Catholic Music Throughout the Ages by Edward Schaefer

Catholic Music Throughout the Ages
Subtitle: Balancing the Needs of a Worshipping Church
Edward Schaefer MSM DMA
Hillenbrand Books, an imprint of Liturgy Training Publications and the Liturgical Institute of the University of St Mary of the Lake (Mundelein Seminary)
xii + 204 + 54 pages of bibliography, appendices and indexes.
ISBN 978-1-59525-020-9, $28.00, available in the UK from Gracewing Publishing, £20.00

Anyone looking for an apologia for the use (in the author’s ideal world, the use exclusively) of Gregorian chant in the Roman Catholic liturgy today will welcome this book, which contains a historical survey of the growth and development of music in the Church, a critique of the current situation, and proposals for the future of liturgical music. Published in 2008, this volume has only recently been sent for review.

The evident aim behind this “accessible and well-researched” (according to the back cover blurb) book, in addition to the underlying theme already mentioned, is to be a textbook for “seminary worship courses, undergraduate worship students, music directors, deacons, liturgists, and libraries” (blurb again). Indeed, the author himself sees the book in a broader context, describing it as a “short study of the Church from the vantage point of her music”. Professor Schaefer has had a long and distinguished career as a teacher and practitioner, so any reviewer needs to ask how well the book fulfils the claims set out in this paragraph.

The book is divided into three main sections: (I) Music as the Voice of the Church; (II) Musical Reform in the Church — Five Pivotal Eras; (III) Vatican II and Beyond. The first 130 pages of the book are taken up with a historical survey of pre-conciliar sacred music, since the author’s laudable stance is that only through knowing the entire historical context can one deal with the future; and the third section, from Vatican II onwards into the future, is covered in another 70 pages of text. The remainder of the book consists of an extensive bibliography; a detailed index of 56 audio recordings (all of which are apparently available on the author’s website, but only on payment of a $25 subscription, almost as much as the cost of the book; this reviewer was not tempted); the complete texts and translations of the audio tracks, cross-referenced to the pages of the main text; a useful brief introduction to Gregorian chant notation; a brief comment on the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum which must have annoyingly appeared while the book was in the final stages of being written, if not actually in proof; a further index of copyright acknowledgements for the 56 audio recordings; and a general index.

The book gets off to an unfortunate start by presenting a side-by-side comparison of the pre-conciliar and post-conciliar liturgical year and structure of the Mass. I fear that the non-specialist reader will find this more than a little confusing. Already in this first chapter, Professor Schaefer is setting out his stall, in which he finds the post-conciliar reforms to be somewhat inferior to the previous state of play. It would have been far clearer to have prefaced his historical survey with just the pre-conciliar situation — ‘this is how it was when most of the music I am going to deal with was written’ — saving the post-conciliar changes and commentary for the third section on the reforms of Vatican II and the future — ‘and this is how it is now’.

Chapter 2 redeems the situation with an all-too-brief reflection on the role of music in the Church. Schaefer contrasts music as expressive and as formative, and some of the implications of the lex orandi, lex credendi principle. The chapter is useful as a lyrical taster, and one could wish that the author had gone into this whole area at rather greater length and in greater depth, paving the way for his proposals later in the book.

We are now 30 pages into the book and the following 100 pages, Part II, cover the whole of church music history from the 6th to the 20th centuries. Inevitably in such a short space some things are short-circuited or omitted. A foretaste of this is given when we learn in the introduction to Part I that the book will only deal with the Mass and that the Liturgy of the Hours will not be covered at all. It is difficult to know how to deal with the development of the eight ecclesiastical modes without looking at the Divine Office and the use of cantillation tones in psalmody, and indeed the author does not do so; nor does he mention the derivation of the Church’s modes from synagogue chants and the Greek modes, nor (except in passing) the development of tones in other rites or Churches (such as the Eastern ones) — the book is about Western Roman Catholic music only. Similarly, the absence of the Dutch and German schools in the account of the music of the High Renaissance is a lack in this section, and it is surprising that Lassus receives only a passing mention later on in the book. No reference is made to the distinction between sacred/devotional and liturgical music, dating from the 16th century but blurred by 19th-century constructs, nor to the fact that modern scholarship is now of the opinion that Byrd’s Masses and Gradualia were never sung in a liturgical context but instead were actually sung in people’s houses at services in the absence of a priest. (The same applies to Gibbons’s verse anthems with viols.) The student requiring a more comprehensive coverage of the entire period would be better advised to locate the old Stevens/Robertson Pelican History of Church Music on their local library shelves, as well as back numbers of Early Music journal.

Under the guise of a number of pivotal eras of reform, Schaefer proceeds through to the immediate pre-conciliar period, alighting on some areas and omitting others. Once again, constraints of space have contributed to a tremendous selectivity in the material; and frustration is caused when, near the end of the chapter on the reforms of Benedict XIV, we learn that his reforms were largely ignored throughout the Church. Pivotal, eh? The more recent history of how things were before the Second Vatican Council is focused very much on the United States, but that country’s experience is not necessarily typical of how things were in other parts of the universal Church.

It is when we reach the reforms of the Second Vatican Council that things start to unravel more rapidly. One strong implication lying behind the account is that ‘art musicians’ working in the Church are in fact better liturgists than the liturgists themselves, and even that liturgists have betrayed the tradition of the Church while musicians have remained faithful to it. One might think that the preparatory work of the Liturgical Movement over the previous 50 years had never happened, and this sort of impression is accentuated by selective readings from documents. What happened after the Council is principally characterized by the Milwaukee church music conference of 1966, where it was clear that two implacable philosophies met head-on. No discussion takes place of the principles underlying the Council’s liturgical reforms, and no acknowledgement that any progress was made is to be found. The general impression is one of muted hand-wringing at the fact that changes took place at all. More recently, the important formational work of NPM and other national bodies is not mentioned.

Schaefer’s treatment of today’s and yesterday’s mainstream liturgical composers is very patchy — only a few are cited. One would have expected to see the names of Robert Twynham, William Mathias and Colin Mawby, to give just a few examples, among those favoured by the author. On the other hand, some seem to be mentioned only in order to pillory them. When Schaefer condemns (in two different places) Marty Haugen for the text of the final verse of Gather us in, he is evidently unaware that today’s theologians are quite clear that in a sense the Kingdom of God is already present in our midst — and cf. the relationship of the Church to social action, etc. One wonders if, while fulminating about the text, Schaefer has even noticed that in fact this song is a prime example of a latter-day modal melody in the old English folk tradition, and one of considerable craft, not least in the built-in sensitive congregational diminuendo provided by long held notes at the two principal cadences on which people gradually run out of breath!

A criticism throughout this part of the book would be the author’s less-than-comprehensive reading of essential sources. There is more to life than Musicam Sacram and the U.S. Bishops’ documents of 1972, 1982 and 2007. The Snowbird Statement is mentioned only once in passing, and the Milwaukee Statement is not mentioned at all. The author appears not to have read either of the two Universa Laus documents on music in Christian celebration, or if he has he does not disclose the fact to us; nor does he appear to have read any documents regarding church music from other English-speaking countries, let alone literature from non-Anglophone nations. Bernard Huijbers’s seminal work The Performing Audience is ignored as is (rather more astonishingly) John Paul II’s Chirograph on Sacred Music on the centenary of Pius X’s Tra le sollecitudini, though the contents of the latter would have both supported and challenged Schaefer’s position.

There also appears to be some confusion on priorities for liturgical singing. While Musicam Sacram laid out a hierarchy of choices, now superseded to some extent by the “novus ordo”, later documents have preferred to categorize parts of the liturgy according to their literary/liturgical forms; but Schaefer appears to have misinterpreted this as prioritizing. Schaefer is also ambivalent about hymns and processional chants. At some points he gives the impression of regarding hymns as interludes in the rite, singing quasi-irrelevantly at Mass rather than singing the Mass; at other times, he seems complimentary about them, as long as they are written in a ‘classic hymn’ idiom. (It would have been interesting to have his view on the 200-year-old German Singmesse practice of adding sung chorales to the Eucharist, not to mention the more recent Betsingmesse tradition.) He appears to launch the same criticism at the Entrance and Communion processional chants, though these have always been normative in the Roman rite, but withdraws the criticism elsewhere when it comes to Gregorian Propers. And, although aware of Paul Ford’s By Flowing Waters and Christoph Tietze’s Introit Hymns for the Church Year, he has clearly not encountered the Psallite project, which includes Entrance and Communion processional chants in the antiphon + psalm form for the entire three-year cycle, even though its first volume appeared as long ago as 2005. In the context of his claim that chants with Latin texts have largely died out in the United States, I wonder where he would place the contribution of Taizé chants, many of which do have Latin texts and are widely used? They are not alluded to anywhere in the book.

Perhaps the most unbelievable omission in the book is any discussion whatsoever of the implications of Sacrosanctum Concilium’s bombshell in para 112: “Sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is the more closely connected with the liturgical action…” This was a wholly new insight, compared with previous documents on sacred music in the same century. Schaefer quotes it once, but then proceeds to unpack the remainder of the sentence, leaving this opening foundational statement hanging in the air without any commentary at all.

So, what are his proposals for the future? Broadly summarized, they fall under three headings:

(1) More consideration for the formative power of music. What Schaefer means is that we should allow ourselves to be formed by the rite, by singing the “music of the Church”, by which he means the Gregorian Propers. And yet all the recent documents point to the possibility of using other material in their place on pastoral or cultural grounds. The book contains absolutely no discussion of a major problem with the current Propers which is that, at least on the Sundays of Ordinary Time, there is no connection between them and the scriptures of the day in the three-year Lectionary cycle. (Yes, the 1974 Solesmes revision of the Graduale Romanum attempted to do something about this, but the Missal itself still lacks this insight.)

(2) Increased use of chant, and the re-establishment of the sung Mass. The non-specialist reader will be puzzled at Schaefer’s assertion that the predominant form in use today is a spoken Mass (Missa lecta) with interpolated music which is not integral to the whole. In parishes across the world this perception is routinely gainsaid as congregations week by week sing penitential rites, glorias, responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations, acclamations during the Eucharistic Prayer, fraction songs, in addition to hymns, chants and other songs. “It is, perhaps, unreasonable to think that every Mass can or should be sung, ” he says. And yet GIRM, no less, quite clearly envisages singing as an integral part of every celebration, and in fact the United States is much better at this than many other parts of the world, where “Low Masses” and Masses with a few added hymns are much more frequently encountered. The reader is left to wonder exactly which world Schaefer is inhabiting.

(3) Rededication to the Value of Artistic Music. Here, Schaefer dismisses the theological premise that any style of music is potentially capable of being used in the service God as being nothing more than “the rationalization of poor quality and often egocentric music”. There is no exploration of the whole area of quality/intrinsic value vis-à-vis style/idiom, nor any admission that there is good, bad and indifferent music in all genres (including Gregorian chant and polyphony). Nor is there any discussion about the vexed question of connotations — the phenomenon whereby some music cannot be used in the liturgy, not because of deficiencies in the music itself but because of the extreme secular or profane associations that it may have for us.

One might have expected Schaefer to contrast John Paul II’s statement in his Chirograph (para 4) that “the meaning of the category ‘sacred music’ has been broadened to include repertoires that cannot be part of the celebration without violating the spirit and norms of the Liturgy itself” with Musicam Sacram’s allusion to those parts of the traditional treasury of sacred music “that are incompatible with the nature of the liturgy or with its proper pastoral celebration” (para 53). However, the impression given is that Schaefer is interested solely in the music, rather than in the underlying philosophical and theological principles.

I am not saying that his proposals for the future are unworthy: the first and third can certainly be espoused by almost anyone working in the cause of improved ritual music, but I feel that here the discussion is superficial and somewhat one-sided.

Following his proposals, Schaefer proceeds to some practical applications, in some instances summarizing areas he has treated elsewhere in the book. In first place is implementation of the “Sung Mass”. Once again, it appears that what he really means here is a Mass with a full complement of Gregorian Ordinary and Propers. Surprisingly, here and elsewhere he appears to take churches to task for having sung acclamations in a spoken Eucharistic Prayer, or a sung Preface (with dialogue) and a spoken Eucharistic Prayer. It does not seem to have struck him that in its previous incarnation the rite had these elements sung alongside a silent Eucharistic Prayer. Following this, in yet another discussion of chant, he does admit ‘Englished’ chants to what is acceptable and desirable. Progressive solemnity is mentioned here as well as elsewhere in the book, but only briefly (Schaefer also appears unaware that this principle was first enunciated in the General Introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours), and the knotty area of different styles and idioms is swiftly sidestepped (how good it would have been to have had an in-depth discussion of this, instead of just promoting art music and “the aesthetic values of trained professional musicians”). In a section on hymnody, he seems to say that the danger in much of it is contamination by Protestant theology. The late Dr Erik Routley would have had something to say about that, one feels.

Schaefer appears to think that choirs are few and far between (really? perhaps in the immediate aftermath of the Council many were misguidedly disbanded, but in the intervening years many have been formed or re-formed), and that they need to be re-established alongside contemporary ensembles (to his credit, he does say that these latter should not be disbanded). For him, ideally choirs should be in lofts at the West End where they won’t interfere visually with what is going on in the sanctuary (no discussion here of the different components that make up the liturgical assembly, nor of their relationships), and if possible should have paid section leaders. In a final section on full, conscious and active participation, Schaefer shows that he has not read the work of Andrew Cameron-Mowat, a Jesuit scholar who has comprehensively debunked the theory that the Latin actuosa means “actual” rather than “active”. However, he does exhibit balance in contrasting, at one end of the scale, music that is so grandiose that it cannot fit comfortably into the celebration and, at the other, that the decibel level of singing is not a measure of the level of participation, while alluding to music as servant of the rite (though nowhere in the book is the munus ministeriale of music specifically treated, another regrettable lacuna). A final sideswipe at what we might call the “game show host” style of presiding brings him to his brief conclusion, which is simply a hope that music will be one way of manifesting Christ to others and a plea for us to continue to strive for perfection, whatever that may mean.

So, in summary, this book is well-intentioned but uneven. It will give some readers new insights, while others will be deprived of a comprehensive discussion in areas that are really quite important, as indicated above. Part II may prove useful as a potted history for the reader with no previous background knowledge, but Part I and especially Part III leave a lot to be desired. The idea of having audio examples available on a website is a really excellent one, though the range of the examples is slanted in the direction of the historic and the cost of accessing them will put off many, alas. There are minor typos scattered throughout the book (including TSL for TLS, always assuming that you know what TLS stands for — a list of abbreviations is badly needed — and principals for principles); and J. Michael Thompson, editor of the Simple Kyriale, will be mortified to find himself listed in a footnote and in the bibliography as J. Michael Talbot, a quite different liturgical musician!

As a record of the author’s personal view of liturgical music in Church this book has some small interest, but it certainly does not fulfil the subtitle: Balancing the Needs of a Worshipping Church. Balance is just what it does not have, and the evident bias towards a Gregorian chant agenda may put off some readers. I have nothing against Gregorian chant myself — I grew up with it and love it — but concentrating on this as the panacea for our liturgical ills almost to the exclusion of everything else means a loss of coverage of other well-merited areas as well as a loss of a wider perspective. I cannot help feeling that Reynold Hillenbrand, a leading North American pioneer for the liturgical reforms that came about as a result of the Second Vatican Council, would be disappointed in this particular volume in the series named after him.


  1. Indeed a very interesting Good Friday reflection.

    Of the many assertions made I have a particular curiosity about this one:

    “nor does he mention the derivation of the Church’s modes from synagogue chants and the Greek modes”

    Although this is clearly off-topic with the point of the review, I would love to hear from the author his knowledge of the connection between the Ecclesiastical modes and the ancient Greek modes. To my knowledge any connection is in name only. What I learned in my music history courses was that there are 16 extant Greek musical manuscripts, all of which tell us absolutely nothing about the way the actual sound or content of ancient Greek music.

  2. I think some of the “shortcomings” of Schaefers proposals pointed out here come from his insistence on strict definitions of terminlogy. When he says that we have basically a spoken Mass with interpolated music, he is correct. The primary singing in the Mass is that of the Priest…the dialogues. If the Priest speaks his parts and the assembly sings theirs, you have a spoken Mass with interpolated music.

    When he says that choirs are few and far between, he is referring to choirs that sing actual Sacred Music, most notably the Gregorian Chant and polyphony which he holds up as the ideal. Such choirs are indeed rare….what most parishes have are singing groups that are loosely called “choir”. Notice that he makes a distinction between choirs and contemporary ensembles to point that out.

    You can get a very good example of what he means by “choir” at Queen of Peace in Ocala, FL every Sunday at 6:00PM.

    1. I think the experience of the vast majority of parishes in the US is what you point out: a spoken Mass with a “fill in the blanks” spot to add an interchanging song of someone’s decision. Rather than “sing the Mass,” we instead “sing at Mass.” To suggest using chant or a Mass proper even occasionally has some people reacting as if you are staging a Mass burning of their Gather hymnals.

  3. For 25 of the 30 years of my priesthood, I’ve been associated with parishes that sing (I think southerners many of whom came into the full communion of the Church from Protestant denominations, love to sing). For the most part our parishes sing the Mass, not just some hymns during Mass. In my current and last parish, our full time music director(s) were Protestant, one Episcopal and the other Methodist–both of whom love Gregorian chant and teach our cantors and choirs how to do it. The Episcopalian brought Anglican Chant to our responsorial psalms, which was magnificent. Through their encouragement, I have always sung since 1985 at every Sunday Mass, the Mass, all my parts as a priest, collects, preface, etc. We haven’t mastered though the Credo, still spoken but not at our EF monthly Mass, it is sung marvelously in chant as are all other parts. I chanted the “words of institution” on Holy Thursday’s OF Mass. Perhaps I’ve lived a sheltered liturgical life, how bad is it out there?

  4. Fr. McDonald…

    Still wretched but getting better…. I think the biggest change is that the suggestion to begin using chant (even Latin!) is countered by an argument that it is difficult and requires training rather than the argument that it is “outdated” or “irrelevant”. Both of those arguments are now shown to be false and so new objections are raised. However, they too are falling by the wayside as training and information becomes more widespread.

    This past week (Triduum) our Pastor had a big “ahaa…” moment during the reposition of the Blessed Sacrament on Holy Thursday. We have, since I’ve been Director there, chanted the Pange Lingua throughout the procession. What really “shocked” the Pastor however (he is new) is that many of them assembly were singing it from memory…in Latin.

    Afterwards he pointed this out, saying that he had never heard them sing anything so enthusiatically.

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