After 35 years as a liturgical musician, it’s amazing how little I really know about the liturgical music of the Roman Rite.
Then again, what should I expect when my earliest memories of music at Mass tend to involve now-forgotten attempts to make Ray Repp tunes, guitar-group versions of Beatles songs, social-justice-pop-folk songs, and patently juvenile compositions like “Sons of God” and “Here We Are” seem at home in the most august Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?
When it comes to the “hermeneutic of discontinuity,” I lived the experience. Yet, despite the poverty of my personal liturgical roots, I’m convinced that things aren’t really as bad as some people today might think, in terms of the pre-Vatican II vs. post-Vatican II liturgical-music landscapes.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
No. They’re actually worse.
Why? Because the narrative is not really as simple as saying “we really had our liturgical-music act together before the Council, and after the Council everything collapsed.”
Rather, the more historically accurate narrative sounds like: “we really had only taken the first few baby-steps toward getting our liturgical-music act together in the decades before the Council, and then after the Council everything collapsed.”
It might be fairer to say that after the Council everything certainly changed, if not collapsed. Or at least that one specific change caused one particular collapse. I’m referring to the seismic shift in liturgical music that arose from the largely unrestrained embrace of the “vernacular” in the liturgy.
Chant’s Second Chance
A little context is in order before addressing the “vernacular” issue more directly.
A century ago, Pope St. Pius X took on the reform of liturgical music in a big way. Late nineteenth-century liturgical music had largely pushed Gregorian chant aside, and the patrimony of the Roman Rite’s most distinctive musical form was in danger of fading away. His 1903 motu proprio on sacred music “Tra Le Sollecitudini” sought to reclaim chant and minimize the damage that had been done by the “theatrical” or “concert” music that had made its way into liturgy via composers of secular classical music who also wrote beautiful performance works with religious content—Masses, oratorios, and the like—that were never appropriate for liturgy but had infiltrated it nonetheless.
The long-term project was to rediscover and reclaim the authentic root of chant, which had become covered in the overgrowth of centuries of adaptation and neglect. Thankfully, this pursuit was undertaken wholeheartedly by several key groups, and real progress was being made in allowing the Roman Rite to, once again, rely on its distinctive musical form in twentieth-century liturgy.
However, this all-important step was really only tenuously connected to another all-important question related to liturgical music: how might the recovery of chant impact the existing state of congregational singing at Mass?
Some Assembly Required
To my surprise, I’ve only recently come to learn that the Roman Rite has had a bit of an on-again/off-again relationship with the whole notion of liturgical singing done by anyone other than the clergy (remember, pre-Vatican II “clergy” included those in minor orders) or established choirs of the day. The people in the pews were not at all central to the notion of “liturgical” music, any more than they were at all central to providing the liturgical responses at Low Mass or High Mass (“Sung” or “Solemn”).
Yet the twentieth-century Magisterium did come down in favor of giving formation to the faithful such that they could at least minimally learn and participate in the chant that was being rediscovered. Granted, congregational singing of vernacular hymns was happening, but this was seen as distinct from the ceremonial-liturgical music that existed exclusively in Latin, not the vernacular.
Indeed, the real irony was that it was quite typically only in Masses that were not sung by the priest—that is, the completely unsung, recited Low Mass—that the more congregation-friendly vernacular hymns were permitted for use, as long as the unsung, recited Latin liturgical texts were delivered intact by server, choir, or even congregation. High Mass—necessarily sung by the priest and other “sacred ministers” (deacon, subdeacon) employing Gregorian chant, required chanted responses and prohibited any singing in the vernacular.
Precisely because everyone else in the liturgy besides the assembly—minor clergy, servers, choirs—had been trained to provide not only the sung chant but also all the appropriate Latin spoken responses, the people in the pews remained largely unexposed to the kind of education in chant envisioned in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Not only that, but it’s worth wondering—how many priests of that time were themselves well-trained to sing the Mass—that is, celebrate High Mass with all priestly parts necessitating expertise in Gregorian chant? I’m sure some could, and I hope many did, but I can’t help but imagine that recited Low Masses were much more prevalent in the average parishes, meaning that congregations were really focused not on the distinctive music of the Roman Rite, but really on hymns in the vernacular, if they did any singing at Mass at all. The patrimony of “real” liturgical music—that is, chant and polyphony in Latin—still rested largely in the hands and voices of clergy, choirs, and servers.
Mass Movement—From “Hearing” to “Praying”
Fast-forward to the era immediately preceding the Second Vatican Council, with the “Liturgical Movement” of that time focusing on getting people to move past the realm of “hearing” Mass amid favored private devotions prayed during it toward “praying the Mass” by at least following along with personal missals in the vernacular that could help a Catholic understand the spoken Latin. However, the reform of the liturgy took a turn headlong in the direction of accessibility—despite the Council’s insistence, in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, that “The use of Latin is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (36), and that Gregorian Chant “should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (116).
If any single thing could essentially derail the century-long project of reclaiming the Roman Rite’s chant and finally getting it into the pews, the unrestrained plunge into the vernacular could, and did, in my view. It’s pretty simple. If priest and assembly are no longer bound by a requirement to learn and use Latin in liturgy, and if liberation from Latin takes the shape of a tsunami throughout the Church, from priest to pewsitter, access to the patrimony of Latin-text music—both chant and polyphony—becomes utterly short-circuited.
Furthermore, that huge, whooshing, sucking sound we all heard by the mid-1960s was the immense vacuum created by the absence of any music in the vernacular that could really fill the void created by severing the connection to both the Church’s universal language and its universal music. It was also, in my view, the death rattle for the ambitious decades-long effort to restore and reconnect not only clergy and choirs but congregations to Gregorian chant.
Now, I’m sure there were exceptions found in many places—people in the pew who really did “get” the liturgy and its music in Latin. Perhaps some parishes sought to preserve the precious steps taken before the Council to give chant real pride of place even in the congregation’s singing. Even so, history seems clear—the swift and monumental movement from Latin to vernacular (in the US, to English) set the stage for a pretty immediate need for vernacular liturgical music—and a vernacular chant was just not waiting in the wings during this time. Not only that, but the existing vernacular Catholic hymns were never intended to do the work of Latin liturgical music, and were largely themed toward devotions rather than Mass.
“Attention, All Personnel….!!”
Thus, the Church in the US was treated to the musical “M*A*S*H” unit that was first to arrive on the scene, offering not “meatball surgery” but offering “meatball liturgy.” And it wasn’t very life-saving—at all. As the Mass hemorrhaged its Latin, the wound, scarcely cleaned, received the Bandaid of the banal texts and melodies that at least initially came largely from the pop-folk era previously inaugurated by the 1957-1958 Kingston Trio smash hit “Tom Dooley.” By the mid-1960s, the exuberant and carefree folk revival had given way to protest music and politics, and that volatile mix of elements gave us that visceral novelty of “now” liturgical music (so called) in the vernacular—guitars and even banjos mercilessly subjecting the faithful to everything from “Sounds of Silence” to “Let It Be” to Catholic “youth” music like “Wake Up, My People,” “Till All My People Are One,” “Allelu,” “To Be Alive,” and “Joy Is Like the Rain.”
Now, fifty years later, the discontinuity does indeed seem staggering. It leaves liturgical music in a sort of limbo. The legitimacy of the pre-conciliar effort to restore chant must be reconnected with the legitimacy of the post-conciliar openness to organically growing new liturgical music from that root.
How much different would things have been if there had been real continuity? Well, I’m pretty sure a young believer like me, destined to be a liturgical musician for more than 30 years, would have benefitted greatly from hearing way more Latin, more chant, more Latin polyphony—anything that would have made it clear to me that these are truly the hallmarks of our Roman-Rite tradition. In my view, it’s not merely a missed opportunity for the Mass itself, but it’s a missed opportunity for me as a Catholic.
Mass is not supposed to make me musically comfortable—it’s supposed to make me more holy.
Some may say that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but I’m here to tell you: singing “If I Had a Hammer,” “Get Together,” and “Day by Day” at Mass never, not once, made me feel stronger—or holier. Let’s reclaim our rightful patrimony and try to rediscover—yet again—the liturgical music roots of the Roman Rite.