Mahrt, William, Sacred Music
The sacredness of the liturgy is axiomatic for a journal called Sacred Music; yet it is also axiomatic for a church whose most recent council issued its first document as a Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy called Sacrosanctum Concilium, the sixth chapter of which was entitled "Sacred Music." The sacredness of the liturgy was also axiomatic for the tradition before the council, especially beginning with Pope St. Pius X, whose Motu Proprio Tra le sollecitudini gave "sanctity" as one of the three characteristics of sacred music. This all suggests that music must be the vehicle of maintaining the sacredness of the liturgy, at least when it is music that is unambiguously sacred.
Pope Benedict XVI and Pope John Paul II before him emphasize the necessity of reading the council documents in the light of tradition, a process they name "the hermeneutic of continuity." Yet in the sixties the change to the vernacular and particularly to a mediocre translation unwittingly played into the hands of those cultivating the "hermeneutic of discontinuity," and it was followed by a period when music often compromised rather than fostered the sanctity of the liturgy.
It is now high time to reconnect with the tradition and to restore a sense of sacrality to the celebration of the liturgy throughout the church. One of Pope Benedict's purposes in encouraging the more frequent celebration of the extraordinary form was to hold up a mirror of sacrality to the ordinary form. Many of us look to the old rite itself as a kind of ideal, and this is understandable, since the preponderance of the treasury of sacred music was formed in that context. Moreover, for some of us, it was the liturgy we grew up with. But even if one were to hold that the extraordinary form is the more perfect form and seek to cultivate it exclusively--something completely admissible for individuals--as musicians and as an organization devoted to the cultivation of sacred music, we have a larger responsibility. Since the ordinary form is the norm in the parishes and cathedrals, the recovery of the sacrality of the liturgy in this form is essential. A slow, gradual improvement on a broad scale is necessary. The council gave Gregorian chant first place in the liturgy and also gave classical polyphony and organ music a special role, and the increased use of these can very well be an important step.
There are significant obstacles: 1) many musicians in the parishes have no formation in Gregorian chant; in fact, some of them have been hired from Protestant traditions, perhaps with the implicit assumption that this will insure and improve the Protestant model, the four-hymn sandwich; 2) some pastors do not see the centrality of music to the liturgy, sometimes being openly hostile to chant and polyphony; 3) congregations have become accustomed to the hymns or "songs" that have completely replaced the Propers of the Mass, and the question is reported to have been asked by a member of one congregation, "Why can't we have the good old Catholic music, like 'On Eagles' Wings'"?
On the other hand, many more pastors are becoming supportive of just that repertory--chant and polyphony. According to Musicam Sacram ([paragraph] 28--30), the repertory of chant includes three general categories, 1) the recitatives and simple formulae by which the priest sings his parts and engages in dialogues with the congregation, 2) the Ordinary of the Mass, generally sung by the congregation, and 3) the Proper of the Mass. All three of these categories can make a significant contribution to the sacrality of the Mass. When the priest sings his parts, his delivery is lifted up from the conversational tone of the everyday, which we all too often hear in the liturgy; when he sings his parts it is unambiguously clear that he is doing something sacred. Moreover, the lively alternation of priest and people singing is a vivid representation of the respective roles, enhanced by the melodic and rhythmic vitality of singing. …