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Sacred music: Echoing on Earth the heavenly choir

Groupe de jeunes filles


Diane Montagna - published on 01/03/17

An interview with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski on the choir’s role in the Catholic Church today

What are the origins of choirs? Why did the Second Vatican Council call the musical tradition of the universal Church “a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art”? And do trained choirs really have a place in the Church today?

To answer these and other questions, we asked Peter Kwasniewski, professor and choirmaster at Wyoming Catholic College, for an interview on the topic of choirs in the Church. (Dr. Kwasniewski gave a three-part interview to Aleteia back in August on his path as a composer, the Church’s perennial teaching on sacred music, and practical steps to bring it to your community: see Part I, Part II, and Part III.)

Under his direction, the College’s choir and schola have assisted at Masses almost every Sunday and Holy Day of the academic year since the inception of the school ten years ago, have sung for special occasions like ordinations, weddings, and requiems, and have recorded a number of Advent and Christmas CDs. The role of Catholic music is so important to the College that it is even mentioned in the College’s founding document, the Philosophical Vision Statement.

Peter Kwasniewski in Norcia (3)
Courtesy of Peter Kwasniewski

Dr. Kwasnieski, what do we know about the origins of choirs in the Catholic Church?

In the Old Testament, especially in Chronicles and in the subtitles to the Psalms, we see that the ancient Hebrews already deployed a well-developed team of singers and musicians to chant their liturgies. Naturally, this custom would have continued in the early Church, indebted as it was to Jewish precedents, and influenced by the strong connection found in all religions (including those of Greece and Rome) between cultic activity and ceremonial music. The early Christians tended towards a certain sobriety and simplicity in their chanting: they were attracted to the primacy of the Word, the Logos, and wanted to put behind them the carnal indulgence characteristic of much of the ancient world’s popular religiosity. From what we can tell, Christian music of antiquity was a relatively unadorned chanting of sacred texts. A close comparison might be the antiphons and psalm tones of the Divine Office.

But when did choirs as such come into being?

No matter how enthusiastic the baptized are, musical talents will never be evenly distributed among the members of the body—nor should we expect them to be, if we think of St. Paul’s teaching about the variety of gifts given by the Spirit. There will always be, for example, the cantor who can sing more easily, beautifully, and edifyingly. As the Church’s liturgy developed in the post-Constantinian period, the chants of worship became more important, elaborate, and numerous. They became a genuine artistic corpus demanding skill of execution. Thus were born the first scholae cantorum or chant choirs. While more familiar and repeated chants, such as the Mass Ordinary and the congregational responses, would have been sung by all present, as they are today at parishes in touch with the Church’s musical heritage, the scholae came into being for the melismatic (melodiously complex and extended) chants. For the first millennium, of course, we are speaking only of monophonic or single-part music. Polyphony did not emerge until the second millennium, and with its birth, the choir, in our sense of the word, was born.

Say more about the development of polyphony in the Church.

Prior to early experiments in organum or harmonized chant, the music you would have heard in church was Gregorian chant. It is comparatively easy to sing chant with a large group and still stay together, as when Catholics today sing a plainchant Gloria or Credo. But once those enterprising medieval composers began working with multiple simultaneous parts, you had a surprisingly quick development of music for experts who could tune to each other, keep exact time, and do all that a succesful performance requires.

Over a few centuries this acorn grew into the majestic oak tree that we call Renaissance polyphony—from the School of Notre Dame to Machaut, Ockeghem to Du Fay, Josquin to Palestrina, Victoria to Byrd. The resulting body of work, comprising thousands upon thousands of Masses, motets, and other choral works, is unlike anything the world had ever known before or has ever known since. It is music of spiritual peace and sensuous beauty, prayerful intensity, spacious thought, purified emotions, lofty aspirations, modesty and naturalness. It flows along with the gentle rhythmic pulse of chant, it sparkles with the suppleness of the medieval modes. As music of the highest artistic excellence, inspired by centuries of Catholic faith and nurtured in an age of liturgy in its full splendor, Renaissance polyphony is second only to chant itself in its perfect suitability for the public, formal, solemn worship of God. It is music wholly in service of the sacred text and of the sacred liturgy. It is sanctified and sanctifying music.

How did this development affect the role of the choir in the liturgy?

Polyphony is demanding. You need singers who are well trained and who really understand the character of the music. So it is not music for everyone to sing, but music for some to sing, while everyone else gets to listen to it as part of a collective act of worship in which each plays his or her own part.

So the choir obviously became very important. Did this marginalize the people, as some say?

It depends a great deal on the century you are looking at, as well as the geographical area. From what I have read, it seems that popular liturgical chanting was found in many places and times throughout Church history, but choirs did occasionally eclipse that involvement and risked turning the liturgy into something more like a performance.

The popes from St. Pius X onwards, concerned about the replacement of congregational chanting with second-rate concert performances, urged the faithful to be instructed in chant so that they could sing the parts of the Mass that pertain to them. (Vatican II stated explicitly: “Steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them,” Sacrosanctum Concilium [SC] 54.) The healthy instinct of the Church has always been for a wise balance between liturgical singing in which everyone can participate and liturgical singing that is rightly entrusted to choirs or scholas. As John Paul II and Benedict XVI taught, choirs dedicated to this more exalted repertoire perform a genuine service for the faithful themselves, by lifting their minds to the sublime beauty of God and prompting interior acts of praise, blessing, adoration, glorification, contrition, and thanksgiving.

Your mention of Vatican II makes me want to raise a common objection. Many today will say that trained choirs no longer have a role, because all the liturgical music should be sung by all the people. Was this the Council’s teaching?

This is one of the greatest and most damaging fallacies promoted after the Council, by people who should have known better. The Council’s constitution on the sacred liturgy gives a more nuanced teaching that includes both an emphasis on congregational participation and the indispensable role of trained choirs—the familiar “both/and” of Catholicism. How can we forget such a statement as this: “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art” (SC 112). Astonishing. Our tradition in music is a treasure of greater value than that of any other art—think of all the great architecture, sculpture, painting, vestments, vessels, furnishings, and yet the musical heritage of the centuries is worth more than all of these!

The Council goes on to say that sacred music is so special because it is intimately bound up with the very words of the liturgy, and “adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, and confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites.” Then the Fathers tell us quite specifically: “The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care” (SC 114). You can’t do this by chucking it out the window, ignoring it, or downgrading it! They continue: “Choirs must be diligently promoted,” as long as they do not take away from the people the participation that is due to them. This means that the people sing what belongs to their role—not that they sing everything. The Council never says that the people should sing everything, and they could never have said it without doing violence to the entire history of liturgy over the past 3,000 years. The liturgy involves many roles, many elements, many levels of music, and all should have their due place.

Finally, not content with generalities, the Council Fathers single out chant and polyphony for special praise: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given chief place in liturgical services” (SC 116). This “other things being equal,” ceteris paribus, means that even if other types of music were to be taken as equal, Gregorian chant should still enjoy the “chief place” (this is closer to the Latin original than “pride of place”) because it is the chant specially suited to the Roman liturgy, the one that grew up with it from its infancy and was always the musical vesture of its texts. Then they continue: “But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations [by chant’s pride of place], so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.” Note: especially polyphony. Could anything have been clearer? Alas, it was not for want of clarity that sacred music was destroyed, but because of ideological commitments to a suppositious “People’s Liturgy” that had no real existence in Church history and could have no real existence in theology.

You have made it clear that the Council is favorable to traditional sacred music and to the contribution made by choirs. Do recent popes endorse this teaching, too?

In one of the most important addresses on the liturgy he ever gave—the ad limina address to the bishops of the Northwestern United States in October 1998—Pope John Paul II went to enormous lengths to correct a one-sided view of active participation that was (and still is) far too prevalent:

“The sharing of all the baptized in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ is the key to understanding the Council’s call for ‘full, conscious and active participation’ in the liturgy. Full participation certainly means that every member of the community has a part to play in the liturgy; and in this respect a great deal has been achieved in parishes and communities across your land. But full participation does not mean that everyone does everything, since this would lead to a clericalizing of the laity and a laicizing of the priesthood; and this was not what the Council had in mind. The liturgy, like the Church, is intended to be hierarchical and polyphonic, respecting the different roles assigned by Christ and allowing all the different voices to blend in one great hymn of praise. Active participation certainly means that, in gesture, word, song and service, all the members of the community take part in an act of worship, which is anything but inert or passive. Yet active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshipers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural.”

John Paul II speaks here of how important it is for the faithful to learn the art of “active listening.” Here is where some soul-searching is necessary. How often do we let the words of the liturgy float right over our heads, while our minds are a thousand miles away? How often do we say the words of the liturgy without even being conscious we have said them? The vernacularization of the Mass had a lot to do with this problem, since it fostered the illusion that as long as something is in your native language, you’ll pay attention to it and make it your own. Not only is this not necessarily true, but experience has often shown the opposite. The vernacular is our comfort zone, where we can take much for granted, where “half-listening” is terribly easy. On the other hand, when people encounter Latin in the liturgy, this strange and hieratic language often compels them to sit up and pay attention, to wonder what is being said and why. The very language proclaims that we are engaged in an act that is not an ordinary affair, that we are entering a time and space set aside, consecrated to God alone.

But to get back to John Paul II’s point: the faithful may internalize the chants and music of the liturgy, so that the message they carry, particularly through the beauty of the melodies and harmonies, become the seed of meditation and contemplation, drawing us more intimately into the mystery of God. I would go further and argue that we are more in need of the earnest beauty of traditional sacred music today than ever. For many who are trapped within the narrow and artificial confines of modernity, great sacred music—especially from past centuries—can help us break free and reach beyond those confines, to catch a glimpse of the wonder of God, the enchanted cosmos, and the promise of a new heavens and a new earth. It is a potent aid to reverence, devotion, recollection, and self-transcendence.

Read Part II of our interview with Dr. Peter Kwasnieswki here.

LiturgySacred Music
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