Saturday, October 6, 2012

My Thoughts on the "Earnest Appeal"

I had a great deal of fun posting the Earnest Appeal online for the liturgical movement's benefit. Faithful readers, considering there are only a handful of you, please do me a favor and share it to all your friends so that this monumental work doesn't slip wholly under the radar! I've prepared a printable .pdf edition which I can email to any who request it. I'm also looking into making an edition for the Kindle and Nook.

When I posted the Earnest Appeal, I wanted to get it online "as is", with no commentary other than my introductory note. Now that it's been up for a couple of days, I can now give you my thoughts on what Pugin said, beyond the obvious "I agree" or "this!" 

When Pugin was received into the Catholic Church, he entered a culture which largely refused to adopt the Gothic revival which he brought to life. For most English Catholics, being "Roman" meant embracing the fashions of Baroque and Rococo Italy: marble pillars, lifelike statues, fiddleback chasubles, copious amounts of lace, and operatic music. Pugin's ideals often clashed with those of John Cardinal Newman, who respected the architect's genius, but vociferously disagreed on how the Catholic faith should be expressed by the newly emancipated Catholics of the British Isles. When Pugin called Classical architecture "pagan", Newman replied by calling Pugin an "architectural bigot". In a private letter, Newman wrote:
"In details Pugin is perfect but his altars are so small that you can’t have a Pontifical High Mass at them, his tabernacles so low that you can scarce have exposition, his east windows so large that everything is hidden in the glare, and his skreens (sic) so heavy that you might as well have the function in the sacristy, for the seeing of it by the congregation."
Pugin did have his supporters in the hierarchy, namely Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman, first Archbishop of Westminster, and Bishop Robert Willson of Hobart, Australia, but his aesthetic ideals were, for the most part, far more readily adapted by the Anglicans whose communion he broke with, rather than the Catholics for whom he had sacrificed so much to join. He died at only 40 years of age, frustrated that so few Catholics would see the world as he did: Gothic, veiled in rood screens and mystery, resounding with the ancient Gregorian chants of the Middle Ages.

Mass as Performance Art

Pugin, in line with his profession, approached the topic of sacred music in his Earnest Appeal from an architectural point of view. Everything that wrong with sacred music in his time (1850) can be traced to a wrong ordering of where the choir is physically placed in the church building. Before we get to that, though, a word on Gregorian chant itself: it's easy to assume that Gregorian chant lived in a healthy, unbroken tradition from the Middle Ages onward until Vatican II destroyed everything. Nothing could be further from the truth. In 1850, Gregorian chant was only just getting back on its feet after centuries of neglect. Much of it can be traced to the downfall of the solemn Mass itself. The liturgy endured a steady decline in the hearts of the people until by the 18th century, low Mass became the usual experience for laypeople on Sundays, even in those places where there was no shortage of clergy. When low Mass is the usual form for Sundays, it's forbidden to sing the Ordinary of the Mass, the Propers, or any other liturgical music. Any music at low Mass must be extra-liturgical: hymns, motets, etc. The matter of deciding what's to be sung at Mass, then, no longer is one of looking at the books and seeing what's appointed for the day, but instead mixing and matching what sounds appropriate, like mixing a CD to play in your car on long road trips.

Even at solemn Mass, the fashion was to play the Mass like a concert performance, complete with professional singers hired from outside the parish or even the faith, with Glorias and Credos that required the clergy to sit and contemplate the singers' vocal mastery for 15 or 20 minutes at a time. Pugin entered the Church when there was no appreciation for the spirit of the liturgy; most Catholics approached the Mass as either a performance or a ritual to be rushed through as quickly as possible. Some things never change.

This is only one reason why Pugin uses such harsh words in the Earnest Appeal. He says such things as...
"I must say that the dedication of a modern Catholic church, as we have seen it occasionally announced, accompanied by a full band of music, and where bishops and dignitaries are exposed to the degradation of sitting in dumb show to listen to the interminable squalling of a few female professionals and whiskered vocalists from the front of a gallery, is a far more ridiculous and inconsistent exhibition."
... because, in 1850, it was true. Solemn Mass had devolved into a spectacle where the priests and people were put at the mercy of a gang of sopranos, counter-tenors, or contraltos alternately wailing or sneering at them from on high:
"There does exist a want of reality in the present services of the Churches, as they are performed in this and many other countries, and from what does it proceed, but the corrupt and artificial state of ecclesiastical music. Owing to the complicated nature of modern figured compositions, both the clergy and the people have been precluded from taking any real part in the service of Almighty God. They are reduced to the position of listeners instead of worshippers; so that, in lieu of the grand and edifying spectacle of priests and people uniting in one great act of adoration and praise, the service is transformed to a set of hired musicians, frequently heretics and infidels who perform in a gallery, while the congregation are either amused or wearied, and the clergy who are present generally take advantage of those interminable fugues to say their own office, which has no reference whatever to the great act of sacrifice at which they are ostensibly assisting."

The Place of the Choir: Within the Sanctuary vs. a Choir Loft

Pugin's diagnosis was that the problem of sacred music laid in where the choir sat. In the Ages of Faith, the choir sat in the sanctuary, typically within stalls facing one another. To be a chanter in the choir was no different than serving the altar; and the servers were expected to sing the Mass as well. In this system, a chanter must be vested in cassock and surplice and carry himself with a server's discipline: an upright posture with eyes forward and palms laid flat on his lap when seated, bowing to the altar at Adoramus te and Jesu Christe in the Gloria, remembering to stand or kneel at the times appointed by the rubrics, and even making the sign of the cross in unison with the other chanters, as far as possible. It promotes a server's discipline if for no other reason than because the whole congregation's eyes are upon the choir, or at the very least, the chanter who idly chatters or checks his Facebook wall when in choir will get a stern look from Father. 
"Now, when we contrast the Catholic arrangement in a chancel to their miserable expedient of a gallery, we shall at once perceive the infinite wisdom and beauty of the former. All are habited in vestments, whose colour reminds them of the purity of heart and intention, with which they should celebrate the praises of Almighty God. They stand within the sacred enclosure set apart for sacrifice; the very place tends to preserve a recollection of the Divine presence, and to keep the singers in a devout posture. The distinct and graduated Chaunt offers no impediment to the perfect union of the heart and mind with the words as they are sung; and in lieu of a more empty and vain display of vocal eccentricities, we have a solemn, heartfelt, and, we may trust, an acceptable service to the honour of Almighty God."
That brings us to the topic of the singing gallery, or choir loft. These lofts are nearly universal in the United States, even in those churches that exclusively offer the Latin Mass. They have become "traditional", largely because we Americans haven't known anything else. We don't have medieval churches, and laymen have very little exposure to the tradition of choir stalls in the monastic, collegiate, or seminary communities. I've actually heard several times from Catholics that having the choir sit in the sanctuary is a "liturgical abuse" or "modernism". As outrageous as it is, I can't exactly blame them for not knowing anything else. Today, in the US, you tend to see the choir in the sanctuary only in Episcopal churches or in churches that aren't liturgical at all (Baptists, for example). 

So where did these lofts come from, anyway? My reading has led to three causes which collectively account for the demise of the traditional chancel and choir stalls.

First, Saint Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan and major figure in the Council of Trent, led a massive reform of church architecture in his diocese. In 1577, he published Instructiones Fabricae et Supellectilis Ecclesiasticae, a comprehensive manual on how a church ought to be planned, built, and furnished. Most of his ideas were solid; others were peculiar, such as his insistence on raising a wooden partition right down the entire length of the nave in order to divide men and women. Borromero's most remarkable and longstanding reform was that, to answer the objections of the Protestants by making the sanctuary more visible to the people, his churches removed the chancel screens, and in their place installed much lower altar rails, to provide a much more open view of the altar. His Instructiones were distributed to reform-minded bishops and priests all over Europe, but they still assumed the choir would be in the chancel. We can thank the Jesuits for the next step.

In 1584, the Jesuits consecrated the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, better known as the Gesù. It was to serve as their headquarters church in the Eternal City, and an example to all the new churches of the Counter-Reformation. The sanctuary was wide open, the altar was only a few steps away from the reach of the laity, the narthex was done away with, and there were no choir stalls whatsoever. Since the Jesuits were dispensed from any obligation to pray the Divine Office at all, the choir stalls were considered superfluous to them. When I visited Rome back in 2005, I was still a fan of the Baroque style and thought the Gesù was a cool expression of Catholic triumphalism. Now I consider the church a gaudy assault on the True Principles of Christian Architecture laid out by Pugin. Nonetheless, the Catholic world followed the Jesuits' example.

The final blow to the traditional choir lies in the devolution of sacred music from altar service to solely a performance art. Plainchant had already endured a steady decline in favor of polyphony by the 16th century. The clergy and congregation ceased to be vocally active in the liturgy. The Baroque period made operatic music fashionable even for church use. Many relics of this period, such as the Schubert Ave Maria (which wasn't even actually set for that prayer by Schubert himself, but for Sir Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake) or the Mozart Ave Verum, are considered staples of the traditional repertoire today. When sacred music became a professional enterprise, churches then needed to hire professional singers who weren't suited well at all to being seated in the choir. They also frequently needed to employ women for the soprano voices, in place of boys. It became necessary to put these singers in the back of the church, well away from the view of the congregation.

I can tell you from personal experience that sitting in the loft, at the furthest point in the church from the altar, has a strange effect of making one feel like he's not completely in a holy place. I'm more likely to crack a joke or fall asleep during the sermon when in the loft, simply because I'm so far removed from the sacred space around the altar. In some places, it gets much worse. The lofts are used to store extra chairs or sound equipment. They're cluttered and dusty, but it's considered okay because it's well out of the congregation's view. You might even see empty drink cups laying about. Apparently, in Pugin's day, it was much worse:
"Formerly such persons as now constitute the choir were unknown. The service was sung in Parochial Churches, between the clerks and devout laymen (ministri), who assisted them in the chancel, and the people in the body of the church, who responded in unison. This grand and overpowering effect of the people answering the priest is yet to be heard in parts of Germany. At Minden the Habemus ad Dominum rose from more than two thousand voices of faithful worshippers. What a difference from the vicarious reply of three or four professionals, thrusting their heads from out of their curtained gallery in the intervals of their private conversation, and whose hearts, instead of being raised up, were probably groveling in the contemplation of a pull at a wine bottle between the acts of the performance, for it must be distinctly understood that all persons who sing in galleries are performers by position. Nutshells, orange peel, and biscuit bags, abound in organ lofts and singing galleries, and those who are acquainted with the practical working of these places must be aware, that they are a constant source of scandal and irreverence."
Of course, recognizing the problems inherent in choir lofts doesn't change the fact that what's done is done. They're already built; meanwhile, the sanctuaries are too cramped to fit a choir without extensive and costly renovations. For Pugin, the solution is simple:
"Singing galleries are modern abominations, and no good will ever be effected in Church music, until they are utterly destroyed, and the service sung in its legitimate and ancient position—the choir or chancel."
For the rest of us who aren't architects, we have to make do with what I  have. I have some potential solutions at the end of the column, but let's move on to that dreaded topic which always causes the most controversy....

Women in Choirs and the Feminization of Church Music

I've had the M word thrown at me quite a few times for asserting the superiority of the all-male choir in cassock and surplice. The way I see it, if you accept that altar servers should all be male (and if you're reading this column, you probably already think that female servers are at least distasteful), then it's no great leap to conclude that choirs ought to also be all-male. After all, Pope Saint Pius X, in his 1903 motu proprio on sacred music, said: 
"On the same principle it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical office, and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir. Whenever, then, it is desired to employ the acute voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church."
Considering how effectively Pius X carried out the other reforms of his pontificate, it would be easy to believe that the Church gave up the use of women in choirs shortly afterward, too. In truth, the Vatican was issuing dispensations for the use of singing women within days of the motu proprio's release. But for the most part, this clause was ignored completely. If churches, especially in the United States, were to rely solely on boys and men for their choral music, they wouldn't have any at all.

I can't pinpoint exactly when singing in the choir became the domain of women, but the fact is that today, in most church communities, women carry the choir. They're far more likely to volunteer their time to sing. Meanwhile, I've heard more than one man express the opinion that singing is a woman's hobby. I've even heard fathers proudly express their children's activity in church, saying "I send my sons to serve and my daughters to sing", as though one is completely different than the other, or that girls are more suited than boys to sing in choir.

The worst realization I ever had on this subject came when I was attending a midnight Christmas Mass in London last year. In England, all the great Anglican churches still maintain the tradition of choirs made up solely of men and boys. The Catholic church I attended offered the traditional Latin Mass, but still employed the typical mixed choir of adult men and women. This was in the heart of a metropolis where men and boys' choirs are still the norm, and where there are many choir schools established to teach boys to sing. At least Westminster Cathedral, the chief Catholic church for England and Wales, still has a traditional all-male choir; one which is, in fact, widely reckoned to be superior to all the Anglican choirs of London. But then, I very recently heard that none of the adult scholars of their choir are actually Catholic! Pugin's concern about "a set of hired musicians, frequently heretics and infidels who perform in a gallery" still lives on.

To be clear, there is still a place for women singers. After all, if Pugin encouraged the whole congregation to sing, that would include women. A lay choir with men and women can be understood as simply a trained subset of the congregation. But the distinction between the liturgical choir and lay choir can only be made if a liturgical choir exists in the first place.

Some Ideas for the Restoration

It's one thing to complain about what's wrong with the state of sacred music, and another thing entirely to create a solution. Pugin can be credited with the fact that every single church he ever built had a chancel with stalls. He was also known to participate in the Divine Office at his own church, in cassock and surplice. His love of Gregorian chant was so great that he would sing chant out loud on the street while going about his daily business.

I'm not quite on Pugin's level of genius yet, but the solution I and some like-minded friends have created is the founding of Schola Peregrina, an independent men's choir dedicated entirely to Gregorian chant. We sing in any church that invites us on our own terms, according to liturgical principles as best as we can implement them: wearing the cassock and surplice, observing the choir rubrics, and as frequently as humanly possible, singing the full chant Propers from the Liber Usualis. Most of the time, the architecture of the churches we've sung at have forced us to make use of the loft, but the very existence of a liturgical choir is a good (really, the most important) first step toward a renewal of the ancient traditions of plainchant.

If Gregorian chant is really to have the pride of place that Pius X, Vatican II, and so many other sources have dictated, then it's absolutely necessary for chant to be sung at least in part every Sunday. Even at low Mass, chant hymns may be sung by the whole congregation as a devotion during the processional, offertory, communion, and recessional. To that end, concrete steps must be taken to promote chant among the people in the pews. Here are some ideas:

1.) Use as much congregational chant as possible. Congregational singing is at the heart of Pugin's Earnest Appeal. The Mass already provides us with its own congregational hymns in the form of the Ordinary: the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. They appear so regularly that the words ought to be inscribed in the heart of every Latin Christian in the world. Polyphonic settings of the Mass, which only the choir can sing, should be reserved for greater feasts. This passage of Pugin's deserves to be quoted in full:
'To what extreme inconsistency and absurdity does not the substituting of any other music lead in the celebration of the Divine Office! It is well known that the Kyrie is ordered to be sung nine times in honour of the Holy Trinity; modern composers utterly disregard the mystical symbolism of the number, and multiply the supplications to an indefinite repetition merely to suit their notes. Again, the priest intones the Gloria after the old traditions, while the choir takes it up in a totally different manner. The Credo, so far from being a distinct profession of faith as ordered, is a mass of unintelligible sound; and at the Sanctus, where the priest invites the people to join with the angels and archangels, in one voice (cum una voce), in singing the Trisagion, a perfect babel of voices usually break forth, and the Ter Sanctus is utterly lost in a confusion of Hosannas, Benedictuses, and broken sentences all going together in glorious confusion, which scarcely ceases in time to enable the distracted worshipper a moment’s repose to adore at the Elevation. After a short pause the din recommences, and this generally lasts till a thundering Agnus Dei begins. Whether it is a spirit of pure contradiction that modern composers have usually imparted to this supplication for peace the character of a great row it is impossible to say, but such is decidedly the case. Some of these compositions would be admirably adapted for a chorus of drunken revelers shouting for wine outside a tavern, and if the words—“Wine, give us more wine,” were substituted for “Dona nobis, nobis pacem,” we should have a demand in perfect accordance with the sound with which it is accompanied. In lieu of this, were the simple Chaunt, as ordered by the authoritative books, the Antiphonals and Graduals of the Roman Church, restored, the people would soon be able to take part in responding to the clerks in the chancel. The Kyrie would be alternate, the Gloria a real hymn of praise, and the Credo would be again a real profession of the Christian faith, not a piece of complicated music, while the “O Salutaris” would rise from the lips of hundreds, and ascend with the incense to the throne of grace.'
2.) Supply the congregation with the tools needed to sing chant. The diocesan traditional Latin Mass community in San Antonio, so I've heard, is ordering a set of Corpus Christi Watershed's Saint Edmund Campion Hymnal, which has all 18 Gregorian Masses from the Kyriale, in addition to the complete order of Mass to follow along with, and many other chant hymns. Another surprisingly comprehensive work is currently in progress by the Catholics of the University of Cambridge, called the Saint John Fisher Missale. If it's out of the budget to provide so many hymnals, at least print out the settings of the Mass in cheap programs which will be sung that day.

3.) Encourage, or even require altar servers to sing the Ordinary of the Mass. Servers typically have worship booklets with the order of Mass, or at least cue cards with things like the prayers at the foot of the altar, laid out in case they forget something. Append these with settings of the Mass which the servers can follow with. After all, as Pugin observes, the priest traditionally intones the Gloria and Credo to inspire the people to sing after him. If even the servers at the altar can't be bothered to sing the Mass, it's hopeless to get the people in the pews to do so.

4.) Use a liturgical choir as means to train a new generation of chanters. One reason why we don't have boys' choirs anymore is because they have no incentive to join one. They would be far more motivated if they could join the liturgical choir, wearing cassock and surplice, under the direction of men experienced in chant. Imagine, further, if the liturgical choir processed to the altar with the servers and sat in the sanctuary! Boys would find that a much greater incentive to join. 


  1. I assume you mean Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman, not Spellman.

    As to the place of choir lofts, I can see one potential good use for them. If parishes are bound and determined to keep women in their choirs (and at present, it seems a practical necessity in many places), a loft is probably the very best place for them. The reforms of St. Pius X did actually allow for women in lay choirs (just not the "choir of Levites") with the stipulation that men and women were not to be intermingled. Mixed lay choirs were supposed to be physically separated by sex. At least, that is my understanding from the old Catholic Encyclopedia.

    Unfortunately, at least in my area, most rural churches haven't got enough room in the sanctuary for more than a cantor. In that case, I would prefer the choir loft to a choir box placed so prominently that that the choir, rather than the altar, becomes the focus. My own (N.O.) parish (despite having a loft built in) has constructed one of these last, which, to make matters worse, obstructs the use of the baptistry.

    1. "I assume you mean Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman, not Spellman."

      Yes! Slip of the keyboard. I should edit that now.