Throughout the history of Western civilization, no institution has provided more meaningful patronage of the arts than the Catholic Church, often under the personal direction of the pope, visible and actual leader of the Church. As the world sorted through the rubble of the collapse of the Roman Empire, the early Church provided not only for truth and light, but artistic beauty as well. During the first millennium, She represented, in the words of musicologist Donald J. Grout in A History of Western Music, “the principle—and oftentimes the only—bond of union and channel of culture in Europe…When after a terrible century of wars and invasions the last Western Emperor finally stepped down from his throne in 476, the foundations of Papal power were already so firmly laid that the Church was ready to assume the civilizing and unifying mission of Rome.” What follows will consider briefly the musical aspect of this “civilizing mission,” and some historical examples of papal influence and patronage.
Ours is a musical faith; praise proper to God himself at times transcends the capacity of speech and must be sung, whether by men or angels. Isaias (6:2-3) tells of the two angels crying to each other: “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of Hosts, all the earth is full of his glory.” According to St. Luke (2:14), the angels sing at the birth of Christ: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to men of good will.” Our Lord prepares the apostles for the Passion with song: “And having sung a hymn, they went out to Mount Olivet” (Matt. 36:30; Mark 14:26).
We may consider our first musical patron as not a pope, but rather a king. As author of the Psalms and superior harpist, King David provides numerous examples not only of singing, but of instrumental playing: Psalm 70 “In te Domine” (“Let my mouth be filled with praise, that I may sing thy glory...For I will confess to thee thy truth with the instruments of psaltery: O God, I will sing to thee with the harp”); Psalm 97 “Cantate Domino” (“Sing joyfully to God, all the earth: make melody, rejoice and sing. Sing praise to the Lord on the harp and with the voice of a psalm: with long trumpets and the sound of cornet.”); Psalm 104 “Confitemini Domino” (“Sing to him, yea sing praises to him: relate all his wondrous works.”); and most extensively—at least regarding the orchestra—in Psalm 150 “Laudate Dominum in Sanctis” (“Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with psaltery and harps. Praise him with timbrel and choir: praise him with strings and organs. Praise him on high sounding cymbals: praise him on cymbals of joy: let every spirit praise the Lord. Alleluia.”)
In considering popes as important musical patrons, we turn first to Pope St. Gregory I, “The Great” (r. 590-604). Though he lends his name to Gregorian Chant, little hard evidence exists to connect Gregory directly with music. The legend of his inspiration by the Holy Ghost relates originally to his dictation of homilies on Ezekiel: his scribe would hear Gregory speak from behind a screen that separated them, and then fall silent for long periods. Puzzled by this, the scribe peeked through the screen to see a dove seated on Gregory’s head with its beak in his mouth: when the dove withdrew its beak, Gregory spoke. Later versions imply that the same process took place with chant melodies.
Unfortunately for the legend, no dependable music notation existed at the time of Gregory’s reign: though chants from the earliest days of the Church persisted, music remained an almost entirely oral tradition. Gregory’s most dependable biographer, John the Deacon (c. 872), states simply, “antiphonarium centonem compilavit”—“he compiled a patchwork antiphonary”—hardly definitive proof that Gregory composed extensively. Yet two important facts remain: first, that no one disputes the extent to which Gregory reformed the Roman Liturgy, and music clearly played an important part here. And second, that beyond this—and given Gregory’s recognized importance as a reformer rather than an innovator—the timing of his reign indicates the chants had likely existed for centuries, so by codifying existing chant, he could hardly have contributed more to the musical heritage of the Church through any amount of original composition.
Gregorian chant represents not merely something musical, but something holy, and in preserving it, popes have served not only as cultural promoters but also guardians, charged to protect the religious integrity of the liturgical experience. From the earliest days, a dichotomy existed in music between sacred and secular. As Grout puts it, “Above all, the forms and types of music connected with the great public spectacles such as festivals, competitions, and dramatic performances...were regarded by many as unsuitable for the Church, not so much from any dislike of music itself as from the need to wean the increasing numbers of converts away from anything associated with their pagan past.” Before and after the development of a reliable notational system (thanks in large part to the work of the Benedictine monk Guido d’Arezzo, d. 1050), faithful transmission and dissemination of chant remained a crucial concern, necessary to accomplish the “unifying mission” of Rome as it related to the Liturgy. In this regard, another Pope Gregory, Gregory II (r. 715-31) played a pivotal role. In an age where multiple dialects of chant—Gallican, Celtic, Ambrosian, Mozarabic—threatened either to supplant Roman chant or create disunity, Gregory II sent his Schola Cantorum throughout Christendom to teach and reinforce the Roman tradition. Rather than destroy them outright, the Roman authorities took whatever of these various regional variants they felt could enhance the official liturgy; the rest remained on the vine to wither. (If the tiny fragments that remain of Mozarabic and Ambrosian chant give any indication, this may represent the greatest cultural loss in history, yet the Church clearly chose the preservation of unity over cultural variety.)
Numerous Renaissance popes worked actively to promote music, both by reinforcing the primacy of the Roman tradition, and by promoting the greatest musicians of the age in service of the Church not only to refine Gregorian Chant, but to provide masterpieces in the rapidly developing polyphonic style for liturgical use. Though not always heroic in their virtue, these pontiffs, many of them highly educated Italian noblemen, did much to enhance the cultural and intellectual interests of the Church. Sixtus IV (r. 1471-84) established the Vatican Library and constructed the Sistine Chapel, installing a professional choir of 24. Innocent VIII (r. 1484-92) and the Borgia Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492-1503) promoted the career of Josquin (ca. 1450-1521), first as a singer then as a composer. Known primarily as a patron of visual arts, particularly Michelangelo and Raphael, Julius II (r. 1503-1513) reconstituted the choir of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Three Counter-Reformation popes bear mention for their direct or—in the case Pope Marcellus II, who reigned for 22 days (April 9 to May 1 1555)—nominal patronage of Palestrina (1525-1594), perhaps the greatest liturgical composer of any age. Pius IV (r. 1559-1565) presided over the closing of the Council of Trent (1545-47; 1551-52; 1562-63), and the 22nd Session of that Council, under the supervision of no less than St. Charles Borromeo, stated regarding music:
“In the case of those Masses which are celebrated with singing and organ, let nothing profane be intermingled, but only hymns and divine praises. The whole plan of singing in musical modes should be constituted not to give empty pleasure to the ear, but in such a way that the words may be clearly understood by all...They shall also banish from church all music that contains, whether in the singing or in the organ playing, things that are lascivious or impure.”
A modest admonition, especially considering the now ineradicable myth that Palestrina had to save polyphony from banishment at the Council due to excesses that had overtaken liturgical composition. Abuses surely existed, and they were excessive enough for one Roman Bishop, Cirillo Franco, to write in exasperation: “In our times they put all their industry and efforts into the composition of fugues, so that while one voice says “Sanctus,” another says “Sabaoth,” still another “Gloria tua,” with howling, bellowing and stammering, so that they more nearly resemble cats in January than flowers in May.” By 1629, the dramatic third-hand account by Lodovico Cresllio went thus:
“Pius IV, a most serious-minded pontiff of the church, had noticed for some time that music and singing in sacred places was very little else than an abundance of delicate diminutions and vain adornments...He then determined to set the question of banishing sacred music from the church before the Council of Trent. When word of this came to the ears of Giovanni Palestrina, he quickly set himself to compose Masses in such a way that...all the words should be plainly and clearly understood. When the pontiff heard these works...he changed his mind and determined not to banish sacred music but to maintain it.”
High drama indeed, and surely some truth in it. And yet, Palestrina created a “champion” so sublime—the Missa Papae Marcelli, composed in honor of Marcellus II in 1562—that he would have succeeded in “saving sacred music” had the blackest of these rumors been pure fact. Finally, in 1577, Pope Gregory XIII (r. 1572-1585), entrusted to Palestrina a comprehensive revision of Gregorian chant, stating: “And thus we give you the responsibility of revising, purging, correcting, and reforming these books of chants, and any others that may be used in the churches according to the rite of the Holy Roman Church. And over all this we give you full jurisdiction and the free exercise thereof by virtue of our apostolic authority.”
Lastly, we consider Pope St. Pius X (r. 1903-1914). Though perhaps best known for his promotion of the Holy Eucharist, Marian devotion, and relentless anti-modernism—made explicit in his 1907 encyclical Pascendi, perhaps the most important document of the 20th century—the Pope supported the herculean efforts of the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes, officially adopting their revision of the Liber Usualis begun in 1896. (Pius X did not himself commission the work as it had begun seven years prior.)
He also penned definitive and binding guidelines for sacred music in his motu proprio, Tra le Sollectitudini (1903), notable more for its balance than its vitriol. He states his purpose elegantly but firmly: “We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple.” He adds with poetic subtlety the nonetheless ominous admonition: “It is vain to hope that the blessing of heaven will descend abundantly upon us, when our homage to the Most High, instead of ascending in an odor of sweetness, puts into the hand of the Lord the scourges wherewith of old the Divine Redeemer drove the unworthy profaners from the Temple.”
He broke no new ground. Rather, seeing clearly from the very outset of his reign the universal corrosive potential of the errors of modernism, he insisted on the continued viability of tradition and principle, and applied these to sacred music: Gregorian chant maintains pride of place; the more polyphony seeks to imitate the “movement, inspiration, and savor of the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes”; modern music has a place, but the more that modern polyphony sounds like Palestrina the better; and as for the “unworthy profaners,” though he never actually named the theatrical menace, he made it very clear that the liturgical operatic curtain had closed for good. Deo gratias. The reader of Tra le Sollectitudini must take musical-historical context into consideration: with all due respect to Bishop Franco, cats in January recall the contemplative solitude of the monastery in comparison to the full-throttle ululating of an Italian opera chorus unleashing the verismo fury of a late 19th-century liturgical musical monstrosity. Coming to the aid of the gentle Mother, the father must occasionally exhibit a firm resolve.
The pope—as singular leader of the Church of God, defender of Faith and doctrine, patron of thought and culture, all of which are essential tools in the “civilizing and unifying mission of Rome”—remains essentially paternal. As a good father, he provides for, protects, teaches, admonishes, and loves his children; as Holy Father, these roles assume a further spiritual component. Papal musical patrons throughout history have additionally safeguarded the integrity of the liturgy, and ensured proper formal and stylistic development. When we take in the enormity of the duties of the papal office, we recognize the necessity of praying for the pope. When we see loving benefice— in this case through musical patronage—we should be inspired to give thanks as well.