The Ancient Problem of Bad Music at Mass

I sometimes hear Catholics complain that folk music at Mass is awful, though I think it depends. Many say they would prefer the music that was sung when they were younger, which I can respect. Some think that folk music is a scandalous abuse of the liturgy, and use that to justify not attending an approved local parish, and I think that’s unacceptable.

For a while I have wondered about what it was like when the music we now consider old and classic was introduced. I think of Mozart’s Masses as beautiful ancient classics that we should at least sometimes return to. But did the people who lived in his time think he was too modern, and wish for even older songs? At least sometimes, it looks like it.

The Ancient Problem of Bad Modern Music at Mass

1849 A.D. - Henry Formby - “[Modern music] is, in practice, altogether subject to the dominion of individual taste. The choir-master who likes Haydn's music, takes Haydn; another, who likes Mozart, takes Mozart; another, who takes a trip on the continent comes back with the newest French, German, or Italian novelties. … [This] variety [has] actually [been] introduced into Catholic worship by the unrestrained dominion of individual taste in music.” (The Roman Ritual Section 9)

And: “[T]he Fathers of the Council of Trent...seriously debated whether it might not be advisable to put an end to the scandalous musical excesses that had found their way into the Church through the partial abandonment of the Ritual Song... [But] at length [they] declined to pass the decree...[and decided merely] to [say that] the Ritual Song [was] the acknowledged and authorised song of the Liturgy...[while the] remedy required, was rather to be sought for in prayer to God...” (The Roman Ritual Section 1)

And: “There were great abuses in the use of modern [music] at the Council of Trent. Yet the Fathers of the Council declined altogether to forbid its use. They tacitly allowed its continuance, as it had come into existence, and could not be removed without serious evils.” (The Roman Ritual Section 9)

1749 A.D. - Pope Benedict XIV - “The use of the organ and other musical instruments, has not yet [been] received in the whole Christian world. In fact...Our Pontifical Chapel, as everyone knows, while admitting singing music, provided it is serious, decent and devoted, [has] never [admitted] the organ… [And] the famous Church of Lyon, always contrary to the novelties, following to this day the example of the Pontifical Chapel, [has] never wanted to introduce the use of the organ.” (Annus Qui Hunc 3)

And: “[When] pilgrims [come from] regions where they [have] working musical instruments...we will hear the sound in churches [of such music] as is done in theaters and other places profane. … [There should be] a certain differentiation between [Church] singing...and theatrical melodies… [All] recognize that the use of profane and theatrical singing should not be tolerated in the churches.” (Annus Qui Hunc 3)

1651 A.D. - Dresselius - “[What] now prevails in the churches [is] a kind of singing that is new, but eccentric, chopped, danceable, and certainly not religious, more suitable to the theater and to dance than to the temple. They are seeking greater artifice and you lose the pristine desire to pray and sing. We care to arouse curiosity, but actually neglect piety.” (Rethorica Caelestis Book 1 Chapter 5 as quoted in Benedict XIV’s Annus Qui Hunc 9)

And: “Revive, I beg you, at least something of the pristine religious fervor in sacred music. If you have a heart, if you want to honor the divine, [make] every effort to keep this, [and] labor for this purpose: to ensure that the words that are sung are well understood. What [do] I gain...in [the] Temple [from a] variety of sounds, [a] profusion of voices if all this is missing a soul, if I can not understand the meaning and the words[?]” (Rhetorica Caelestis Book 1 Chapter 5 as quoted in Benedict XIV’s Annus Qui Hunc 9)

1560 A.D. - Bishop William Lindanus - “In our day, the song of the musicians is rather done to distract, divert, alienate the hearts of the listeners, who do not want to excite...heavenly [thoughts]. I remember [the] fact of having participated sometimes [in] the divine praises, [having] paid great attention while singing in order to understand the words, but...could not even understand a single one. Everything was a jumble of syllables repeated, of confused voices, and [the] meaning remained submerged… [M]ore than singing, it was a deafening clamor, a roar decomposed.” (Panoplia Evangelica Book 4 Chapter 78, as quoted in Annus Qui Hunc 9)

And: “[I urge] the replacement of the method currently in force...in [many] churches, with a more serious approach...more adapted to the things that are sung and more in harmony with them.” (Panoplia Evangelica Book 4 Chapter 78, as quoted in Annus Qui Hunc 9)

~1142 A.D. - Aelred of Rievaulx - “[W]hence are many organs in the churches, many cymbals? What, pray tell, [is] that terrible breath coming out of the bellows [which] expresses rather the roar of thunder [than] the sweetness of the song? What the contraction and fragmentation of voice? [This one] sings accompaniment, that one sings alone, [another] sings in a...higher tone, [a] fourth finally divides some known media..." (Speculum Charitatis Book 2, as quoted in The Library of the Fathers Volume 23 Ch. 23, p. 118, which itself is quoted in Annus Qui Hunc by Pope Benedict XIV)

~400 A.D. - St. Augustine suggests that there was a controversy about whether to allow cantors to sing the Gospel and other songs in his day: “Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria...obliged the reader of the psalm to give utterance to it with so slight an inflection of voice, that it was more like speaking than singing. Notwithstanding, when I call to mind the tears [of joy] I shed at the songs of Your Church...when they are sung with a clear and skilfully modulated voice...I then acknowledge the great utility of this custom.” (Confessions Book 10 Chapter 33 Paragraph 50)