Musical experimentation at Mass seemed a good idea at the time. But the difficulties have only increased

Musicam Sacram, the Holy See’s Instruction on liturgical music, was promulgated 50 years ago yesterday. It is very much a fruit of Vatican II, whose most significant musical legacy was the introduction of “vernacular” musical styles and instrumentation. In theory, this was just a possibility, reserved for very special circumstances. In practice, it basically amounted to actively encouraging the vernacular, anytime, anywhere, for any reason.

Prudently enough, MS itself foresaw “a period of experimentation in order [to] attain a sufficient maturity and perfection”. Fifty years, though, seems like a good opportunity for taking stock.

Behind both the theoretical permission and the practical push for vernacularization was the idea of participation. Musicam Sacram (MS) favoured “adapting sacred music for those regions which possess a musical tradition of their own” in order to lead “all the faithful” to what Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) had earlier called “that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy”.

“Folk Masses” have become notorious, but the early experiments in the United States were often quite serious attempts to compose works in the authentic spirit of traditional American religious music. For instance, the American Mass Program by Fr Clarence Rivers, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s first African-American priest, is clearly influenced by the negro spiritual tradition. There are clear parallels here to say, Baring-Gould’s or Vaughan-Williams’ nineteenth-century attempts to construct an English hymn repertoire based on traditional folk tunes.

The difficulty, however, was in where to draw the line. What if “people who have their own musical traditions” (SC) is interpreted to include the great mass of teenagers whom pastors were in the mid-1960s already, and with good reason, beginning to fret about losing? Explicitly or not, that is precisely how the conciliar phrase was soon interpreted.

No doubt with good evangelistic intentions, the young people of a parish were often enough not only allowed, but actively encouraged, to introduce to Masses music that indeed meant a great deal to them. Hence the infamous intrusion of, say, Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind, Pete Seeger’s If I Had a Hammer, and even the Beatles’ Hey Jude into the liturgical oeuvre.

Perhaps such music did, if rarely and only for a very few, “truly contribute to the edification of the faithful” (SC). Nevertheless, such experiments in vernacular music were, from the start, fraught with difficulties. And these have, it must be said, only increased in time.

Chief among these, of course, is: Whose vernacular? A certain style of non-traditional vernacular music might, among a limited group, truly aid “active participation” (something which, incidentally, Musicam Sacram rightly stresses to be primarily “interior”). But in modern Western societies, at least, this is certainly not the case in, say, a typical parish congregation. What style of music is held in common regard by all, or even most, of the people at your Sunday Mass, would you say?

This general problem is exacerbated where the vernacular music of, say, (some) young people thirty, or forty, or fifty years ago is still being offered up. Readers will likely be painfully familiar with the sub-“Peter, Paul and Mary” stylings of many a parish Folk Group. Even worse, we were once present at a “youth Mass” at a Berlin parish where a group of embarrassed-looking teenagers had somehow been persuaded to perform “The Last Supper” song from Jesus Christ Superstar – a musical which, even laying aside serious doctrinal and liturgical concerns, came out over a decade before any of them had been born.

No doubt there are exceptions here: liturgical communities where there exists a sufficiently shared musical vernacular to meet the lofty ambitions set by the Council. (One thinks of certain of the “new movements” – the Neocats, perhaps, or the Maltfriscans.) But we dare say these are indeed just that: exceptions.

There’s a great deal more to be said on this subject. But for now, let’s leave the final word to the document whose birthday we’re commemorating: “Anything done in churches, even if only for experimental purposes, which is unbecoming to the holiness of the place, the dignity of the liturgy and the devotion of the faithful, must be avoided”.