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 May 10, 2010   •   VOL. 48, NO. 9   •   Oakland, CA

  Commentary links
History of the organ puts perspective on church music
The institutional Church, again in a crucible, needs reform
History of the organ puts
perspective on church music

I have been following with interest the various opinions expressed in The Catholic Voice on music at the Cathedral of Christ the Light and the role of the organ, piano, and other instruments in Catholic worship. In a spirit of providing some perspective, I offer some thoughts on the topic.

The history of the organ stretches back into ancient times, at least as far as Ctesibius of Alexandria in 200 BCE with his hydraulus, a water-driven pipe-organ-like instrument.

Benedictine Father Theo Flury plays the 787-pipe organ at the Sistine Chapel during its dedication and blessing on Dec. 19, 2002.
CNS photo by Max Rossi, Catholic Press Photo

The organ was certainly in use in Greek and Roman culture, being a part of pagan secular and religious celebrations. It was not used by the early Christians, who used vocal music exclusively. They did not want to imitate Jewish worship which had musical instruments, or pagan worship which also included various musical instruments, including the organ.

The writings of the early Church Fathers are quite clear on this point. This practice of exclusively vocal music was the Church’s custom for about 1,000 years. At some point, a rudimentary organ began to be introduced to support Gregorian chant. It was not played independently — its role was exclusively to support the singers. It was in no way the kind of instrument we associate with the organ today.

Meanwhile, throughout the Middle Ages, various wind and string instruments were developing in Europe in the development of secular music. Around the 15th century, instrumental music began to find its way into liturgical use. By the time of Viadana (1564-1627), instrumental music, independent of polyphonic vocal lines, was in liturgical use in Mantua, Italy.

Brass and string choirs

Giovanni Gabrielli, the great Venetian master at St. Mark’s, further developed the use of instruments with independent brass and string choirs.

Large organs such as the one installed in 1361 in Halberstadt, Germany (the first known permanent installation), began the development of our modern church organ. From this time on, the organ, especially in northern Europe, began to play a more prominent role in liturgy. At the time of the Reformation in Europe, where congregational singing began a serious development, the organ assumed an indispensable role in Protestant worship.

The “Golden Age” of organ music and organ construction is considered by music historians to be the Baroque period (1600-1750. It is important to note that at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) Rome re-affirmed that Gregorian chant (unaccompanied) and a cappella polyphony was the preferred music for Catholic worship. This was not met with widespread acceptance in the Church outside of Rome.

The influence of opera

With the development of opera at the beginning of the 17th century, Catholic church music began a long period wherein its primary source for vocal style and instrumentation came from the theater. In many ways, we have not left that practice. In many of our contemporary Catholic composers I hear echoes of musical theater styles.

From the time of Scarlatti (1657-1725) onward, most European cathedrals had full orchestras in residence to accompany large scale performances of the Mass, imitating the vocal writing and orchestration of contemporary opera.

From time to time, Rome has attempted to regulate the use of instruments and vocal music that was not Gregorian chant or 16th century polyphony, but with little success. Historically, Church musicians have used whatever instruments became available as the composition of the symphony orchestra, and by extension, the opera orchestra continued to expand.

The organ also continued its development as an instrument independent of its use to support chant and polyphonic singing. As well as its solo use, it also became a part of the orchestra in liturgies and in oratorio. The harpsichord (a precursor to the piano) was also used in church as a substitute for the organ as a continuo instrument.

We must note that whenever new instruments developed, such as the transverse flute, the clarinet, the harpsichord, etc., they were integrated into the opera orchestra, and so found their way into liturgical music.

Rediscovering J.S. Bach

When Felix Mendelssohn re-discovered the music of J. S. Bach in the early 19th century, Europe developed an interest in music composed in earlier times. This, of course, carried into church practice. It was not until then that the Church began regularly using “old masters” in worship. It still maintained the practice of the use of contemporary composition on a regular basis, however.

Of course, all of this changed in the post-Vatican II Church. As the assembly was enjoined to “full, conscious, and active participation” in the Mass, music suitable for congregational singing immediately entered liturgical use.

The Catholic Church had a minimal tradition of congregational singing. As was her long-established custom, the Church has drawn on the contemporary secular, popular musical idioms of the day in the decades since those liturgical reforms first began. Even Protestant hymnody has gained acceptance and many think these are old “Catholic” hymns.

The use of the piano, guitars, drums, synthesizers, etc. is right in keeping with the Church’s long history of contemporary music and use of contemporary musical instruments.

Where we shall go from here, who knows! I find it an exciting musical journey.

I have been a liturgical musician for over 40 years. I have done very “high” church in cathedral settings, “folk Masses,” Gospel music, and, of course, our contemporary Catholic music, so much of which has been written by talented musicians in our own Oakland Diocese. I have used organs, pianos, synthesizers, full orchestras, and hope to use whatever else creative minds come up with in the world of making music.

‘Music is prayer, not performance’

I believe the most important point for us all to remember is that the music is prayer, not performance at Mass. The style or instrumentation really isn’t the issue. Are the musicians there to support the assembly in their prayer? Are the people engaged in “full conscious and active participation,” a fundamental decree of Vatican II? Are the musicians using the music as a vehicle for their own love and devotion to God?

Style will continue to evolve, Rome will continue to say “don’t do this” or “you must do that,” and the Holy People of God will continue to create new music to express their love of God in ways that are meaningful to them. They always have. This issue is not new.

Some will enjoy the great music of the past; others will want to express their love for God in idioms that are contemporary because this is the kind of music with which they are familiar. What is so wonderful is that the Church is a huge storehouse of traditions and practice. There is plenty of room for us all.

For more detailed information on this topic, may I suggest the fine article in The Catholic Encyclopedia online entitled “Musical Instruments in Catholic Services.” While a bit dated, it will help to dispel some of the myths that have arisen on this subject.

In conclusion, “Sing to the LORD a new song, sing to the LORD all the earth!”

(James Gilman is a retired member of the music faculty at Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay) where he taught choral music and music history. He is currently director of music ministries at St. Augustine Parish in Oakland.)

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The institutional Church, again in a crucible, needs reform

I write this as we begin Holy Week. I am mindful of our Lord’s Paschal journey from death to new life. This paschal theme has deep personal meaning for me as a priest, since it was on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross I was ordained. The journey of the cross is central to our walk as Christians in this world.

Father Ron Schmit

For the past 10 years, the cross has become increasingly part of our experience as Church. There are many signs that our institutional Church is dying. One third of Catholics in the U.S. have left the Church (nearly 10 percent of Americans are former Catholics.) If it were not for immigration, the U.S. Church would be shrinking. Tens of thousands of Catholics in Latin America have joined Evangelical and Pentecostal Churches. Many just leave and go nowhere.

Thirty-five percent of U.S. Catholics are actively disengaged, that is, they are disconnected and angry with how things are going. Only 38 percent of U.S. Catholics listen to the bishops as moral guides. One in five raised as Catholics between 18-29 years will claim to be “unaffiliated” with a religious tradition (Gallup and Pew statistics).

A welcome place

These are not bad or ill-willed people. It may be that we have not made a welcome place nor given them a compelling reason to be Catholic.

We are ever mindful of the scandal of the failed leadership of bishops, who had transferred pedophiles from parish to parish. It is not only here, but in Canada, Australia, and Europe. Now the failure is even pointing to the high levels in Rome. Billions of dollars have been spent in legal pay outs. Why is there no real structural reform — transparency in governance, nor involvement of the laity in governing, nor in the selection of bishops?

The average age of a priest in the U.S. is nearly 70 years and we are importing clergy from parts of the world that have more need of priests than do we. And we risk losing being Eucharist-centered communities. Could we not reconsider who can be ordained?

The joy we felt after the Second Vatican Council has been replaced with rigid formality. Collegiality, consultation and collaboration called for in the Council have been sidelined, limited or silenced. We no longer collectively dialogue about issues facing the whole Church. The laity is selectively heard and everyone is polarized.

The visionary gifts of theologians, poets, musicians, pastors and artists seem to have fled the Church. They have been replaced with lawyers, insurance agents, accountants, auditors and bureaucrats, who seem to think that if we only restore an imperial clerical system everything will be fine again. Why have we replaced imagination with bureaucracy?

We are trying to resuscitate a dead liturgical style. Creating a liturgy drained of any humanity. We tolerate a plurality only for the Tridentine liturgy or conservative Anglicans. Everyone else must conform to the new “translation” or “transliteration.” And we are trying to reconcile with groups that are anti-Semitic, homophobic, and/or misogynistic. It feels so sad and empty.

For a long time I have thought that our period of time in the Church resembles Second Temple Judaism (at the time of Jesus.) After the destruction of the first temple and in the exile in Babylon something new was born: a lay movement that held together the faith of Israel when there was no longer temple, cult or a place for the priesthood. New forms replaced forms no longer able to function.

Even after their return and the temple was reconstructed, this movement led by lay teachers — rabbis — continued to nurture the faith of the people. They did this in the face of a cultic hierarchy that was threatened by lay teachers like Jesus. After the crucible of the second temple’s destruction, new forms are born — Christianity and modern Rabbinical Judaism.

We look and hope

The institutional Church is once again in a crucible. We look and hope for the new life that God promises us in Jesus. Dying is part of our Paschal journey and so we have hope. Hope is not the same as optimism. Hope is the theological virtue that awaits the saving promise of God. As we witness the dying of some institutional forms we have hope for the forms which are in the process of being born.

Like the time of the historical Jesus, new forms of expression are being born. The laity has taken seriously the call of Vatican II to be the Church. They have affirmed their baptism and many with theology degrees are actively engaged in the world and in the Church.

Lay movements are mushrooming all over the Church. There is a hunger for people to be engaged, that is, to get to do what they do best for the love of God. The laity is no longer passive recipients of ministry but with the clergy is mutually responsible for the mission of Christ. This lay movement is as profound as the rise of monasticism was at the dawn of the Middle Ages.

What does this mean for me and the presbyterate? I do not think that the rise of lay ministry is a threat but a complement to my ordained ministry. Like St Augustine, I would say to the laity and lay ecclesial ministers, “With you I am baptized; for you I am ordained.”

I hope that this cross of the present struggle (which we all now bear) will make us a poorer and humbler Church. Can we let ourselves be renewed as a Church, as a presbyterate and hierarchy?

The need for such reform has been always with us. St. Jerome (the great biblical scholar) once quipped “In days gone by we had wooden chalices and golden priests; now we have golden chalices and wooden priests.” Knowing that St Jerome said this back at the end of the fourth century reminds us that we have faced tough times before and God will bring us through.

Instead of trying to supply all the answers to people — which can be perceived as arrogance — perhaps clergy and hierarchy could help us to ask questions and reflect. Before clergy speak, we need to listen to people and to the Spirit. Good leadership listens and then helps people to ask the right questions.

If we become a poorer Church, perhaps instead of imitating the past and present cultural models of leadership, we can become more like Jesus, who came as servant, not CEO or Renaissance prince. In our poverty we will be able to stand more convincingly with the poor and the marginalized for whom Jesus showed special concern. Empathy is a powerful teacher.

God is leading his Church through the cross to renewed life. Together let us hold up the cross — a sign of love and the way of our collective transformation into Christ. And is the way to our eternal Easter. May God bless and renew us, the whole Church, in our mission to the world.

(Father Ron Schmit is pastor of St. Anne Parish in Byron.)

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