National Catholic Register


Church Music: A Reminder of Our Musical Past


July 16-22, 2006 Issue | Posted 7/17/06 at 10:00 AM


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.

Last time, 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 Church.

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.