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.
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.