For centuries the first reading [of Good Friday] had been the prophecy of Hosea about the three days of death and resuscitation, while in the second a section from Exodus about the sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb was read. Attached to the first reading was one of the most important chants of the Christian liturgies, i.e. the canticle Domine audivi, whereas the second reading was followed by Psalm 139 of the persecuted Messiah. Both were sung in tract form which bears evidence of the ancientness of the custom on the one hand, and suits excellently the mood of the exceptional liturgical situation, on the other.

In fact, this is not the moment when the responsorial chant of the faithful is by all means necessary and desirable. These texts — the words of the Church as she falls on her knees stunned by God’s powerful deed in the first tract, and the complaint of the Body of Christ united with its suffering Head in the second — can well-nigh dumbfound the community listening with attention to the words performed by a solo singer or a small choir. These readings and tracts can be found unchanged in every liturgical book of the Roman rite (the Tridentine rite included), differences appear only in the rituals of the non-Roman churches (Beneventan, Milanese).

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


In the Roman rite, however, the chanting of the Holy Book means more than merely singing a paragraph from the Bible. The majority of the texts chosen for liturgical chant entered the liturgy as a result of three or four centuries of theological reflection. The material selected for chanting in the liturgy is a particular manifestation of authentic Christian theology. The connection between a text chosen for chanting, and a given solemnity or liturgical season, is based upon the contemplation and interpretation of generations of Church Fathers. Feasts were interpreted by the explanation of biblical verses and, vice versa, the explanation of the biblical verses took place in the liturgical context of feasts.

For instance, when Psalm 2 was adopted in the Christmas liturgy, its background was a deep understanding of Christmas; the mystery found its appropriate expression in Psalm 2. On the other hand, the precondition of such an adaptation was the Christological understanding of Psalm 2, which included its connection with the mystery of the Nativity. The context of the Christmas feast is deficient without the inclusion of Psalm 2, and the interpretation of Psalm 2 is deficient without the dogmatic content concerning the Second Divine Person. Psalm 2 (the Introit and Alleluia verse of the Midnight Mass) is closely related to St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews (Epistle of the Third Mass of Christmas Day) and to St. John’s Prologue (the Gospel of the Third Mass). Anyone who is familiar with the liturgy of the praying Church is aware of the importance of Psalms 18, 24, 79, and 84 in the spiritual message of the Advent season, an importance not inferior to that of the lections and prayers. These psalms, as they occur and recur, pray into the mind precisely that content of the Advent season, as well as its mystery, which is given by the praying Church — and not by individuals. The responsorial psalm is one element in this process, but not a self-sufficient one. The singer and the listener are influenced in a different way by the main verses chosen from the psalm and performed in a melodious way, than by a longer section of the psalm.

Therefore, he who removes the Proper chants from the Mass of the day or the season (e.g., Advent or Lent), mutilates the liturgy and diminishes the content of the feast, by depriving the praying Church of an excellent means of fully understanding the feast being celebrated. It is totally false to suppose that the full content of a given liturgical celebration can be adequately conveyed by readings and prayers alone, while the chanted texts are omitted. What these biblical texts transmit cannot be replaced or even approximated by poetic songs and hymns, as precious as they may be. And even if such texts would remain close to the biblical words, they remain human words, taken out of the biblical (i.e. inspired) context. I dare say that whoever removes the proper chants, mutilates and diminishes the theology as well, which lives not only in manuals and textbooks, but also in the spirituality of the praying Church, the Ecclesia orans.

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

The Proper chants are imbued with a special kind of poetical power, which is lacking in strophic poetry, even in its most wonderful hymns. The chants of the Proper announce the great truths of Christian doctrine and liturgical theology, in most instances without direct didactic persuasion, and without decorating the teaching with lyrical ornaments. They are “poetical” by speaking with the vocabulary of the Bible, i.e. with adapted words. In a certain sense they resemble similes, chiefly when they quote from the Old Testament. The theological truths are transmitted, and yet — concealed in their intimacy. Simple words and images are, as it were, dropped into the mind of the listener, where they come to light; figurative speech becomes reality in prayerful silence. An authoritative expert in aesthetics has explained that the essence of great poetry is an enigmatic oscillation between layers of meaning, and between the temporal “reference points” (that is past, present and future) in a poem. This same oscillation is present in the liturgy not as an outcome of creative will, but in virtue of Divine Providence: the same Poet, God Himself, pronounced the Old Testament, uttered the Good News, and fulfilled (still fulfills) both in the sanctified life of the Church. When we sing a Proprium chant, we always think (or at least we feel or sense) more than is actually delivered by voice and lips. We surmise the fulfillment itself in the words, and therefore they are the words of the heavenly liturgy. This tactful, discreet poetry is hardly attainable by the plain language of ecclesiastical poetry. […]


With this in mind, I ask once more: where is the “alius cantus” [“anything else that is appropriate”] that is able to speak with such strength, such theological profundity, such poetic intimacy, but also with such simplicity, of the Paschal mystery? With what majesty does the celebration of Easter rise up out of the silent depths of this personal (and mystical) dialogue! And how powerful the pedagogical effect of this poetry which teaches us to regard our religion primarily as a very personal union with God, and not merely as adherence to a group of people, as it were, to a party or some “community.” We learn to seek this inner truth without despising the external form that delivers the inner meaning. It is enough to read (or better: to sing) the daily Introit chants of the Easter octave to see how the Mystery, with its many dimensions, unfolds in the Church’s chant.

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

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)

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 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)

The Second Vatican Council used very nice words to describe church music in Chapter Six of its Liturgical Constitution.

The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of immeasurable value… Sacred music increases in holiness to the degree that it is intimately linked with liturgical action. This Sacred Council maintains the norms and precepts of ecclesiastical tradition and discipline. Great importance is to be attached to the teaching and practice of music in seminaries… and also in other Catholic institutions and schools. Gregorian chant should be given pride of place in liturgical services. Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is 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 … should be drawn chiefly from Holy Writ and from liturgical sources.

The Constitution outlined a view of church music in which Gregorian chant (as most suitable for the liturgy), polyphonic music of artistic quality, and religious hymns of the congregation are balanced with each other and “give a more noble form to the liturgical action”; a church music in harmony with the ecclesiastical traditions having “the spirit of the liturgical action”, “the spirit of the liturgy” as its highest norm; church music under the care of diligent bishops, and priests receiving a solid musical education.

In actual fact, however, church music fell into such a deep crises after the Council as never before in its history. In a great part of the Church over the world, church music is not cultivated but neglected; musical rubbish prevailed; sacred music fell in many places into the hands of uneducated dilettantes; its fate and daily practice depends upon decisions of priests who stand in this matter (too) very far from the true spirit of the Council. The “treasure of immeasurable value” is dissipated; in many churches the most frivolous music resounds without a single word of warning from the hierarchy; and the music which predominates can be called anything but “the expression of true art.”

The responsibility for this decline lies firstly with the ambiguous instructions of the post-conciliar committees, secondly with the church authorities who neglected to fulfill the will of the Council, thirdly with the clergy and in fourth place with the church musicians themselves. Before entering into details, I mention briefly that in my opinion the matter of church music is not a question of music. Good church music exudes into pastoral practice, spirituality, church discipline, morals and even theology. Bad church music likewise affects all this but in a destructive manner. And vice versa: behind the lapse of church music, liturgical lapses lie hidden; behind the liturgical lapses an incorrect image of the Church, and in the last analysis, implicitly heretical views. It ought to have been the task of theologians familiar with church music or church musicians with expertise in theology to express clearly the deeper roots of the theology of worship and of its music in order to expel the suspicion of being cultural aristocrats and defenders of purely aesthetic values.

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

The path of the history is clear: during the first centuries of Christianity there was no “church music,” but only liturgy performed in singing. In the course of time, two byways were opened: the first is artistic church music (starting as early as the 7th—8th century), the second is the folk hymn which appears in the 10th— 11th century). At first the use of both was limited and they remained in close proximity to the liturgy. As their autonomous life developed, they moved away from the liturgy: art music toward compositions inspired by religious sentiments, the vernacular folk hymn toward popular genres. Although the church musicians of today have some control over the folk hymn through the hymnals, in fact they left the church music of weekdays and normal Sundays to its own fate. They failed to protest resolutely as a group against the corruption of liturgical music, and to search for the path of a real renewal in the spirit of the liturgy. They regarded the rescue of ecclesiastical art music as their main task and found satisfaction in the artistic production of solemn Masses and concerts.

Thus church music has been broken into two, reflecting the disruption of the Church herself into a low and high Church. The high-church music is in this case the sphere of Gregorian and polyphonic Masses. The low-church music is the multitude of Masses celebrated with popular cantiunculae ditties, and amateur pop music compositions. Somewhere between the two we find a “traditional” low-church music: congregational hymns lead by organ mixed with rather poor Ordinary compositions. Adding up the percentages: high-church music is in one or two percent of the Masses and churches, low-church music in all the other ninety-eight percent.

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

After Vatican II, when a “translation” of the liturgy seemed to be necessary again, the Church and church musicians found themselves at a crossroads. The Constitution spoke for the first — we may say, the “orthodox” — way. The chant is a mediator of concrete liturgical content. Beside the Latin that should be preserved, it would generate — combined with new ritual languages — new branches of the old musical family. A natural way, suggested by good examples, would be to begin singing the words of the liturgy and give time for assimilating the musical idioms to the character of the different languages.

Instead, people became entrenched in the false question of the possibility or impossibility of adapting Gregorian melodies to the prosody of the new languages. The creation of a musical language and repertory for the rite demands, of course, knowledge and musical invention; but an acceptable liturgical music is more than the result of paperwork by scholars and ambitious composers. The keyword in the post-cociliar documents became: vel alius cantus aptus. By the use of this concession the liturgy turned in practice to the second way: replacing the liturgical items by various musical pieces. This led to three consequences:

1. Phrases interpreting the term “aptus” proved to be empty formulas unable to be used as norms for actually assessing chant material. The few objective norms given in the Constitution (such as: the text of chants should be taken mainly from the Bible and the rite; Gregorian chant should take pride of place in the liturgy; it should be introduced in small parish churches, too; only items approved by the bishops’ conference should be sung; chant must consist of noble artistic material, etc.) lost increasingly their regulating strength.

2. Chant at the moment does not participate in preserving and conveying concrete liturgical content and has become an element of ‘mood’ in the liturgy. Its unity with the celebration, its part in the dramatic structure of the liturgy has been abandoned, and it plays the role of mere ‘insertion’ (the only exception, perhaps, being the interlectionary chants).

3. Chant is assessed now according to its capacity to express the feelings of the community. In this connection, a totally unauthentic interpretation of “folk music” has spread (discussed below). Chant is regarded as a means of “inculturation,” an expression of the different mentalities of different nations. Music as promoting the catholicity of the church, or to express a kind of universality as a bridge connecting gender, generations, social strata is out of the question and has been forgotten in practice. This attitude stems, in the last analysis, from a false anthropology that prefers the differences among people to their community, and takes man as an unchangeable entity regardless of the use of learning and training (the “second nature” of man in a former view).

Liturgical music — if taken in the original sense of the word — has been relegated either to the liturgical museum of “Gregorian” festivals, courses, and workshops, or to the “New Age” and “World Music” sections of CD stores.

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