The rise and fall of religious music

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I was raised Catholic but stopped going to church as a teenager, as soon as my parents would (reluctantly) allow it. I never found the Mass particularly interesting, inspiring, special, momentous, or mysterious – except in the sense that it was a complete mystery to me why these equally bored and unhappy-looking people continued to go to it week after week.

It wasn’t until many years later that I learned at least a part of the reason why a supposedly revolutionary and historically transformative religion could come across as so tedious and banal, seemingly comprised primarily of a set of goodwill gestures such as shaking hands with the people next to you, standing, sitting and kneeling at the same time as everyone else, and taking part in the whole rigmarole of receiving communion; the one-hour show interspersed with a set of slightly embarrassing hymns whose lyrics stood in stark contrast to the reality around me.

“We are the Church.
We are a people.
We’re called to bring Good News to birth.
We are the peace.
We are the promise of love outpoured
to renew the earth.”

Some promises, as they say, were never meant to be kept. All this emphasis on how great and promising and exemplary we were, only made the reality seem more dull. I’m not sure what inspired these songs, or what, if any, effect they were supposed to have on the congregation.

But people love them. These hymns, written and implemented from the 60s through to the 80s are a staple of the Catholic liturgical diet in the Western world. In 2004, for example, the readers of the English Catholic magazine The Tablet voted Dan Schutte’s ‘Here I am Lord’ as their favourite.


Schutte was one of the founding members of the St Louis Jesuits, described by wikipedia as:

a group of Catholic composers who popularized an Easy Listening/folk music style of church music through their compositions and recordings, mainly from their heyday in the mid `70s through the mid `80s.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I discovered that Easy Listening/folk music wasn’t the intended musical form for the Catholic liturgy.

The intended musical form was, and still is, something more like this:


That’s an introit or entrance chant from Pentecost, just one of about a dozen components of the Mass that would traditionally be chanted like this. The chant itself has a varied history: beginning with the simpler ‘plainchant’ in the early Church, so-called Gregorian Chant emerged around the 9th Century, with diverse forms of it developing organically in different regions and monasteries.

For example, the simpler melodies of St Ambrose’ hymns from the 4th Century were so popular among the people, that his Arian opponents accused him of working with magic powers; to which Ambrose supposedly replied: “what can be more powerful than the confession of the Trinity, which is daily witnessed by the mouth of the entire people?”


At some point, people began adding a second voice to the Gregorian chant:


The development of multiple voices, or polyphony, eventually gave us the beautiful Renaissance polyphony from the likes of Byrd and Palestrina. Here is Byrd’s take on the introit Spiritus Domini. The countertenor starts with a solo part, the polyphony kicks in at 1:22.


Whole Masses were sung in polyphony, which though beautiful is also extremely difficult. But even beyond polyphony there were further developments, to a point where great composers like Mozart wrote entire Mass settings. Listen to the first couple of minutes of this Mass setting by Mozart:


That’s a lot of music for a simple ‘Kyrie Eleison’ – ‘Lord have mercy’.

As beautiful as it is, I can see why in 1903 Pope Pius X called for a return to Gregorian chant and a move away from theatrical orchestral settings generally:

“These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity.

On these grounds Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.

The ancient traditional Gregorian Chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship, and the fact must be accepted by all that an ecclesiastical function loses none of its solemnity when accompanied by this music alone.

Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times.”

Not only Pius X, but subsequent popes, Vatican II documents, and the new Mass itself called for Gregorian chant to take pride of place in the liturgy. As late as 1974 Pope Paul VI was calling for a minimum repertoire of Gregorian chant to be sung in parishes, including the Ordinaries of the Mass in Latin.

Why didn’t this happen? Why have we ended up with Easy Listening/folk/pop-inspired liturgical music? Why are parishes so hostile to Gregorian chant, to Latin, to the musical heritage of the Church? These questions and more will be answered in my next post….

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