Back to the Future Forward to the Past: The Pope Calls for an End to Popular Music in Church

Classic Arts News   Back to the Future Forward to the Past: The Pope Calls for an End to Popular Music in Church
In what may be the most visible — or audible — instance of the present-day Catholic hierarchy's retreat from the reforms of the 1960s and '70s, Pope Benedict XVI has called for an end to popular music in churches, suggesting that traditional chant and sacred polyphony are the suitable accompaniment to worship.

Numerous media outlets — from The Daily Telegraph of London ("Silence modern music in church, says Pope") to the Catholic News Service ("Pope says new liturgical music need not ignore older church music") to of Texas ("Pope demands end to crappy church music") — reported the pontiff's statement this past week.

The Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 severely curtailed the use of Latin in Catholic services in favor of the vernacular, believing that many potential worshippers were put off attending church by a liturgy in a language they didn't understand. In the same spirit, beginning shortly after Vatican II and continuing in subsequent decades, countless parishes and dioceses have experimented with popular and vernacular music in church — from guitars and panpipes in the Andes to drumming in Africa to flamenco singing in Spain. Rock 'n' roll-style amplified instruments have been tried in many places; in the U.S., the guitar-strumming "folk Mass" has been an object of derision among traditionalists (and music snobs) for a generation.

The Telegraph quoted Pope Benedict as saying, "It is possible to modernise holy music, but it should not happen outside the traditional path of Gregorian chants or sacred polyphonic choral music." He made the comment at a concert on June 24 which placed liturgical music by Palestrina alongside sacred works by Msgr. Domenico Bartolucci, from 1956 to 1997 the director of the Sistine Chapel Choir. The concert would seem intended to serve a purpose analogous to that of the mythical first performance of Palestrina's "Pope Marcellus" Mass, which, legend (and Hans Pfitzner's opera Palestrina) would have it, convinced the prelates at the Council of Trent not to ban sacred polyphony altogether by demonstrating that it could be as spiritually pure and uplifting as plainchant.

An accomplished pianist and devoted Mozart-lover, Pope Benedict — n_ Joseph Ratzinger — comes from a musical family; his brother Georg was for 30 years the director of the renowned choir of Regensburg Cathedral in Germany, the "Regensburger Domspatzen."

Reaction to the papal pronouncement was predictably mixed. Cardinal Ersilio Tonini, the Archbishop of Ravenna, agreed with his superior, saying that "Mass is the presence of Christ and the music adds so much more when the harmony allows the mind to transcend the concrete to the divine."

But Cardinal Carlo Furno, grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, was quoted in the Telegraph as saying it was "better to have guitars on the altar and rock and roll Masses than empty churches," adding that the use of modern music was a "sign of the vitality of the faith." The Italian newspaper La Stampa compared Benedict to his predecessor Pius X, who in 1903 deplored the newfangled sacred music of the Baroque and Classical eras and enforced the use of standardized Gregorian chants.

Nicholas Kenyon, controller of the BBC Promenade Concerts, remarked in the Telegraph of June 29 that "This is like David Lammy, just because he happens to be culture minister, criticising anything he does not personally like on the radio and insisting on a diet of his own favourites. [...] Who is to say that different generations cannot worship to the music of Palestrina or pop, Josquin or flamenco? We should encourage all who want to worship to do so in the style closest to their hearts."

Kenyon did go on to observe that, in the '60s and '70s, "the Catholic Church, in a desperate moment of realising that it was several centuries out of date, embarked on liturgical and musical reform with all the enthusiasm of a French revolutionary, censuring choirmasters, organists, and singers with a will, revoking all sense of value in the musical heritage of previous generations." He pointed out the critical and popular success of such contemporary composers as Arvo P‹rt, Henryk G‹recki and John Tavener, whose music seeks to express traditional Christian spirituality in a modern classical idiom. And, of course, he suggested that His Holiness might want to pay a visit to a Prom.

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