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16. SINGING AT MASS

1. The singing of which the Church makes use as an accompaniment to the Mass, is what is known as the Gregorian chant.

This may be heard at High Mass, when the priest sings the preface or the Pater Noster, and when he begins the Gloria or Credo. This style of music is called Gregorian, because it was brought to perfection and introduced into general use by Pope St. Gregory the Great. It is believed that it was by divine inspiration or through direct revelation that the saint did so much in the interests of Church music. This chant is marked by extreme gravity, tranquil solemnity, majestic dignity. It is free from all rapid movements, florid passages, all striving after effect. It is the language of another, a higher sphere, it is truly the voice of prayer and of praise. In the Gregorian style special attention is paid to the text, the words of which are plainly audible; the beautiful, subdued melody holds a secondary place. This style of chanting is not hampered by restrictions of time and measure, and that gives it the irresistible power it possesses over the feelings, as an eloquent discourse carries away the heart. Gregorian music undergoes no change; like Latin, the language of the Church, it is always and everywhere the same. Hence it admirably corresponds to the nature and characteristics of the Church, particularly her unity and universality. Many devout Christians prefer this style of singing to any other, because it is a stimulus to recollection and devotion.

2. In addition to the Gregorian chant we have in our churches congregational singing, hymns in which the people join. Instrumental music, as an accompaniment to the singing, is played on the organ, violin, or other musical instruments.

Congregational singing had its origin in the first centuries, when the vernacular was the language of religion, and the people joined in some portions of the liturgy that was chanted. But when, in the fifth century, the Teutonic tribes overran Italy, and the national languages took a new form, and the people could no longer join in those parts of the liturgy which were sung in Latin, hymns to be sung in the vulgar tongue were introduced. The singing of hymns and canticles was more popular in Germany than elsewhere. Hymns full of sterling piety for processions, pilgrimages, and anthems in honor of Our Lady were composed and set to simple but splendid melodies. Luther was the ruin of Church music. He took advantage of the national love of psalmody and employed it as a means of propagating his erroneous tenets; it is said that he perverted more Catholics by his psalm-singing than by his preaching. The “chorales” to which he gave the principal place in divine worship were of so exciting a nature that it is said that while singing them, many a one felt himself urged to use his fists as well as his voice in spreading the new teaching. The Catholics of that period met Luther on his own ground; they too composed hymns in defence of the doctrines he attacked. This was the cause of a lamentable deterioration both in the spiritual songs themselves, and in the time and measure of the melodies to which they were sung, an effect which is felt to this day. Congregational singing during Mass should only be allowed in moderation so as to leave every worshipper free to enter into the spirit of the holy mysteries, and not interfere with the private devotions of any one present. Instrumental music in churches enables us to lift up the heart to God with greater facility. Delight in the melody disposes the mind of the weaker brethren to deeper devotion, and is an aid in raising the thoughts from the natural to the supernatural. It must, however, be remembered that instrumental music is only an accessory; it is an accompaniment to vocal music, and serves to accentuate the words that are sung. In divine worship the simple words of prayer alone, or in their more solemn form of sacred music, are of main importance, because they are the outcome of the heart; the orchestral accompaniment is an accessory that can well be dispensed with. The playing ought never to drown the singing, or render the words sung unintelligible. Still less ought the instrumental music be calculated rather to please the ear than to touch the heart and awaken pious emotions, for in that case it would be a hindrance, not a help to prayer. For the earthly-minded Jews instrumental music was necessary on account of their weakness; for only through the pleasures of the senses could they be stimulated to strive after nobler aims. In the early days of Christianity no instrumental music was heard at the time of divine worship, for the Christians would not have their prayers mingle with the notes of instruments which were associated with pagan dances and idolatrous ceremonies. Organs were first used in churches in the eighth century; in the sixteenth century, when kings and princes who were patrons of music had orchestras attached to their courts, we find instruments of various kinds, violins, flutes, etc., in the churches. Later on, professional bandmasters were engaged to conduct the choirs in churches, and unfortunately they introduced secular melodies into the house of God, and in the performance of these compositions no heed was paid to the sacred words of the liturgy. Among those who contributed most to the reform of Church music was Palestrina, the Papal choir master in the Vatican; he composed several Masses of a solemn and dignified character, in which due prominence was given to the words. His name is immortalized by the Missa Parce Marcelli. A contemporary of his of Dutch origin, Orlando di Lasso, choirmaster of the Lateran Church in Rome, asserted himself in the same direction. He was called the “king of composers,” and was the author of eight hundred secular compositions, besides fifteen hundred sacred works. The finest of the latter is the seven penitential psalms arranged for five voices, in which the feelings of penitence and compunction are expressed in a masterly manner. Gabrieli, organist of St. Mark’s in Venice, and Allegri, are also celebrated composers. The Miserere (for Holy Week), written by the last named, with nine parts and a double score is much esteemed. These masters promoted vocal music without an accompaniment, more than instrumental music, for which they did little. Instrumental music owes much to the composer Bach, a native of Eisenach (1750), whose sacred music is distinguished by its serious, religious tone. Towards the close of the eighteenth century instrumental music was brought to great perfection by Haydn, an Austrian, who composed fifteen Masses; he died in 1809 in Vienna; Mozart, a native of Salzburg, who attracted attention as a boy by his musical talent, composed fifteen Masses before he was eighteen years old; he died at the age of thirty-five in Vienna; and Beethoven, a native of Bonn, who wrote two Masses of prodigious length; he died in 1827 in Vienna. The works of these composers cannot be considered as models of what sacred music ought to be; they do not reflect the spirit of the Church in the Gregorian music. They may express feelings of devotion, otherwise they differ little from secular compositions, and bear the stamp of the age in which they were written. In recent times much has been done for the improvement of Church music by the Society of St. Cecilia, founded in 1867 at Regensburg, the object of which is to train choirs, to raise congregational singing to a higher level, and introduce instrumental music of a nature to correspond with the liturgy of the Church. The rules of this Society were confirmed by Pope Pius IX in 1870.


 


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