Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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BY WEBSTER A. YOUNG
In my previous
writing on music, I contended that the present-day Catholic Church is in need
of journalistic music criticism.
Every major secular newspaper in America carries
criticism of serious music; the Church, more than ever, needs the equivalent so
that it may assess its own new music.
Matthew Arnold’s writings on criticism were cited, establishing that the
role of the critic is to uphold the highest standards in art (and music).
If a work of art does not measure
up to high standards, it becomes the critic’s mission to say so — and, if
possible, to explain why. In this way, the critic helps to keep alive what has
been achieved before in music, so that a groundwork — even a consciousness —
exists upon which future progress may be based.
In the case of the present state
of music in the Catholic Church, it follows that there is a very simple but
important first step to be taken by any writer on Catholic music: the positive
task of reminding the Church and its faithful of the past glory and achievement
of music originating from the Church.
This is a pleasant task; the
history of music in the Catholic Church is rich almost beyond imagining.
From the time of the Middle Ages
and the widespread practice of Gregorian chant, and all through the Renaissance
and Baroque periods, until the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century,
the Catholic Church was the primary source of the greatest music in Europe. It had authority in music by virtue of example
and was respected by all musicians for its achievements.
The church choir was the sine qua
non of musical media — the equivalent of the symphony orchestra of today. Everything
in music that was innovative, brilliant, demanding was written for the choirs
of the Church by the leading composers of each epoch. The Bach, Beethoven and
Mozart of these days were composers who were either priests or who were closely
allied to the Church — Josquin, Victoria
and Palestrina. Palestrina wrote for the Papal and other Roman choirs and was
acquainted with St. Philip Neri.
Not only in this writer’s
estimation, but also in that of great musicians since the above-mentioned eras,
Palestrina is the greatest composer of all time. The one Protestant composer
who might claim that title, Johann Sebastian Bach, thought this.
Palestrina’s works best known in
our time are the Pope Marcellus Mass and the Missa Brevis (both on one CD by the Westminster Cathedral Choir
of London), but he wrote so many Masses that there are enough to have a
brilliant Palestrina Mass every Sunday of the year. To bring home the meaning
of this achievement, one might imagine what it would be like if Mozart had
written a great and complete Mass for every Sunday.
Josquin des Pres, who wrote music a
generation before Palestrina, was also prolific. He had unquestioned
pre-eminence as the greatest composer of his era. He was a priest, and he was
considered to be one of the foremost musical innovators of his time.
The Renaissance and the Catholic
Church were blessed with an abundance of great music that is hard to imagine
today. Sublime, accomplished, and harmonious music was found wherever there was
a choir — and this was not old music: It was the music of their present.
Composers that are known mostly to the scholar of today — Lassus,
Obrecht, Compere, Victoria,
Morales, and many others — were writing the best in new music for the Church.
The music of these composers is
not without meaning for us today. Certain works remain in our consciousness as
monuments of great music.
Our universities and music
conservatories consider Catholic music of the Renaissance as an essential part
of the literature of music. This phase of Catholic music is part of the stream
of Western serious music that leads to the present day.
The tradition of great composers
begins with three centuries of Catholic pre-eminence; what led to Sibelius and Stravinsky began with great Catholic music
associated with the universities.
This is by no means esoteric
knowledge. Anyone interested may find the works of Palestrina, Victoria
and Josquin on CD. Any university student who takes a
course in music of the Renaissance will encounter these great men and their
music — three composers among many who wrote great music for the Catholic
In their day, the Church had the
attention and respect of the whole serious world of music — the world of music
we today call classical.
Webster A. Young is
a classical music composer.
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