Reviving the ‘sleeping beauty’ of sacred song
Upon the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the hearts of the apostles were filled with wondrous joy on Easter Sunday. In a similar way, the hearts of many faithful today are elated at the return of sacred music into the life of the Church.
Plainchant, or singing in one melodic line (usually without instrumental accompaniment) has likely been with the Christian liturgy since the beginning of the Church. Different forms of plainchant developed in various regions (such as the Ambrosian variety in Milan, Italy, Gallican in present-day France and surrounding areas, and Sarum chant in Salisbury, England). Gregorian chant became the most popular by far, becoming the official liturgical music, not only for a region, but for the whole Roman rite.
Named after Pope Saint Gregory the Great, who reigned as pontiff from 590 to 604, Gregorian chant has a free, flowing rhythm. While there is an overall sound easily recognized as Gregorian, there are variations of this type of chant based on which part of the Mass or Divine Office is being sung. It does have a monophonic nature, but not one that is monotonous.
In the Middle Ages, independent chant lines began to be sung at the same time, resulting in an early form of polyphony called organum. This developed into Renaissance polyphony, which added beautifully “textured” ornamentation to the liturgy. Composers such as convert William Byrd in England, Orlande de Lassus in presentday Belgium, and Tomas Luis de Victoria in Spain helped to advance the cause of beauty in sacred song from 1400 to 1600.
No one is given more credit for this advancement than Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, an Italian whose polyphonic contributions were lauded by many not only inside the Church, but outside it as well, including by Johann Sebastian Bach. Palestrina was praised by Pope Saint Pius X in his 1903 motu proprio Tra Le Sollecitudini, writing that Renaissance (or “classical”) polyphony “agrees admirably with Gregorian Chant, the supreme model of all sacred music, and hence it has been found worthy of a place side by side with Gregorian Chant, in the more solemn functions of the Church…”
Music That Rises Again
Despite Pope Saint Pius X’s endorsement of music “worthy of the temple” that was reiterated by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, chant and polyphony were nowhere to be found in the average American parish in the latter half of the 20th century.
As the Church’s official music was being pushed out of parishes, it was gaining popularity in the culture at large. The ancient melodies were so moving to souls that they could not be completely repressed.
The Benedictine monks of Solesmes, France started recording chant all the way back in 1930 under the direction of Dom Joseph Gajard. In the early 1980s the monks of Solesmes began their association with Paraclete Press, which today is the sole North American distributor of their CDs, ranging from Christmas Masses to Easter Masses and many things (including the Divine Office) in between.
Paraclete Press also distributes the music of Gloriae Dei Cantores, an ecumenical choir formed in 1988 on the foundation of Gregorian chant. They have produced albums such as The Chants of Angels, which has sold over 23,000 copies and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, which has sold over 15,000. The numbers are even better for the monks of Solesmes, with their Vespers and Compline album selling over 40,000 copies.
While those stats are very respectable in the Catholic media world, they’re no match for the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain when it comes to commercial success. The monks released a CD in 1994 that was simply called Chant, and the results were astonishing. This collection of plainchant with a plain title became the most popular sacred music album ever, with over six million copies sold worldwide.
Rebuilding Musical Foundations
Chant is obviously relevant today, which explains the existence of groups such as the Church Music Association of America, the Saint Gregory Institute of Sacred Music, and the Saint Michael Foundation for Polyphony and Chant— all of which promote sacred music according to the mind of the Church.
The oldest and largest of these groups is the Church Music Association of America (CMAA). Founded in 1964 in connection with Pope Saint Paul VI’s sacred music association, Consociatio Internationalis Musicae Sacrae, the CMAA facilitates the resurgence of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony through online resources, in-person events, and the publication of choir books and its quarterly journal, Sacred Music.
The managing editor of Sacred Music, Dr. Jennifer Donelson, also teaches young men studying for the priesthood about singing in the Church’s worship. As sacred music director of Saint Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York, she has the opportunity to take general liturgical goodwill and apply specific principles and instructions. Nicholas Lemme does the same at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska, and Nicholas Will does it at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.
Will is also the founder of the newest of the chant and polyphony groups, the Saint Gregory Institute of Sacred Music. Will started the Institute after encountering a plethora of musicians who were eager to perform sacred music but had no training in that area.
“Young people entering college are more interested in sacred music than in the past,” Will stated, “but there are also numerous musicians who have already obtained an undergraduate degree but do not find it feasible to enroll in graduate studies for sacred music. That’s where the Saint Gregory Institute comes into play.”
Will, who is in Rome for the 2019-2020 school year, oversaw the first “intensive” courses for the Saint Gregory Institute this summer in Pittsburgh and looks forward to when he will be back in the United States permanently so he can run semester-long courses—and resume his duties as coordinator of the sacred music program at Franciscan University of Steubenville. In the meantime, he is giving lessons via the Internet.
During the few years the Saint Michael Foundation has existed, its founder, Christopher Mueller, realized his organization was meant mostly to encourage non-musicians to promote sacred music. Mueller, who provided the music for a December 2008 Legatus Gala in New York City, sees laypeople not as idle listeners but actively receptive listener and congregational singers who can share the importance of sacred music with others.
“We have helped musicians to start chant programs and we have given concerts and handed out sheet music,” Mueller said, “but most of all we encourage the people in the pews to speak about this music to their pastors and to talk to other lay faithful about the importance of music in bringing reverence and beauty to the liturgy.”
This was a topic central to the pontificate of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who had a special appreciation for sacred music. The former Holy Father was quoted in the pre-papal Ratzinger Report as saying that “If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection?”
This radiance shone forth in the second-century martyr Saint Cecilia, whose feast day is November 22. Neither the threat of torture nor the torture itself prevented her from clinging to the promised resurrection of the dead in Christ. She also became the patroness of musicians, making her especially relevant today as sacred music comes back to life in the Church.
TRENT BEATTIE is a Legatus magazine contributing writer.