. He included in his own hymnal an Ave Maria — that he noted to be “revised and full text added by NAM” — to a tune by Jacques Arcadelt that was once a secular French love song.16
As a composer, Montani’s medium was the organ-accompanied choir. His extensive knowledge of music literature made him an eclectic writer. His music was practical in conception, designed solely for church choir use. Most of his music could be used by differing combinations of voices.
In addition to his works published in his hymnal, the hymnal’s supplement, and the Catholic Choir Book (all combined into one in 1947), his choral compositions included such works as the Missa Ave Maris Stella for 2 or 4 voices; Missa Brevis for unison, 2, or 4 parts; Missa Regina Pacis for 2 equal voices, SAB, or SATB; Mass in Honor of St. Ambrose for 2 or 4 voices; the O Gloriosa Virginum collection, published by the St. Gregory Guild; Six Processional Hymns; Twenty Devotional Hymns in Honor of the Blessed Virgin; and many others. He also transcribed and harmonized Gregorian chants.
He also published a motet collection series of his own and others’ works, and the invaluable booklet The Correct Pronunciation of Latin According to the Roman Usage. (This writer had the opportunity to sing under the great choral conductor Robert Shaw who used the booklet and recommended it to all choral directors.)
Montani knew what was easily sing-able by choirs, for he had much experience directing them.
In 1915 his Palestrina Choir gave concerts of Renaissance music in Philadelphia and New York. They also recorded their concerts with Victor Records at a time when polyphony was not yet widely revived or sung by American choirs. He organized the Choral Festival of Catholic Choirs of Philadelphia and directed for the United States Sesquicentennial Celebration. He was one of fourteen committee chairmen for the celebration in 1926. Montani’s Missa Festiva received its first performance on January 9, 1926 at the sesquicentennial, sung by a choir of 1200 mixed voices.
Montani received much official recognition in his day. He was honored by Pope Benedict XV and later by Pope Pius XI, who named him a Knight Commander of the Order of St. Sylvester, with the added privilege of wearing the Count’s Cross.
After Montani retired, the Society of St. Gregory honored him with the first Liturgical Award in 1947. Seton Hall College granted him its first honorary Doctor of Music degree.
In 1915, Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Secretariat of State for his Holiness Pius XI, sent a papal commendation to Montani and the Society of St. Gregory, granting them special spiritual benefits.
At his death on January 11, 1948, Nicola Montani left behind an active Society of St. Gregory, along with a list of published works, guidelines and lists of music for Catholic services, and a fine personal reputation.
Writing of him in 1964, noted liturgical musician the Reverend John Selner said, “The name of Nicola Montani K.C.S.S. will remain forever a part of the history of church music in this country… I found myself inspired, not only by a dedicated musician, but by one of the finest Christian gentlemen one could ever know.”17
1 Higginson, J. Vincent. “A Brief History of the Society of St. Gregory,” The Catholic Choirmaster, L/4, (Winter 1964), p. 159.
2 Higginson, J. Vincent. “Nicola A. Montani and the Society of St. Gregory,” The Catholic Choir- master, L/4 (Winter 1964), p. 149.
3 The White List (Glen Rock, New Jersey: Society of St. Gregory, 1947 edition) p. 1.
4 Tra le sollecitudini Pope St. Pius X, November 22, 1903. §5 (adoremus.org/MotuProprio.html)
6 Ibid., §3.
7 Ibid., §13.
8 Ibid., §19, 20.
9 Pius XII, Musicae Sacrae (1955)
10 Tra le sollecitudini §1, 2.
11 The White List of the Society of St. Gregory of America (Glen Rock, NJ: Society of St. Gregory of America, 1961 [Fourth ed.]), p. 31. (This list is also accessible among the historical archives on the CMAA website: musicasacra.com)
12 Ibid., p. 86.
14 In 1964, leaders of the Society of St. Gregory and the Society of St. Cecilia decided to amalgamate the two organizations to create the new Church Music Association of America (CMAA).
15 The White List, p. 86.
16 St. Gregory Hymnal, 200 b.
17 Selner, John. “Golden Years,” The Catholic Choirmaster L/4 (Winter 1964), p. 146. Father Selner was seminary professor and a past president of the Society of St. Gregory. He helped launch the CMAA in 1964.
Lucy Carroll, DMA, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, has taught at Cabrini, Combs College of Music, and Westminster Choir College. She continues her work as Scholar in Residence at the Ephrata historic site. In addition to her essays on Catholic music for the Adoremus Bulletin Dr. Carroll is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoon featured in these pages.
Adoremus, Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy