Wednesday, July 09, 2008

What were the musical intentions of Vatican II?

One of the most striking external differences between the older and new forms of the Roman Rite concerns the music. Any Catholic who had been asleep from, say, 1960 to 1980 would have woken up to a completely different world, one that seemed to welcome pop styles at Mass and banish Gregorian chant. It is even more shocking to consider that Vatican II contained the most explicit and canonically binding recognition in the history of Christianity that Gregorian chant is the music of the Roman Rite.

In trying to come to terms with what happened, there are three general theories about the true musical intentions of the Second Vatican Council, one of which gains new credibility in a new book by Anthony Ruff, Sacred Music and Liturgical Reform: Treasures and Transformations (Liturgy Training Publications, 2007).

The first position we can describe as the progressive position, namely that the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy intended to unleash a furious reform of the Roman Rite in which the vernacular took over, chant was banished because it is boring and in Latin, and the people took power back from the clerical class. In this view, it's true that this was not in the letter of the law but it was part of the "spirit" of the reform. The 1970 Missal too was part of the spirit but not its completion. What we needed, in this view, were creative liturgists to take ever more liberties to make the Mass community-minded and accessible, in touch with the modern world. Hence the guitars, dancers, puppet shows, and textual improvisations.

On the other side of the debate are those who we might call the traditionalists, who oddly suspect that the progressives are largely correct. The Constitution contained ticking time bombs which people at the Council put into the document so that they might explode the Roman Rite later. The document contains just enough loopholes to unleash a dismantling of tradition. The words in there about Gregorian chant were perfunctory and purposely qualified. Whatever language appears in the Constitution that seems friendly to tradition is really only tactical. What was secretly intended was the furious reform that actually took place.

Where these two positions agree is that the manner in which the liturgy is celebrated in the ordinary form represents, in some way, a fulfillment of the Council's intentions. Where these positions disagree is on whether this is a good thing or not. The progressives love it while the traditionalists say that it is a disgrace and the only solution is full restoration of the 1962 Missal, the last Missal to appear before the 1963 Constitution unleashed this "spirit of Vatican II" that ended up unraveling the Roman Rite as it has always been known.

A third position has occupied a tiny minority of opinion over the years, and yet it is gaining prominence today in light of the call for greater continuity between old and new. For convenience we can call it the conservative view. (Please don't get stuck on the terms here; they are only placeholders for general tendencies of thought.) This is the position that when the Constitution spoke with praise for Gregorian chant and polyphony, it was speaking truthfully and clearly with the intention of giving them an increased presence in the liturgy. Further, though the 1970 Missal has its problems and issues, if it is said according to the liturgical books, and the dictates of Vatican II are followed, what you end up with is something that is much more organic to tradition. You have Latin chant for the ordinary and the propers. You have the Mass in said with the solemnity of old, whether in Latin or in English. This was the true intention of the Council, according to this view.

This third position gains reinforcement from the undeniable reality that Church musicians following the Vatican II were exuberant about the prospects for the future. For the first time, a Council document stated with great clarity that the music of the Roman Rite is Gregorian chant, with polyphony occupying a high status, and other music permitted (thinking here of new compositions, organ works, and solemn hymns for recessionals and the like).

Many of these people—thinking here of German scholar Johannes Overath, American priests Richard Schuler and Robert Skeris, and Spanish musician and Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music head Higini Anglés—left the proceedings with great optimism that their decades of work in teaching and promoting chant would finally reach fulfillment. This is what they report in their memoirs and speeches following the council.

Now, these brilliant people were there and privy to all the debates and details during the Council. If the council had really intended a wholesale liturgical revolution, why in the world would they have been so optimistic? They must have known something about what really went on. I've always been struck by this fact and wanted to know more. It seems incongruous to the reality that we all know today, the empirics of which seem to lend more support to the progressive/traditionalist perspective then the conservative one.

Here is where Fr. Ruff's book comes in. He relays the events as follows. Pope John XXIII announced the council on May 17, 1959 with the goal of strengthening the Catholic faith, renewing Christian morals, and adapting church life to the demands of modern times. The prepatory commission on liturgy had 13 subcommissions. The one on sacred music was headed by none other than the great Higini Anglés. His subcommission produced a draft which went through nine full drafts and was approved by the Pope.

The document said: "The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art"; also "sacred music is to be considered the more holy, the more closely connected it is with the liturgical action."

Fr. Ruff comments: "The source of the statement on the treasury…is to be found in the suggestions of Anglés…. He can justly be called an opponent of the [late] Liturgical Movement. In the resolution he submitted in the name of the pontifical school during the first round of consultation for the Council, he stated that the liturgical and musical work of the Council of Treat out to remain the model and example of the impending Council; that no new principles ought to be established or new decrees contrived, but rather the existing principles and decrees ought to be implemented…" (p. 329).

What was needed to end the malaise of music in his view—he and his colleagues were not happy with the status quo—was adherence to existing legislation as opposed to the dominance of vernacular hymnody and the continuing lack of attention to excellence. This is also true of all the talk about the people's participation. This was nothing new in the Council. It was a reaffirmation of existing statements. The idea here is that the people are to sing and listen to music that was really part of the structure of Mass, not just tacked on like an accompaniment.

What's remarkable is that Anglés's drafts were strengthened over time and it was these that were eventually implemented. His first draft said nothing about the Church musical tradition constituting a treasury. This phrase "inestimable prize" was introduced in the second draft. The fifth draft included the words "inestimable treasury." This eventually became "a treasure of inestimable value."

The Constitution also says that "the treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and cultivated with great care. Choirs must be diligently developed…" "This is also the language of Anglés's drafts.

On the question of new compositions, one subcommission member, the Australian priest Percy Jones, included a statement that composers should create music for parish use. But sound thinkers on the subcommission found that statement to be too loose and unqualified. Johannes Overath intervened here to draw a connection between the treasury of sacred music and new compositions.

The final form reflected Overath's concerns: "Composers, animated by the Christian spirit, should accept that it is part of their vocation to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures. Let them produce compositions which have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music… The texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine. Indeed, they should be drawn chiefly from the sacred scriptures and from liturgical sources."

A subcommittee on active participation called for an open statement that would have undermined the beleaguered polyphonic Sanctus. But this was dropped. Fr. Ruff comments: "the significance of this is that the commission responsible for drafting the liturgy constitution consciously rejected the position that the congregation must always sing the Sanctus" (p. 321). (That sentence is really worth a second read.)

In addition, the Constitution praises the organ, gives pride of place to Gregorian chant, and calls for the cultivation of scholae cantorum to sing chant. These were all great victories by Anglés and Overath, and arguably defeats for Annibale Bugnini, who called sacred music the "cross of the prepatory commission." Angels and Overath and their colleagues worked very hard for many years to assure this outcome. He sought to limit all concessions to those who dreamed of overthrowing the Church's great tradition, and he largely succeeded.

In Fr. Ruff's account, there was really only one setback on the part of the musicians. The sentence that says that liturgy is nobler when sung originally said sung in Latin. The reference to Latin was tragically dropped. And while it is true, that this was a significant defeat for Overath and Anglés, the victories were nonetheless major and the legions of opponents of sacred music lost far more than they gained.

Now, in reading the above, it is impossible not to notice the striking difference between what eventually became of the reform and what was actually legislated at the Council. The position that the will of the Council was betrayed by later trends from within and without takes on more weight, especially in light of the detailed historical narrative. What they expected was that Gregorian chant would increase as the music closely connected to the rite and that vernacular songs would decrease.

We can see, then, how it is that the musicians were so blindsided by events. They figured that they had won a victory. But this victory turned to bitter disaster only a few years later. It is left to the current generation to see their original vision of a musical renaissance consistent with tradition is achieved – in the words of Richard Schuler, so that we can experience the true Mass of Vatican II.

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