Our Beautiful Country of France

By Fielding, Thomas | The American Organist, February 2019 | Go to article overview

Our Beautiful Country of France


Fielding, Thomas, The American Organist


The Easter Gradual Haec Dies as found in the Paroissien romain noté en plain-chant of 1874

IN the wake of the French Revolution of 1789, the whole of Europe spent the next century coming to terms with the violence and ideals that came from this bloody crusade. The Roman Catholic Church was not exempt from the turbulence of the 19th century. As she witnessed the slow erosion of her temporal power in the loss of the Papal States, she reacted by promoting an increased centralization of authority upon the whole of the Church in an ideological movement generally known as ultramontanism. In literal translation, ultramontanism simply means "beyond the Alps" and refers to the geographic location of Rome to the rest of the continent. In practical application, it refers to the systematic suppression of independent ecclesiastical governance and historical, local liturgical customs in favor of all things Roman. After the Revolution, nationalism came to refer to the Republican ideals of liberté, fraternitě, égalité. However, for our purposes, I will use "nationalism" here to refer to general patriotism while retaining "Gallicanism" as referring to the attitude of the independence of the French Church from Rome. Widor's use in his Symphonie romane, Op. 73 (1900), of a distinctively Lyonnaise form of the Easter gradual "Haec Dies quam fecit," first published in 1669 by Pierre Valfray, can be read in this cultural, political, and religious context as a strong indicator of Widor's love for the long history of French Catholicism that he felt was undergoing a direct assault by the ultramontane agenda. Widor's resistance to these efforts, as evidenced in his own writings, reached a glorious climax in his Symphonie romane.

The year 1870 in France marked the beginning of the Third French Republic. All of France was ravaged by political turmoil and an abysmal economy. The rise of industrialization had forced huge numbers of laborers out of work as machines replaced their jobs. Strong nationalist and xenophobic sentiments were rampant. Warfare raged throughout Europe, and the French under the leadership of Napoleon III suffered a debilitating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War by Emperor Otto von Bismarck's army. Until the Franco-Prussian War broke out, the Pope enjoyed great military assistance from the French Second Empire to guard Rome and all the Papal States. The war, however, required the mobilization of all French troops within France itself that left Rome unguarded. Italy declared war on the Papal States on September 10, 1870, and Rome was in the hands of the Italians a mere ten days later.

Pope Pius IX had convened the First Vatican Council on June 29, 1868, and its main assertion was that of supreme papal authority in spiritual matters in the declaration of papal infallibility; the Council was cut short once the war broke out. He had already single-handedly defined the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 without consulting an episcopal council, thereby demonstrating the autonomous infallibility that would be defined by this council. The centralization of papal power and authority, commonly called the "Romanization" of the Church, had a unique liturgical and musical manifestation in the further imposition of the Roman Rite and of Gregorian chant on the whole of the French Catholic Church.

The Gallican liturgy was, along with the Roman Rite, one of the oldest in Europe. Throughout the Middle Ages, each French region, indeed, in many cases each city, developed local variations to the general Gallican customary. After the 1802 Concordat, the French ultramontanes along with advocates of this ideology throughout Europe began to actively combat local corruptions of worship. …

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