The return to chant based on biblical and liturgical texts will be fruitful only if the liturgical meaning of the words is fully understood by both the singers and congregation. Moreover, it is not enough to understand them: they must penetrate the spiritual and mystical sphere of the individual souls, as well as catechesis, preaching, and church life outside the liturgy. The sung words and tunes built into the memory of communities and individuals will deeply influence their way of thinking. Such church music will be able to contribute to the re-sacralization of our view of the Church. In other words, church music will not be able to fulfill its task, if its position is separated from the other activities of the Church. The ideal relationship is that the life of the praying Church governs church music. But the direction is sometimes reversed: church music may influence the Church’s life. Remember that the renewal of the liturgy in the 19th century began with the Gregorian reform of Solesmes!

In order to carry out the program I have discussed here, church musicians will have need of the four “cardinal virtues.”

  • They need stability in principles rejecting any compromise on the most important points.
  • They need continued learning and workshop activity in order to be able to realize the great principles in the smallest of details.
  • They need collaboration, for today there is no chance of surmounting the crisis except by a unanimous stance and common strategy concerning the main points.
  • And finally they need a great deal of individual and common prayer, because they themselves may plant and water, but God alone gives the growth.

Quod Deus bene vertat!

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

The second misunderstanding is that Gregorian chant is bound to the Latin language. We could discuss this theme for hours, presenting one example after another — but for now it suffices to say that Gregorian pieces lived (unchanged or with slight modification) in different languages during the historical past. In fact, some of these repertories are still in use today, even outside the realm of Catholic liturgy. (For example, I personally conducted Gregorian pieces sung in English as found in Anglican collections, and these concerts were very successful.) Bad experiments do not discredit the possibility of adaptation, but rather underscore the need for respectable work and adequate talent in this field. In earlier times, the melody was regarded more as an elastic musical thought to be adapted to the text, rather than an invariable opus perfectum. Similarly, in the case of vernacular chant the task is not to force the text under the single notes of a stable melody, but to perform the text using a given melodic type.

The third misunderstanding is to think that the problem is already solved by publishing some devotional Latin pieces in the congregational hymnals. Some church musicians regard it as a great success to include the Adoro te devote, Salve Regina, Ave verum corpus or other “hits” in the hymnal. These insertions have nothing to do with the solution of the main problem. The task is solved if the main parts of the Mass, the Introit, Communion etc. included can be sung in the proper musical language of the liturgy. This task can be accomplished in musical terms, and it can also be accomplished in the pastoral sense provided that one is really determined to bring it about. It is essential, however, that the task be regarded as important as it really is; the chant has to be included in the regular course of catechism and other forms of instructions, and in addition, a psalmist (or schola) should be positioned in each case at the head of the congregation.

Once such a firm ground has been established, the polyphonic music and the vernacular hymns will also find their place. There are points within the Mass where either of them works well without any break in the liturgy, although not without a distinction. The first rank belongs to those settings that take their words from liturgical texts or are their paraphrase. Then come pieces borrowed from the repertory of the day or season (e.g. translations of the hymn, polyphonic settings of a liturgical text). In the third place are pieces equally worthy in content and music to strictly liturgical material. There can be no fourth grade, for the church musician must reject what is below this standard on the grounds of his professional conscience and moral obligation.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

Is there any solution at all? Is it not the case that church music was imbued for over a thousand years by an idea untenable in our own age, and church musician cannot do more than to keep the memory of these one-time values in “Museum Masses”? The question is not quite unwarranted. It seems clear that an 18th-century orchestral Mass composition is inseparably linked with such a special form of celebration and religious mentality that today it can only be recalled in exceptional cases. It is enough to think of how much longer a polyphonic Gloria or Agnus is, than the time allowed for it in a Mass today. An Offertory of Palestrina exactly fits the time of an offertorial rite if the celebration is done at a dignified pace with suitable care, complete with incensation – but this exceeds the one or two minutes in which the Offertory is commonly executed today. Of course, musicians can ask politely: is the ceremonial action of the “offertory” worth only a minute or two?

The question then becomes not merely whether the liturgy today is suitable for preserving the treasures of church music; but also whether the liturgy today is suitable to its own dignity? And yet the task is not simply to fight for the restoration of a liturgy more hospitable to church music. It is the original balance of the liturgy which must be recovered, along with the organic relationship of the three kinds of noble church music mentioned earlier. Of course, this question involves not only musical technicalities, but also spiritual and financial dimensions.

But let us speak briefly about actual practice.

No other music corresponds so perfectly to the inner structure and dramatic form of the liturgy as Gregorian chant (or possibly a new setting of the liturgical texts patterned after it). Only such music offers appropriate language for the dialogues, the alternating chant of the celebrant, singer and congregation. Only this medium is able to adapt itself to the characteristics of the liturgical parts; allows the liturgical words themselves to be sung (instead of substitutions), while faithfully preserving the peculiarities of the words instead of compelling the biblical prose into a network of alien measures, bars and rhythms. If Gregorian chant, or similar vernacular chant, appeared at the structural points of the service, the will of the Council would also be fulfilled, and the cantus Gngorianus would in fact reclaim its “pride of place.”

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

When church music lost its norms, one single principle took over their place: whether it appeals to the people (or rather: whether the leaders suppose it will appeal to them). The new principle could not but lead to the invasion of more and more inferior fashions into the Church, finding justification in each case in “taste.” Moreover, the sort of human being who is now considered the measure of music is not a man destined for greatness and called to spiritual qualities; no, he is the marketable man, homo oeconomicus, subjected to any manipulation. I think that nobody gave serious thought to the shortsighted nature of this principle with respect to pastoral tasks, either.

How can the Church ask to be accented in her teaching if she makes her liturgical action relativistic? How can she avoid creating the impression that if the liturgy and church music can be adapted to different tastes, then also matters of faith and morals could now be submitted to the opinion of individuals or to the different social and psychological requirements of our age? This appeal to “different tastes” forgets how people (especially children and youth) entering the church are open and thirsty for all the good they will learn there. “When the [Church] offers her own genuine goods with motherly tenderness, people naturally accept them because they come from the Church they love and respect. Eventually the goods thus absorbed and appropriated become highly formative of their opinions, tastes, preferences, customs, and in fact, their entire life.” As we read in St. Augustine’s Office: “Cibus sum grandium, cresce et manducabis me, nec tu me mutabis in te, sicut cibum carnis tuae, sed tu mutaberis in me“: I am the food of adults; grow up and eat me; it is not you who will change me into yourself, as is true of bodily food, but you will be changed into me. This is valid for liturgy and church music, as well as for teachings of faith and morals. When we say: “The people like this” we regard them as unable to develop, as animals rather than human beings, and we simply neglect our duties in helping them towards a true human existence, — indeed, in this case, to truly Christian existence.

The response of church musicians to this kind of apostasy in the Church was first of all protest. However, as soon as they found it hopelessly impossible to change matters, they shifted their tactics and chose what I consider a bad course. And here lies the responsibility of church musicians in the crisis. What they ought to have undertaken, by way of accepting the challenge, was hard intellectual work and almost superhuman courage. Church musicians ought to have learned again the theology (the theologia perennis and not the nouvelle theologie) of worship and its music, and the liturgy, along with the history of church music, so as to be able to diagnose the deepest causes of the malady and to find the means of alleviation. They ought to have formed a firm league in the defense of values, and I mean “defense” not in a rigidly conservative way, but rather a creative way. It might be that even this struggle would have ended in defeat, but a future generation could perhaps have built on this spiritual foundation.

Instead, the church musicians withdrew themselves into the narrow, restricted area left to them. One or two Masses were left to them to enjoy, to conduct a choir or orchestra, to perform the favored Palestrina or Mozart pieces (or their own compositions…). They can organize festivals, church concerts, conferences, Gregorian workshops and Masses. This gives the illusion of rescuing the “treasure of immeasurable value” bequeathed to the universal Church, even if only within the confined limits of this ghetto existence.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

The second problem is the consequence of an anthropocentric view of the liturgy. The liturgy was traditionally understood as the permanent priestly activity of holy Church: she conducts the highest matters of salvation before God’s throne and at the same time, it is her intimate communication with her divine Bridegroom. The greatest honor for the faithful is to join this divine work (opus Dei) as a member of the Mystical Body, and while the believer strives to live his life hidden in Christ and the Church, while he thus “loses” his life, he in fact finds it, The liturgy is not something we create but an objective reality we share in, a precious patrimony we inherit. What happens in the Mass is relatively true for all parts of the liturgy: it is not we but God Who is doing His work in it, and we ourselves become divine when we receive Holy Communion. So the reality we celebrate becomes our own. With respect to the prayers and chants, this truth is expressed by St. Benedict’s classic saying: “mens concordet voci‘: the mind should be concordant with the voice. It is not the soul who speaks in the voice, but it is the Church and the Holy Spirit. The harmony between soul and voice comes not from expressing the soul by the voice but from adapting the soul to the sounds that the Church and the Holy Spirit put upon our lips.

The Liturgical Constitution of the Council says nothing contradictory to this traditional view. And yet, according to the post-conciliar approach it was precisely the modern man, man hic et nunc, who became the focus of interest and the norm of the liturgy. Consequently the liturgy and its chant are supposed to express the religious experience of the individuals and communities. The result is: “vox concordat menti” i.e. the voice is concordant to the state of the mind. The regrettable outcome of this approach is that the liturgy is unable to elevate and raise up heavenwards the individual and communities: they express themselves and so they remain where they are.

This liturgical approach also influenced the church music. A great part of the clergy can accept music only as the chant of the assembly. The demand of actuosa participatio is taken in a sense that excludes the possibility of silent and attentive listening to the chant of singers or choir. Consequently, in many places the choirs have disbanded and the musicians have fled their posts. To anyone who reads the Constitution it is clear that this fate was not intended by the Council. Par. 28 says that “each person should perform his role by doing solely and totally what the nature of things and liturgical norms require of him.” Even in the new Missal of Paul VI we find the names of items belonging to the schola. Things are even clearer if we examine the natura rei, the nature of things: the liturgy is a dramatic event and the assembly participates “actively” in the ritual by performing the parts proper to them. The Council judged it opportune to stress the actuosa participatio because the role of the assembly had been taken over by others during the course of centuries. But this does not mean that now the assembly has to take over the role of others!

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

The first problem is the neglected state of church music. The new ideal of the liturgy is a verbose celebration, and now the role of music is not to play an organic part in it, but rather to serve as an emotional addition. After the Council, music has been totally expelled from the liturgy in many places, the musician dismissed, and the church contented with the activity of amateur groups and their amateur leaders.

A consequence of this degradation in attitude is a decline in financial resources. In one of the largest and most respectable dioceses in Italy only one single professional musician is in charge. Valuable old pipe organs are out of use, in poor condition or perished because trashy electroniums or guitar ensembles replaced them. Church authorities are simply uninterested in the state of church music and fail to consider honestly the tasks of forming the faithful and the challenges of pastoral practice. Nothing has happened by way of promoting the musical culture of priests, and another important wish of the Council has been equally ignored: “that composers and singers, especially boys must be given a genuine liturgical training… liturgical instruction of servers, readers, commentators and singers to imbue them deeply with the spirit of the liturgy.”

The root cause is the underestimation of the role of music in the liturgy and religion in general. Today the Church finds herself “at home” in the movements, activities and appearances of secular society, and values music only in the measure it can be utilized in this context. Music in this view has no value of its own, no value in building bridges between the Christian soul and God, between the Church and her Divine Head. What Guardini wrote about the liturgy as a whole, namely that it has meaning and not aim or purpose, should also be true for its music to some extent. In this life there are things whose purpose we learn, and then we work with them according to their own nature. The pianist, for instance, knows that Bach’s music contributes to the spiritual good of mankind; but the moment he sits down at the piano, he concentrates upon fingering and touch. The Council pointed to the place and role of music in the liturgy and Church life. And so the duty of church music is to fill this place by enjoying a certain independence. But it is not allowed to do that.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)

It is frequently objected that Gregorian melodies are so intimately linked with the Latin words that they cannot be combined with the prosody of modern languages. And the second question: how can Gregorian melodies be combined with a translation very different from the originals in length and structure? Or should the text be modified to fit the music (which seems to be harmful for the sacred words)?

a) The “prosodic” objection is based on a false theory, not justified by the music itself. The musical phrases should, undoubtedly, correspond to the text units. But musical history documents very different kinds of correspondence between word and tune. Their connection depends on the stylistic and functional features (e.g. genres) of the music, too. A note-by-note coordination of the two exists only in the minds of pedantic schoolmasters.

b) The rigorous prosodic view does not take account of the relative independence of music and text. Neither does it take account of the difference between performed music and music on paper. Many of the prosodic “failures” that offend the eye do not harm the ear when it is actually performed. Performance simply overrides without hesitation points that seem to be problematic. Moreover, a kind of counteraction between text and melody is often pleasant when one hears or sings the piece.

c) This prosodic view disregards the testimony of folk music and the history of Gregorian chant, where it is documented that monophonic music is more amenable to being transformed according to new conditions than is elaborate art music. In the process of transformation new variants of the given music style can arise, like a new member of a stylistic family. Gregorian chant in a new language may depart somewhat from its Latin version, but it may also become simply a new version of it.

d) We have to take account also of the well-documented fact that during the process of reception new languages can impose their characteristics onto the received music without losing the qualities of the original repertory.

e) If Gregorian music is more than a collection of canonized melodies, the task is not simply to attempt to attach the syllables of a translation to the notes of the Graduale Triplex (and when it fails, to declare the task insoluble). Typological thinking becomes here a punctum saliens. A great number of new melodies have been produced also in Latin when a new text was sung to the melody of a musical type. The same method can be adopted in the new situation, generating new variants via new texts.

Laszlo Dobszay, The Bugnini-Liturgy and the Reform of the Reform (2003)