Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Sacred Music — Time to Reconnect with Worship?

by Richard Perrignon


This essay by Richard Perrignon focuses on reconnecting music with worship through formal education and training. He shows how, despite the desires of the Council Fathers as made clear in Sacrosanctum Concilium, sacred music was seriously derailed after Vatican II, and proposes the means for renewal today.

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Adoremus Bulletin


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Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, St. Louis, MO, February 2008

Over the years, criticism of music in Catholic worship has become something of a fashion. But when an internationally renowned musician of the caliber of Peter Phillips, artistic director of the world-famous vocal ensemble The Tallis Scholars, joins in — and looks to the pope for the Church's artistic salvation ("Can Pope Benedict restore church music?" The Spectator, November 28, 2007) — it is time for the Church to sit up and take a good look at itself. Phillips makes his point thus:

For a Church which prides itself on continuation and tradition this [public criticism of Church music in the 20th century as in the 16th] is a sorry record indeed. The Anglicans, with their long-lived choir schools and uninterrupted support for good choral music of every period, have done very much better. As have the Orthodox. Nonetheless it does seem as though the low standards tolerated and encouraged by the Catholic hierarchy since Vatican II are at last being addressed . . . Through countless reigns it has been assumed that music is something which can be ordered to size and then cut to fit an agenda, like a vestment or a smell or even an architectural interior, and yet still be attractive music. That this is not true is something which is coming home to roost.

Phillips refers to the recent criticism of choral standards at St. Peter's Basilica by Monsignor Valentin Miserachs Grau, director of the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music, who says that the standards were not enhanced by the practice of inviting foreign choirs to sing regularly, and applauds Pope Benedict's push to make more of the local Vatican choir.

After drawing a parallel between Pope Benedict's love of chant and that of his predecessors in the 16th century, Phillips continues:

By 1600 polyphony was on the way out, chant was not on the way in, and the standard of singing in Catholic services began a long descent which eventually made possible the decisions of Vatican II.

In this way, Phillips echoes a chorus of criticism which has been growing since the 1960s, when implementation of the Vatican II pronouncements on music commenced. See, for example, Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can't Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, New York, 1990; D. Daintree, "Spare me this music", The Tablet, June 24, 1995; D. Thompson, "In the name of all that's holy", The Spectator, London, November 2007.

A fresh assessment is called for. But by what standards should such an assessment be conducted?

According to Phillips, "true art . . . is the goal here". One might ask, as did Pilate of truth, "what is art?" Perhaps the correct answer is, "that which humanity judges it to be over the ages". From experience, Phillips knows that the sacred polyphonic music of the Renaissance era — by which I mean music sung in many parts, usually unaccompanied, by composers like Palestrina, Lassus, Victoria, Guerrero, Dufay, Brumel, Tallis and many others — is considered by people around the world to be "high art", no less than the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, the sculpture of Michelangelo, or the architecture of Bernini.

Specializing in this sacred polyphony, Phillips and the Tallis Scholars regularly fill concert halls around the globe, and sell recordings as if they were hot cakes. The New York Times has dubbed them "the rock stars of Renaissance vocal music". Theirs is not "popular" music, in the sense that the rock-'n-roll industry might use the term, but its popularity is manifest nevertheless. So powerful is the intrinsic appeal of this music, expressing as it does the entire gamut of human emotion, that it retains its popularity even when divorced from the Catholic liturgy for which it was designed.

The public performance, recording and sheer availability of this polyphonic music is a very contemporary phenomenon. Due to the prodigious musical scholarship of the twentieth century, and the advent of ever more advanced recording and distribution technologies for sound and printed music, this form of sacred art is more widely appreciated, available and demanded today than it has ever been in history. The pity is that today, great Catholic polyphony is far more likely to be found in a record store, or on iTunes, than in a Catholic church. By failing to reserve a place for this art in its worship — or worse, by driving it from the liturgy altogether — the Church fails to keep up with the times, and loses the very contemporary relevance with many clergy so ardently crave.

Its popularity aside, there is another compelling reason why this music ought be re-connected with the living liturgy. It expresses the sacredness of the liturgical action, and of the occasion. It is, by its very nature, "other worldly". It defines sonically the difference between a sacred space or experience — that is, within a church or sanctuary — and the ordinary experience of everyday life. Recently, Pope Benedict referred to this concept, in a different context, as the "sacrality" of religious experience.1 A sense of the sacred is absent when the air waves are dominated by music whose aim is to express and reflect the ordinary in human experience, either by adopting musical idioms common to pop music or strains commonly heard in American sitcoms, or simply by the banal nature of monodic musical construction, which characterizes much of the music heard in Catholic parishes today.

Re-connecting with Catholic heritage

How, then, can this high art be re-connected with the liturgy of the Catholic Church, or of other Christian denominations which seek to make appropriate use of our common cultural heritage?

Phillips points to the Anglican tradition, "with their long-lived choir schools and uninterrupted support for good choral music of every period . . ." There can be little doubt that good choral music needs good choral schools. Though the Anglican choral tradition is a fine one, the practice of music in contemporary Anglican worship is not without problems,2 and it would not be correct to suggest that it surpasses, or ever did surpass, that of the Catholic tradition at its highest levels.

But the Catholic Church has no lack of excellent choir schools. For centuries, the endowment and conduct of such schools has been at the center of Catholic tradition. Excellent contemporary examples are readily to be found at Regensburg Cathedral in Germany (of which Pope Benedict's brother, Georg, was himself musical director), Notre Dame in Paris, Westminster Cathedral in London, and at St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, to name but a very few.

The Catholic Church has chosen to concentrate its artistic resources on the pursuit of musical high art in those cultural centers where it is considered most appropriate — namely, the major cathedrals around the world. There is simply not the money to endow professional choir schools in every parish.

This, however, cannot explain why liturgical music generally — and parish music in particular — has reached its current state. Nor does it justify denying ordinary Christians, for whom it is not convenient to attend Mass at a major cathedral, access to high musical art in the context of their worship. Still less can it justify denying to the children of the faithful proper access to instruction in the techniques of its practice. After all, the Catholic Church has over the centuries amassed a corpus of musical art which is second to none. The Church has a cultural duty — quite apart from its religious duties — to assure the survival of that corpus of sacred music, and its continued availability to the faithful whom it exists to serve.

Where Church music got off-track

So, how did we come to this pass, and what's the way out?

Much of the current malaise can be traced back to the Second Vatican Council, and the implementation of the norms contained in Chapter VI of its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which was promulgated on December 4, 1963. It is not intended here to examine the arguments for and against the policies expressed in Chapter VI, or to engage in controversy over the extent to which sacred music was already in decline prior to the 1960s. Doubtless, debate on these issues, and the historic legacy of Vatican II, will continue for many years.

Three things, however, are tolerably clear.

First, it was not the intention of the Council Fathers to denigrate sacred music, still less to eliminate chant or sacred polyphony from the liturgy. So much is clear from the terms of Sacrosanctum Concilium itself. Indeed, it is stunning — and sad — to compare the sentiment and exhortations expressed by the Fathers with the reality of what followed:

Article 112: The musical tradition of the universal church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy . . . Therefore, sacred music is to be considered the more holy, the more closely connected it is with the liturgical action, whether making prayer more pleasing, prompting unity of minds, or conferring greater solemnity on the sacred rites . . .

Article 114: The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral churches; but bishops and other pastors of souls must be at pains to ensure that, whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs, as laid down in Art. 28 and 30.

Article 115: Great importance is to be attached to the teaching and practice of music in seminaries, in the novitiates and houses of study of religious of both sexes, and also in other Catholic institutions and schools. To impart this instruction, teachers are to be carefully trained and put in charge of the teaching of sacred music. It is desirable also to found higher institutes of sacred music whenever this can be done . . .

Article 116: 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. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Art. 30.3

Reading these exhortations, one can be forgiven for wondering what went wrong. The contemporary reality is so far divorced from the desires of the Fathers that one's natural inclination is to inquire who sabotaged the implementation of these fine sentiments. Much of the blame, regrettably, must lie with those charged with that implementation and with the administration of the affairs of the Church generally — that is, the clergy itself. And — unless the Church undergoes a radical reorganization of its hierarchical structures, which seems unlikely — it is from the clergy that the proper implementation of the Council's desires must ultimately come.

Secondly, in the implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium that followed, bishops took advantage of the permission in SC article 36 to use vernacular languages in the celebration of the Mass according to the revised Roman Missal of 1970. When the Missal was translated into vernacular languages, Latin was effectively eliminated from the liturgy entirely. The immediate result was that chant and polyphony — the art forms that had been used over the centuries to set the Latin prayers of the Missal to music — became immediately obsolete. Not only was this music not encouraged or provided for in the vernacular celebrations of the Mass, it was seen as being indelibly associated with an obsolete Liturgy and with the Tridentine tradition.

This view was historically misinformed, however. Most sacred polyphony pre-dated the Council of Trent by decades or centuries. The Council of Trent did not ban sacred polyphony, though it did not encourage it.4 The 19th-century account by Abbe Giuseppe Baini about how the Council Fathers were persuaded against such a ban by the music of Palestrina, who thereby "saved" sacred music, is apocryphal.5 But the Council of Trent's generally negative attitude toward polyphony may account for the demise of that music in Catholic liturgy within about fifty years. The official rehabilitation of sacred polyphony and authentic chant would not happen until the early 20th century.6

Even after the Mass was translated into vernacular languages following the Second Vatican Council, there was no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There were and still are plenty of ways to utilize sacred polyphony — and chant — in the vernacular liturgy, to its great benefit. This is done by skilled choirs weekly, if not daily, in major cathedrals around the world.

The spirit of disruption

But one must remember the social and historical context in which Vatican II was conducted. The 1960s witnessed an era of iconoclasm, and the glorification of youth, which — in the West at least — was enjoying the benefits of post-war prosperity and the economic empowerment that comes with disposable income. It was the era of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and other popular ensembles who were accumulating immense fortunes by forging new mass markets for the consumption of recorded and printed music, composed of emerging generations of cashed-up teenagers. It was an era in which anything old was despised, and which saw the general deconstruction of anything that smacked of tradition. As Bob Dylan proclaimed, "The times, they are a-changin'".

Thirdly, the Council Fathers desired — by no means unreasonably — that the faithful should actively participate in the liturgy. This was one of the most pervasive themes of Sacrosanctum Concilium:

Article 14: Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the Liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people" (I Pet 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.

In the restoration and promotion of the Sacred Liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it, by means of the necessary instruction, in all their pastoral work.

The Council desired that congregational participation should extend to music-making, among other things:

Article 30: To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.

However, the Council never contemplated that musical activities of congregations would banish properly trained choirs from the liturgy, for which they specifically reserved a place:

Article 29: Servers, lectors commentators, and members of the choir also exercise a genuine liturgical function. They ought, therefore, to discharge their office with the sincere piety and decorum demanded by so exalted a ministry and rightly expected of them by God's people. Consequently they must all be deeply imbued with the spirit of the Liturgy, each in his own measure, and they must be trained to perform their functions in a correct and orderly manner.

The Council expected and desired a balance between choral and congregational music-making. Precisely where that balance should lie would no doubt depend on the solemnity of the occasion and other practical factors. The requirement for balance was quickly forgotten, or conveniently ignored, in the zeal of many clergy and lay musicians — particularly those who had neither a taste for musical high art, nor the skills to perform it — to appear to implement the liturgical norms of the Council.

There grew up in the 1970s a mentality in which anything learned or old — chant, for example, or sophisticated choral music — was feared and loathed as being "elitist" and considered ripe for destruction. Choral music was often replaced wholesale by monody. That is, single-line music with instrumental accompaniment — almost always an electric organ. This led to the absurd contemporary spectacle of cantors — often egged on by an admiring clergy — singing so-called "congregational" music solo, or practically so, amplified by ever more powerful public address systems, which serves only to belie the fact that the congregation cannot, or does not want to, participate in this way.

So it was almost inevitable that, despite the manifest intention of the Council Fathers to preserve the "sacred treasury" of music built up by the Church through the ages, that very treasury should be driven from the Church, in the perpetual search for something new. Now, in the fullness of time, our folly in this sad saga of artistic deconstruction has become clear, rendering our worship commonplace and often uninspiring.

Musical education is essential

If that is the cause of the problem, what is its cure? Is it simply a contest between "good" and "bad" music, between what Professor Day has described as "reformed folk" and high art? Is one kind of music to be preferred to all others, and are those others to be excluded from worship? The answer must surely be "no". Such a course would only perpetuate the so-called "liturgy wars", which have raged in America for decades, between musicians and so-called "liturgists" of either faction. It turns us against each other without justification, and produces nothing but the scandal of division at the Lord's table.

The answer, surely, is education. At present, Catholics in Australia are often denied access to the simplest musical education at the parish level, which would enable them to appreciate — or even perform — the art which is their culture and heritage. It is here that the parish choir tradition — for which the Anglican Church is famous — provides a valuable example. Children in an ordinary English village have a much better chance of joining a properly directed parish choir than do their counterparts in Australia, regardless of denomination. In a properly formed and instructed choir, children can learn basic skills of music reading and voice production, and of singing in multiple parts, accompanied and unaccompanied. They are exposed to an artistic repertoire stretching from chant to the present day, which can form the basis for more detailed study later, or just for exploring the artistic riches of their cultural heritage in adulthood.

It is this culture that produces the great musicians of the English cathedrals, and of the world-renowned college choirs of Oxford and Cambridge universities, of which the choirs of King's College and St. John's College are but examples. We in Australia would do well to emulate this parish tradition, and to encourage its higher development at our university colleges and cathedrals. It means investment, yes, but of a much more modest character than setting up professional choir schools of paid singers outside the cathedrals. It is a practical goal. It has the potential to disseminate musical learning to a far greater cross-section of Christians than currently, and to feed our cathedral choir schools with already formed musicians, capable of greater artistic achievement by reason of their learning and experience. Education itself will in time create the demand for a higher standard of musical worship, ensuring that the vision of the Council Fathers is achieved.

For this to occur, there must first be a change of heart among those entrusted with the administration of the affairs of the Church. What is needed is a newfound respect — echoing and giving effect to that of the Council Fathers — for tradition, for learning, and for the proper place of high art in our worship.

So, from where will this initiative come? It has already started in the right place — that is, in Rome. In a hierarchical Church, reform often has a greater chance of success if it comes from the top. Peter Phillips is right in looking to Pope Benedict for artistic salvation, and he is right to hope that, from Pope Benedict, it will come. Let us hope that reform will come soon.


  1. Pope Benedict XVI, letter dated July 7, 2007 addressed to the bishops of the world, accompanying the Motu Proprio, Summorum Pontificum. The latter authorized the more general celebration of the Mass as published in the Roman Missal of 1962, as the "extraordinary expression" of the Latin rite, alongside the "ordinary expression" of the same rite, the post-Vatican II Roman Missal of 1970 (Novus Ordo). Both are in Latin, but only the latter has been translated into the vernacular, and has been celebrated in parishes around the world from the 1970s to the present day.
  2. For a trenchant critique of the current situation in Sydney, see Peter Phillips's article, "Beyond words: Sing in the Pews", The Spectator, January 16, 2008.
  3. Vatican translation. [Accessible online at: - Ed.]
  4. The recommendation the Council made at its 22nd sitting on September 17, 1562 reads as follows: "Ab ecclesiis vero musicas eas, ubi sive organo, sive cantu lascivum aut impurum aliquid miscetur item saeculares omnes actiones, vana atque adeo profana colloquia, arceant ut domus Dei vere domus orationis esse videatur ac dici possit." [Let them exclude from churches those pieces of music, whether sung or played, which are tainted with anything sensual or impure, and all things secular, and vain or even blasphemous utterances, so that the house of God may be seen to be, and may truly be called, a house of prayer.] (Author's translation).
  5. Baini, G., Memorie storico-critiche della vita e dell' opera di Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina, Rome, 1828. For critiques of Baini's account, see Stove, Palestrina: Prince of Music, Sydney, 1990, page 46; Pyne, Palestrina: His life and times, New York, 1970, page 47ff; and Coates, Palestrina, London, 1948, page 11 et seq.
  6. The official version of Gregorian chant in the Tridentine era was the Editio Medicaea published in 1614, and essentially reprinted by Friederich Pustet as the Regensburg edition of 1871. Though not completed until after Palestrina's death in 1594, this version grew out of the papal commission to him and Annibale Zoilo of October 25, 1577, to conform the chants of the day to the new Breviarum Romanum (1568) and Missale Romanum (1570), prepared on the recommendations of the Council of Trent. For the text of the commission, see Strunk, Source Readings in Music History, New York, 1950.

    It was not until the Motu Proprio issued by Pius X in 1903 [Tra le sollecitudini — accessible on the Adoremus web site: - Ed.] that the scholarly revisions of the chant by the monks of Solesmes were adopted as the official versions of the Church: see Dickerson, The Story of Christian Music, Oxford, 1992, pages 126-127.

Richard Perrignon is an Australian Catholic musician with more than 25 years' experience in writing and directing sacred music in the liturgy. He is artistic director of Capella sublima, a performing ensemble that specializes in Renaissance polyphony, and a visiting choirmaster at St. Mary's Cathedral, Sydney. He was Director of Music at the former Dominican Priory at Wahroonga, Sydney, from 1998 to 2006. He is a Fellow of St. John's College within the University of Sydney.

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