restricted access 1. Tradition and Context
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1 Tradition and Context 8 Vatican II: Towards a Vernacular Church Music I n the spring of 1968, Seán Ó Riada1 attended a presentation in Glenstal Abbey2 by Fr Charles O’Callaghan, professor of sacred music at Maynooth, on the recently issued Vatican II instruction, Musicam sacram.3 This document, which set out to define more clearly the role of music in the light of the newly established liturgical norms, explored in greater pastoral and practical detail the principles set forth some years earlier in Sacrosanctum concilium, the foundational document on the liturgy.4 The new norms included those governing the use of vernacular languages in liturgical celebrations, and, between them, these two documents would form a central platform on which the future of Catholic church music would be built. The translation of the Roman rite into vernacular languages following on from Vatican II was a hugely significant event in the history of Catholic Church music and it presented composers with an immense volume and variety of ‘new’ liturgical texts. The translated texts followed very closely their original models, retaining the overall structures, forms and general characteristics of their Latin precursors. Thus was produced another huge body of largely prose-based texts for which musical solutions would have to be provided. Because of the sheer size of the task, it began to be realised that elemental musical approaches would have to be sought, languages receptive enough and flexible enough to accommodate scriptural and liturgical words in the way Gregorian chant had so successfully done. Ten years after the beginning of the Council, Pope Paul VI addressed an international association of church musicians in the following terms: ‘One hopes for a new flowering of the art of religious music in our time. Since the vernacular is admitted to worship in every country it ought not to be denied the beauty and power of religious music and appropriate chant’ [my italics].5 Paul VI’s adoption of a concept of a vernacular ‘chant’, then, is indicative of a musico-liturgical vision eager to embrace the new order of things, but directed by the awareness of an already-existing tradition. The nature and indispensability of the Roman chant tradition to the liturgical practice of the universal Church had already been defined at the outset of the Council’s deliberations in its acknowledgement of liturgical 9 music as ‘a combination of sacred music and words’,6 words ‘drawn chiefly from the sacred scripture and from liturgical sources’.7 As to the nature of the relationship between text and music, the words of Pope Pius X, whose seminal Motu proprio (1903) on sacred music informs much of Vatican II’s deliberations, decree that the ‘chief duty’ of sacred music of any kind is ‘to clothe the liturgical text ... with suitable melody’.8 For Pius X, this duty is most perfectly accomplished in the tradition of Gregorian chant, the primacy of which is upheld in Vatican II’s description of it as the chant ‘proper to the Roman liturgy’,9 and, more crucially for our topic, as a basis for future developments in vernacular music. As Musicam sacram states: ‘Above all, the study and practice of Gregorian chant is to be promoted, because, with its special characteristics, it is a basis of great importance for the development of sacred music.’10 Composers of vernacular church music were asked to be aware of the Church’s rich heritage of liturgical music and also to ‘increase its store’.11 Under the heading ‘Preparing Melodies for Vernacular Texts’, the Council Fathers had the following to say: Musicians will enter on this new work with the desire to continue that tradition which has furnished the Church, in her divine worship, with a truly abundant heritage. Let them examine the works of the past, their types and characteristics, but let them also pay careful attention to the new laws and requirements of the liturgy, so that ‘new forms may in some way grow organically from forms that already exist’, and the new work will form a new part in the musical heritage of the Church, not unworthy of its past.12 The accumulated wisdom and richness of inherited musico-liturgical forms, then, were to inform the contemporary composer’s efforts to find ‘new forms’ of expression for vernacular liturgical texts. In keeping with the Second Vatican Council’s spirit of aggiornamento and openness to the world, attention had also been focused from the outset on the cultural and musical heritage of...


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