Qui Bene Cantat: Pope St. Pius X on Sacred Music
“He who sings praises, not only praises, but praises joyfully.”1 This saying by St. Augustine was taken to heart by St. Pius X who sought throughout his pontificate to augment the sacred quality of the music used in the Mass of all time and to communicate that sacredness to all. He did this first by lowering the first communion age so that children who had reached the age of reason but were still in the prime of their innocence could receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord.2 In this vein, on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in 1903, St. Pius X wrote a motu proprio or letter to the Cardinal Vicar of Rome, His Excellency Pietro Respighi, about the sacred music to be used during the Sacrifice of the Mass. As stated in the motu proprio, Pius X’s main goal was “maintaining and promoting the decorum of the House of God in which the august mysteries of religion are celebrated, and where the 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.”
The motu proprio, called Tra le Sollecitudini, was both a reform of the music used in the Sacred Liturgy as well as a clarification of the function of liturgical music that had already been established during the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century. Unfortunately, with the passage of time the regulations of the Council of Trent were slowly neglected due to “succeeding changes in tastes and habits with the course of time, or to the fatal influence exercised on sacred art by profane and theatrical art, or to the pleasure that music directly produces, and that is not always easily contained within the right limits, or finally to the many prejudices on the matter.”
So abuses in the practice of sacred music used in the liturgy prompted St. Pius X to promulgate Tra le Sollecitudini, but as historical circumstances and the biography of St. Pius X himself show, this was only one of a confluence of influences that led to the creation of this motu proprio. As Giuseppe Sarto, Pope St. Pius X always had an attraction for music, and knew how to recognize the good from the bad.3 In his book Memories of Pius X, St. Pius X’s secretary Merry del Val recounts how “One of his [St. Pius X’s] most cherished wishes was to promote congregational singing wherever possible, for he held it to be most instructive for people of all classes and a powerful means of arousing an intelligent interest in the beauties of our sacred liturgy, especially in regard to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.”4 Even before becoming Pope, as a parish priest St. Pius X established scholae cantorum and encouraged new composers to follow the model of Palestrina when composing polyphonic Masses, such as those by Fr. Lorenzo Perosi.5 He had already been in touch with the Benedictine monks at Solesmes, who from the nineteenth century under the direction of Dom Prosper Guéranger had sought to revive liturgical chant from a scientific standpoint as practiced in the medieval Church.6 In 1911 St. Pius X created the Advanced School of Sacred Music in Rome. Later popes took up the cause of Sacred Music, thanks to St. Pius X’s lead, as Pope Pius XII stated in his encyclical Musicae Sacrae: “It can rightly be said that Our predecessor of immortal memory, St. Pius X, made as it were the highest contribution to the reform and renewal of sacred music.”7 Their efforts would lead to the creation of the Vatican edition of the Gradual.8 We can thus say that it is thanks to St. Pius X that we still hear the wealth of sacred music, from Gregorian chant to sacred polyphony, in our churches today.
Tra le Sollecitudini is divided into nine sections which address both the repertoire appropriate for use in the Mass and the manner of singing. After introducing the problems and abuses then current in sacred music in the section “General Principles,” Pius X makes it clear that this motu proprio is to have the force of law “as to a juridical code of sacred music” and to apply to “every local church.” He then reminds the readers that the “proper aim [of sacred music] is to add greater efficacy to the text” and must “exclude all profanity.” Only in this way can the sacred music truly become a prayer for the greater glory of God and efficacious for the faithful. To finish the outline of the general principles, Pius X points out that much variation in type of sacred music is allowed, given the variety of national traditions and uses of sacred music, but that nevertheless his decree is universal since, “while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.”
When speaking about the “Different Kinds of Sacred Music,” Pius X extols Gregorian chant not only as the primary musical form appropriate for accompanying the Sacred Liturgy but also as an integral part of congregational singing. As a general rule, he proposes that music is appropriate to the liturgy in the degree to which it resembles Gregorian chant. He also mentions classical polyphony as an appropriate type of music for the Mass, such as those polyphonic Masses composed by Palestrina. He states that “this too must therefore be restored largely in ecclesiastical functions, especially in the more important basilicas, in cathedrals, and in the churches and chapels of seminaries and other ecclesiastical institutions in which the necessary means are usually not lacking.” Pius X also allows modern music to be used and composed for the liturgy, as long as it also corresponds to the requirements of reverence laid out in previous sections. He warns against the most common abuse at the time, the introduction of the “theatrical style” into church music.
In the section on the “text,” Pius X states that the primary language for sacred musical texts is Latin as long as the words of the Mass are used in the composition. However, during the Offertory and Communion, motets may be sung even in the vernacular. When Pius X speaks about “external forms of the sacred composition,” He emphasizes that the forms of different parts of the Mass must be maintained and must resemble the forms of their equivalents in Gregorian chant; music composed as part of the Mass or the Divine Office must not stand on their own like pieces of secular music. When Pius X speaks of “Singers,” he states that even if the singers of the non-celebrant portions of the liturgy are laymen, their essence must still be choral so that solo singing should not predominate though it is allowed. Moreover, the singers of the choir should be of the most upright moral character.
As far as “Organ and Instruments” are concerned, St. Pius X warns that instruments such as the piano and accompaniment by a band, except for in cases of an outdoor procession, are prohibited, and that “as the singing should always have the principal place, the organ or other instruments should merely sustain and never oppress it.” As regards the “length of the chant,” St. Pius X recommends that the priest and the choir work together so that the priest is not waiting at the altar for the music to finish, nor does he prevent the choir from singing the sacred music. He warns that “the music is merely a part of the liturgy and its humble handmaid.”
The final two parts of the motu proprio, “Principal Means” and “Conclusion,” are more didactic in nature. Here, St. Pius X wants to ensure that his reforms are put into place. He therefore first recommends that “the Bishops, if they have not already done so, are to institute in their dioceses a special Commission composed of persons really competent in sacred music, and to this Commission let them entrust in the manner they find most suitable the task of watching over the music executed in their churches. Nor are they to see merely that the music is good in itself, but also that it is adapted to the powers of the singers and be always well executed.” Thus the Church leaders are to take an active role in the promulgation of good sacred music. He states his desire that scholae cantorum and institutions for the advanced study of sacred music be everywhere established.
As the Motu Proprio Tra le Sollecitudini shows, Pope St. Pius X took an active interest in the reformation of sacred music. Thanks to his diligent championing of good sacred music, today we can boast of having at our disposal not only a large amount of chant and polyphony to use during the Mass, but also the guidance necessary to show us how music is to beautify the Sacred Liturgy.
1 St. Augustine of Hippo, Exposition on Psalm 74, 1.
2 This decree was entitled Quam Singulari and was promulgated in 1910.
3 Igino Giordani, Pius X: A Country Priest, tr. Rt. Rev. Thomas J. Tobin (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Co.), p. 172.
4 Cardinal Merry del Val, Memories of Pope Pius X.
5 Giordani, Pius X, p. 173.
6 “Gregorian Chant: History,” St. Peter’s Abbey of Solesmes.
7 Pope Pius XII, Musicae Sacrae, Encyclical of December 25, 1955.
8 Dom Pierre Combé, O.S.B., The Restoration of Gregorian Chant: Solesmes and the Vatican Edition, tr. Theodore Marier and William Skinner (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), pp. 386-416.