Singing the Mass, Part Two:
A Short History of Liturgical Music

Part two in a four-part series on sacred music from Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, bishop of Phoenix, published on Jan. 19, 2012 in the Catholic Sun:

saint-ceciliaIn the first part of this series on sacred music, I described the meaning of sacred music, the music of the Church’s sacred liturgy, as distinct from “religious music.”

In this second installment, I shall explore, from a historical perspective, the Church’s role in guiding and promoting authentic sacred music for more fruitful participation in the Sacred Mysteries by the clergy and lay faithful alike.

The Second Vatican Council proclaimed that “the musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112). This led the Council fathers to decree that “the treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care” (ibid, 114).

Sacred music in Judaism before Christ

The dual task of preserving and fostering sacred music remains a crucial one for the Church today. But to understand what the Council is asking of us, we must not only know what sacred music is in general (as we explored in the previous installment in this series) but also how the Church has carried out this endeavor in history.

The Church inherited the Psalms of the Old Testament as her basic prayer and hymn book for worship. With these sacred texts she also adopted the mode of singing that had been established during the development of the psalms: a way of articulated singing with a strong reference to a text, with or without instrumental accompaniment, which German historian Martin Hengel has called “sprechgesang,” “sung-speech.”

This choice in Israel’s history signaled a concrete decision for a specific way of singing, which was a rejection of the frenzied and intoxicating music of the neighboring and threatening pagan cults. This way of singing the Psalms, traditionally viewed as established by King David (cf. 2 Sam. 6:5), disrupted only by the Babylonian exile, remained in use at the coming of Christ. Sung with respect to and during sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem, the early Jewish Christians assumed this tradition into the sacrifice of the eucharistic liturgy.

Sacred music in the early Church

After Pentecost, the first centuries of the Church’s life were marked by the encounter of what was a Jewish-Semitic reality with the Greek-Roman world. A dramatic struggle ensued between, on one hand, openness to new cultural forms and, on the other, what was irrevocably part of Christian faith.

For the first time, the Church had to preserve her sacred music, and then foster it. Although early Greek-style songs quickly became part of the Church’s life (e.g., the prologue of John and the Philippians hymn, 2:5-11), this new music was so tightly linked to dangerous gnostic beliefs that the Church decided to prohibit its use. This temporary pruning of the Church’s sacred music to the traditional form of the Psalms led to previously unimaginable creativity: Gregorian chant — for the first millennium — and then, gradually, polyphony and hymns arose.

In preserving the forms which embodied her true identity, the Church made it possible for wonderful growth to be fostered, such that centuries after that original restriction, the Second Vatican Council boldly proclaimed that her treasury of sacred music is of more value than any other of her artistic contributions.

Preserving, fostering through the centuries

In this remarkable process in which the Church navigated her encounter with Greek culture and then other cultures, we see the same basic pattern that Vatican II decreed for sacred music: she first preserves, then she fosters. The early Church had to first preserve the basic form of Christian faith which constituted her very identity — an identity which was inseparable from specific cultural (i.e., Jewish) artistic forms (i.e., the music of the Psalms). Thus she was able to foster new forms of sacred music which, organically and gradually springing from older forms, authentically expressed Christian faith in new cultural forms.

St. Gregory the Great (the saint from whom “Gregorian chant” takes its name) collected and systematized the Church’s chant tradition in the 6th century and it spread and developed in the West throughout the first millennium. Gregorian chant was sometimes enhanced by the organ in the eighth or ninth centuries and with a single or with multiple vocal harmonies (e.g. polyphony) beginning in the 10th century. The development of polyphony carried on throughout the beginning of the second millennium, producing music of a highly sophisticated and ornate style.

The fathers of the Council of Trent recognized that some musical forms were becoming detached from their origins and so forbade anything “lascivious or impure.” The result was a continued affirmation of the value of Gregorian chant and a refinement of the polyphonic style so as to preserve the integrity of the liturgical text and to achieve a greater sobriety of musical style. Throughout the period that followed, the Church continued to preserve her great tradition while always fostering new and authentic forms of sacred music. This ongoing activity of the Church continues today.

The task for today

On June 24, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI attended a concert of sacred music, after which he said: “An authentic renewal of sacred music can only happen in the wake of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony. For this reason, in the field of music as well as in the areas of other art forms, the Ecclesial Community has always encouraged and supported people in search of new forms of expression without denying the past, the history of the human spirit which is also a history of its dialogue with God.”

The authentic renewal of sacred music is not a question of merely copying the past, but even less is it one of ignoring it. Rather, it is one of preserving the past and fostering new forms grown organically from it. This is a truly great and essential task, entrusted in a particular way to pastors and sacred artists.

Preserving the old forms, fostering new growth: this is how a gardener cares for a plant, how Christ tends our souls, how the Church’s sacred music — carefully preserved — is able to surprise us and more importantly glorify God with new and delightful growth.

Next time, in part three of this series, we shall look at the essential role that sacred music plays in the Church’s mission of evangelizing culture

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