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

by Mary Oberle Hubley

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It is important to make clear that music presented by means of mechanical reproduction such as that on tapes, records, or through manipulation of the synthesizer and its derivatives, is not appropriate for use in our churches and ought not to be admitted. For our Catholic liturgies are living and immediate prayer to the living God; for any aspect of them to lack genuineness and authenticity is a mockery of God the Creator, as well as of His creatures and of their sacred rites. This principle is especially urgent due to the Lord’s inestimable Gift to us in our churches: His Real Presence in the Eucharist.

Article 120 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states that although instruments other than the pipe organ “may be admitted for use in divine worship,” this may be “only on condition that the instruments are suitable for sacred use.”1 The increasing use of piano music is another and serious divergence from our Catholic tradition. As the child is father to the man, the particular style of a piece of music is largely determined by the instrument upon which it is performed. Since its development over a thousand years ago, the pipe organ has without exception been considered the church instrument par excellence. It goes without saying that it is appropriate for sacred use.

The piano, however, has been an exclusively secular instrument from its completion in the late eighteenth century. Its initial function was that of a recital instrument; the son of Bach, Johann Christian, gave the first public piano recital in 1768. Because of its relative portability compared to the pipe organ, it immediately enjoyed popularity not only in the concert halls but also in private homes, which is its most common locus to this day. The piano also enjoys the dubious distinction, for well over the last two hundred years, of presiding over entertainment proffered in public houses such as pubs, bars, saloons and cocktail lounges.

The use of the piano in our churches, with its heavy associations of entertainment - - from the most refined, to the most common, to the most bawdry - - reflects not only bad taste, but, also, a most irreligious blurring of moral distinctions. It overwhelmingly detracts from the sacred character of our churches and liturgies; and it does a disservice to the faithful who, again, are given a stone when they hunger for bread.

Now, twenty-five years after those heady days during and following Vatican II, the musical dust has settled in our parishes, convents, seminaries and other places of worship. The time is past due for a prayerful and honest re-assessment of the music dominating our churches and chapels.

Much of that music -- in style, textual content, instrumentation and by association -- is not proper to Roman Catholic worship and conducive to the sense of the sacred. Due in large part to this music, large numbers of our Catholic people (those who have not yet left) have been lulled into a soporific non-accountability before God and His Church.
"By their fruits you shall know them..." Are our people more disposed to personal, individual prayer following their communal prayer, or to less? Are they persuaded through their music to a greater acknowledgment of personal accountability? Are our people persuaded to a greater contrition? To a greater sense of that sine qua non, unworthiness before God?

Are our people more musically enriched in regard to hymns and texts reflective of Mary and her eminent place in the Church? Or do we still notice the absence of specifically Catholic themes such as those regarding Mary, the angels, the saints, the Sacred Heart: those devotions which, rather than diminishing our focus on the Mass, heighten and encourage it?

Does much of our music reflect a spiritual maturity and depth? Does it show a musical depth, or does it fall into the "Peter, Paul and Mary" style so prominent over the airwaves in the 1960s and 1970s? Does this superficiality produce in our people a concomitant superficiality? A warm, fuzzy benignness and tolerance? Do we sometimes sense a vague, congregational narcissism?

Paramount to our re-assessment is the question that will not be stilled: What has happened to our tradition, both musical and textual? Where is the Gregorian chant, that universal song of the Universal Church? Where is our Latin, guaranteed by the Council Fathers in the documents of Vatican II?

Our musical patrimony is an unparalleled and glorious one. "If the church of Rome had done no more than preserve a part of the treasures of ancient culture, a part of musical antiquity, this would be a great honor ... But Roman Catholicism has in fact created a great part of that musical inheritance of the human race, and in sacred music brought into existence the greatest treasury which exists today for singing the praise of God".2

The fact is that most, usually all, of what is used today in missalettes, hymnbooks or sheet music is a great departure from our Catholic musical inheritance and, it follows, from our Catholic identity as well.

Christian hymnody derived from the singing of psalms in the Jewish synagogues. After the legalization of Christianity by Constantine in 313, hymnody began a systematic development, flourishing earliest in Syria. The Byzantine Church adopted the practice and, in an unbroken continuity, hymns have occupied a prominent place in its liturgy.
In the West, the first book of hymn texts was composed by Saint Hilary of Poitiers in 360 AD. Soon after, Saint Ambrose instituted congregational singing of hymns.

In poetic form, these early hymns derived from Christian Latin poetry of the period; combined with early plainsong (chant) one syllable of text to each musical note was usual. However, by the late Middle Ages trained choirs supplanted the congregation in the singing of these hymns with the rise of polyphony, acknowledged to be the jewel in the crown of sacred music.

The Counter-reformation in the mid-sixteenth century stimulated the writing, again, of many fine Catholic hymns. A further revival of interest in the late nineteenth century eventually led to the English language Westminster Hymnal of 1940.

As in several times through our long history, we now again need faith-expressing texts set to strong, well-structured and truly musical melodies for use by our congregations. At the same time we need other compositions, both in Latin and in the vernacular, intended for choirs in their proper and essential role in the liturgy.

The repetition of Catholic teachings in our worship is essential to their acceptance and perseverance in Catholic life. When sacred texts are set to fine, appropriate music, they then penetrate the soul and nourish the holiness that all people are called to develop. Our Catholic people are starving for this means of holiness which it is their right to have.
The Second Vatican Council called upon composers to produce just this. Little by little such efforts will be forthcoming. We should be alert to find them and support their endeavors, always bearing in mind the charge to "bring out of your storeroom the old and the new."

Equally important, we should seek and employ in our parishes and schools those musicians not only conversant with but also gladly submissive to the principles enunciated in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. With the proper tools and support, the Director of Music can be a means of holiness,

... having regard for the purpose of sacred music, which is the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful. 3

 


Endnotes

1 Walter M. Abbott SJ, Gen. Ed., The Documents of Vatican II (The America Press/Association Press, 1966) Chapter 6, Article 120, par. 2, p. 173.

2 Johannes Overath, ed. Sacred Music and Liturgy Reform after Vatican II (Proceedings of the Fifth International Church Music Congress, Chicago-Milwaukee, August 21-28, 1966) (Rome, Italy: Consociato Internationalis Musicæ Sacræ) (CIMS) 1969 (Printed by North Central Publishing Company, Saint Paul MN), p. 255: Letter from Rector of Pontifical College of Sacred Music in Rome (Rt. Rev. Higinio Angles).

3 Walter M. Abbott SJ, Gen. Ed., The Documents of Vatican II (The America Press/Association Press, 1966) Chapter 6, Article 112, par. 4: p. 171.