If you are in the Chicago area this Friday night, I hope that you will come by the monastery for Solemn Vespers at 7:00 p.m. The service will last for about 45-50 minutes and will feature the exquisite motet Tu solus, qui facis mirabilia. Unlike the version in the embedded video, however, our Schola will be singing it as a part of the liturgy, and your hearing it will be as part of the publicly assembled Church at worship! Also scheduled: Magnificat by Palestrina and Gustate et videte by di Lasso. And finally, we will be debuting a piece composed just for this celebration of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Auctor beate saeculi by Kevin Allen.
I spent Monday morning at the Regenstein library at the University of Chicago, in the forlorn area of the stacks where rest the a cappella liturgical compositions of the 14th century to the present. I was enjoying myself browsing, hoping to discover some long-overlooked masterpiece (I found several dusty books of obscure pieces–we’ll see whether they turn out to be masterpieces). After about an hour of browsing, I was struck by the almost complete gulf between the music of the sixteenth century and that of the seventeenth. Compare, for example, a Magnificat by Orlando di Lasso (ca. 1532-1594):
…and a setting by Giovanni Gabrieli (ca. 1554-1612):
So these are two composers separated by one generation. Gabrieli is thought by many to have studied under di Lasso, which is why I chose these two in particular. In di Lasso, one can hear already some incipient Baroque elements, to be sure. And he was a much more prominent composer of secular music than was his exact contemporary, the hallowed Palestrina. But Gabrieli moved in an entirely new direction (Mind you, I love Gabrieli’s music!). He was not alone. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), a priest, was the most celebrated figure of the revolution from Renaissance to Baroque style. Significantly, he was one of the pioneers of the new secular humanist entertainment, opera. His opera L’Orfeo is the earliest opera still in the repertoire.
Back to my Monday experience: what we see in liturgical music of the seventeenth century is precisely the importation of these secular humanist elements into liturgical music, necessitating a break from tradition. For example, the tradition of alternating chant and polyphony in the singing of the Magnificat, is almost always dropped, so that the whole text is set for the choir and orchestra. Also quickly gone is the association of the Magnificat with a particular ecclesiastical mode (or scale), drawn from the proper antiphon of the day (On Friday, we will sing Palestrina’s Mode 1 setting because the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart uses the antiphon Ignem veni mittere in terram, “I came to send fire upon the earth…” which is in the First Mode). Practically speaking, this means that in the new style the monks, canons or nuns, whose job it is to pray the liturgy, are squeezed out in favor of the professional musicians. The particular consecration of specific men and women for the performance of the liturgy is obscured. I will leave an exploration of the consequences of this obfuscation to a later post.
There are many other similar consequences. That these were not apparently felt at the time is somewhat surprising. Why? I mentioned Palestrina’s name with hushed, respectful tones above. He was the greatest composer in Rome at the time of the Council of Trent, and he took it upon himself to forward the Tridentine reforms. Among these were calls for the simplification of liturgical music. Some council fathers had been prepared to restrict liturgical music to Gregorian chant, and legend has it that Palestrina himself rescued polyphonic music for the liturgy with his composition of the sublime yet direct setting of the Mass for Pope Marcellus II:
So within two generations of the council, it seems that liturgical music was largely going its own way, quite contrary to the expectations of many at Trent.
I wrote last week about discontinuities in monastic tradition and the difficulties that these pose for the recovery of a vibrant monastic tradition. Here, I suggest, is a similar discontinuity in liturgical music, one that is probably as radical, in its way, as that which happened after Vatican II. On the other hand, it has more in common with the hidden discontinuities in the broader intellectual tradition of the West, in the sense that it was not clearly perceived as such at the time. And when it was perceived as at least a change, this change was celebrated by those in the know as a liberation from hidebound tradition and a recovery of ancient models of music, which it was not–this was pure propaganda of the sort that Renaissance thinkers excelled in.
Next time: the specific problem of discontinuity and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s brilliant remedy of the Hermeneutic of Continuity.