Church Music after Vatican II

Review by Daniel H. Martins

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of what is arguably the single most influential event in Christian history since the Reformation: the Second Vatican Council. Far from being absorbed into some larger whole, Vatican II continues to cast a lengthening shadow, offering itself as the most plausible lens through which to interpret thought, practice, and conflict — not only within the Roman Catholic Church, but across the Christian spectrum. Unpacking and exegeting the council documents is virtually a cottage industry that shows no sign of ebbing or being displaced by something else. Sacred Treasure participates in that industry, staking out partisan positions on contested issues surrounding one of Vatican II’s most important documents: Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), the constitution on the sacred liturgy.

Sacred Treasure
Understanding Catholic
Liturgical Music

By Joseph P. Swain.
Liturgical Press. Pp. 400. $59.95

Anglicans live inescapably in the wake of Vatican II, particularly SC. The renewal of worship that crystallized for the Episcopal Church in the mid-1970s, culminating in the prayer book of 1979, grew out of the same flowering of liturgical scholarship that informed the council fathers. It gave birth to a heady era of ecumenical optimism, with extensive cross-communion cooperation in developing vernacular liturgical texts (for English speakers, the International Consultation on English Texts, which yielded much of the language that is now familiar to Episcopalians). The impetus toward a versus populum style of liturgical celebration had gained small traction in Anglican circles when the perception that it was mandated by Vatican II invested it with the hallmarks of normative practice. The issues of liturgical music that concern Joseph P. Swain, while not identical to those faced by Anglican musicians, clergy, and congregations, are familiar enough to make his observations more than just a little interesting to those whose liturgical inheritance is that of the English church.

Swain is a scholar, musicologist, orchestral violinist, and associate professor of music at Colgate University. He brings the tools of his discipline to bear on liturgical music in ways that one would readily expect, shining a light on the inextricable connection between the history of Western music and the history of Western liturgy; one cannot study the former without studying the latter. As a non-Catholic who was an undergraduate music major at an evangelical liberal arts college, I can heartily attest to the truth of Swain’s rueful comment that “the average non-Catholic American music major will know traditions of Catholic music better than most priests” (p. 321).

Swain takes on a formidable task when he endeavors to use technical analysis of musical aesthetics to support his critical judgment on parochial practices. He articulates positions that are neither timid nor free of controversy. Taken on their face, his opinions might be peremptorily dismissed as those of a patrician snob who has season tickets to the local philharmonic and no desire to visit Branson or Opryland — that is, a matter of taste and therefore exempt from critique. But any who would push back on him must engage his analytical scaffolding, which he erects carefully and thoroughly. It is problematic to write about music theory for an audience mostly not schooled in that subject. The author acknowledges this difficulty at the outset, and proclaims an intention to discuss music theory in as non-technical a way as possible, such that any attentive reader should be able to follow along.

Because the subject matter is interdisciplinary — encompassing both liturgy and music — and because both of those fields are multidimensional, with connecting forays into aesthetics, epistemology, metaphysics, semiotics, language theory, sociology, and organizational behavior, Swain must step outside the confined areas of his acknowledged expertise. That he does so boldly is probably to his credit.

The author’s essential governing rubric comes right from the text of SC (Sec. 112): “Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy, the more closely connected it is with the liturgical action, whether making prayer more pleasing, promoting unity of minds, or conferring greater solemnity on the sacred rites.”

In other words, the liturgy is not a sort of flatbed truck on which anyone’s music of choice rides as a passenger. Rather, it is music’s function to reveal ever more clearly the shape, character, and spirit of the liturgy. Following closely on this prime directive is a cognate one: Liturgical music must foster transcendence. “Worshipers do not come to Mass to find the everyday world, but to have some experience, however fleeting and subliminal, of the next world, of the divine” (p. 71).

Building out from those foundational pillars, Swain invokes the linguistic category of semantics, and applies it to the “language” of music. A spoken or written word both denotes and connotes, and thereby acquires not simply one static meaning, but a range of meaning that depends on a context to be interpreted appropriately. A native speaker can navigate this semantic range effortlessly, while one learning a language later in life is often confounded. In the same way, different styles of music take on the character of discrete languages, with elements that both denote and connote (more so the latter), with a semantic range that is of a piece with an aggregation of associations, both conscious and subliminal, in the minds and memories of those who hear it or perform it.

Therefore — and this is where Swain wades into choppy waters — some musical styles are more inherently suited for use in the liturgy, and other styles less suited (or, he would say, simply unsuited), all because of their semantic range. Indeed, he develops this idea extensively; it is the linchpin to his critical infrastructure. (This is not the only place he engages the subject; Swain wrote Musical Languages in 1997.)

The main trajectory of the volume combines the areas of Swain’s demonstrated expertise — music history, music theory, and critical theory — with his areas of considerable knowledge — liturgy, theology, and language theory — to produce a pointed polemical thrust in the debates on the true meaning and proper interpretation of Vatican II in general and SC in particular. He is evidently a faithfully practicing and theologically informed Roman Catholic Christian, who is comfortable integrating scholarship with faith. He takes an unabashed traditionalist interpretive stance toward SC, in opposition to those who contend for the “spirit” of Vatican II, in distinction from what the official documents of the council actually say (and, in Chapter 19, offers a close reading of several key sections of SC in support of his arguments). At some risk, he avers that there is such a thing as absolute truth and, in art, absolute beauty. Beauty is manifestly not in the subjective eye of the beholder. It is defensible to make judgments about whole style categories of music that are not appropriate for the liturgy. Yes, he realizes, this exposes him to the charge of elitism, to which he might well respond, “Bring it!” One of his principal bogeymen is the notion of democracy applied to music, which he considers a category error of the first order.

Where does Swain hope his theoretical and critical perambulations will lead clergy and choir directors and organists who are responsible for liturgical music in parish and cathedral churches? If his work were to contribute to a renewal of plainchant as a thriving musical language, I suspect he would be overjoyed. For Episcopalians, the plainchant idiom might best be typified by the fairly familiar music of the opening dialogue of the Great Thanksgiving and the Proper Preface, leading up to a Sanctus sung to the setting by Merbecke (H1982, S-113) or Hurd (S-124).

Swain also advocates for a revival of the refined choral language of classical polyphony, brought to an apex in the 16th century by Palestrina, Victoria, Byrd, and their contemporaries, precisely because of the character of rhythmic fluidity that it shares with plainchant. He would, as well, be gratified if the proper Latin Rite antiphons for the introit, offertory, and Communion at each Mass were not universally ignored in favor of the rubrical option for a strophic hymn or other song in those positions. There are also things he would have church music leaders eschew, including the entire folk revival repertory rooted in the 1970s, purveyed by the St. Louis Jesuits, and made widely accessible by such collections as Glory & Praise.

How might Anglicans and Episcopalians be prompted by Swain’s survey of the Catholic liturgical-musical universe to reappraise our liturgical-musical practice? Those who swim in certain currents of the Anglo-Catholic stream could perhaps at first be tempted to pat themselves on the back for hanging on to the “minor propers,” that is, the ancient antiphons and Psalm verses for the introit, gradual, offertory, and Communion on each Sunday and feast day. In practice, however, these items are often spoken rather than sung, thus denying their inherent character and historical origin as song. And to compound incoherence, they are usually employed not in place of (as Swain advocates) but in addition to strophic hymns.

We might also ask how our service music (congregational settings of the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, and Fraction Anthem, whether Agnus Dei or something else) stacks up against the criteria enunciated by Swain. It’s very much a mixed bag. For these items, we tend not to drink too heavily from the folk revival current that he so disdains, though some of our standard repertory is of dubious artistic quality. (Does anybody really like Robert Powell’s Gloria [S-280] or is it sung so widely because it’s easy to learn?) But there are some gems. The setting of the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei (traditional language texts) by Healy Willan is artistically superb, yet accessible to most congregations served by a competent organist. The Gloria is initially challenging, to be sure, and Swain complains that initial pushback too often leads to withdrawal and substitution of something that can be learned immediately. But it is immensely rewarding, once learned. Similarly, the settings in David Hurd’s Plainsong Mass would seem to exemplify all the characteristics cited by Swain by which the musical language of plainchant commends itself.

At a recent celebration of the Eucharist prior to a meeting of the diocesan council in Springfield, with just 20 in the congregation, we used Swain’s liturgical-musical paradigm smoothly and gracefully, with a minimum of fuss and effort — no printed programs, no instrumental accompaniment, no stage directions. We sang the Hurd Trisagion in lieu of the Gloria, we greeted the Gospel with a well-known plainsong Alleluia, we chanted the dialogue and preface according to the traditional tone, we sang the Hurd Sanctus, and the traditional plainsong Our Father. There were no additional hymns, and the ceremonial was simple, but it was in every sense a “sung Mass.” It was an example of letting the shape and rhythm of the liturgy shine through, with music serving its proper auxiliary role, making the event transcendent.

The Rt. Rev. Daniel H. Martins is Bishop of Springfield and serves on the Living Church Foundation’s board.

Image from Goodbye Kumbaya

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