Music in the Catholic liturgy in France at the end of the 20th century

Communiqué by NAJI HAKIM

in : Musicae Sacrae Ministerium, Anno XXXVII/XXXVIII — 2000/2001, Consociatio Internationalis Musicae Sacrae, 1 — 00165 Roma — Via Di Torre Rossa, 21  00186 Roma  Piazza S. Agostino, 20 A ; Table ronde, Octobre 2000, Avignon : The Ordinarium Missae after Council Vatican II ; Speakers : Gabriel MR. Steinschulte, Naji Subhy Hakim, Mons. Valentino Miserachs Grau, P. Louis Hage OLM, Keizo Nagahara, Mons. Johannes Overath.

In spite of what its name might suggest, the Paris-based association « Art, Culture et Foi » (Art, Culture and Faith) shows no actual interest in the Liturgy. This paradoxical attitude is the reflection of what is happening today on a large scale within the French Catholic cultural landscape - musical art inspired by Christianity has deserted the liturgy and taken refuge in concerts or in recordings. Many in positions of liturgical responsibility, with no musical education as regards technique or aesthetics, have come to believe in a tabula rasa, denying any lineage whatsoever. The lowest common denominator has become the rule, in order to allow the participation of the common people. What does one mean exactly by participating? Is it indispensable to open one's lips in order to pray? Why therefore has listening to Gregorian chant, polyphony or organ music become extra-liturgical today whereas our forefathers throughout the ages have passed the flame of their faith down to us by these same means of expression? Today Christian professional musicians have been sidelined, replaced by committed members of the laity whose goodwill is their sole musical baggage.

After two thousand years of Roman Catholic Church history, punctuated with innumerable artistic masterpieces, musical in particular, attributable to composers who perfectly mastered their art in the service of the liturgy, do we realise the level of mediocrity which the present liturgy has reached, albeit with a few exceptions? Is it this distressing message, that of an artistic desert, that we want our Church to carry to the outside world? Whereas, at the same time, other traditions such as those of Anglicans, Lutherans and others devote all their attention to a liturgy of beauty with true Christian artists (liturgical music departments in Germany or England, for example). Why should someone have to go abroad to listen to the works of composers from the Middle Ages to the present day enshrined within the liturgy? Many would attribute this dilapidation to Vatican II whereas the truth is quite the contrary, since the aim of the Council was certainly not to produce a result brought about by its utterly erroneous interpretation. In fact, here are the terms used by His Holiness John Paul II in one of his letters:

«Today, as yesterday, musicians, composers, liturgical chapel cantors, church organists and instrumentalists must feel the necessity of serious and rigorous professional training. They should be especially conscious of the fact that each of their creations or interpretations cannot escape the requirement of being a work that is inspired, appropriate and attentive to aesthetic dignity, transformed into a prayer of worship when, in the course of the liturgy, it expresses the mystery of faith in sound.»

Alas, one finds more and more schools and seminars of liturgical music directed by incompetent people, conceived by amateurs for amateurs. Professional musicians no longer choose the sung repertoire, professional singers are simply unwanted, besides which the ‘singer's professional card’ has been suppressed in the diocese of Paris; maitres de chapelle have become more and more rare. Thus, choirmasters or professional choristers have been replaced by « animateurs », laity or priests, most often with no musical background, having neither a voice, nor any musical culture. As for the new repertoire, we nowadays see - a consequence of the cultural void - an invasion of hymns with bad musical and prosodic substance that would inspire a sense of aversion in any real musician.

How is it to be explained that within the Roman Catholic Church ringleaders can possibly be tolerated, disrespectful of the conciliar texts, and who are blindly be followed by sectarian communities, not finding anything better than to parody banal Byzantine-type progressions? How could one ever see this phenomenon as an expression of the Universality of the Church? No more Gregorian melody, no more polyphony, no more folk-song, no more harmony, or modulation - a real desert for the artist and for the Christian aesthete. Many artists have given up going to church on account of the cultural decadence within the liturgy. Other non-Christian artists are dissuaded from any religious practice, while the likes of Paul Claudel could certainly be found among them.

The only professional musicians who will be difficult to remove from the liturgical landscape remain the organists. And the reason is quite simple. The organ is a weighty and cumbersome instrument which forms part of an artistic heritage. One can therefore only entrust it to professional musicians. Accepted or simply tolerated - a matter of no importance? Tolerated or muzzled? Organists often attend liturgies in unrelieved and total impotence.

When they are not expected to accompany hymns, one expects them to give simple background music, like that in supermarkets; classical, very soft and especially very short so as to allow the congregation to chat at the exit of the Mass without being disturbed. So the organ loses its function of prayer in the liturgy. One doesn't listen to it any more, but just hears it.

‘Let everything that breathes praise the Lord’, says Psalm 150. While admitting the authorization of every conceivable form of decadence in the liturgy, it is hard to comprehend the exclusion, tacit or explicit, of Gregorian Chant, polyphony, the organ repertoire - a treasure stemming from the heritage of the church down through the centuries. At a time when Art is turning its back on spiritual values, one of the first concerns of the Catholic church should be to open the door to artists, starting from within the liturgy, instead of either ignoring them or shutting them out completely.

In chapter 31 of the book of the Exodus, an excerpt from the prescriptions relating to the construction of the sanctuary and to its ministers, it is written: “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass, ...”

I suggest the following:

•  The inclusion of music as a part of cultural and artistic training courses in the seminaries.. 
•  The formal restoration of cathedral or professional parish church choirs, under the direction of choirmasters, as practised in neighbouring countries such as England or Germany.
•  The systematic control of all sung liturgical repertoire in parishes by commissions consisting of professional musicians and approved by the Episcopal conferences.

© 2003