A Brief History of Catholic Church Music

April 27, 2008

By Lucille A. Flynn

Lucille A. Flynn, who writes from Clinton, Massachusetts, is a former member of the American Guild of Organists and the current organist at the St. Benedict Center in Harvard, a post she has held for 10 years.

From the beginning of recorded time, it has been man’s instinct to raise his voice in praise and supplication to a higher power. We know from the Old Testament that Psalm tones were used in Jewish synagogues. These chants were probably influenced by the cadence of Greek poetry, and may have been the model for the chant sung in the early Christian Church.

History tells us that six rhythmic modes formed the substance and basis for the vocalized verses of the Mass Ordinary. The impetus to use the chant in Mass was supported and encouraged by Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604). With the exception of the Greek Kyrie, the Ordinary of the Mass was sung in Latin.

The development of Gregorian chant reached its peak in the latter part of the medieval period. It was at this time that one of the most beautiful pieces in our Gregorian repertoire was written. In the middle of the 13th century, Thomas of Celano composed the hauntingly beautiful Dies Irae, which is still chanted in funeral high Masses.

During the Middle Ages, some composers began to disdain the single-line chant and added another melodic line to be sung as melody against melody, or voice against voice. This is called counterpoint and was widely employed by such early composers as Pale­strina and Bach, et al. The demand for music of a harmonic nature spurred the development of an instrument that could deliver multiple sounds. Craftsmen worked on combining wind instruments (e.g., pan-pipes) with stringed instruments (e.g., lutes). They produced a keyboard to bind these dual sounds into one voice, and thus was born the primitive organ.

The organ had been known in England since the seventh century, but it was simple in tonal quality, elaborate in structure, and cumbersome in size. France, Germany, and the Netherlands were also engaged in organ building, but each was using a different approach and developing different aspects of the instrument. To bring all these advancements together, national schools of organ building developed. Thus began the “golden age” of the organ. This polyphonic instrument, with its great variety of sound and large tonal capacity, became the ideal instrument for choral offerings and the service music of the Mass.

The golden age of the organ was also the golden age of art, architecture, poetry, music, and science. The Catholic Church encouraged and commissioned many of the great artists and composers whose works are admired and used to this day. Bach, Haydn, and Handel are but a few of the Renaissance composers who have enriched our lives with the beauty of their Masses, chorales, cantatas, and sacred hymns.

There is a dearth of information about the use of Gregorian chant during the 17th to 19th centuries, but it is highly probable that in Sunday high Masses and on regular feast days it was the norm of the service, and that the elaborate Masses that were being written were sung not only in cathedrals but also in concert halls.

It should be noted that the present style of chant was developed by the Benedictine Abbey of Solemnes, France. A monk named Dom Andre Mocquereau (1849-1930) provided us with a freer and more flowing movement of the Latin words. This new interpretation won acceptance by the Vatican and wide recognition throughout the Roman Catholic Church.

The Renaissance period reached its apex during the middle of the 17th century. For all its accomplishments, a period of unrest ensued, culminating in the French Revolution in 1789. The sad legacy of this cruel upheaval resulted in the “Age of Enlightenment” — man’s new orientation toward science and reason cut adrift from Faith.

Pope St. Pius X foresaw the results of this so-called Age of Enlightenment, and warned of the errors and effects on society of this new way of thinking in his encyclical Pascendi Dominus Gregis (“On the Doctrines of the Modernists,” 1907). We know all too well the results of this man-centered philosophy. For Catholics, it has been the degradation of the Traditional Mass, a new interpretation of the written word, and the loss of our universal Church language. Two generations of Catholics have been subjected on a weekly basis to love-your-neighbor and in-praise-of-nature tunes accompanied by guitars, xylophones, drums, piano, trumpets, body-swaying, and hand-clapping.

Will Catholics again seek the serenity, solace, and unity of body and soul found in the celebration of the Tridentine Mass and the peaceful tonality of Gregorian chant?

The end of our 40-year liturgical wilderness wandering appears to be in sight. In July 2007 Pope Benedict XVI issued a motu proprio, titled Summorum Pontificum, restoring the “Mass of All Ages,” and along with it the unique, priceless patrimony of the Roman Catholic Church — the melodic, uplifting, soul-stirringly beautiful Gregorian chant.

Laudate Dominum!


7 Responses to “A Brief History of Catholic Church Music”

  1. Anonymous said

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  5. Anonymous said

    I had to make an essay about catholic music. This article was a life saver

  6. Anonymous said

    very helpful in my presentation to a parish audience

  7. […] A Brief History of Catholic Church Music […]

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