IMPLICATIONS OF A CENTENARY:
PONTIFICAL INSTITUTE FOR SACRED MUSIC (1911-2011)
Monsignor Valentin Miserachs Grau
President of the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music
XI among the Roman Athenaeums and Ecclesiastical Universities under the denomination of “Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music”.
In the atmosphere of liturgical and musical renewal that characterized the second half of Nineteenth Century and in the frame of the research of the pure sources of Sacred Music that leaded to Pope Saint Pius X’s Motu proprio Inter sollicitudines [Tra le sollecitudini], it became evident it would not have been possible to carry on the programme of the reformation without schools of Sacred Music. It was within the Associazione Italiana Santa Cecilia (AISC) [Italian Association of Saint Cecily that the idea of settle a superior school in Rome, the most suitable place for that, as being the center of the whole Catholic world. From the first projects until the
opening of the School thirty years elapsed!
The Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music was foreseen since its very beginning –and it has remained substantially faithful to this vocation– as a centre of high formation specialising in the main branches of Sacred Music: Gregorian chant, composition, choir conduction, organ and musicology. It is not then about a conservatoire, with the study of different musical instruments, but about a university centre specifically devoted to Sacred Music. It is obvious, of course, that music in general underlies Sacred Music: in the course of composition, for instance, one must start, as in any conservatoire, with the study of harmony, counterpoint and fugue; then follow with the study of variations, the sonata form, and orchestration, before arriving at the great exquisitely sacred forms (motet, Mass and oratory). The Pontifical Institute has recently adhered to the Bologna Convention and has consequently adapted its own syllabus and courses to the new parameters proposed by it. It is in this spirit that a superior biennium of piano has been newly introduced, although this subject was already largely present as a complementary matter in our curriculum.
I should underline the fact that in the year just elapsed the Pontifical Institute has reached a historical maximum of students with 140 inscriptions, a third of whom coming from Italy and the remainder coming from the five continents. In addition to the study of the various musical disciplines, we have to record other exquisite musical activities like the beautiful season of concerts –with the relevant participation of our teachers and students– and, of course, periodical solemn liturgical celebrations in chant.
The Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music is not a body in the Church with normative character, but a school where to learn, with the study and practice, how to become leaven and a model for service to the different churches throughout the Catholic world.
In order to commemorate in a suitable way such an auspicious anniversary, we began by organizing the Concert season 2010-2011 according to the historical framework of these last hundred years, with reference to the subjects of our teaching, and to the most relevant figures that distinguished themselves in the life of the Pontifical Institute. I would like to mention the Holy Mass celebrated by myself in the Ancient Roman Rite in the church of Santi Giovanni e Petronio in the Via del Mascherone on the 5th January 2011, exactly as it happened a century ago, on the same day and in the same church, when our first president Father Angelo De Santi, S.I., wanted to open the activity of the infant school with a Holy Mass celebrated “in the intimacy”, with the attendance of a few professors and students. I have celebrated in the Ancient Rite both for historical accuracy and for giving joy to a number of professors and students that since some time ago asked me to celebrate the Holy Mass in the extraordinary form.
The most relevant acts took place in the last week of May: the publication of a thick volume entitled “Cantemus Domino”, that gathers the different and many-sided features of our hundred-year history; the edition of a CD collection of music by the Institute; the celebration of an important International Congress on Sacred Music (with the participation of more than one hundred speakers and lecturers), that was closed by an extraordinary concert and a Solemn Mass of Thanksgiving. During the Congress, three relevant figures related to Sacred Music were conferred with the honorary doctorate and held brilliant and highly-valued magisterial lectures.
I would like to underline that the Holy Father Benedict XVI has been in some way present in the centennial commemoration through a Letter addressed to our Grand Chancellor, The Most Eminent Lord Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, in which His Holiness remembers the merits of the Institute along its hundred-year history and insists on how important it is for the future to continue working along the furrow of the great Tradition, an indispensable condition for a genuine updating (aggiornamento) having all the guarantees that the Church has always requested as essential connotations of liturgical Sacred Music: holiness, excellence of the forms (true art) and universality, in the sense that liturgical music could be acceptable to everybody, without shutting itself in abstruse or elitist forms and, least of all, turning down to trivial consumer products.
This one is a sore point: the rampant wave of false and truly dreadful liturgical music in our churches. Nevertheless, the will of the Church clearly appears in the words of the Holy Father I have just mentioned. He had already addressed to us in the allocution pronounced during his visit to the Pontifical Institute on 13th October 2007. Moreover, it is still fresh in our memory the Chyrograph that the Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote on 22nd November 2003 to commemorate the centenary of the Saint Pius X’s Motu proprio Inter sollicitudines (22nd November 1903), by which Pope Wojtyla assumed the main principles of this fundamental document without forgetting what the Second Vatican Council clearly expressed in the Chapter VI of its Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on Sacred Liturgy. By doing that, Blessed John Paul II practically walked the same path traced by that Holy Pope who wanted his Motu proprio to have validity as the “juridical code of Sacred Music”. Now we must wonder: if the will of the Church has been clearly declared also in our times, how is it possible that the musical praxis in our churches distances itself in so evident a way from the same doctrine?
We must consider several problems at the root of this question, for instance the problem of repertoire. We have hinted at a double aspect: the risk of shutting oneself in a closed circle that would wish to essay new compositions considered as being of high quality in Liturgy. We must say that the evolution of musical language towards uncertain horizons makes the breach between “serious” music and popular sensitivity to become more and more profound. Liturgical music must be “universal”, that is acceptable to any kind of audience. Today it is difficult to find good music composed with this essential characteristic. I do not discuss the artistic value of certain contemporary productions, even sacred, but I think that it would not be opportune to insert them in the Sacred Liturgy. One cannot transform the “oratory” into “laboratory”.
The second aspect of the problem derives from a false interpretation of the conciliar doctrine on Sacred Music. As a matter of fact, the post-conciliar liturgical “renewal”, including the almost total lack of mandatory rules at a high level, has allowed a progressive decay of liturgical music, at the point of becoming, in the most cases, “consumer music” according to the parameters of the most slipshod easy-listening music. This sad practice sometimes determines attitudes of petulant rejection towards genuine Sacred Music, of yesterday and today, maybe composed in a simple manner, but according to the rules of Art. Only a change of mentality and a decisive “reforming” will –that I am afraid is far to come– would be able to bring back to our churches the good musical praxis and, together with it, also the conscientiousness of celebrations, that would not lack to entice, through the value of beauty, a large public, particularly young people, currently kept away by the prevailing amateurish practice, falsely popular and wrongly considered –even in good faith– as an effective instrument of approaching.
Regarding the power of involvement of which the good liturgical music is capable, I would like to add only what is my own personal experience. By a fortunate chance, I am acting after almost forty years, as Kapellmeister at the Roman Basilica of Saint Mary Major, where every Sunday and on feast days the Chapter Mass is celebrated in Latin, and with Gregorian and polyphonic chant accompanied by organ (and by a brass sextet in highest solemnities). I can assure you that the nave and the aisles of the basilica get packed and not rarely there are people that come after the ceremonies to express their gratefulness, moved to tears as they are, especially by the Hymn to the Madonna Salus Populi Romani (Our Lady, Salvation of the Roman People). They often cannot hold back the excitement and arrive to burst out clapping. People are thirsting for good music! It goes directly to the heart and is capable of working even resounding conversions.
Another compass of good liturgical music –always reminded by the Teaching of the Church– concerns the primacy of the pipe organ. The organ has always been considered as the prince of instruments in Roman Liturgy and consequently has enjoyed great honour and esteem. We know well that other rites use different instruments, or only the chant without any kind of instrumental accompaniment. But the Roman Church, and also the denominations born from the Lutheran Reformation, see in the pipe organ the preferred instrument for Liturgy. In Latin countries, the use of organ is almost exclusive whilst for Anglo-Saxon tradition the intervention of the orchestra is frequent in celebrations. This fact is not due to a whim or by pure chance: the organ has very ancient roots and has been praised along the centuries in the path of its historical improvement. The objective quality of its sound (produced and supported by the air blown into the pipes, comparable to the sound emitted by the human voice) and its exclusive phonic richness (that makes of it a world in itself and not a mere ersatz of the orchestra) justify the predilection that the Church fosters towards it. It is rightly so that the Second Vatican Council dedicates inspired words to the organ when stating that “it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church's ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man's mind to God and to higher things” (SC, 120), in which it does no other thing that to recall the preceding doctrine both of Saint Pius X and Venerable Pius XII (especially in the splendid Encyclical Letter Musicae sacrae disciplina). By the way, I would like to remark that the publication of the PIMS that has got more success is the booklet Iucunde laudemus, that gathers together the most relevant documents of the Church’s Magisterium regarding Sacred Music. Just in these days, since the first edition was sold out, we have re-edited this work updated with further ecclesiastical documents, both from the preceding teaching and the one of the reigning Pope.
In our quick review of the main points underlying a good liturgical musical praxis, we have now arrived to a last but not least question, one that should be firstly considered: the Gregorian chant. It is the official chant of the Roman Church, as the Second Vatican Council reasserts. Its repertoire includes thousands of ancient, less ancient, and even modern pieces. Certainly, we can find the highest charm in the oldest compositions, dated back to the Xth-XIth Centuries. In this case also it has to do about an objective value, since the Gregorian chant represents the synthesis of the European and Mediterranean chant, related to the genuine and authentic popular chant, even that of the remotest regions of the world. It is a deeply human and essential chant that can be traced in its richness and variety of modes, in its rhythmic freedom (always at the service of the word), in the diversity and different degrees of its single pieces, according to the individual to whom the execution is assigned, etc. This is a chant that has found in the Church its most appropriate breeding ground and constitutes a unique treasure of priceless value, even from the merely cultural point of view.
Therefore, the rediscovery of Gregorian chant is a sine qua non condition to give back dignity to the liturgical music and not only as a valid repertoire in itself, but also as a source of inspiration for new compositions, as it was the case of the great polyphonists of the Renaissance, who –following the guidelines of the Council of Trent– created the structure bearing their wonderful works departing from the Gregorian subject matter. If we have in Gregorian chant the master path, why not follow it instead of persisting in scouring roads that in the most of cases drive to nowhere? But to undertake this work it is necessary to count on talented and well-prepared people. This is the goal of the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music. This is because of these noble ideals that it fought along the last hundred years and will continue to fight in the future, in the conviction of paying an essential service to the universal Church in a primary field such that of liturgical Sacred Music. Saint Pius X was so persuaded as to write in the introduction of his Motu proprio these golden words:
Among the cares of the pastoral office, not only of this Supreme Chair, which We, though unworthy, occupy through the inscrutable dispositions of Providence, but of every local church, a leading one is without question that of maintaining and promoting the decorum of the House of God in which the august mysteries of religion are celebrated, and where the Christian people assemble to receive the grace of the Sacraments, to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar, to adore the most august Sacrament of the Lord's Body and to unite in the common prayer of the Church in the public and solemn liturgical offices (…) We do therefore publish, motu proprio and with certain knowledge, Our present Instruction to which, as to a juridical code of sacred music, We will with the fullness of Our Apostolic Authority that the force of law be given, and We do by Our present handwriting impose its scrupulous observance on all” (Inter sollicitudines).
It would be desirable that the courage of Saint Pius X finds some echo in the Church of our times.
Mons. Valentín Miserachs Grau
President of the Pontifical Institute for Sacred Music.