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Steps to Restore Sacred Music

Above: recent Latin Mass in Steubenville. Photo by Allison Girone.

In 1972, the U.S Supreme Court officially declared the death penalty “unconstitutional,” even though our constitution explicitly says that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.”[1] What did they think it means to deprive citizens of life? These justices—in their infinite wisdom—deemed the constitution itself unconstitutional! One is reminded of Saint Paul: “Thinking themselves wise, they became as fools” (Rom 1:22). However, their manifestly bizarre ruling was eventually overturned, and herein lies a lesson. In the face of something outrageous, we must remain calm. We must soberly defend the truth and resist temptations to throw in the towel.

Our Church Music Problem

It’s no secret that—broadly speaking—the music in our churches is egregiously terrible, secular, and embarrassing. As a child, growing up in an affluent parish whose music was ‘typical’ of the 1990s, we sang ridiculous ditties about butterflies, gathering, and “creating ourselves anew.” In 1994, the most powerful mainstream Catholic music organization published a song about the “enlightenment of Buddha.” That should give the reader a basic idea what those years were like: an utter repudiation of the “treasury of sacred music” which Vatican II said Catholics must “preserve and foster with great care.”[2] It would seem the reformers interpret “preserve and foster” as “destroy, disparage, and outlaw.”

Musicians Are Not Alone

The plight of Catholics who want authentic sacred music (instead of the goofy stuff) is not unlike those who reject avant-garde church architecture, pining for churches that actually look like churches. I’ve been a parish musician for more than 25 years; every young couple I’ve encountered wants to be married in a beautiful church, not a “spaceship” church. Decade after decade, the people of God bewail these brutalist structures; yet nothing ever seems to change. What opportunities for evangelization are missed! Imagine, for example, if Justice Antonin Scalia’s funeral had been celebrated with traditional ceremonies, such as a large choir singing the polyphonic Requiem by Father Victoria (d. 1611) or Father Guerrero (d. 1599).

Roots Of The Problem?

What caused our church music nightmare? Did it come about because many ‘progressive’ song-writers openly lead immoral lives? I’m sure that’s part of it. Perhaps it also has to do with leaders who “thinking themselves wise, became as fools”—and Dom Gregory Murray (1905-1992), one of my favorite composers, is a case in point. He was a brilliant musician, but later in life decided the treasury of church music was essentially garbage.

In 1977, he published Music And The Mass, A Personal History, which attacks the views on church music articulated by Pius X and Thomas Aquinas. Although Murray previously spent his life promoting plainsong and polyphony, he condemns them in 1977, insisting that “pop-loving teenagers” should sing ‘folk Mass’ settings or “what they are accustomed to” (p. 74). I notice he nowhere addresses congregations with diversity (How many parishes consist entirely of pop-loving teenagers?), Murray calls the venerable Missa Lecta—which nourished so many saints!—“a not very attractive liturgical performance” (p. 71) which was “drab” and “joyless” (p. 70). On page 79, he even attacks the very idea of a church choir, even though Vatican II said: “choirs must be diligently promoted.”[3] Nor does Dom Murray hesitate to condemn 1,700 years of Church history as “a less satisfactory epoch of liturgical history” (p. 49).

But perhaps I’m being too hard on Murray. After all, the 1960s zeitgeist was unbelievably powerful and scores of clerics hopped on the bandwagon. Even the magnificent Fulton J. Sheen—whom I consider holy and brilliant—went off the track for a few years. At that time, the zeitgeist considered anything ancient, lofty, or ‘highbrow’ to be detrimental, outdated, and deserving of censure.

Ignorance, Not Malice

On a personal note, I have an irrational fear of anything unfamiliar. That is why I suspect much of the terrible church music employed in our churches is a result of ignorance, not malice. Moreover, some musicians disguise easy concepts with fancy words. For instance, a musician who wants to sound smart will say “anacrusis” instead of “pickup note.” Many phrases might sound scary, but actually are not: e.g. stretto, counter-exposition, invertible counterpoint, differentiae, and stepwise motion.

We must find the courage to abandon music unsuitable to the Holy Mass and replace it with the treasury of sacred music and foster it with great care. As a young man, my grandfather flew across the ocean to fight Hitler’s armies. If he could find the courage to face such an ordeal, surely we can tackle this musical challenge! Furthermore, the tools we have at our disposal—thanks to the internet—are light-years beyond what anyone could have imagined even a few decades ago. Anyone with an iPhone has free and instant access to millions of pages of scores, recordings, and instructional videos.

So how do we fix this problem? Let me suggest different ‘levels’ of approachability that I hope prove helpful:

(a) First Level: Metrical Hymns

The first level is the most accessible: metrical hymns which are theologically sound. An essential resource for such hymns is the Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal. Its pew book is 932 pages; its choral supplement is 1,192 pages; and its organ accompaniment (3 volumes) notates each and every verse for organists who also serve as cantors. This is the first time in history such a wonderful thing has been done. One of the main authors for the Church Music Association of America blog recently said (10 June 2022) the Brébeuf Hymnal “has no parallel and not even any close competitor. ” Here’s hymn #770 from the Brébeuf Hymnal, recorded by a volunteer choir on 21 August 2022:

The Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal (2018) • “Per Te Mundus Laetabundus” • Translated by Father Caswall from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.

The choir you hear is totally volunteer; no paid singers. It’s not from a cathedral; it’s from one of its diocese’s poorest parishes (no rectory, no school, no facilities, and so forth). Fewer than 5% of the singers can read music. If this choir can sing so beautifully, your parish choir can, too!

(b) Second Level: Gregorian Chant

Slightly less accessible than hymns—at least for the neophyte—would be Gregorian chant, which is also known as “plainsong.” Vatican II said Gregorian chant must normally be given “first place in liturgical services.”[4] One reason for that injunction is the venerable place given to plainsong by the Catholic Church over the last two millennia. The Gregorian repertoire is the oldest music in the world we can know with certainty—and nothing else comes close! Thanks to adiastematic notation, we can decipher manuscripts that stretch back approximately 300 years before men figured out how to notate music. Here’s an example of Gregorian chant, recorded by a volunteer choir on 21 August 2022:

“Kyrie VIII” (Gregorian Chant) • Live Rec. 8/21/2022 • Harmonies by Jeff Ostrowski (after Flor Peeters) from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.

Remember: the choir you hear on that video is totally volunteer, with no paid singers. I repeat: If that choir can sing with such beauty, your parish choir can, too!

(c) Third Level: Classical Polyphony

The tradition of the Church is variety, which explains why the official books contain 20+ Mass settings: Orbis Factor, Fons Bonitatis, Rex Genitor, Rex Splendens, De Angelis, Cum Jubilo, Alme Pater, and so forth. During the Middle Ages, there were as many as 200 different settings of the Agnus Dei. Composers also wrote polyphonic settings by the thousands. Indeed, Palestrina alone wrote 100+ Masses! And we have not even mentioned titans like Lassus, Morales, Byrd, Hassler, Verdelot, Nanino, Monteverdi, Pitoni, Gabrieli, Marenzio, Tallis, and Josquin.

Polyphony is slightly less accessible than plainsong, but we must realize that polyphony is based upon plainsong. Masters such as Father Francisco Guerrero—who numbers among the top five greatest composers of all time—start out with a plainsong melody. Then, using counterpoint, they place that melody in the various voices: soprano, alto, tenor, bass. Often, they will elongate the melody in one voice (augmentation) simultaneously speeding it up (diminution) in another. In another voice, they might flip it upside down (inversion), use it backwards (retrograde), or use just a portion of it. They might also employ other splendid techniques (stretto, counter-exposition, canon, etc.), all the while conforming to the difficult harmonic (vertical) and melodic (horizontal) rules of counterpoint. Here’s an example of polyphony, sung by that same volunteer choir we heard in the other videos:

Live Recording by a Volunteer Choir • “Sanctus & Hosanna” • Father Francisco Guerrero (d. 1599) from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.

A third time I say: Any parish choir can sing like that. Those are not professional singers, and several have been singing for less than two months. Because it’s polyphony, you must listen over and over before it starts to reveal to you its secrets.

(d) Fourth Level: Everything Else

Vatican II declared the Church’s treasury of sacred music “greater than any other art.” What a bold statement, especially in light of other sensational works of art (such as the Gothic cathedrals). We have not covered many genres of sacred music—that would take all day—but one thing I stress is that the “treasury” didn’t end in 1963; it continues even today! Contemporary polyphony can be ‘dark’ and poignant, such as this setting of Si Ambulavero from a new collection by composer Kevin Allen. Contemporary music can also sound bright and happy, such as this O Salutaris Hostia by Monsignor Jules Van Nuffel, a Belgian composer who wrote in a contemporary idiom.

Sometimes, sacred music has as its main purpose what might be called “triumphant celebration of God’s joy.” An example would be descants, added by shrewd choirmasters at the very end of Mass (during the final hymn verse):

(Live Rec.) “DESCANT VERSE” • Sacred Music Symposium 2022 from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.

When listening to those recordings, remember that no microphone can capture the phenomenal power of choral music in real life. As Vladimir Horowitz said: “Recordings are like a postcard. You buy the postcard to remember the sunset; but no postcard can replace a sunset.”

Delight in What is Good

Saint Thomas Aquinas reminded us that Almighty God has attached certain pleasures to certain important activities. For instance, Christian marriage includes certain pleasures; so does consumption of food and drink. This was intended by God. We are called to offer God our joys along with our sufferings. Singing beautiful choral music at Mass should be a delight, and there’s nothing wrong with that! Indeed, taking delight in the public worship of our Redeemer is something both good and holy.


[1] U.S. Const. amend. XIV, §1.

[2] Sacrosanctum Concilium, 4 December 1963: §114.

[3] SC: §114.

[4] SC §116.

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