Josef Gabriel Rheinberger and the Reform of Catholic Church Music Part II

By Weber, Paul | The American Organist, November 2014 | Go to article overview

Josef Gabriel Rheinberger and the Reform of Catholic Church Music Part II


Weber, Paul, The American Organist


This is a continuation of an article that began in the October issue of TAO.

V. Rheinberger and the Caecilians

In 1878, the year after assuming the position of Royal Kapellmeister, Josef Gabriel Rheinberger wrote an expansive, unaccompanied Mass for double choir. His Op. 109 Mass in Eflat was dedicated to Pope Leo XIII, a dedication that pleased the pontiff enough to honor the composer with the Knight's Cross of the Order of St. Gregory the following year. While Rheinberger received the approval of his work from the highest possible ecclesiastical authority, author HansJosef Irmen asserts that the Mass, aside from being an act of religious devotion and a masterful piece of music, is a direct challenge to the Caecilian Movement.1 When we take a broad view of the history of church music in 19th-century Munich, what is notable about this is that the top church musician in the city, a city that had employed the principal reformers of sacred music in the first half of the 19th century, might find himself in conflict with the leaders of the Caecilian Society. Of further interest is that Rheinberger, who had been trained in Munich by those earlier reformers, might have reason to suspect that by writing a Mass in Latin for unaccompanied, double choir he might elicit criticism from supporters of sacred-music reform in southern Germany.

A shift had occurred, by the late 19th century, toward austerity in church music-a shift that was characterized by a renewed interest in liturgical rubricism, a suspicious attitude toward secularism, an increasing historicism fueled by the new field of musicology, the 19th-century nationalistic trends that affected the desire to promote a Catholic identity, and a real concern with improving the quality of music in churches.2 All of these cultural trends preceded and led to the founding of the Allgemeinen Cäcilienvereien by F.X. Witt in 1868. Two years later, Witt applied for papal recognition of his new society, and in the papal brief granting recognition, Multum ad Commovendos Animos ("Much Effort to Be Done to Influence Souls"), the Vatican outlines the purpose of the new music society:

1. Gregorian chant is to be cultivated; figured polyphonic music is allowed, as long as it conforms to ecclesial law.

2. Congregational hymns and devotions are tolerated insofar as canon law permits.

3. The use of the organ and the "toleration of other instruments" are to be precisely regulated by church law.

4. In smaller, rural churches, these laws are to guide the betterment of church music.3

Naturally, a document intended to regulate a new Catholic society emanating from the Vatican would contain numerous references to canon law. However, a preoccupation with ecclesiastical authority and regulations was typical of the new generation of reformers in Germany. Consider the following statement by Witt, concerning the role of music in church:

Our liturgy is primarily a priestly one, and not only with respect to the sacrament itself, but also with respect to the external celebration and song. Thus, the Church's notion of the participation of the people in singing only through the responses corresponds entirely to Christ's notion of his Church. And the choir that sings at High Mass is a priestly choir-i.e., a clerical choir, not a people's choir. And this is the dignity, the noble ideal of the choir ... We have lost the notion of the priestly character of the choir. "*

Writing elsewhere, Witt asserts that "The faithful, through their prayers, have no significant influence [upon the celebration of the liturgy], but the choir does; the faithful are participants, but the choir is the co-worker, co-instrument of the solemn Mass." He concludes that "the people have no right to sing in church" other than the responses.5

These sorts of statements made their way into later papal legislation on sacred music, proving the strong influence of the German Caecilians on the Catholic Church in the decades leading up to the 20th century. …

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