Stones Instead of Bread: Reflections on Contemporary Hymns: Part IX

by Mary Oberle Hubley

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Music is made sacred by its association to other, related factors, each of which is indispensable:

By association with the occasion (or purpose)
By association with a sacred text
By association with that which is set apart, or separate from the worldly or profane
By association with what is truly art
By association with a particular tradition

Adherence to this eminent principle undergirds the very essence of musical integrity and unity within our liturgies; but for a large number of Catholics, especially those of the last two generations, it is nearly meaningless.

With the modern West looking on, millions upon millions of ethnic peoples are now repudiating the monotonous tyrannies of their despotic rulers. Long suppressed manifestations of nationalistic and ethnic traditions in dance, dress, song, language and literature are being tearfully and hungrily embraced. Children, young people, and all those denied their cultural patrimony from forty to as many as seventy years now eagerly absorb the long-denied right to their cultural heritage. So essential were these traditions to the very soul of these peoples that, bereft of them, their spirits were impoverished; they despaired of their identity as a people: they did not know who they were. Such is the preciousness of tradition!

It is good for us -- denizens of modernity -- to learn the lesson that history is teaching us through the peoples of Eastern and Central Europe. As we approach the second millennium of our Roman Catholic faith, we are witness to the enshrinement of the new and now in most of our parishes and churches in America. Our spirits have been impoverished because of the general lack of musical tradition in our rites; we (especially those growing up in the wake of Vatican II) have been largely bereft of our Catholic identity. We have had a difficult time knowing who we were as Roman Catholics, the majority of us (those still remaining) distinguishing little difference between the music in our liturgies and that of non-Catholic services.

Although little heeded, the Constitution the Sacred Liturgy (especially the sixth chapter dealing with sacred music) lays down in explicit and uncompromising terms that:

The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved
and fostered with very great care.1

We were charged with the glad duty to preserve (and be enriched by!) the Church's imposing patrimony of Sacred Music. And yet now, surveying the near triumph of modernity in our churches and the consequent rejection of our musical heritage, one is at first overwhelmed.

Great is the difference between what, in fidelity to the Council, ought to be versus what, instead, exists. It is, in fact, a commonplace that the last two generations of our Catholics have no idea of what their musical tradition consists. Truly, a musical "ground zero" began thirty years ago. However may we go about repairing the breach?

First it is comforting to realize that the apparent unanimity of assent in departure from our musical roots was not that at all. For rather than being met with a surge of enthusiasm, the "new music" was imposed upon a confused and resisting laity by a small, powerful and well-orchestrated bureaucracy.2 Still amongst us, but immeasurably more powerful, well-financed, and virtually unchallenged, this "pastoral" music bureaucracy plays Goliath to the David of honest adherence to Vatican II.

“Music is made sacred by its association with
the Roman Catholic tradition."

Since this tradition is usually not in evidence in our churches, then, it is essential to turn to the uncompromising principles of Chapter VI of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. A thorough reading of this document is not only a pleasure, but a necessity. Among other tenets, it stipulates that:

... Choirs must be diligently promoted (114)
... Teachers are to be carefully trained and put in charge of the teaching of sacred music (115)
... The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as proper to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services (116)
... Other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations (116)
... It is desirable, also, that an edition (of Gregorian chant) be prepared containing simpler melodies, for use in small churches (117)
... The voices of the faithful may ring out according to the norms and requirements of the rubrics (118)
... The pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument, and one that adds a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man's mind to God and to heavenly things (120)
... Composers ... should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures (121) 3

Also, from Chapter II of the same Constitution, specifically Article 54:

In Masses which are celebrated with the people, a suitable place may be allotted to their mother tongue ... Nevertheless, steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.4


Endnotes

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