‘The Music of Christendom’: Why the World Should Thank the Church for ‘Classical’ Compositions

BOOK PICK: Succinct Intro to Western Sounds Available in Time for St. Cecilia’s Feast Day

‘The Music of Christendom’
‘The Music of Christendom’ (photo: Ignatius Press/Augustine Institute)

The Music of Christendom

A History

By Susan Treacy

Ignatius Press/Augustine Institute, 2021

235 pages, $16.95

To order: ignatius.com

It would probably come as a shock to many people today, but Gregorian chant is the foundational music of the Western world. Although monophonic, this type of music is anything but monotonous. There is variety in the modes of chants themselves and in the various forms of music that have developed from them.

This centrality of the official music of the Catholic Church forms the basis of Susan Treacy’s new book, The Music of Christendom, from Ignatius Press and the Augustine Institute. A convert and singer herself, Treacy is a board member of the Church Music Association of America. She previously taught the history of music and sacred music courses at Ave Maria University, where she was also the director of the men’s and women’s scholas.

Her professional specialties in general form the most interesting parts of The Music of Christendom in particular. The first nine chapters touch on three main topics: the great importance the ancient Greeks placed on music for character-formation and genuine happiness, the cultural wellspring of Gregorian chant, and the development of polyphony.

These chapters are the most overtly Catholic, while the others are often implicitly Catholic. Treacy writes of how the practice of musical composition and performance in Christian Europe was “born” in the Catholic Church and developed there over the centuries. For much of the Church’s history, there was such a connection between sacred and secular music that the two were often one and the same.

Although there are some similarities to doctrinal development, musical development does not offer an exact parallel, as seen in The Music of Christendom. When the Catholic Church was rent by the multifaceted rejection of the faith in the 1500s known collectively as the Protestant Reformation, secular music began to develop separately from Catholic music. While faithful Catholics worshipped according to one set of musical standards, Treacy points out, the cultural listening material of the day was often pulling them in another direction. 

Near the end of the book, Treacy expresses the hope that her presentation will encourage a deeper search into the music of the Western world — not only in the pages of other books, but in the actual music. Three examples in literature are Edward Schaefer’s Catholic Music Through the Ages, Joseph Swain’s Sacred Treasure and Msgr. Robert Hayburn’s Papal Legislation on Sacred Music.

As for recordings, one of the best albums of essential Gregorian chant is O Lux Beatissima, sung by Cantores in Ecclesia and available from Oregon Catholic Press. Among the album’s most popular chants are the Veni Creator Spiritus, Pange Lingua and Regina Coeli — in addition to the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, of course.

The albums of Gloriae Dei Cantores provide a listening tour through both the major sacred and secular aspects of European music. The ecumenical choir based in Massachusetts has several chant recordings (including the very top “masterwork” recommendation of Treacy: the chants from the traditional Christmas midnight Mass) as well as Renaissance polyphony recordings (including an album completely dedicated to the 16th-century composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina) and recordings of Johann Sebastien Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Sergei Rachmaninoff (who, although Russian, was influenced by Western musical ideals, Treacy explains).  

As for groups active today that offer opportunities for musical immersion, the Church Music Association of America, of which Treacy is a leader, is the oldest. The St. Gregory Institute of Sacred Music (founded by Nicholas Will), Corpus Christi Watershed (founded by Jeff Ostrowski) and the Christopher Mueller Foundation for Polyphony and Chant also offer related opportunities. 

The feast day of St. Cecilia, patroness of musicians, is Nov. 22, so now is the perfect time to learn more about, and participate more extensively in, the beautiful music that has emanated from the heart and mouth of the Church. These “classical” sounds have helped to shape not only the history of the Church, but the history of the world. A first step in discovering more about this abundant treasure trove is The Music of Christendom.

Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle. 

His book Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015)
contains numerous Catholic sports interviews,
most of which have appeared in the Register. 

His latest book is Apostolic Athletes.