The Kyrie, Gloria and Creed
The Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei
Legend has it that Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina composed the Missa Papae Marcelli to convince the Council Fathers of Trent not to place a ban upon polyphonic chant. After hearing Palestrina’s Mass, Charles Cardinal Borromeo was so convinced of the intelligibility and beauty of polyphony that he persuaded the Fathers of Trent to jettison a prepared draft of a cannon that would have severely limited sacred music. With his art Palestrina courageously saved sacred music… or so the legend goes. It’s the kind of tale, one wherein a single work of art changed the world, that all artists dream for themselves.
Recent scholarship, however, demonstrates that Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli was probably composed some ten years before the Council Fathers of Trent considered the question of sacred music. Such is "recent scholarship", always a wet blanket. However, it can be safely concluded that Palestrina and the Roman School of Polyphony was a great influence on the Council, and served in the end to temper the mood of churchmen that had been blackened by unfortunate developments in church music prior to the Council.
At that time motets, madrigals, and secular chansons were mixed and sung together with the liturgical texts so that several voices would be singing several different texts, often in various languages. The end result could be very beautiful, with intricately interlace harmonies, but it was often liturgically incomprehensible. The Gloria could hardly be distinguished from the Kyrie or Credo, and often the choir would sing Mass parts at inappropriate times. While aesthetically pleasing, such music did little else in service to the liturgy.
One practice in particular, the parody Mass, could even be blasphemous, though not intentionally so. The word “parody” here does not indicate comedic or satirical. A parody Mass, or imitation Mass, was composed by borrowing melodies and harmonies from motets and secular chansons, and applying the liturgical texts to these melodies. Often the melodies of the secular chansons would bring to mind the sensual or otherwise inappropriate themes of the original lyrics. In fact, congregations would often take to singing the original lyrics during the Mass. Obviously this practice constituted a rather serious abuse, and the Fathers of Trent saw it as an attack on the very integrity of the Roman Rite, no matter the artistic merit or demerit of any given parody Mass.
However, one must be careful not to oversimplify the artistic state of affairs prior to the Council. Not all parody Masses were tasteless entertainments for a rabble rousing laity. Palestrina was responsible for composing over fifty parody Masses, himself. It could be done tastefully, and even in such a way that the liturgical texts were respected. Nevertheless, the parody Mass, at base, risked reducing sacred music to mere entertainment that served as a distraction from the primary intentions of the Church's liturgy.
On the other hand, while there were real problems regarding the nature of sacred music, there were, no doubt, Council Fathers of a more austere Augustinian bent who would have preferred homophony, and, we can be sure, there were no doubt one or two musical iconoclasts in their ranks, stark rubricists, who would have been happy with a complete ban of music all together. There were both reasonable concerns and radical ideologies on both sides of the debate.
Nevertheless, it would be a mischaracterization to reduce sacred music after the Council to some kind of whimsical ecclesiastical Hegelian dialectic, a simple compromise emerging between the artist and the churchmen. Anyone who has walked into a Baroque Church or heard Mozart’s Requiem Mass knows that the artistic expression of the following centuries can not be explained as compromise. Rather what developed was a flourishing of artistic achievement made possible by, ironically, the imposition boundaries.
The early Renaissance marked an important turning point in Church art, one that was not rejected, but rather welcomed by the ecclesiastical establishment. Throughout the medieval period, sacred art was largely defined by the great monasteries and by monastic ideals. The artistic output of the medieval period was symbolic and iconic, heavily influenced by Eastern iconography. Western art lacked a distinctive character until the advent of the Renaissance. The new and distinctive art of the period, which was realistic while at the same time idealistic, helped to reinforce the perennial truths of the Catholic religion in a unique way.
The new medium of sacred art, however, was conveyed by a professional class of artists who worked on commission, and thus they had to compete with each other for the attention of their patrons. In such an environment, artistic license could easily be given to base entertainment, and such artistic license ran head on with ecclesiastical discipline. The debates that surrounded the twenty-second session of the Council of Trent where intended to re-enforce the obligation of artistic expression to confine itself to the service of salvation. Sacred art was sacred, not so much because of its theme, content or circumstance, but it was sacred in as much as it directed the senses, imaginations, minds and hearts of the faithful toward God.
In the end the Council Fathers never agreed on the infamous canon 8 that would have severely limited artistic expression. Instead the Council Fathers settled on less strident verbiage: “They shall also banish from churches all those kinds of music, in which, whether by the organ, or in the singing, there is mixed up any thing lascivious or impure” (Decree Concerning the Things to be Observed, and to be Avoided, in the Celebration of the Mass, from the twenty-second Session of the Council of Trent). The Council Fathers limited themselves to the easily recognizable and specific problem of the parody Mass.
Still, the theological principle, that sacred art should be at the service of the divine, turning the hearts and minds of the faithful toward God, persisted among both the churchmen and the artists. This principle is judged by modern musicologists and art historians as a factor that limited artistic expression. Strict forms, such as a Mass setting, limited the artistic freedom of the composer or artist.
However, sacred art is not an arena wherein human artistic expression should be given free reign. This was a practical reality that both churchman and artist understood and accepted. A humanist historian or musicologist sees only lines and colors, and appreciate only technique, but the magnificence of the Baroque is stunning for no other reason than it was infused by hearts, minds and hands turned toward the divine. The Council of Trent’s restraint was guided by the realization that sacred art turned toward God could be complex, many layered, colorful and grand. Sacred art not only brought the mind to God, but revealed the true greatness of man as the image and likeness of God.
The only way man is truly great is when he is transparent before the light of the Divine. While Palestrina and the artists who followed him were confined by a particular principle and rigid form, that principle and form, the sacred liturgies of Christ’s Church, are the only things that can truly reveal the greatness of man. In short, art directed toward God is stunningly polyphonic, breathtakingly symphonic because the object is stunningly polyphonic, breathtakingly symphonic, divinely sublime.
Artistic expression without these confines, given to unfettered license, suffers from entropy, not greatness. Modern art history is a chronology of a decent into entropy as the artist embraced his own license freed from the confines of the sacred, the confines of doctrine, and ultimately the confines of order itself, a direct result of the sixteenth century doctrinal dissent and the humanism that developed in its wake. Take for example the chaotic blur of expressionism, the violence of Romanticism and the sterility of the International Style. In music, this entropy is characterized by dissonance and emotionalism, which has spiraled down to our day in the overtly sexual beat of rock music, and the absolute disorder of “Goth” music, which can only be appreciated by equally disordered and cacophonic minds and souls.
A twenty-six year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart abandoned in frustration what is considered his most brilliant composition, his Mass in C minor. Mozart at that age was unable to restrain his individualistic and human creativity within the boundaries of the sublime, God created structure of the liturgy. As a result, a Mass composition was impossible for him. However, as he matured he came to either realize or accept the God given boundaries imposed on sacred music. For the humanist, the unfinished Mass in C minor is a tragedy, an unfinished symphony. However, the Mass is not a human symphony or stage on which man might demonstrate his human genius. Mozart, perhaps begrudgingly accepting this fact later in later life, taught himself to remain in the boundaries of something much greater than a symphony, and a reality that far surpassed even his natural musical genius.
Of equal import, the Council Fathers of Trent, by their prohibition of the parody Mass, also defined what sacred music is not. Sacred music is not easy. It is not something that can be borrowed from the profane and given a polish by setting it in a liturgical context. Nor is it simply entertainment or mere sentimentalism. A difference was perceived between music that elicits an emotive response, something that remains on the mere visceral level of human experience, and that breathtakingly symphonic music that is a response to the encounter between man and God. When liturgical music patterns itself on eliciting an emotional, visceral response rather than directing the hearer toward God, liturgical music closes in on itself, and likewise closes the congregation into a circle wherein they focus simply on each other. The folk liturgical music of the post-Vatican II era, inflicted upon the Church by Marty Haugen, John Michael Talbot, the St. Louis Jesuits and all the others who have made careers out of dumbing-down John Rutter with folk riffs, is an example of sentimentalist mush that distracts from the sublime rather than suggesting prayer and communion with the divine. This folk music is easy, sentimentalist, and strives to entertain. It succeeds only in closing the congregation in on itself, reduced to looking at each other to fill a visceral, emotional, and all too mundane, human need. Modern liturgical music is self-centered, self-serving and ultimately self-destructive.
There’s no doubt that the wise restraint of the Council Fathers was at least in part inspired by the sacred music of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Palestrina demonstrated that there was no conflict between the Mass and artistic expression. There was no struggle wherein the Mass triumphed over music, or humanism triumphed over applied form. At the same time the Council Fathers taught Palestrina that sacred music was not his play thing. Together, Palestrina and the Council Fathers demonstrated that there is a marriage in sacred music between the form and the art, both having the same object, the divine.
At no time in history has this marriage ever been so threatened, both from outside, by the attacks of the humanist musicologists, and from within, from the purveyors of modern folk liturgical music. For the humanist who judges music by the standards of the concert hall, none of Mozart's other Masses compare to his unfinished one in C minor. The rest are stagnant by their judgment, a judgment formed by a teleology of entropy. On the other hand, for the modern churchgoer, liturgical music is a self-serving emotional pick-me-up. Caught in the hold of the Devil’s pincher movement, most Catholics have lost a sense of sacred music, if not a sense of the sacred entirely.
However, there are a few who perceive what the Council Fathers of Trent perceived. They immediately recognize the profound depth of music inspired by the encounter of man with God. These are they who understand Gregorian chant as both a product of and an invitation to contemplation. These are those who soar on the wings of Mozart's Sparrow Mass or are impressed by the power of his Requiem, because they set the symphonic Mass in the context of the Mass and not the concert hall. It is these few who don’t seek to be entertained, but rather seek an encounter with God. These few truly appreciate the driving force, the substance, that lies at the heart of the legend of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli.
That driving force, that substance, is the Traditional Latin Mass.