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Qualities of Sacred Music & Gregorian Chant

Qualities of Sacred Music & Gregorian Chant

By Marco Melendez, Director of Music

Music in Sacred Liturgy: Realities of Vatican II

The documents cited below each speak of the use of music within the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. The documents span nearly one hundred years of declarations and papal edicts given to the Church by Popes and ecclesiastical authorities from both the Vatican and of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Each of these documents, beginning with the first by Pope Pius X, is built upon another. It is important to understand that while some changes were definitely made when Vatican II was implemented, that which was declared in a previous pontifical writing and which may not be addressed in a subsequent document, still remains the teaching of the Church. Therefore, one must begin with the writings of Pope Pius X in order to understand the fullness of how sacred music is utilized within the liturgical action of the Roman Catholic Church.

Together, we will identify and learn what the Church and Vatican II really said about music in the sacred liturgy.

Tra le Sollecitudini: Instruction on Sacred Music
Motu Proprio, St. Pope Pius X, Nov. 12, 1903
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.

But it must, at the same time, be universal in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.
These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity.

On these grounds Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.

The ancient traditional Gregorian Chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship, and the fact must be accepted by all that an ecclesiastical function loses none of its solemnity when accompanied by this music alone.

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, as was the case in ancient times.

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
Sacrosanctum Concilium, Pope Paul VI, Dec. 4, 1963
A Vatican II Document

116. The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.

Musicam Sacram: Instruction on Music in the Liturgy
A Vatican II Post Conciliar Document, March 5, 1967

50. In sung liturgical services celebrated in Latin:

A. Gregorian chant, as proper to the Roman liturgy, should be given pride of place, other things being equal. Its melodies, contained in the "typical" editions, should be used, to the extent that this is possible.

B. "It is also desirable that an edition be prepared containing simpler melodies, for use in smaller churches."

C. Other musical settings, written for one or more voices, be they taken from the traditional heritage or from new works, should be held in honor, encouraged and used as the occasion demands.

52. In order to preserve the heritage of sacred music and genuinely promote the new forms of sacred singing, "great importance is to be attached to the teaching and practice of music in seminaries, in the novitiates and houses of study of religious of both sexes, and also in other Catholic institutes and schools," especially in those higher institutes intended specially for this. Above all, the study and practice of Gregorian chant is to be promoted, because, with its special characteristics, it is a basis of great importance for the development of sacred music.

Sing to the Lord: Music for Divine Worship (NOT a Vatican II document)
Issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 14, 2007

67. “Sacred music is to be considered the more holy the more closely connected it is with the liturgical action, whether making prayer more pleasing, promoting unity of minds, or conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites.” This holiness involves ritual and spiritual dimensions, both of which must be considered within cultural context.

68. The ritual dimension of sacred music refers to those ways in which it is “connected with the liturgical action” so that it accords with the structure of the Liturgy and expresses the shape of the rite. The musical setting must allow the rite to unfold with the proper participation of the assembly and its ministers, without overshadowing the words and actions of the Liturgy.

69. The spiritual dimension of sacred music refers to its inner qualities that enable it to add greater depth to prayer, unity to the assembly, or dignity to the ritual. Sacred music is holy when it mediates the holiness of God and forms the Holy People of God more fully into communion with him and with each other in Christ.

70. The cultural context refers to the setting in which the ritual and spiritual dimensions come into play. Factors such as the age, spiritual heritage, and cultural and ethnic background of a given liturgical assembly must be considered. The choice of individual compositions for congregational participation will often depend on those ways in which a particular group finds it best to join their hearts and minds to the liturgical action.

71. With gratitude to the Creator for giving humanity such a rich diversity of musical styles, the Church seeks to employ only that which, in a given style, meets the ritual-spiritual demands of the Liturgy. In discerning the sacred quality of liturgical music, liturgical musicians will find guidance in music from the Church’s treasury of sacred music, which is of inestimable value and which past generations have found suitable for worship. They also should strive to promote a fruitful dialogue between the Church and the modern world.

72. “The Church recognizes Gregorian chant as being specially suited to the Roman Liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” Gregorian chant is uniquely the Church’s own music. Chant is a living connection with our forebears in the faith, the traditional music of the Roman rite, a sign of communion with the universal Church, a bond of unity across cultures, a means for diverse communities to participate together in song, and a summons to contemplative participation in the Liturgy.

73. The “pride of place” given to Gregorian chant by the Second Vatican Council is modified by the important phrase “other things being equal.” These “other things” are the important liturgical and pastoral concerns facing every bishop, pastor, and liturgical musician. In considering the use of the treasures of chant, pastors and liturgical musicians should take care that the congregation is able to participate in the Liturgy with song. They should be sensitive to the cultural and spiritual milieu of their communities, in order to build up the Church in unity and peace.

74. The Second Vatican Council directed that the faithful be able to sing parts of the Ordinary of the Mass together in Latin.70 In many worshiping communities in the United States, fulfilling this directive will mean introducing Latin chant to worshipers who perhaps have not sung it before. While prudence, pastoral sensitivity, and reasonable time for progress are encouraged to achieve this end, every effort in this regard is laudable and highly encouraged.

75. Each worshiping community in the United States, including all age groups and all ethnic groups, should, at a minimum, learn Kyrie XVI, Sanctus XVIII, and Agnus Dei XVIII, all of which are typically included in congregational worship aids. More difficult chants, such as Gloria VIII and settings of the Credo and Pater Noster, might be learned after the easier chants have been mastered.

76. “The assembly of the faithful should participate in singing the Proper of the Mass as much as possible, especially through simple responses and other suitable settings.” When the congregation does not sing an antiphon or hymn, proper chants from the Graduale Romanum might be sung by a choir that is able to render these challenging pieces well. As an easier alternative, chants of the Graduale Simplex are recommended. Whenever a choir sings in Latin, it is helpful to provide the congregation with a vernacular translation so that they are able to “unite themselves interiorly” to what the choir sings.

77. The Entrance and Communion antiphons are found in their proper place in the Roman Missal. Composers seeking to create vernacular translations of the appointed antiphons and psalms may also draw from the Graduale Romanum, either in their entirety or in shortened refrains for the congregation or choir.

78. Gregorian chant draws its life from the sacred text it expresses, and recent official chant editions employ revised notation suggesting natural speech rhythm rather than independent melodic principles. Singers are encouraged to adopt a manner of singing sensitive to the Latin text.

79. Missals in various languages provide vernacular chants inspired by Latin chant, or other melodies, for sung responses between ministers and people. For the sake of unity across the Church, musicians should not take it upon themselves to adjust or alter these melodies locally.

80. Whenever strophic chant hymns are published with Latin or vernacular texts, their melodies should be drawn from the Liber Hymnarius.

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