Today, from Pope John Paul II’s chirograph, a look at the heritage of Vatican II:
2. The Second Vatican Council followed up this approach in chapter VI of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Sacred Liturgy, in which the ecclesial role of sacred music is clearly defined: “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred melody united to words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn Liturgy”[SC 112]. The Council also recalls that “Sacred Scripture, indeed, has bestowed praise upon sacred song. So have the Fathers of the Church and the Roman Pontiffs who in more recent times, led by St Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function exercised by sacred music in the service of the Lord”[SC 112].
In fact, by continuing the ancient biblical tradition to which the Lord himself and the Apostles abided (cf. Mt 26: 30; Eph 5: 19; Col 3: 16), the Church has encouraged song at liturgical celebrations throughout her history, providing wonderful examples of melodic comment to the sacred texts in accordance with the creativity of every culture, in the rites of both West and East.
The attention my Predecessors thus paid to this delicate sector was constant. They recalled the fundamental principles that must enliven the composition of sacred music, especially when it is destined for the Liturgy. Besides Pope St Pius X, other Popes who deserve mention are Benedict XIV with his Encyclical Annus Qui (19 February 1749), Pius XII with his Encyclicals Mediator Dei (20 November 1947) and Musicae Sacrae Disciplina (25 December 1955), and lastly Paul VI, with the luminous statements that punctuated many of his Speeches.
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council did not fail to reassert these principles with a view to their application in the changed conditions of the times. They did so specifically in chapter six of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium. Pope Paul VI then saw that those principles were translated into concrete norms, in particular with the Instruction Musicam Sacram, promulgated on 5 March 1967 with his approval by the Congregation then known as the Sacred Congregation for Rites. In this same context, it is necessary to refer to those principles of conciliar inspiration to encourage a development in conformity with the requirements of liturgical reform and which will measure up to the liturgical and musical tradition of the Church. The text of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium in which it is declared that the Church “approves of all forms of true art which have the requisite qualities[SC 112], and admits them into divine worship”, finds satisfactory criteria for application in nn. 50-53 of the above-mentioned Instruction Musicam Sacram.
Where preconciliar practice remained deficient was the lack of attention to music as formative by those who sing it. In retrospect this was quite lamentable, as the Western world had a fine tradition of the amateur performance of music at all levels: home, school, pub, community gatherings, and festivals. Until about the middle of the twentieth century people who enjoyed music had to provide it for themselves and their loved ones and friends and community.
Music at liturgy was largely an extension of the priestly function: it was performed for God on behalf of an assembly at prayer. This might have ensured, on one level, a sort of quality control. But those Scriptural citations in paragraph two above presume a community singing an active repertoire of sacred song, not the preservation of a tradition of music exclusively by a “professional” class.
For an in-depth examination of that 1967 Instruction, Musicam Sacram, I refer readers to the sidebar. It was with this document and the introductions and rubrics of the reformed rites that we saw the post-conciliar emphasis on the laity reclaiming their proper role in the musical heritage of worship.