In the 1850s, a young cleric from the seminary in Padua formed a schola of little boys, the Cantores Fanciulli. That seminarian, Giuseppe Sarto, was passing on to those children the art of chant, a study that he had begun some years before through lessons in his home parish with the curate, Don Pietro.
When Giuseppe was a boy, the two met almost every day during the vacation time. Don Pietro taught him how to listen well, and he cultivated in him a discerning love for sacred music. In time Giuseppe would recognize in sacred music occasions for grace, and the liturgy itself became his chief school of spirituality. He grew to be a man whose heart belonged completely to God, committed to pursuing the common good of the Church.
When Giuseppe became Pope Pius X, this good shepherd wanted all Catholics to benefit from the grace-filled opportunities of the liturgy, and he intended to obtain this objective in part through education. Our patron’s claim regarding the purpose of sacred music reveals also one of the fruits of music education in Catholic schools. Sacred music exists, “so that the faithful through this means may be the more roused to devotion, and better disposed to gather to themselves the fruits of grace.” If sacred music fosters in us a disposition for the reception of grace, then music education in Catholic schools fosters a predisposition for it.
A music teacher like Don Pietro hopes that his students will someday be receptive in mind and heart to the graces occasioned by sacred music at Holy Mass, and that they will become men who will serve the common good in the Church, but his proximate goal is simply that they will love good music. He cannot fail to accomplish this goal if he teaches his young people to listen well.
St. Thomas’s most faithful disciple, Peter of Auvergne, elucidates Aristotle’s teaching about music education: Teachers are to train the ears of the young, not by listening exercises alone, but to a great extent through practical work, actually singing and playing musical instruments. To listen well is to bring together the music he hears with some idea or character and thus to interpret the music or even to judge the music as good or bad according to this discerning association. The young people ought to receive musical instruction “up to the point where they can rightly take delight in good melodies and harmonies, and not only in that common music which gives pleasure to vile men and even to beasts.”
As the teacher cultivates good listening skills, the beauty of masterworks becomes evident to the young person, and he acquires a love for good music; this is the first fruit of the teacher’s labor.
Pre-conciliar popes claimed that sacred music promotes and defends the Faith. St. Pius X, when he learned from Cardinal Mercier that “the singing of the faithful is spreading in our parishes,” replied with satisfaction, “...the surest means of preserving the people from religious indifference is to give them an active part in religious worship.” Pope Pius XI directed that priests “should be devoted to the instruction of their people in liturgical music, since this is so closely connected with Christian Doctrine.” Pope Pius XII affirmed that for children, hymns “serve as a sort of catechism.” For older Catholics, “instructions on sacred music and on sacred liturgy cannot be separated.”
It can be said for all of the liturgical symbols and gestures and other signs that they represent some invisible reality to the mind. They are occasions of special graces. St. Thomas has brief expressions to describe in a general way the spiritual effects signified through the sung parts of the Mass. The Gradual signifies “profectum vitae,” or “progress in life”; the Alleuia, “spiritual exultation”; the Tract, “spiritual sighing”; the Offertory, “the joy of those who are offering themselves”; and the Communion antiphon, “the people rejoicing for having received the mysteries.” These are special graces that perfect the offering of him who listens well.
Sacred music can convey a particular interpretation of a sacred text through an emphasis of certain words or through a musical illustration of the meaning, or both. Words from the liturgy can sanctify and illuminate the ready mind; a good musical setting draws the mind upward and makes the splendors of their meaning all the more evident. A good education in sacred music provokes an interest and a lively wonder in Catholic truth and beauty, and the contemplation that the sacred music nourishes is a cause of devotion.
The long string of notes found at the end of an alleluia, is called a “jubilus,” a joy which words cannot express.
Every Catholic educator desires that God will possess the whole heart of the young person. Commenting on a psalm verse that goes, “I will give praise to thee, O Lord, with my whole heart,” St. Thomas quotes the prophet Isaias: “...the bed is straitened, so that one must fall out, and a short covering cannot cover both.” Here he explains that God “will have the bed of our heart to Himself. He who does not give his whole heart to God, but wants to have something else with Him, loses God. Therefore he who accepts nothing opposed to God, but refers everything unto Him either actually or habitually, is the one who praises God with his whole heart.” Where we only reach the memory and understanding of young students, we shouldn’t be surprised about some of the crazy things that they do when they become young adults.
A special purpose of sacred music is to reach the heart and to provoke our devotion when we praise God. So important is the musical element in producing this effect, that St. Thomas defends the use of sacred music in divine worship, even in the event that the words are not understood. If the one who hears the sacred music cannot understand the words, but knows that they are sung for the praise of God, the music stirs the affections to support his devotion, and this is a sufficient cause for the use of music in Church.
The love of good sacred music not only serves our devotion, but it can be a refuge from evil, for the soul is drawn to things for which it has affection. When St. Thomas prescribes five remedies for bad thoughts, the first one to be taken before all others is that the mind be occupied with prayer. St. Thomas cities St. Paul, “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is luxury; but be ye filled with the holy Spirit, speaking to yourselves in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord,” and he declares that vocal praise in particular is a bridle restraining the soul from the destruction of sin.
Seamen of old knew the value of song for rousing and uniting men in their service of a common good. The sea shanty does not simply coordinate parts mechanically; it animates the society and strengthens the members in their pursuit of a goal. It may be an arduous goal, but through song, its goodness more evidently outweighs the pain involved in attaining it. Indeed, without song, that goodness may not appear to be worth it! Men who fished for menhaden off the Atlantic coast in the 19th century made their own an older saying, “The spirit will not descend without song.”
What the song achieves for the common good of a ship, music education helps to accomplish for the common good of a civil society. As the shanty buoys the seaman’s will to serve the common good, so all good music directs and cultivates the young person’s inclinations to what is true and good, if he is trained to listen well. Impressions remain long after the external music has ended, and they contribute to a gracious strength of mind, a right attitude that can be called up at will. According to Plato, music education does so much in the way of forming good citizens for the Republic that, in the education of the young, music is sovereign. “Rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the soul and most vigorously lay hold of it in bringing grace with them; and they make a man graceful if he is correctly reared, if not, the opposite.” Now Plato’s conception of “grace” is that which makes one well-ordered both in himself and with regard to society; it is the natural graciousness of a man who finds delight in the ready exercise of moral and social virtues for the sake of peace, friendship, and order within a society.
What music education achieves for the common good of a civil society, the education in sacred music accomplishes for the common good of the Church. Pre-conciliar popes wanted this supernatural benefit when they mandated music classes for Catholic schools. Why is instruction in sacred music necessary in primary school, but even more necessary for students in middle school and high school? The reasoning that Pius XII supported with his full authority is that “adolescents must acquire that maturity needed for sound social and religious life.” The music teacher in a Catholic school prepares the young person for the continued education that the liturgy gives to us after lessons in high school have ceased. Thus he assists in the work of training a member of the Mystical Body of Christ to make of his life a continuous sacrifice of praise in Christ and in union with other Catholics. Thus he assists in preparing him to cheerfully serve the common good in the labors, in the storms, and in the battles endured on St. Peter’s Barque.
“There is head music, there is heart music, and there is foot music,” a Church organist once stated. “I played for the Catholic Church when they sang head music. That is what I prefer. But then they went over to foot music...” Though it has a quick and easy access to the heart, foot music was not considered as an apostolic tool for use in Church until the 60s. Sacred music must correspond to the sanctity of the place and the action that it accompanies. If the traditional sacred music of the Church fails to elevate, what is needed is music education.
Now if that is true, why did Catholic youths of the 60s show such enthusiasm for foot music in Church? Did they not go to Catholic schools? Were they not educated in music and liturgy? Did they not recognize that secular music which can be perfectly good in one context can be iconoclastic at Holy Mass?
With few exceptions, music education in the Catholic schools of the 20th century was not yet what the popes called for. In primary schools, it was getting better and better. Also, skilled clergy and lay people established some choir schools and music festivals for choirs. But Catholic high schools, however renowned they were for excellence in every other area of education, tolerated poor music programs. Monsignor Richard Schuler reported in the Summer 1966 issue of Sacred Music, “The high schools...especially the boys’ high schools, have done next to nothing with regard to music, either sacred or secular. Surely here Catholic education can justly be indicted for failure to provide for the student’s musical culture or for his basic musical needs as a member of the Church. In some schools there are glee clubs, but this cannot take the place of a program for the training of all.” Few and far between were educators like Don Pietro. Numerous, however, were priests of new liturgical thought, like the Archabbot Rembert Weakland, who found the Achilles heel of the Catholic educational system and got it beating at student hootenanny Masses already in 1965. Mark the music!