What did Vatican II Teach About Music?

I'm no musician, but continuing the theme of looking at what Vatican II actually taught, and further to this hilarious post from Bruvver Eccles I thought we might take a look at music in the Mass.

This is all because it is now The Year of Faith and Pope Benedict XVI opened this special year in Rome with a call for a new evangelisation rooted in an authentic interpretation of the documents of the Second Vatican Council.

“I have often insisted on the need to return, as it were, to the ‘letter’ of the Council – that is to its texts – also to draw from them its authentic spirit, and (it is) why I have repeated that the true legacy of Vatican II is to be found in them,” the Pope said Oct. 11 to approximately 30,000 pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the opening Mass of the Year of Faith. Speaking on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the Pope said that “reference to the documents saves us from extremes of anachronistic nostalgia and running too far ahead." Thus, “the new” can be welcomed “in a context of continuity.”



If we return to Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, promulgated by Vatican II, we find the Council specifically speaks of music in In paragraph 112. It states: “The musical tradition of the Universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.” Wow! Is it just me or is that an incredibly and shocking statement?? The Council actually says that the Church’s music is a treasure of art greater than any other treasure of art she has. Think about that. Think about Chartres Cathedral. Think about Brentwood ...eh hem...I mean Galway Cathedral. Think about the Pieta. Think about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio's extraordinary paintings. Think about Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Think of all the crucifixes from Catalonia in Spain, and all the Church architecture and art and paintings and sculpture in the Vatican Museum and throughout the world! The Council boldly states that the Church’s musical tradition is a treasure of inestimable value greater than any other art.

The Council goes on to explain why it can make such a shocking statement: “The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.” What that means is that a beautiful church, stained glass windows, statues, a noble crucifix, prayerful architecture all help to lift your heart up to God. But they are all merely the surroundings of the Mass. They constitute the “worship environment,” in modern parlance. Yet these things do not constitute the Mass itself. The Council says that when the Mass itself is set to music, that’s what ennobles music, which, itself, enhances the Mass; and that’s what makes the musical tradition the most precious tradition of the Church.

Notice, however, that the Council implies what many Church documents have said explicitly — that the most perfect form of music at Mass is not the hymns, the so-called “Gathering hymn” and its antithesis — I guess you would call it the “Scattering hymn” — at the end. The most appropriate use of music at Mass, as seen by Church tradition and reaffirmed by the Council, is singing the Mass itself: the Kyrie, the Agnus Dei, the Sanctus, the Acclamations, the Alleluias and so on. Again, this is not merely my opinion; this is what the Council actually says. Read it. Paragraph 112 goes on to say, “Sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is the more closely connected with the liturgical action itself.” This reinforces the point further.

Paragraph 114 continues: “The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care.” I mean, it's hard to suppress a gaffaw when one considers what we are forced to listen to at Mass in most parishes these days in the light of these teachings isn't it?


In paragraph 116 we find another shocker: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian Chant as specially suited to the Roman Liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” I'll just give you a minute to get up off the floor...That’s what the Council actually said. If you are in a parish which prides itself on living the spirit of Vatican II, then you should be singing Gregorian chant at your parish. And if you’re not singing the Gregorian Chant, you’re not following the specific mandate of the Second Vatican Council.

Something I picked up about Gregorian Chant. As you'll know if you follow my Sunday Scripture series of posts, the Psalms are songs. Each of the 150 Psalms is meant to be sung; and they always were sung by the Jews. This is why their purported author, King David, is always pictured with a harp:


So what did it sounded like when Jesus and his Apostles sang the Psalms? It sounded like Gregorian Chant.

Amazed? Professor William Mart, a Professor of Music at Stanford University says "The Psalm tones have their roots in ancient Jewish hymnody and psalmody.” So, if you sing the Psalms at Mass with the Gregorian tones, you are as close as you can get to praying with Jesus and Mary. They sang the Psalms in tones that have come down to us today in Gregorian Chant. And whatever way you look at it, that's a pretty cool fact!

The Council isn't calling us back to some medieval practice then, at the time of Notre Dame de Paris in the 13th century, the Psalms tones were already over a thousand years old. They are called Gregorian after Pope Gregory I, who reigned from 590 to 604. But they were already a thousand years old when he reigned. He didn't invent Gregorian chant; he reorganised and codified it and helped to establish musical schools to sing it and teach it. It was a reform; it wasn't an invention. Thus, the Council really calls us back to an unbroken tradition of truly sacred music and gives such music pride of place.


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