Sacred Music and Secular Culture

March 5th was the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of the instruction Musicam SacramTo mark the occasion, Pope Francis gave a speech to an international conference on sacred music. In his speech the Holy Father points out the central tension involved in debates about sacred music since the Council. On the one hand, sacred music should heighten the solemnity and glory of the liturgy, it should help manifest the “hierarchic and communal nature” of the liturgy, and raise minds  “to celestial things through the splendor of sacred things,” and help the liturgy prefigure “more clearly the liturgy, which is carried out in the heavenly Jerusalem.” But on the other hand, sacred music should be “fully ‘inculturated’ in the artistic and musical languages of the present.” The “rich and multi-form patrimony inherited from the past” must be preserved, but it must be preserved in a balanced way that avoids “the risk of a nostalgic or ‘archaeological’ vision.” The Holy Father is very forthright about the difficulties involved in such a balance:

The encounter with modernity and the introduction of spoken languages in the liturgy has certainly occasioned many problems: of languages, forms, and musical genres. Sometimes a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of the liturgical celebrations.

The problem is basically this: sacred music must express the solemnity, sacrality, hierarchy, and glory of the worship of the ineffable God, but modern culture is opposed to solemnity, sacrality, hierarchy, and glory. Modern culture is bourgeois, democratic, egalitarian, and informal. Or, when it is in reaction against bourgeois Biederkeit, it is bohemian, anarchistic, and iconoclastic. And therefore any “inculturation” of the liturgy into modernity risks betraying the spirit of the liturgy. As Matthew Schmitz has recently argued, the crisis of the liturgy after the Council has been in large part do to the imposition on it of the aesthetic sensibilities of the middle class of modern capitalist society.

March 5th was also marked by the publication of an International Declaration on Sacred Music, of which I am a signatory. This declaration is in part a spirited attack on forms of inculturation that have brought the “mediocrity, superficiality and banality” of which Pope Francis complains. True culture arises from the worship of God, and the dispositions that that worship fosters, but modern culture is a “secular culture, born in opposition to Christianity, which destabilizes the sense of adoration that is at the heart of the Christian faith.”

The declaration paints a somewhat pessimistic picture of the current situation of sacred music. It is hard to judge how accurate the assessment is. Certainly, the situation in the German speaking world is much less dire than in other parts of the world. The new edition Gotteslob, the prayer and song book used throughout the German speaking world, has lots of good music. It is quite common in these parts to have the ordinary sung in Gregorian chant, with beautiful 17th century hymns sung in place of the propers. In rural parishes the ordinary is often one of the “German Masses” composed in the Josephine era by the likes of Michael Haydn or Franz Schubert. And in the great cathedrals and abbey churches the quality of music is generally very high— often with polyphonic or orchestral Masses being sung. But the new Gotteslob also has some pop-style “songs” that would never have made it into the last edition (published in the 70s). The effects of a banal and trivial pop-culture on Catholic worship might be felt less in German speaking countries than in Spanish or English speaking ones, but it is still felt.

The declaration, however, is optimistic about the chances of improving matters, and makes a great many practical suggestions on how to improve things. But I fear that such suggestions will only we widely accepted if a shift in the general attitude of Catholics toward the culture of hypermodernity takes place.

It is, however, perhaps some comfort to recall the fact that the problem of the influence of “secular” culture on sacred music is not a new one. Even in the “sacral” culture of the High Middle Ages, St. Aelred of Rievaulx could complain about the corruption of Church music. A whole chapter of Speculum Caritatis is entitled De vana aurium voluptate, and consists of a stinging critique of new trends in Church music at his time. Amusingly, certain later readers of Aelred thought that he went too far in his critique of some of the musical treasures of the age. That great music lover Hans Urs von Balthasar omits de vana aurium voluptate from his translation of the Speculum. St Aelred writes as follows:

 … let us turn our attention now to the sort of people who pursue enjoyment under the cover of religion and make use, for their own self-flattery, of practices that served in ancient times to foreshadow the truth to be revealed. What need has the Church, I should like to know, now that types and figures have been superseded, of thundering organs, clashing cymbals and the monstrous heaving of the bellows? As for the voice, so naturally pleasant, why do we hear it now strangled and muted, now cracked, now at full throttle, now subjected to the constraints of elaborate three-part singing? Sometimes, I am ashamed to say, one hears it forced into a nasal whinny, or raised from its manly register to a shrill, womanish falsetto, or again, drawn out in a protracted, mannered warbling. I have seen monks with mouths agape, the sound cut off in mid-breath, as it were threatening the world with silence, and looking as though they were either at the point of death or lost in ecstasy, rather than singing. This ridiculous performance is accompanied by all manner of theatrical gestures: lips grimace, arms saw the air and fingers flex to greet each note. And this effeminate clowning goes under the name of religion. Furthermore, it is where the practice is most prevalent that God is held to be most honourably served. Simple people, certainly, are impressed by the swoosh of the bellows, the clash of the cymbals, the sweet sound of the pipes and the tremendous thunder of it all; but as for the wanton gestures of the singers and the lewd modulations of their voices, these are met with jeering and laughter, as being more suited to the stage than to the choir. There is no awe of God’s dread majesty among those standing in his presence, no reverence for that mystical crib they serve, where Christ, in hidden manner, lies wound in linen bands, where his sacred blood is poured out in the chalice, where the heavens are opened, earth and heaven meet, and men consort with angels.
Thus the practice instituted by the Fathers as a devotional aid, a help to human weakness, has been made into an instrument of pleasure-seeking. For sound is not to be preferred to sense, yet sense and sound together are, as a rule, an acceptable means of stimulating fervour. But the sound must be restrained and low-pitched enough not to draw the attention to itself, but to leave it largely free to concentrate on the meaning. Does not blessed Augustine say that hymns will move the mind to devotion, yet if the singer takes more pleasure in the sound than in the sense he is not above reproach? And again he writes of himself: ‘When I find the singing more moving than the words, I confess that I have sinned grievously, and would rather not hear the singers.’
Take a man then, who has turned his back on such pernicious histrionics and embraced the moderation of the Fathers. If his ears begin to itch whenever he recalls those ludicrous performances, and the dignity of plainsong inspires him with an immeasurable loathing; if he gets to the point where he feels nothing but contempt for what we might call the Fathers’ holy homespun, that style of singing instituted by the Holy Spirit through those who were his mouthpieces, namely Augustine, Ambrose and, chief among them, Gregory, preferring instead what are known as the Spanish tunes, or God knows what fanciful inventions of latter-day schoolmen; if he yearns and pines and goes through agonies of longing for what he once jettisoned in disgust: what, I ask you, weighs him down like that— love’s yoke, or the lure of the world oppressing him? (The Mirror of Charity, II,23, trans. Pauline Matarasso).

[…de his nunc sermo sit, qui sub specie religionis negotium voluptatis obpalliant: qui ea, quae antiqui patres in typis futurorum salubriter exercebant, in usum suae vanitatis usurpant. Unde, quaeso, cessantibus jam typis et figuris, unde in Ecclesia tot organa, tot cymbala? Ad quid, rogo, terribilis ille follium flatus, tonitrui potius fragorem, quam vocis exprimens suavitatem? Ad quid illa vocis contractio et infractio? Hic succinit, ille discinit; alter medias quasdam notas dividit et incidit. Nunc vos stringitur, nunc frangitur, nunc impingitur, nunc diffusiori sonitu dilatatur. Aliquando, quod pudet dicere, in equinos hinnitus cogitur; aliquando virili vigore deposito, in femineae vocis gracilitates acuitur, nonnunquam artificiosa quadam circumvolutione torquetur et retorquetur.  Videas aliquando hominem aperto ore quasi intercluso halitu exspirare, non cantare, ac ridiculosa quadam vocis interceptione quasi minitari silentium; nunc agones morientium, vel exstasim patientium imitari. Interim histrionicis quibusdam gestibus totum corpus agitatur, torquentur labia, rotant, ludunt humeri; et ad singulas quasque notas digitorum flexus respondet. Et haec ridiculosa dissolutio vocatur religio; et ubi haec frequentius agitantur, ibi Deo honorabilius serviri clamatur. Stans interea vulgus sonitum follium, crepitum cymbalorum, harmoniam fistularum tremens attonitusque miratur; sed lascivas cantantium gesticulationes, meretricias vocum alternationes et infractiones non sine cachinno risuque intuetur, ut eos non ad oratorium, sed ad theatrum, nec ad orandum, sed ad spectandum aestimes convenisse. Nec timetur illa tremenda majestas, cui assistitur, nec defertur mystico illi praesepio, cui ministratur, ubi Christus mystice pannis involvitur, ubi sacratissimus ejus sanguis calice liberatur, ubi aperiuntur coeli; assistunt angeli; ubi terrena coelestibus junguntur; ubi angelis homines sociantur. Sic quod sancti Patres instituerunt, ut infirmi excitarentur ad affectum pietatis, in usum assumitur illicitae voluptatis. Non enim sensui praeferendus est sonus: sed sonus cum sensu ad incitamentum majoris affectus plerumque admittendus. Ideoque talis debet esse sonus, tam moderatus, tam gravis, ut non totum animum ad sui rapiat oblectationem, sed sensui majorem relinquat portionem. Ait nempe beatissimus Augustinus. «Movetur animus ad affectum pietatis divino cantico audito: sed si magis sonum quam sensum libido audiendi desideret, improbatur.» Et alias: «Cum me, inquit, magis cantus quam verba delectant, paenaliter me peccasse confiteor, et mallem non audire cantantes.» Cum igitur aliquis, spreta ridiculosa illa et damnosa vanitate, antiquae Patrum moderationi sese contulerit, si ad memoriam nugarum theatricarum prurientibus auribus immane fastidium gravitas honesta intulerit; sicque totam Patrum sanctitatem quasi rusticitatem contemnat ac judicet; modo cantandi, quem Spiritus sanctus per sanctissimos Patres quasi per organa sua, Augustinum videlicet, Ambrosium, maximeque Gregorium, instituit: Hiberas, ut dicitur, naenias, vel nescio quorum scholasticorum nugas vanissimas anteponens. Si ergo hinc crucietur, hinc doleat, hinc ad ea quae evomuerat, anxius anhelet: quae rogo hujus laboris origo, jugum charitatis, an onus concupiscentiae mundialis?]

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