Sacrosanctum Concilium 116

In dealing with SC, all church musicians must come to terms with the prescription laid down here:

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.

What Vatican II did not do was to clarify the condition, “other things being equal.” What do they mean? Is it a cultural thing? Is it formation of musicians and people in places where chant has not been utilized?

“Should” is also a big question. It does mean “must,” so a margin of wiggle room is given, at least in an implementation phase.

But the real debate is the question of “pride of place.” Does that mean the most central and core elements of the Mass should be chant? Does that mean a representation of the repertoire should include it? Should chant pieces outnumber any other style or all other styles put together?

But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Art. 30.

Polyphony is a nearly exclusive choral domain. That leaves chant as the preferred style for the voice of the people. But SC stops short of endorsing other classical styles. Mozart and Bach, though geniuses, do not rate above the masters of polyphony in the Church’s eyes. We might also add that Bach and Mozart and other classical composers don’t rate above the best of other genres either.

The bottom line for church musicians is this:

– If your people aren’t singing chant, you have a problem with implementing Vatican II

– If you are singing chant, then a prudential assessment is needed in light of your other repertoire. At minimum, I would say that a Mass setting, one or two seasonal pieces, and possibly a weekly representation of chant should be up for consideration. If not, then a justification of the escape clause, “other things being equal” is needed. In other words, what’s so special about your parish.

I think apt criticism can be levelled at those who summarily dismiss appropriate musical styles based on personal taste.  I think that a choral repertoire of the “musical treasures” is insufficient without a congregational repertoire of chant.

Anything I missed?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to Sacrosanctum Concilium 116

  1. I think that pretty much says it all, and fairly well, too.

    I’d plump for more gregorian chant, and also (seeing how the vernacular has been encouraged) for a lot more chant done in English, but that would be it.

  2. Gavin says:

    It’s my guess that “all things being equal” would mean a parish choir and/or congregation able to sing/learn to sing chant. Not to make irrational demands over things you may have no control over, but if your parish is 1500 members, I think you ought to have a LOT of chant. Mine, at about 300, not so much, but I do use it as I can fit it in.

  3. David says:

    I’m OFTEN asked about this article. There are a few parishioners who know it by number like they’re quoting Scripture. “What about Sacrosanctum Concilium 116?” And to be honest, if you just read it like it is it gives an impression of how the Mass should be that I’ve almost never even seen except maybe on TV of the Vatican Mass for Christmas Midnight or something. Is this really what the Church expects of every parish in the world, that the meat and potatoes of their liturgy would be chant? not just a token sprinkling of chant here and there? and not just chant(as in chant-like hymns sung in english), it specified Gregorian chant.
    I do realize the document leaves “wiggle room”. It feels annoying that most of our liturgies(at least the ones I do music for) have their musical meat and potatoes in the “wiggle room” and a very small portion is chant of any kind. Is the reason I’m thinking this because I’ve taken this one article out of context? If so, could someone enlighten me, please, on what the correct context is?

  4. Todd says:

    The context might be in the subsequent documents of liturgical implementation. Participation is heralded as the prime emphasis on liturgical reform, so it’s easy to see how the liturgists of the 60’s and 70’s were interpreting that hymnody and songs in genres other than chant were a quicker/easier/better way to go from a pragmatic view. After all, people in the pews weren’t singing chant, were they?

    The premise I’ve seen on reform2 sites that doing chant without participation is better than doing other forms with the people singing strikes me as theological hogwash. If the people will sing chant, then a greater repertoire is called for. If not, then the musician would seem obligated to work on it. And if the people won’t follow, then clearly, things are not “equal.”

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