Friday, November 23, 2007

Pope Benedict Reforming Catholic Liturgical Music

The Telegraph has an interesting article about Pope Benedict's continuing efforts to reform Catholic church music today. It begins:

"The Pope is considering a dramatic overhaul of the Vatican in order to force a return to traditional sacred music.

After reintroducing the Latin Tridentine Mass, the Pope wants to widen the use of Gregorian chant and baroque sacred music.

In an address to the bishops and priests of St Peter's Basilica, he said that there needed to be "continuity with tradition" in their prayers and music.

He referred pointedly to "the time of St Gregory the Great", the pope who gave his name to Gregorian chant.

Gregorian chant has been reinstituted as the primary form of singing by the new choir director of St Peter's, Father Pierre Paul."

As Instapundit would say, read the whole thing.

Also in The Telegraph, Damien Thompson has a response agreeing with the Pope. He's penned a wonderful opening line:

"For decades, the standard of singing in St Peter's basilica has struggled to match that of a Gilbert and Sullivan society."

Again, you should read it all. And, try not to get too creeped-out that it's written by a Catholic guy named "Damien." *shudder*


First of all, in the spirit of full disclosure, I'm not a Catholic: I'm a Missouri Synod Lutheran (A very conservative Lutheran church), baptized and confirmed. So, I'm speaking from the sidelines here. However, I took my Nom de Web, Hucbald, from Hucbald of Amand, who is the earliest Western music theorist known to us by name, and who was also a Benedictine Monk.

I chose this name to blog under because I've gone back to the beginning of Western music and have studied everything I could about it from Hucbald's point to the present day. As a result I am hyper-aware that the Catholic church was the birthplace of Western art music - Hucbald, Gregory, Leoninus, Perotinus Magnus, through Palestrina - and then, of course, we Lutherans produced sublime composers of sacred music as well: Heinrich Schutz and J.S. Bach, for example.

So, though not a Catholic, I feel that I have a vested interest in this topic, and so I thought I ought to weigh in.

First of all, I think Pope Benedict is on the right track here, especially for the central church in Rome. Not only is properly performed Gregorian Chant hypnotically beautiful, but it also puts one in the proper spirit for worship. Not only that, but it is the very singular root (Oh, David!), of Western music, so chants' value as a teaching tool and cornerstone is incalculable.

Now, the article does not mention Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, but since his work is considered to be the pinnacle of Catholic counter-Reformation polyphonic sacred music, I assume that he will be... uh, "resurrected" as well. I certainly hope so. Again, this music is sublimely beautiful, and it is entirely appropriate for worship services.

I would hope, however, that worthy modern works would not be excluded from consideration entirely. If they are, a lot of talent may be wasted, and an opportunity missed: If living Catholic composers know that one or more of their works may end up being played in St. Peter's Basilica, they may produce such works. Not only that, but if the models are Gregory and Palestrina, those Catholic composers might write in styles closely related to or derived from Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony. I know I'd be up for that challenge. To me, this would be a very positive development in the compositional world.

We Lutherans have our battles with maintaining good liturgical music too, I might point out, but we never have lost sight of our musical foundations based on Schutz and Bach. That said, I really can't stand the harmonizations in our modern Hymnals: I wish we'd go back to the old Red Hymnal we used back before 1990, but oh well.

That said, we don't mind having good modern music played at our services either. I play my own compositions for a half-hour before services, and sometimes as the offertory music too (Though, admittedly, some may question our Pastor's taste for allowing this. LOL!).

So, in conclusion, I'm happy to hear that Gregory and probably Palestrina are going to be restored to their rightful places in Catholic liturgical music, but I hope that they are not to become the exclusive sources to the detriment of living Catholic composers who may be inspired to contribute to their services. Tradition is great, but Gregory and Palestrina were once living, breathing human beings who God inspired to worship Him in music: Today's living, breathing Catholic composers ought not to be denied the opportunity to do likewise if they are also so inspired.

One of my jazz musician fiends, er friends - and a former Berklee classmate - sent me this a couple of weeks back. I've just been waiting for the right opportunity to use it. Isn't it fantastic?


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