Externals of the Catholic Church – Church Music

It is eminently proper that man, in his worship of God, should render to Him all that is most sublime and most beautiful. His homage can be expressed not only in words but in sweet sounds. In every form of worship since the world began, his natural devotional instinct urged him to honor Divinity by means of music as well as by the other arts, and to heighten his religious exaltation by the chanting of hymns and the sound of musical instruments.

All true religious music is an exalted prayer – an effective expression of religious feeling. In nearly all rites, whether Jewish, pagan or Christian, the elements of public worship have been sacrifice, prayer, ceremonies, chanting and instrumental music. In Catholic worship these elements constitute an organic whole, in which, however, music forms a part only on solemn occasions; and in order that it may be fittingly used it must be in accord with the regulations of proper authority.

An Auxiliary to Worship

Church music has, in common with secular music, the combination of tones in melody and harmony, the variation as to rhythm, measure and time, the distribution of power (known as dynamics), tone-color in voice and instrumentation, and the simpler and more complex styles of composition. All these, however, must be well adapted to the service at which they are used, to the words of the hymn or prayer, and to the devotion of the heart; otherwise they are unfit for use in the house of God. They must be calculated to edify the faithful, and must not be in any way opposed to the spirit of true worship. Music must be an auxiliary to the other means of giving honor to God; and if it be so it does not interfere with the Church’s ceremonies or detract from their religious spirit, but, on the contrary, it imparts to them the greatest splendor and effectiveness. Appropriate music raises man above the sordid world, directs his mind and heart to the sacred words and ceremonies of his Church’s worship, and fills him with a spirit of exalted devotion. Realizing this, our Church has indeed made her music appropriate to the spirit of her services, adapting it to the nature of the religious functions at which it is used, to the season of the ecclesiastical year and to the solemnity of the feast – making it grand and exultant on festivals of joy, and mournful in seasons of penance and in services for the dead.

In Jewish Worship

Under the Old Law music formed a prominent feature in the Jewish rites, and this was in compliance with the commands of God Himself. Religious songs of victory are mentioned in the books of Exodus and Judges; and later on the ceremonial was enriched by David with hymns and the use of instruments, and reached its highest development under his son Solomon in the sublime ritual practised in the great temple of Jerusalem.

In the Early Church. We know very little concerning the music of the primitive Christian Church. On account of many circumstances that Church was restricted in its religious manifestations, for the greater part of the first three centuries was a time of bitter persecution, when Christians worshipped God in secret and in peril of their lives. Tertullian tells us, however, that in his day psalms were sung in the divine service, and the pagan Pliny knew that Christians honored their God before dawn by the chanting of hymns. The extensive use of music in church ceremonies came later, and is to be largely attributed to Saint Ambrose, the great Bishop of Milan, who introduced the singing of psalms “after the manner of the East.” Under the fostering care of our Church sacred music developed most wonderfully during the succeeding centuries.

Saint Jerome, who seldom failed to criticize when criticism was needed, speaks of singers of his day in words to which some of our modern choirs and church soloists may well hearken: “Let the servant of God sing in such manner that the words of the text rather than the voice of the singer may cause delight, and that the evil spirit of Saul may depart from those that are under its dominion, and may not enter into those who make a theatre of the house of the Lord.” Can it be possible that the prophetic soul of the Saint foresaw the evils of some of the church music of today, wherein hymns to the Blessed Sacrament are chanted to the dulcet strains of “Juanita,” and the sublime words of the Credo are sung to the liveliest melodies of Offenbach?

The Organ

The majestic tones of the organ have been considered from very early times to be particularly appropriate for religious services. The word “organ” is used occasionally in the Old Testament, but is somewhat of a mistranslation; in Jewish worship it signified any kind of wind instrument, as a pipe or trumpet, for organs resembling those of the present day did not then exist.

Nothing is known as to the exact date of the introduction of organ music into Catholic services. Saint Augustine speaks of it as being in use in his time, and gives testimony to the delight he experienced in listening to it; he even seems to reproach himself because of the pleasure derived from it, asking himself whether it would not be perhaps more perfect to deny himself that gratification.

There is no authority whatever for the legend that the organ was invented by Saint Cecilia, although modem art often depicts the Roman virgin-martyr seated at the keyboard of such an instrument. Probably in her day organs did not exist in any form, and the present form of keyboard was not devised until fully a thousand years later.

The organ was, in fact, the invention of many minds, and centuries were required for its development. It was evolved from the syrinx, or set of pipes bound together, such as we see represented in pictures of the pagan god Pan. A wind-box and bellows were attached, and the various pipes were caused to sound by means of a sliding perforated plate. This is said by some to have been invented by a certain Ctesibius. A hydraulic organ, in which the bellows were actuated by water, is mentioned by Tertullian, who attributed the idea to the famous Archimedes.

In the year 757 Constantine V, one of the Byzantine Emperors, sent an organ as a gift to Pepin, King of France, and another was sent later to his son Charlemagne.

The Development of the Organ

It was undoubtedly the giving of these instruments to these great monarchs of the West that led to the general introduction of them into the service of the Church throughout Europe. A great organ with four hundred pipes and twenty-six bellows was built at Winchester, in England, in 951. From the eleventh century organs were used generally in cathedrals and monastic churches, although the idea was opposed by some great teachers of the Church, notably Saint Thomas Aquinas. A vigorous effort was made to have legislation passed against them at the Council of Trent, but a majority of the bishops voted otherwise, and the Council simply enacted that the music should be grave and devotional. Similar injunctions were made by Benedict XIV in 1749, and strict regulations were put into effect a few years ago by the “Motu Proprio” of Pius X, which will be discussed further on.

Among the early Protestant denominations there was much discussion and dissension regarding the use of organs. The Lutherans and Anglicans retained them, but many other sects banished them from their churches. At the present day, however, many of even the stricter Methodist and Presbyterian branches have introduced them again, in an endeavor to add some attractiveness to their cold and barren ritual.

To proceed with the account of the organ’s development: The blowing of the bellows, even for the largest instruments, was done by hand for many centuries. The Winchester organ mentioned above required seventy men, working in relays. The simple device of weighting the bellows was discovered only at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Portable organs were in use in the tenth century, and a little later the kind known as reed organs, using vibrating metal tongues instead of pipes, came into use. Organs with two or more manuals or keyboards were constructed about the year 1350, and soon afterwards the device known as the coupler was introduced, by which when a key is depressed a corresponding key is pulled down on another keyboard. The pedal keys, played with the feet, date back to the fourteenth century, but the invention which gives the organ its greatest effectiveness, namely the stops, was probably brought into use only about the year 1500. The enclosing of a part of the organ in a box with movable shutters, known as the swell, by moving which the volume of sound is diminished or increased, was the invention of a Londoner named Jordan, in 1712.

Orchestras in Churches

Are musical instruments, other than the organ, allowed in church services? Yes, under certain restrictions. After the introduction of the organ it alone was used for some centuries as an accompaniment to the solemn chanting of the choir. The nature of the organ is to a great extent a protection against its misuse. Its resonance and fullness lend themselves admirably to the majesty of the divine service. It can be sweeping and powerful, or delicate and sweet; but its tone is always more appropriate for sacred music than the combined tones of the brass and wind instruments of an orchestra. After the sixteenth century, and possibly earlier in some places, orchestral instruments found entrance into some churches, but laws were soon passed against them on account of the frivolous and sensuous character of the music produced by means of them. At the present day, as a result of the legislation contained in the “Motu Proprio” of Pius X, they may be used only by permission of the bishop and within due limits.

The Gregorian Chant

This is the distinctive song of the Church, the interpreter in melody of her prayerful devotion. It is so called from its great founder, Saint Gregory the Great, and is also known by the names of Plain, Roman or Choral Chant. It is a grave melody, usually solemn in nature, sung in unison – that is, without harmonizing parts – set to the rhythm of the words, and without strictly measured time. As prayer is an utterance by the believing heart, expressing its faith, so the chant, which is the more solemn mode of liturgical prayer, owes to faith its power and its beauty.

The leading characteristics of the Gregorian Chant are its melody, its tone and its rhythm. Concerning the first of these, the Church, strictly speaking, authorizes in her liturgy no other music than pure melody; that is, the singers always chant in unison and at the same pitch. Voices of different pitch singing in harmonic chords may indeed be tolerated; but, however beautiful the effect, the Church does not consider such music appropriate to the sacred chant, with the exception of the so-called “Palestrina music,” which will be alluded to further on.

The melody of the Gregorian Chant is at the same time recitative and meditative; it recites the words of the text and meditates upon them. Sometimes it proceeds with great despatch, as in the singing of the psalms, usually assigning one note for each syllable; at other times it dwells upon the words, pouring out its meaning in rich and musical cadences, based rhythmically upon the syllables of the liturgical words. It is thereby accommodated to the spirit of the Church’s services – now dwelling on the sacred word in sustained meditation, now sending forth a rapid current of melodious praise.

The Beauty of the Chant

As regards the tone used, the ecclesiastical chant is full of variety, for it was created for the purpose of beautifying the Church’s services, which are of many kinds. Adoration, thanksgiving, supplication, sorrow, joy and triumph find in the Gregorian tones their fitting expression. The melody accommodates itself to the word and phrase, to the spirit of the Church, and to the nature of the prayer and praise which are being offered to God. Whether it be the Gloria, the jubilant song of the Angels – the Credo, which is the Church’s public act of faith – the Sanctus, in which we here on earth join in adoration with the celestial spirits – the Agnus Dei, the appeal for mercy addressed to Him Who has taken away sin – the Libera, which is the intercessory prayer for the faithful departed – in each of these the spirit of the words and the devotion of the Church are brought out clearly by the grand and simple melodies of the Gregorian Chant. How beautiful in its solemn and reverential strains is the Preface of the Mass, in which the priest offers the Church’s thanksgiving and homage before the throne of God! How replete with sadness and sorrow is the chant of the Lamentations in the office of Holy Week! How expressive of fear and desolation are the mournful notes of the “Dies Irae”! All these varying moods of the Church’s praise and prayer are portrayed in the Gregorian Chant without any of the artifices of vocal or instrumental harmonizing that are employed in secular music. Its melodies have sprung from the minds of Saints, singing from the inspiration of the Spirit of God.

The simple Gregorian Chant was considered by the composer Halevy “the most beautiful religious melody that exists on earth.” Mozart, who wrote many Masses of great merit and beauty, declared that he would gladly exchange all his musical reputation for the fame of having composed the Preface of the Mass.

As to rhythm, the Gregorian Chant differs from our modern music in that it follows the natural accenting of the words – that is, the longer notes are used for the accented syllables of the text, and there is no strict rule as to the time. Thus the melody of the Chant accentuates the meaning of the words of the liturgy, and does not becloud or conceal it, as is too often the case in secular music.

The Notation of the Chant

The admirable system now in use for the writing of all music originated in the chant of our Church. The ladder or scale of sound is represented to the eye by a pictorial ladder of rounds or steps, called a staff. In the Gregorian Chant four lines and three intervening spaces are used; in modem musical notation this has been increased to five lines and four spaces.

In the Gregorian staff the seven steps correspond to the seven different notes of the musical octave, and if any of these is defined by having assigned to it the pitch and name of one of the sounds of the octave, all the rest thereby receive their pitch and name. This defining is done by means of two signs called “clefs,” that is, keys – representing the notes “do” and “fa,” prefixed to any line of the staff.

The Gregorian Chant uses notes differing in form from those used in ordinary musical notation – a square note, called “brevis,” or short; a square note with a tail, called “longa,” or long; and a diamond-shaped note called “semi-brevis,” having about half the value of the square note. Unlike the notes in modern music, these Gregorian notes have no strictly measured value; the sense of the words and the spirit of the season cause the text to be sung rapidly or slowly, and the music of the chant is merely intended to aid in expressing such sense and spirit.

The History of the Gregorian Chant

It is probable that some of the psalm-tunes of our Church are derived from those used in the worship of the Old Law. The Apostles, who had been members of the Jewish Church, were the founders of the Christian Church; and it fs reasonable to suppose that the chant, as well as the words, was preserved by them and handed on to their successors.

As soon as the Church was freed from persecution we find her occupied in establishing due uniformity in her liturgy. Pope Damasus, about the year 380, decreed that the psalms should be chanted by alternate choirs (as is done at the present day in monastic churches), and that the Gloria Patri should be added to each. Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, was one of the great founders of the system of church music. Saint Augustine gives testimony to the beauty of the Ambrosian chant. “The sweet song of Thy Church stirred and penetrated my being; the voices streamed into my ears and caused truth to flow into my heart.” But it is to Saint Gregory the Great, Pope from 590 to 604, that we are principally indebted for the beautiful harmonies that have since borne the name of Gregorian. He is said to have discovered the octave as the naturally complete succession of sounds, to have distinguished the various notes by means of letters, and to have added many new chants to those already in use.

The idea of the staff of four lines and of the movable clefs is due to a Benedictine monk, Guido d’Arezzo, in the eleventh century. He also is said to have given the names to the first six notes of the octave. The note “do” was originally called “ut,” and the six names are taken from the Vesper hymn of the feast of Saint John the Baptist:

UT queant laxis REsonare fibris
MIra gestorum FAmuli tuorum,
SOLve polluti LAbii reatum,
Sancte Joannes.

As the centuries went on, the beauty and solemnity of the chant of the Church were impaired in many ways – by the growing use of measured rhythm, thereby making the words subordinate to the music – by the introduction of counterpoint or harmony, with its seductive beauty – and by the mingling in the liturgy of popular worldly music, both vocal and instrumental. Therefore at the Council of Trent, in the sixteenth century, the reform of church music was considered, and a little later, by authority of Paul V, the “Graduale Romanum” was printed, the great work of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

The Music of Palestrina

This greatest of all composers of religious music was born in Italy about 1510. He was for some years a member of the papal choir, and afterwards of those of the churches of Saint John Lateran and Saint Mary Major. He was a friend of Saint Philip Neri, and gained from him that insight into the spirit of the liturgy that enabled him to send it forth in music as it had never been done before. He made his compositions the medium for the expression of the state of his own soul, trained by his companionship with one of the greatest of modem saints.

After the Council of Trent, Saint Pius V entrusted the reform of church music to a commission of Cardinals, among whom was Saint Charles Borromeo. This holy and learned prelate became acquainted with Palestrina and with his music, and recognized that the latter was admirably adapted to the Church’s liturgy. Masses, hymns and psalm-tunes were produced in great numbers by the gifted composer. His complete works comprise no less than thirty-three volumes. The distinguishing features of his music are the absence of all themes resembling secular melodies or reminiscent of them, and the rejection of musical forms that would obscure the liturgical text. His creations will stand forth for all time as the embodiment of the devotional spirit of the Church. To him belongs the double glory of having restored the sacred chant to its former grand and simple beauty, and of introducing harmonized music of such power and expressiveness that it became a proper accompaniment to Christian devotion.

Pius X on Church Music

This great Pope, who wrought so many changes in spiritual matters in the Church, and whose pontificate will go into history as an era of religious awakening, issued a decree in 1903, known as the “Motu Proprio” – which words signify “of his own accord,” indicating that the Pontiff acted without consultation with Cardinals or others. This decree states clearly what Church music should be. “Sacred music should possess in the highest degree the qualities proper to the liturgy. It must be holy, and must therefore exclude all worldliness.” The Holy Father declared that “the Church has always recognized and honored progress in the arts, admitting to the service of religion everything good and beautiful discovered by genius in the course of ages. Consequently modern music is also admitted in the Church, since it oftentimes affords compositions of such excellence, sobriety and gravity that they are in no way unworthy of liturgical functions. But care must be taken that musical compositions in this style contain nothing worldly, be free from reminiscences of theatrical motifs, and be not fashioned after the manner of secular pieces.” Music in church must be in conformity with the spirit of divine worship. It must be Church music, not theatrical. Marches, operatic airs, ambitious solos and the crash of instruments are out of place in the worship of God, and the melodies that bring memories of the theatre and the concert hall are nothing but a distraction to those who wish to pray.

According to the “Motu Proprio,” the liturgical text must be sung as it is in the books of the Church, without alteration or transposing of the words, without undue repetition, and in an intelligible manner. The day of the two score Amens has gone by, and the endless and meaningless repeating of disconnected phrases of the Gloria or Credo is also, happily, a thing of the past.

Singing by the People

Pius X expressed himself as warmly in favor of congregational singing within proper limits; but it was his will that this should be largely the singing of the Gregorian Chant. Hymns in other languages than Latin may not be substituted at Mass, although they are permitted at some other services. In the “Motu Proprio” the Pontiff said: “Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in early times.”

The History of Congregational Singing

We may consider this important matter with reference to its history, its revival at the present time, and the results of that revival.

The first testimony as to this ancient practice is found in the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Ephesians: “Speak to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual canticles, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord.” This is understood by commentators as referring to congregational singing in the religious meetings of the faithful. In these services of the primitive Church both sexes took part in the singing. Although Saint Paul had ordered that women should keep silence in church, his words applied only to instructing or exhorting. And in the times of persecution, as already stated, the Christians were accustomed to use psalms and hymns in the worship of God.

Saint Ambrose introduced the practice of congregational singing from the East into his diocese of Milan, and it soon spread throughout the Western Church. For many centuries Latin was used exclusively, but in later times rhyming hymns in the language of the country came into vogue in some parts of Europe. The frequent pilgrimages and the religious plays subsequently fostered such singing among the people.

After a time, in some parts of the Church, decrees were passed against such singing. At the Council of Laodicea, in the fourth century, it was declared that “besides the appointed singers who mount the ambo and sing from the book, others shall not sing in the church.” The ambo was the raised platform from which the lectors read the Scriptures to the people, and on which the chanters sang. The reason for this decree was that the unskillful singing of the people interfered with the harmony of the chanters. However, it did not come into force everywhere. Centuries later, especially after the Reformation, the use of the language of the country became rather common, particularly in Germany.

The second Plenary Council of Baltimore, in 1866, urged pastors to have the elements of the Gregorian Chant taught in the schools, so that “the number of those who can sing the chant well may be increased, and that the greater part of the people shall thus learn to sing Vespers and the like with the ministers and the choir.” The same wish was expressed by the third Plenary Council of Baltimore, in 1884.

These words show us that the people are to be instructed in the Gregorian Chant – that is, to take part in the liturgical offices of the Church, such as High Mass, Vespers and Benediction. Congregational singing at low Masses and at other services has always been practised more or less in some of our churches. It is to be hoped, therefore, that means will be found to teach the people to sing the “Ordinary of the Mass” in plain chant – namely, the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, besides the various responses, leaving the changeable parts, such as the Introit, Offertory and Communion, to the trained choir; and also to sing the psalms and hymns at Vespers, the changing antiphons to be chanted by the choir.

Well-ordered singing by the people is assuredly edifying and devotional, although it is not the aim of the Church to teach them to sing rather than to pray. The problem, however, is full of difficulty, especially as regards our American people, who, as a class, cannot be considered musical.

This, then, is a brief and necessarily imperfect account of the music of our Church, which adds so much beauty and grandeur to her solemn services. Daily in monasteries and convent chapels the Divine Office is sung by those who have given their lives to God. All over the world, Sunday after Sunday, the praise of God is sent up before His throne in sacred song. In grand cathedrals the diapason of great organs fills the house of God with mighty harmonies. In parish churches and in mission chapels the homage of the faithful is offered to their Lord in the sweet and simple melody of the sacred chant.

When we listen to such earthly harmonies, well may we hope that one day we may hear that perfect sacred music to which these are only a prelude – the chanting of the Seraphim who offer their homage of song and praise before the eternal throne of God.