Among the Cares: St. Pius X on Gregorian Chant

by Rev. Vianney Vandendaele

Origins of Gregorian Chant

Sacred music has always been a great concern of the Sovereign Pontiffs. The origin of Gregorian Chant amply shows this. It was in the Lateran Palace that Pope Gregory the Great (540–604) carefully collected and wisely arranged all that had been handed down by the elders, and protected the purity and integrity of sacred chant with fitting laws and regulations. After having made this collection of the traditional treasures of plainsong, editing them with additions of his own, he founded his great Schola in order to perpetuate the true interpretation of the liturgical chant. Although, other arts such as sacred polyphony and religious hymns are permitted, or even encouraged with some conditions, Gregorian Chant remains the main way of worshiping God by singing sacred texts. This had been reaffirmed often by different popes such as Benedict XIV, Leo XII, Gregory XVI, Pius IX, and Leo XIII. With the passing of time, the original purity of expression became distorted, and even lost its original character so as to become dangerous. Thus, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Gregorian Chant needed a serious reform in order to regain its real place of primacy. This reform was brought about by Pope St. Pius X.

St. Pius X the Reformer

In his opening encyclical, E Supremi Apostolatus (4 October 1903) St. Pius X announced the programme for his pontificate: “to re-esstablish all things in Christ” so that “Christ may be all things and in all.” To achieve this, he initiated different reforms which were important, timely and needed. This pope, who held office for only eleven years, ranks as one of the greatest reforming popes in History—certainly the greatest since the Council of Trent. Concerning sacred music, St. Pius X issued a document at the very beginning of his pontificate—only one month after his opening encyclical. According to Pius XII, St. Pius X made the highest contribution to the reform and renewal of sacred music when he restated the principles and standards handed down from the elders, and wisely brought them together as the conditions of modern times demanded. In this way, his Motu Proprio, entitled Tra le sollecitudini (“Among the cares”) and published on 22 November 1903, is a legislative document. It is an instruction containing a series of 29 points considered as prescriptions for the restoration of sacred music in order to arouse and foster a Christian spirit in the faithful. The pope himself presented it as a juridical code of sacred music to which he wanted to give the force of law.

Among the Cares

In the opening of this document, St. Pius X declares that:

Among the cares of the pastoral office … a leading one is without question that of maintaining and promoting the decorum of the House of God in which the august mysteries of religion are celebrated, and where Christian people assemble to receive the grace of the Sacraments, to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar, to adore the most august Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and to unite in the common prayer of the Church in the public and solemn liturgical offices.

He then goes on to deplore the abuses which disturb or even diminish the piety and devotion of the faithful as well as offend the decorum and sanctity of sacred functions.

Sacred Chant and Music

The pope continues by saying that one of the most common of these abuse is sacred chant and music. Although it is in the nature of this art to fluctuate and vary with the course of time, it is not always easily contained within right limits. It is these limits that St. Pius X defines again in order that this art not deviate from the right rule of divine worship.

Goal of Sacred Music

The first principle given in this Motu Proprio reminds us of the goal of sacred music. It is formulated thus:

Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn Liturgy, participates in the general scope of the Liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to the decorum and the splendour of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.

Properties of Sacred Music

With this goal, St. Pius X outlines the properties of sacred music: “sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to Liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.”

Supremacy of Gregorian Chant

Then he affirms that:

“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 the same parts of the Liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restores to their integrity and purity.”

Even though St. Pius X admits that the above-mentioned qualities are also possessed in an excellent degree by Classical Polyphony, he insists on the fact that Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music.

Rules of Gregorian Chant

St. Pius X then lays down comprehensive rules for Gregorian chant summarised as follows:

— Latin must be used

— Texts cannot be changed

— Concert and romantic melodies are forbidden

On the same principle it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical office, and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir (nb. the SCR decree of 1958 now permits women to sing).

Only men of known piety and probity of life are to be admitted to form part of the choir of a church and they should wear ecclesiastical garb and be hidden behind gratings when the choir is excessively open to the public gaze—the employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells and the like.

Necessity of a Choir

Let care be taken to restore, at least in the principal churches, the ancient Scholae Cantorum, as has been done with excellent fruit in a great many places. It is not difficult for a zealous clergy to institute such Scholae even in smaller churches and country parishes; nay, in these last the pastors will find a very easy means of gathering around them both children and adults, to their own profit and the edification of the people.

Message For Our Times

St. Pius X laid the foundations of a restoration of the sacred chant over one hundred years ago. His counsels and rallying cry, far from losing their wisdom and power with the passage of time, are more timely now than in 1903. Let us, therefore, take his care upon our shoulders, begging his intercession that we may continue this noble endeavour.

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