Sacred music is an indispensable component of the liturgical life of St. John’s. A rich program of sacred music has played an essential role in helping many Catholics rediscover a profound sense of the sacred. As sacred music is the “handmaid of the liturgy”, we at St. John the Evangelist make every effort to follow faithfully the teachings of the Church on sacred music.
What is Sacred Music?
Sacred music is “that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form,” according to the Sacred Congregation of Rites in its Instruction on Music and the Liturgy, Musicam Sacram (1967). As defined by the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), sacred music surpasses merely religious music when it is joined to the liturgical rite to become “a necessary and integral part of the solemn liturgy,” whose purpose is “the glory of God ad and the sanctification of the faithful.”
John Paul II said in 1989, “As a manifestation of the human spirit, music performs a function which is noble, unique and irreplaceable. When it is truly beautiful and inspired , it speaks to us more than all the other arts of goodness, virtue, peace, of matters holy and divine. Not for nothing has it always been, and will always be, an essential part of the liturgy.” Pope Benedict XVI has written that sacred music “elevates the spirit precisely by wedding it to the senses, and it elevates the senses by uniting them with the spirit” (The Spirit of the Liturgy).
From her earliest days, the Roman Church has clothed her worship with Gregorian chant. Through the centuries she has safeguarded the chant as her own unique form of music, and through those same strains she continues to teach and pray, mourn and rejoice in her liturgy. For these reasons, Gregorian chant is the “supreme model for sacred music” (Pope Pius X) and the music proper to the Roman Church.
Chant is the one music that we inherit from the ancient Church fathers. it is not a “style” but the music of the Mass itself. Contrary to widespread belief, the Second Vatican Council did not seek to diminish the role of chant but rather to increase it. Sacrosanctum Concilium states: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.”
What is polyphony and what makes it specially suited to the liturgy?
Polyphony literally means many voices. Polyphonic music has two or more that move independently, or contrapuntally, to weave a musical fabric. Sacred polyphony generally refers to vocal music from the late Middle Ages through the end of the Renaissance. In the typical polyphonic “counterpoint” of these periods, the voice parts are written more as individual melodies or lines, with a vertical chordal effect resulting from the simultaneous sounding of these parts. The emphasis on the individual vocal lines shows the influence of Gregorian chant, from which polyphony organically grew.
The “Golden Age” of sacred polyphony lasted from about 1400 until 1650, but composers of later eras – even to the present day – continued to favor the contrapuntal style, especially when composing for the Church. The most representative composers and well-known composers of sacred polyphony include Josquin (c. 1440-1521), Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594), Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), Thomas Tallis (1505-1585), William Byrd (1543-1623), Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594), and Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643). All of these composers are well represented at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at St. John’s Church.