Tuesday, March 03, 2020

A New Book by Aurelio Porfiri, Reviewed by Giuseppe Pellegrino

Forever I Will Sing: A Short History of Catholic Sacred Music by Aurelio Porfiri (Chorabooks, Hong Kong, 2020). Foreword by Cardinal Raymond Burke. Reviewed by Giuseppe Pellegrino.

This short and eminently readable history of sacred music provides an introduction and overview for those desiring to know the broad trajectory of the historical development of liturgical music in the Catholic Church, from the apostolic age to the 21st century. Maestro Aurelio Porfiri, a native of Rome, draws on his extensive experience directing and executing liturgical music both in the city of Rome (most notably through his long connection with sacred music both in Rome and in Asia) as well as around the world. His book will help musical neophytes grasp not only the history of Christian sacred music but also the challenges facing it today amidst the ongoing post-conciliar confusion.

The Foreword by Cardinal Raymond Burke is in itself a beautiful reflection. He turns immediately to Saint Pius X’s 1903 Motu Proprio, Tra le sollecitudini, in which the sainted pontiff observes that “there certainly is a constant tendency in sacred music to neglect the right principles of an art used in the service of the liturgy.” It is one of the duties of the Roman Pontiff, as well as the Church’s Magisterium, to cultivate music that is worthy of the sacred mysteries: true art at the service of the liturgical action of Christ and his Church. Pius X identifies three qualities which ought to distinguish sacred music: holiness, beauty, and universality. His Eminence expresses hope that this book will help Catholics to be aware of the Church’s rich tradition of sacred music so as to cultivate its preservation and execution in the context of the sacred liturgy, for the edification and sanctification of the faithful.

Porfiri for his part notes in his introductory remarks that he simply wants to help people deepen their knowledge of the Church’s rich musical history so that they can continue to know and love Christ through knowing the Tradition. After mentioning how difficult it was to decide what to include in such a short one-volume comprehensive history, he writes: “It is a history that is fascinating because of some failures, struggles, and the effort to be always dignified, even if the mistakes and abuses have at times been numerous. Today we live in a difficult time for sacred music, so I think it is urgent that we look back and evaluate once again the teachings of the Fathers, Masters, Saints and others. In this way we will be able to look once more at the main outcome of music in the liturgy and of the liturgy itself: the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.”

His chronological journey begins with an examination of the Jewish origins of Christian chant and cantillation, the sung proclamation of sacred texts that Jesus himself likely used when proclaiming the reading in the synagogue as the Gospels tell us. He addresses the question of what exactly Saint Paul was referring to when he encouraged the Colossians to teach each other with “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16). He spends time developing a rich presentation of the patristic liturgical tradition, from Justin Martyr to Ignatius of Antioch to Clement of Alexandria. A very interesting passage from Tertullian describes the singing and liturgical practice at Carthage about the year 200. Athanasius is quoted extensively about the importance of music cultivating a truly spiritual, and not just aesthetic, experience. Basil the Great describes the custom of vigils and the singing of psalms practiced by the clergy of the Eastern Church around 370. Gregory of Nazianzus reminds the reader of the powerful witness made by the liturgical music of the Church of Constantinople at the center of imperial power:
For he (the emperor Valens) entered the Church attended by the whole of his train; it was the festival of the Epiphany, and the Church was crowded, and, by taking his place among the people, he made a profession of unity. The occurrence is not to be lightly passed over. Upon his entrance he was struck by the thundering roll of the Psalms, by the sea of heads of the congregation, and by the angelic rather than human order which pervaded the sanctuary and its precincts (In Laudem Basilii Magni).
Ephrem the Syrian, Prudentius, Sedulius, and others all receive attention, as well as Niceta of Remesiana, whom tradition says is the author of the Te Deum, John Cassian, and of course Gregory the Great, who describes in detail how the Alleluia, Kyrie Eleison, and Pater Noster were variously incorporated into the Roman Liturgy prior to his pontificate, and for what reason.

Moving into the medieval period, Porfiri examines the Greek influence on the Church of Rome, the codification of chant in various liturgical books, the development of neumes and musical notation, and the influence exerted by individuals like Charlemagne on the continued development of the Roman Rite. The book delves into a fascinating debate by modern scholars about how accurately modern Gregorian chant truly re-presents the sound of medieval chant. Because chants were learned in the context of a living oral liturgical tradition, musical liturgical texts can only give an approximate guide to what a chanted antiphon or sequence may have sounded like over one thousand years ago. In the words of Giacomo Baroffio:
We have no faithful record of executions of a thousand or more years ago. We know nothing about the vocal emission, the scalar structure and the presence (fluid or fixed?) of macro and micro-intervals. The pronunciation of Latin poses large questions in and of itself about the performance and perception of the melodies…. We are deluded if we think that we perform Gregorian chant correctly only because in some, relatively few, cases we substitute some note in the name of an authenticity that is often only imagined.
This is an intriguing scholarly discussion of a complex problem, reminding us that there is still far more that we do not know than we do know about the execution of medieval liturgical music.

Polyphony receives a great amount of attention as the book moves through the high medieval period, as well as the great liturgical school of Notre Dame de Paris, where the composer Leonin wrote the Magnus Liber Organi, a collection of two-part organums for the entire church year. The work of Josquin des Prez, Orlande de Lassus, Tomas Luis de Victoria, and of course Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina all receive ample consideration as Porfiri continues his tour through the Renaissance.

The book does not go in depth into how the Protestant “Reformers” changed liturgical music, and that was one aspect this reviewer hoped would be addressed more deeply. But this is understandable in such a short overview. Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven all receive their due, as well as other great composers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The seminal work of Prosper Gueranger and the monks of Solesmes in restoring and reforming Gregorian chant is addressed, leading to Saint Pius X and his magna carta for restoring good musical practice, Tra le sollecitudini.

Porfiri mentions the Second Vatican Council and the decline of liturgical music since 1965 only in passing, choosing instead to focus his account of the 20th century on some of the great liturgical composers of the 20th century, such as Domenico Bartolucci, the maestro of the Sistine Chapel Choir for over 40 years, Luciano Migliavacca, maestro at the Duomo of Milan, and Alberico Vitalini of Vatican Radio. Porfiri concludes with a reflection on the (mostly dismal) state of liturgical music at present and makes a concise presentation of his remedy for the authentic renewal of sacred music:
I am strongly convinced that a rebirth of authentic sacred music has to stem from greater attention being given to tradition. Only when people are again familiar with the great lesson coming from Gregorian chant, will they be able to conceive music that will be truly holy using good forms that are universal. The Church should invest again in the formation of musicians and treat them professionally, not just relying on volunteers who in most cases have very limited musical abilities.
Forever I Will Sing would make an excellent introductory text book for a high school or undergraduate course on the history of sacred music. Aurelio Porfiri is to be commended for his desire to expose more Catholics to the deep and rich patrimony which we possess as members of Western civilization and the Church. His book teaches us and reminds us that there is still far, far more cause for hope and wonder in our Tradition, despite the present dissonance and darkness.

Forever I Will Sing is available for purchase online here. Aurelio Porfiri is the editor of Altare Dei, a new website dedicated to the role of art, music, and beauty in evangelization and the Catholic Tradition.

Our thanks to Mr Pellegrino for sharing this review with New Liturgical Movement.

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