Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Musicam Sacram + 50

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the post-conciliar Instruction Musicam Sacram, which, despite its felicitous name, was ironically contemporaneous with the virtual disappearance of traditional sacred music in many  communities and its replacement by "folk" and other musical idioms more secular in inspiration. Pope Francis himself, speaking last week to participants at an International Conference on Sacred Music, recently added his own comments to the unending discussion about liturgical music, suggesting sacred music has sometimes suffered from mediocrity, superficiality, and banality. His comments are available for reading on the Holy See's website - but only in Italian!

In my opinion, perhaps the most radical thing that Musicam Sacram did was to breakdown the previously absolute wall between sung Mass and low Mass. It introduced the principle that some parts of the Mass might be sung without requiring that all the traditionally sung elements in a sung Mass must in fact be sung. One curious consequence of this was the widespread disappearance of the practice of singing the Creed, for example. Even more significant, however, by effectively releasing celebrants with limited musical skill from the obligation to sing the celebrant's parts, it largely eliminated the celebrant's musical role and made musical education in seminary seem unnecessary. For example, had I been a seminarian a little earlier, I would presumably have learned the basics of chant. Most likely I would never have become an accomplished singer, but I would at least have been able competently to read the music for the celebrant's parts and to execute them at a minimum standard of acceptability. As a seminarian in the 1980s, however, I never received even an hour of musical training. Hence the common situation in which some parts traditionally sung by the celebrant (e.g., the intonation of the Gloria) have been taken over by musically trained laypersons, while the rest (e.g., the Preface) are usually simply recited.

At the time of Musicam Sacram and ever since, the dominant debate has been about the suitability of the secular musical forms which were introduced into the liturgy, forms which in those early days were often of the guitar-based "folk" idiom. It cannot be denied that some of that music was actually reasonably good music and did genuinely appeal to its audience - a generation, some of whom nostalgically cling to it even today. Of course, one of the motivations for introducing such music was the (even then) dubious theory that that music would somehow appeal to young people and so somehow keep them in the Church. That it could not accomplish any such outcome and in fact failed abysmally at it should not have come as a surprise. Whether good or bad, no music should not have been burdened with the expectation that it could accomplish such an outcome. Today, of course, those who nostalgically cling to the musical innovations of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, etc., sometimes still make analogous claims, despite the obvious fact that their music in no way resembles the music of contemporary young people and makes no actual connection with young people today. 

But the real problem, I think, with what happened to liturgical music in the post-conciliar period is rooted in what immediately preceded it. Liturgically traditional communities today regularly celebrate sung Masses, and they generally celebrate them well, both ceremonially and musically. But that was hardly the experience of most American Catholics on the eve of the liturgical changes. Most American Catholics sadly seldom experienced sung Mass at all - usually only at funerals, Christmas Midnight Mass, and (for the really devout) the special liturgies of Holy Week and Forty Hours. The Sunday High Mass was faithfully celebrated in parishes, but it was seldom the best attended Mass. Most people fulfilled their Sunday obligation at a 30-40 minute low Mass. Other than the hymns at Benediction, most American Catholics had very little familiarity with Catholic liturgical music. (One of my relatives once dismissively said of sung Masses, "Who needs them?") The "folk" Masses and other subsequent musical fads did not replace the Church's rich musical heritage for most American Catholics. They replaced an absence of music.

I myself as a teenager, very much influenced by the pre-conciliar liturgical movement, was perhaps atypical in my preference for sung Mass. But, even so, my exposure to the rich and diverse treasury of traditional sacred music was modest - Gregorian chant as sung by my parish's choir of men and boys and a smattering of sacred polyphony (probably Palestrina). The first time I heard something as elaborate as Mozart's Requiem was January 19, 1964, when it was sung at a televised Pontifical Requiem Mass Cardinal Cushing celebrated at Boston's cathedral for the recently assassinated President Kennedy. (Even Kennedy's actual funeral Mass on November 25, 1963, however, had been a low Mass!)

It has often been suggested that the original aim of the liturgical renewal was to eliminate the low Mass and to restore the sung liturgy to its traditional and proper place in Catholic life by facilitating people's more effective participation in it. In retrospect, however, what happened instead was more like the effective elimination of the traditional sung liturgy in favor of a continuation of a kind of low Mass - now embellished with various musical elements of various genres, some good and perhaps worthy of liturgical use, much of it not.. 

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