CCTLS 12: Composing Liturgical Music

People still compose music for liturgy. Maybe as much as they did one or two generations ago. Let’s see what John Paul II said about it.

12. With regard to compositions of liturgical music, I make my own the “general rule” that St Pius X formulated in these words: “The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian melodic 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”[TlS 3]. It is not, of course, a question of imitating Gregorian chant but rather of ensuring that new compositions are imbued with the same spirit that inspired and little by little came to shape it. Only an artist who is profoundly steeped in the sensus Ecclesiae can attempt to perceive and express in melody the truth of the Mystery that is celebrated in the Liturgy[SC 112]. In this perspective, in my Letter to Artists I wrote: “How many sacred works have been composed through the centuries by people deeply imbued with the sense of mystery! The faith of countless believers has been nourished by melodies flowing from the hearts of other believers, either introduced into the Liturgy or used as an aid to dignified worship. In song, faith is experienced as vibrant joy, love and confident expectation of the saving intervention of God”[LtA 49].

Renewed and deeper thought about the principles that must be the basis of the formation and dissemination of a high-quality repertoire is therefore required. Only in this way will musical expression be granted to serve appropriately its ultimate aim, which is “the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful”[SC 112].

I know well that also today there are numerous composers who are capable of making their indispensable contribution in this spirit, increasing with their competent collaboration the patrimony of music at the service of a Liturgy lived ever more intensely. To them I express my confidence, together with the most cordial exhortation to put their every effort into increasing the repertoire of compositions worthy of the exalted nature of the mysteries celebrated and, at the same time, suited to contemporary sensibilities.

Commentary:

John Paul II sets the bar high, but in this third paragraph, he is confident about contemporary composers. Is that confidence justified? More so today than say, one or two generations ago?

Rolling back to the first paragraph, I can’t say I see anything distinctive about Gregorian melodies that suggest a deeper connection with the liturgy. What makes chant Gregorian? A melody at the service of the liturgical or biblical text. A degree of ornamentation in a style musicians recognize as “Gregorian” and not “Mozarabic” or “Ambrosian” or Eastern. For Rome, Roman chant makes sense as a cultural marker. Does that hold true outside of central and southern Italy? Is the Roman Rite truly so dependent on one particular style that it cannot bear a universal weight of many styles?

Not sure I can get on board with what strikes me as a bit of cultural pelagianism, that a composition’s sacrality is based, even in part, on its adherence to a human musical genre. Sacredness is determined by God’s grace, and by our cooperation with grace. Not by what worked in the past, however well it might have worked. We’re still talking about God’s agency today.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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20 Responses to CCTLS 12: Composing Liturgical Music

  1. Liam says:

    Part of it at least is that the rite and its music matured together – the forms informed each other, and that even carries through to the derivation of the “classic” (for lack of a better word) Roman liturgy that is the OF. That’s not cultural pelagianism (where the hell did you pull that loser out of?). It’s heritage (and not just a rusty antique in the attic) like the warp of tapestry. And it can’t be sold for a cup of pottage. It’s not the only thread in the tapestry – there’s room for lots of colors and fabrics in the weft, too.Or, if one prefers a musical analogy instead, counterpoint. YMMV.

    I guess I just don’t understand the energy spent on trying drain the documentary emphasis on chant of anything but marginal meaning. It’s neither necessary nor convincing.

  2. Todd says:

    The “best” connection with the sacrality is unconvincing to me. The connection to liturgy and rite–that makes sense. No problem on the liturgical, cultural, and artistic heritage.

    Now, this isn’t to say that chant isn’t sacred. I’m not saying that. Nor that Gregorian chant isn’t an opportunity for grace. I’m asking why there’s such an explicit connection with chant of a Gregorian genre to the “more sacred it becomes” testimony of Pius X. I want to hear a better argument for Gregorian chant than “God likes it better than all the rest.” I’m also open to a better nuance of what Pius X seems to be saying, but I’m not quite willing to swallow whole, “GC is the holiest. Trust us.”

    • Liam says:

      Well, you see, your definition of sacrality is not what the document is referring to directly (it’s lurking around; but, because it becomes so subjective, Rome is not going to put that in the foreground in this context – in the end, if everything is subjective, the only opinions that count are the opinions of the topmost dog – that’s one of the sad if counterintuitive consequences of too much subjectivism). You and I may prefer different definitions; but ours are just our opinion, and we can’t ignore the one given. And here I don’t think Rome is unreasonable. I am rather tired of the implied assumption in so much discourse these days that all arguments that are not persuasive are, therefore, unreasonable. Rather, some are unreasonable, but not all. I think we have to tussle more with arguments from competent authority that, while not ultimately persuasive to us, are not unreasonable, and spend a ton of time trying to find ways to find them unreasonable. Why? Because it’s usually a sign that we have the problem, and we’re the ones who are stuck, and we’re not thereby helping the People of God become sanctified. I just say OK and move on.

      • Todd says:

        Makes sense to me. Tomorrow I’ll post on CCTLS 13, and sometime this week, I’ll put my head into some new music.

      • Liam says:

        Good! Mind you, I think you know I am not of the Gregorian Chant Is Magic school of thought, and I don’t defer to the document that that mindset.

        However, when compared to oration patterns, say in the Orthodox Sunday liturgy (lots more litanies but also lots more in the way of long orations) with the “classic” Roman Sunday liturgy (short Scriptural antiphons, a few hymns/doxologies only one of which is not brief, relatively compact orations aside from the anaphora proper), one can see that it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question about whether the musical idioms chosen (both forms of chant, but rather different in feel) was formed by – or formed – the liturgy. Note that the Roman liturgy that lingered long on full psalmody – the Divine Office – put more of its Scripture into plainsong that more melismatic chant. The Scripture in the antiphons for the Mass, however, was relatively, um, concise.

        I suspect *that* is the nub of your fussing here. You prefer that the Scriptural culture of the Liturgy of the Hours be adopted in the Mass. But the two things are complementary, not identical. Even in the conventual setting, one sees the Mass contrapuntally to the thrust of the cycle: Matins, Lauds, Prime – then the Mass – Sext, Terce, None, Vespers, and Compline. That counterpoint brings the reasonableness into better relief.

        Perhaps another argument is that we should be spending more time cultivating the Divine Office than finding ways to marginalize Gregorian antiphons in the Mass.

      • Liam says:

        And the typos are all mine…. apologies to readers.

  3. Jen says:

    I definitely know what you mean. On the one hand, not all genres are (or should be) appropriate for the liturgy. On the other hand, the Orthodox (as in Eastern) approach that the only music that can be used liturgically are the chants specific to it is another extreme I think we’d do well to avoid.

    Another concern of mine is the lack of funding and knowledge about the arts. When I’ve been asked to write liturgical music, I’m given examples of hymns to ape (complete with guitar parts) or asked to write like Mozart. It shows a real lack of understanding of what composers do. (But I’d say that’s a problem that goes well beyond the scope of the letter.) Or if I am getting paid, it’s barely enough to cover the cost of part reproduction. And people wonder why there are no more Mozart-type Mass settings? Orchestras are expensive to copy/bind parts for.

  4. Bill Logan says:

    With respect to the 3rd paragraph and looking back at what the previous sections have written about “contemporary” songs, should we be keeping a sense of “liturgical realism” when analyze what’s written in documents? JPII could have issued something along the lines of “All Gregorian, All The Time”–but he didn’t. Perhaps that’s explained, at least in part, by knowing what his favorite liturgical song was?

    Similarly, as was once pointed out to me, Pius V created an exception in Quo Primum for rites that were more than 200 years old. Which is nice enough to know, until one remembers that Pius V was a Dominican and the Dominican rite was about 300 years old at that point.

  5. Sorry for coming late to the party.
    Rolling back to the first paragraph, I can’t say I see anything distinctive about Gregorian melodies that suggest a deeper connection with the liturgy. What makes chant Gregorian?
    T, there is so much to potentially quibble over in those few words I’m going to move passed them….”see anything….?” you have a cross relation of senses there, unless you ‘ve not closely examined a Graduale Triplex at a minimum. “Distinctive?” Are you serious? We’re just now scratching the surface of how integrally distinctive, yet genetically tied to Hebrew temple chants what would eventually be collected, collated and codified as a body of chant traditions endorsed, not by Gregory Great, but by common use borne from traditions. If you want the latest, google Sven Olbash of St. Francis Assissi Basilica of San Francisco . To ponder the “Gregorian” assignation is essentially off point- were you to take in the Native American Dance Ensemble and try to make distinctions between Cherokee chants from the Carolinas versus those of the plains Lakota, you’d be
    missing the point entirely. Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Sarum, same deal.
    Now, this isn’t to say that chant isn’t sacred. I’m not saying that. Nor that Gregorian chant isn’t an opportunity for grace. I’m asking why there’s such an explicit connection with chant of a Gregorian genre to the “more sacred it becomes” testimony of Pius X. I want to hear a better argument for Gregorian chant than “God likes it better than all the rest.” I’m also open to a better nuance of what Pius X seems to be saying, but I’m not quite willing to swallow whole, “GC is the holiest. Trust us.”
    That is hardly a rationale that any reputable chant scholar or eve advocate puts into serious discourse, Todd. Again, like you challenge me, advancing that as if it came from “the chant camp” is a tactic below your intellectual rigor. The argument prior is sillier, but more compelling of an honest answer, “that God likes it better.” God is the Creator of all, and we surmise from Genesis through Revelation that His favor for humanity is unique and exceptional. But that doesn’t extend to our artistic endeavors. What “makes” it a sacral expression again lies in its origins among the people of the Book, its evolution that KLS eloquently states was concomitant with those of the rites themselves, and for me, that therein is the tie that binds with the songs of David being sung for centuries, millenia by the saints and Saints when they participated in the Divine Liturgy and Sacrific. Imagine the willpower and discipline for this sacral language, the union of arts, to be memorized and chanted (all 150 psalms) by both masters and novices alike in the choirs of hundreds of monasteries over centuries, and then of course in time for a myriad of notational systems to emerge to assist in that process which would then through Laon, Gall, Guido and eventually “Gregrory’ s scribe/emissaries” provide what reasonably could be called a universal “hymnal” for the Church.
    Despite your interest in whatever Pius V or Pius X deemed about the anchorage of chant within our rites, there is no doubt that no one has advanced a cogent argument that this form of music is foundational. Aone would have to readily concede that, despite perceptions and legends, when the musical patrimony of the Church was widely ingnored or polluted, the inclination to purify the praxis by efforts to legislated their use remained stalwart.
    Somehow I don’t think that the various devotional or office hymns that attended the Counter Reformation like the singmesse nor the supplanting of chant in the cathedrals by the stealth employment of baroque operas in Venice which led to the courtly performance Mass settings to the 20th century, have the same simple nobility of the chants, as I said, that were sung by our earliest saints.
    Maybe Mother Theresa had a favorite Bob Fabing song. Maybe Thea Bowman danced to Clarence Rivers’ music. More than likely there are saints in heaven who wrapped themselves and their prayer deeply in “Shepherd Me O God.” But that’s conjecture.
    What did Augustine, Aquinas, Catherine and Hildegard sing? We know.

    • Todd says:

      “T, there is so much to potentially quibble over in those few words I’m going to move passed them….”see anything….?” you have a cross relation of senses …”

      Then let me clarify: I don’t perceive anything Gregorian chant has over other Western or even Eastern forms of chant where liturgy is concerned.

      “We’re just now scratching the surface of how integrally distinctive, yet genetically tied to Hebrew temple chants …”

      The direct descent from the Temple is not the only possible pedigree of GC. If anything, Eastern Christians would seem to have more of a dog in that fight, especially Copts, Antiochene, and Middle Eastern Christians, givne that they’ve maintained the cultural connections. Gregorian chant is at least twice removed through the Greeks and Romans.

      ” … what would eventually be collected, collated and codified as a body of chant traditions endorsed, not by Gregory Great, but by common use borne from traditions.”

      And on this point I would agree. But in agreement, I point out that liturgical music remains a living tradition, and that our musical traditions as Roman Catholics remain open to new forms and styles, and all of these were and will be fruitfully integrated into Catholic worship.

      Good discussion.

      • Liam says:

        ” . . . s Roman Catholics remain open to new forms and styles, and all of these were and will be fruitfully integrated into Catholic worship.”

        But that does not require marginalization of Gregorian chant. It’s not necessary. Fear not. Believe me. Fear not. There seems to be more fear than hope in your handling of the issue of Gregorian chant, Todd, though you may not realize that it’s coming across that way in the subtext.

      • Todd says:

        I’d say there’s more of a willingness to see the matter engaged in a healthy way. Subtexts are provided by the readers, not be me. If someone wants to make a stronger case than the Holy Father presents, I’m going to read it, not run away from it. I’d just like to see a little more rigor on the presentation: nothing more.

  6. I typed the above on my tab, big mistake. Will list errata tomorrow.
    This, “there is no doubt that no one has advanced a cogent argument that this form of music is foundational.” should obviously have read “isn’t foundational.” Sorry, long day.

  7. Todd says:

    “That is hardly a rationale that any reputable chant scholar or eve advocate puts into serious discourse, Todd.”

    I freely confess I’m not a chant scholar. I’m a liturgist and my training is in systematic theology.

    “Again, like you challenge me, advancing that as if it came from “the chant camp” is a tactic below your intellectual rigor.”

    Possibly. But I’m confining my commentary to the document, not what others have said. My regard for GC is confined to its artistic beauty and its pedigree as one form of chant absorbed into Roman Rite usage. It does not depend on John Paul II or any other document simply stating a point and expecting in-step adherence.

    What is in dispute is that Roman Catholics an ocean and continent away have any more connection to it than Roman Catholics, for example, in Milan. Gregorian chant simply isn’t in our bones in this hemisphere. That leaves aside the questions “Should it be?” and the natural follow-up, “How can it be?”

    And given the sorry lack of attention to the artistry of vernacular translations, I seriously doubt there’s an innate connection between Gregorian chant and the Roman Rite today.

  8. Charles says:

    Erratas from Chaz
    That is hardly a rationale that any reputable chant scholar or eve advocate puts into serious discourse
    should read ”chant scholar or EVEN advocate…”
    there is no doubt that no one has advanced a cogent argument that this form of music is foundational.
    should read ”no one has advanced…that this form of music is NOT foundational.
    Aone should be ”ANYONE”
    I hope that’s it.
    Now, onward..
    TF:”But I’m confining my commentary to the document, not what others have said.”
    CC. Actually, if your commentary includes the combox stuff, no one but you mentioned personal influence of pontiffs or chant enthusiasts saying ”Trust us.” Same goes for the quip about ”God likes it best.” As you acknowledge, save for those jibes, a good discussion is happening. Let’s do confine our commentary to relevant history and interpretation.
    TF: ”What is in dispute is that Roman Catholics an ocean and continent away have any more connection to it than Roman Catholics, for example, in Milan. Gregorian chant simply isn’t in our bones in this hemisphere. That leaves aside the questions “Should it be?” and the natural follow-up, “How can it be?””
    CC.Yikes, Todd. Is that an argument out of necessity or some resignation? There are hymnals overflowing chronicled by J. Vincent Higginson that prove chant was likely more engrained in the new world that in the courts of the Enlightenment. And certainly in California there is a ton of extant evidence that S.Serra’s con’freres wove the fabric of chant among the various tribes of Nahuatal. Google the name of Juan Pedro Gaffney or the vocal group SAVAE (San Antonio Vocal Arts Ensemble) and check their (is it called?) ”Hagiography.” If chant was dead on arrival in the 20c, how come the two most commonly cited American hymnals, The Pius X and St. Gregory are chock full of it?
    The question of Ambrosian chant is beside the point.
    But the issue of ”should it be (engrained in this hemisphere)? or ”could it be?” are answered in the Council documents that everyone likes to parce out so as to advance their agenda.
    Seems I’m always in a weird place when I type responses. I’m in the service waiting room while my car’s undercarraige is being checked. So, I’ll sum up this post with a variant on a famous quote: ”It\’s not that chant has been tried and found wanting, It’s that chant has not been tried at all.”

  9. Todd says:

    “It\’s not that chant has been tried and found wanting, It’s that chant has not been tried at all.”

    Agreed.

    But that’s not the point I’m making.

  10. Charles says:

    I’m in a Monty Python sketch….sigh….
    Okay, I’ll bite: and the point you’re making is…?

  11. Todd says:

    Simply a better enunciation of *why* Gregorian chant is tops.

  12. Charles says:

    Keeping with Monty Python, “All right, let’s call it a draw!” Todd, you’ve already read tens of thousands of words assembled as chant apologetics. You aren’t convinced. And that’s okay with me, and probably Tucker et al. It sure as heck is okay with Jesus, Abba and Ms. Paraclete. So, end of story.

  13. Todd says:

    Well, I’m satisfied with creative tension. Why call it over?

    But let me suggest that if a person who loves chant and early music has doubts about how GC’s first place is expressed, you can bet other Catholics much more in favor of either organ hymnody and/or contemporary music. Again, it’s not that I quibble with the placement, but with the lack of rigor I see in how it’s expressed.

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