The recent Pastoral Letter on Sacred Music in Divine Worship, “Sing to the Lord a New Song”, promulgated in the Archdiocese of Portland, OR, on January 25, 2019, by Archbishop Alexander Sample, contains a statement in Guidelines section 2g, subsection 3] which may cause a few raised eyebrows:
During Lent the use of the organ and other instruments is allowed only as necessary to support singing. After the Gloria of Holy Thursday until the Gloria of the Easter Vigil, all music is exclusively vocal. If observance of this discipline presents grave difficulties, an instrument may be used, but only in a minimal way to support the voices.
I want to preface my commentary by saying that the first sentence of that subsection is more restrictive than what is provided by the current state of the law, expressed in GIRM 313:
In Lent the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only in order to support the singing. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts.
Evidently in the Archdiocese of Portland those exceptions are excluded, despite the fact that in the universal Church they have been permitted from at least the year 1673 onward (continual legislation by the Sacred Congregation of Rites).
The main purpose of this essay, however, is to focus on the Archbishop’s second and third sentences, in which he seems to go much further than the current provisions of the law.
Some have attempted to argue, even on Pray Tell, that the law’s provisions relating to Advent and Lent do not hold for the Sacred Triduum because the Triduum does not form part of Lent. (In passing, one might note that the vast majority of Catholics would be surprised to learn that the Triduum does not form part of Lent; for them, Holy Thursday and Good Friday especially appear as the climax of Lenten discipline.) It seems clear from the latest edition of the Roman Missal that this argument is open to question, as follows:
On Holy Thursday, the rubric concerning the Gloria runs:
7. The Gloria in excelsis (Glory to God in the highest) is said. While the hymn is being sung, bells are rung, and when it is finished, they remain silent until the Gloria in excelsis of the Easter Vigil, unless, if appropriate, the Diocesan Bishop has decided otherwise. Likewise, during this same period, the organ and other musical instruments may be used only so as to support the singing.
It is clear that the Diocesan Bishop can, if appropriate, legislate on whether not bells are used between the two Glorias. (And one might wonder what the criteria for an “appropriate” decision might be.)
What is by no means as clear is whether he may do the same for the use of organ and other instruments. The final sentence begins with the word “Likewise”. In the Latin the word used is Item, meaning “Also” or “In the same manner”. A “normal” reading of this word would therefore interpret it to mean “Similarly” or “In the same way [that bells are silent]”. A “perverse” reading of the word would interpret it to mean “Similarly, i.e. unless, if appropriate, the Diocesan Bishop has decided otherwise”. I think it is fair to call it “perverse” because, as it stands, this sentence does not appear to give the Diocesan Bishop explicit authority to legislate for the instruments. That explicit authority is given only for the bells. A principle of Canon Law is that where there may be more than one interpretation of the law, the least restrictive interpretation is to be favoured. I am aware of the dictum that a bishop is the Chief Liturgist of his diocese, but that designation does not of itself give him the right to act in contradiction with universal church law, or with decisions that have been made by the episcopal conference of the territory. It is worth noting, too, that the Pastoral Letter only applies within the Archdiocese and not outside.
If you want to find evidence of a different viewpoint on accompanied music, as far back as 1970 the Bishops of England and Wales published a document entitled Music in the Mass, whose paragraph 37 states very clearly “The organ may be used to lead the singing at any time, even on Good Friday.”
So far, then, it would seem that Archbishop Sample’s statement “After the Gloria of Holy Thursday until the Gloria of the Easter Vigil, all music is exclusively vocal” is questionable at the very least, if not in fact contrary to current legislation. Furthermore, it seems that he himself realizes that it may at the least be problematical when he says “If observance of this discipline presents grave difficulties, an instrument may be used, but only in a minimal way to support the voices.”
I suspect that some will consider that final sentence to be more than a little patronising. I would like to explore a little further what those “grave difficulties” might be.
Up to the mid 1960s, it was very easy to specify that during the Triduum the organ and other instruments were to be totally silent. Many places were accustomed to singing unaccompanied; liturgical singing was done by clergy and choir alone. Homophony and polyphony were done a cappella, and Gregorian chant likewise (although more than a few parishes used the organ as a support for the chant, and continuo playing for some polyphony was also possible). It was not much of a stretch to specify “exclusively vocal” music during the Triduum.
Today, over 50 years later, the situation is very different. Many parishes have repertoires that rely on instrumental accompaniment. To remove that accompaniment has only one effect: the music no longer makes sense. To quote just two examples, it is difficult to imagine Good Friday without Peter Jones’s superb setting of the Reproaches O My People. If sung without any accompaniment, whether organ or guitars, its effect is nullified. Even more difficult to imagine is a piece like Stephen Dean’s sublime Father, If This Cup, (published in OCP’s Easter Mysteries, a St Thomas More Group collection), where the piece simply makes no sense when sung a cappella.
In parishes where piano and/or guitar is the normal instrument of accompaniment, the problem is exacerbated still further if accompaniment is removed. Does the fact that the music makes no sense without accompaniment constitute a “grave difficulty” ?
One answer that the Archbishop and his advisers may give to this is “Well, why don’t you just use unaccompanied chants instead?” One simple response might be “because the people don’t know them, have little or no opportunity to learn them, would find them alien and unfulfilling even if they did learn them, and will thus be excluded from this aspect of the celebration.” And yet paragraph 2 of the Roman Missal’s global preliminary rubrics for the Sacred Paschal Triduum is quite clear:
The singing of the people, the ministers, and the Priest Celebrant has a special importance in the celebrations of these days, for when texts are sung, they have their proper impact.
Today we have a very different style of liturgy from the one which existed formerly. Before the mid 1960s, singing was generally the province of the clergy and the choir. The people sang only devotional material. Their liturgical participation was passive. Today, the situation is different. Singing is open to all, depending on their office and function, and the active participation of the people through singing is to be encouraged (Sacrosanctum Concilium 30).
The question, therefore, is not one of musical style or whether or not the music is accompanied, both of which are aesthetic values, but about whether the singing of people, priest and ministers is to be not just enabled but actively encouraged, which is a pastoral value. In other words, the context in which celebration normally takes place is crucial when considering the impact of liturgical legislation.
Additionally, in parishes where significant proportions of the assembly are “non white” (around 50% in the Archdiocese of Portland), it is safe to say that the singing of the assembly will never include those former styles that the Archbishop appears to wish to impose. That former tradition of unaccompanied singing is dead or has never existed in many places. You cannot just switch it on and presume that good liturgy will automatically result.
In case all the above seems negative, I would want to say that there are other ways of delineating the special character of the days of the Triduum without having to have recourse to a cappella singing. A careful selection of texts and music, whether accompanied or not, will provide a Triduum repertoire that speaks to the liturgical season, is appropriately “grave” in nature, and lifts up hearts and minds to God. The appearance of the church, its liturgical environment, the absence of festive signs and movements will also greatly assist in creating the desired solemn atmosphere.