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A History Of The Mass And Its Ceremonies In The Eastern And Western Church -Rev John O'Brien A.M.

AS it would not be exactly in the line of this book to enter into a full history of Ecclesiastical Music, we think we shall have done our part when we have given the reader a brief account of the place that it holds to-day in the service of the Church.

And first let us remark that it is only in High Mass that music forms part of divine service. For Low Mass it is not prescribed.

For the preservation and cultivation of ecclesiastical music, or Chant, as it is generally called, in the Latin or Western Church, we are principally indebted to the zealous labors of St Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan (fourth century), and to the illustrious pontiffs, Gelasius and Gregory the Great. Most of the hymns of the Divine Office, or Breviary, are the work of the first named; and these, at least in great part, he was led to compose, as he says himself, in order to counteract the evil tendencies produced in the minds of the faithful by the circulation and recital of the Arian hymns which, during his day, had been gaining such vantage-ground all through Christendom. Of the Ambrosian Chant, strictly so-called, the only specimen we have in the Mass of to-day is that found in the celebrated composition sung at the blessing of the Paschal Candle on Holy Saturday, and called, from the word with which it begins, the “Exultet.” It is almost universally admitted that the composition of this is the work of St. Augustine, but that the chant itself is Ambrosian.

As St. Ambrose lived a considerable time in the East, where Church music had already been zealously cultivated, it is generally believed that it was in that region that he received his first impressions of its singular beauty, and that thence he introduced it into his own church at Milan, after much study had been expended in reducing it to a system suitable to Western ears. Whether the chant thus introduced was built upon the “eight modes” of Greek music or not, we are unable to say with certainty; very likely it was. Certain it is, however, that his system was rather intricate, and in many instances far above the compass of ordinary voices; for which reason it was deemed advisable to give it a new touching, and so suit it to the capacity of all, that all might comply with the wishes of the Church in singing the praises of God together. The task of doing this good work was undertaken by Pope Gregory the Great, who also established a regular school at Rome to see that his modified system was duly observed and practised everywhere. And this is the origin of the so-called Gregorian Chant. It is called plain from its great simplicity, and “canto firmo” by the Italians, from the singular majesty that pervades it throughout.

As to the precise merits of the Ambrosian Chant we know but little now; whether that in use at Milan to-day be the same as that used in the fourth century we leave others to determine. Certain it is, however, that the ancient chant was full of majesty and divine sweetness; this we have from the illustrious St. Augustine, whose big heart melted into tears of compunction whenever he listened to its solemn strains. “When I remember,” says he in his Confessions, “the tears which I shed at the chants of thy Church in the first days of my recovered faith, and how I am still moved by them—not, indeed, by the song, but by the things which are sung, … I acknowledge the great usefulness of this institution.”

The merits of the Gregorian Chant are known to all; and who that has ever heard it rendered as it should be will not say that it has a divine influence over the soul? If St. Augustine wept upon hearing the Ambrosian Chant, many more recent than he have wept, too, upon hearing the simple but soul-stirring strains of the pure Gregorian. The Venerable Bede, for example, tells us how deeply affected St. Cuthbert used to be when chanting the Preface, so much so that his sobbing could be heard through the entire congregation; and, as he raised his hands on high at the “Sursum corda,” his singing was rather a sort of solemn moaning than anything else (Vita S. Cuthbert, cap. xvi.) The renowned Haydn was often moved to tears at listening to the children of the London charity schools sing the psalms together in unison according to the Gregorian style; and the great master of musicians and composers, Mozart, went so far as to say that he would rather be the author of the Preface and Pater Noster, according to the same style, than of anything he had ever written. These are but a few of the numerous encomiums passed upon this sacred chant by men who were so eminently qualified to constitute themselves judges.

The great distinguishing feature of the Gregorian Chant is the wonderful simplicity, combined with a sort of divine majesty, which pervades it throughout, and which no words can exactly describe. It must be heard to be appreciated. Then, again, another great feature that it possesses is the power of hiding itself behind the words, so as to render the latter perfectly audible to the congregation. In this way it is made a most solemn kind of prayer, so very different from the great bulk of modern compositions, whose entire drift seems to be to drown the words completely, or so mutilate them as to render them perfectly indistinct and unintelligible.

For many years Rome preserved this sacred chant in its original purity, and watched with jealous care to exclude from it everything that smacked of the world’s music. But, careful as Rome was, innovations and corruptions set in; so much so that, after a few years, hardly a trace of Gregorian music could be distinguished in what was once the pride of the Church. As might naturally be expected, the corruption began in France. For the space of seventy years (from Pope Clement V., in 1309, to Pope Gregory XI.) the Roman pontiffs resided at Avignon, and, as was reasonable to expect, the papal choir was composed entirely of French performers. They treated the Gregorian Chant just as they pleased; but little would that have mattered had it not been for the fact that Pope Gregory XI., upon his return to Rome, brought his French choir with him with all their fantastic vagaries. The impression made at Rome by the efforts of this musical body was of the most disedifying kind, for not a word could be heard or understood of all that they sang. So ridiculous was their singing that when Pope Nicholas V. asked Cardinal Capranica what he thought of it, his Eminence humorously replied: “Well, Holy Father, I compare it to a sackful of swine squeaking away; they make a tremendous noise, but not a word is articulated distinctly.”

Church music went on in this way until about the time of the Council of Trent, when it was determined to ameliorate it or banish it entirely from the Church. A committee of cardinals was formed by Pope Pius IV. for the purpose of seeing whether it was possible to compose a Mass the music of which would be harmonious and the words distinct and intelligible. St. Charles Borromeo and Cardinal Vitelozzi were among the number selected for the important task. There was at this time attached to the choral staff of St. Mary Major a man of great musical renown and of singular originality. To him the committee applied. He accepted their proposal and set earnestly to work at writing a Mass to suit their taste. He composed two off-hand which were greatly admired, but the third was the climax of perfection. It was simple, harmonious, and very devotional. Every word of it was articulated distinctly. It was produced before the Pope and the College of Cardinals, and with one consentient voice all pronounced in favor of it. Thus the music of the Church was saved. The person who figured in this momentous juncture was the celebrated Palestrina, ever since known as the great reformer of ecclesiastical chant. He is looked up to as the father of Church harmony; and his great Mass, denominated “Missa Papæ Marcelli” (from Pope Marcellus II., A.D. 1554, before whom it was sung), will ever be venerated as one of his greatest and happiest efforts. The Mass is performed on every Holy Saturday in the Papal Chapel. It was originally in eight parts, but was reduced by Palestrina himself to six. The other great reformers, or rather embellishers, of Church music were Allegri, author of the famous “Miserere” of the Sistine Chapel; Pergolesi, author of the inimitable music of the “Stabat Mater”; and Mozart, whose renown will ever be known the world over.








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