Rorate Caeli

The Discipline of Sacred Music - 50 years later - I

The 20th century produced more documents on Sacred Music than any other. It is as if a desperate streak permeated the pontificates of all popes of that century, from Saint Pius X to John Paul II, trying to save the solemn and vast musical Tradition of the Latin Church -- and, alas, all popes failed.

That did not seem the case exactly 50 years ago when, in the last years of his glorious pontificate, Pius XII published one of his most interesting and most neglected encyclicals, Musicae Sacrae Disciplina.

As all documents of Pius XII, Musicae Sacrae Disciplina is a wonderfully written text. It is a true guide for all that relates to the great musical tradition of the Church: its causes, its origins, its future perspectives. This enormous structure called "Church" usually moves in slow steps; by 1955, the correct implementation of the great directions given by St. Pius X in Tra le Sollecitudini were still being pursued throughout the world. But choirs of great quality were already present in the most unexpected settings, which had not been the case in the first decade of the century.

In America, for instance, there was hardly a Parish Church which did not have its own boys' choir, in the spirit of true Liturgical Restoration wished by the holy pope Sarto.


Musicae Sacrae Disciplina is divided in roughly four parts. The first relates to the History of Sacred Music and it is the one we will present today.

Music is a manifestation of the divine image God imprinted in all men:

Music is among the many and great gifts of nature with which God, in Whom is the harmony of the most perfect concord and the most perfect order, has enriched men, whom He has created in His image and likeness. Together with the other liberal arts, music contributes to spiritual joy and the delight of the soul. On this subject St. Augustine has accurately written: "Music, that is the science or the sense of proper modulation, is likewise given by God's generosity to mortals having rational souls in order to lead them to higher things."

Sacred Music was an integral part of the Old Covenant:

Miraculously preserved unharmed from the Red Sea by God's power, the people of God sang a song of victory to the Lord, and Miriam, the sister of Moses, their leader, endowed with prophetic inspiration, sang with the people while playing a tambourine.
King David himself established the order of the music and singing used for sacred worship. This order was restored after the people's return from exile and was observed faithfully until the Divine Redeemer's coming.

Sacred Music was always present in the new Israel, the Church, even from the very beginning:

St. Paul showed us clearly that sacred chant was used and held in honor from the ery beginning in the Church founded by the Divine Redeemer when he wrote to the Ephesians: "Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs."

And, in the City of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, the apostolic canons of Sacred Music were disciplined and ordered by St. Gregory the Great, whose name thereafter adorned the chant of the West:

According to tradition, Our predecessor of happy memory, St. Gregory the Great, carefully collected and wisely arranged all that had been handed down by the elders and protected the purity and integrity of sacred chant with fitting laws and regulations. From Rome, the Roman mode of singing gradually spread to other parts of the West. Not only was it enriched by new forms and modes, but a new kind of sacred singing, the religious song, frequently sung in the vernacular, was also brought into use. The choral chant began to be called "Gregorian" after St. Gregory, the man who revived it. It attained new beauty in almost all parts of Christian Europe after the 8th or 9th century because of its accompaniment by a new musical instrument called the "organ."

Born of Gregorian Chant itself, polyphony gloriously developed in the West, supported by the Church, mistress of the human spirit:

Little by little, beginning in the 9th century, polyphonic singing was added to this choral chant. The study and use of polyphonic singing were developed more and more during the centuries that followed and were raised to a marvelous perfection under the guidance of magnificent composers during the 15th and 16th centuries. Since the Church always held this polyphonic chant in the highest esteem, it willingly admitted this type of music even in the Roman basilicas and in pontifical ceremonies in order to increase the glory of the sacred rites. Its power and splendor were increased when the sounds of the organ and other musical instruments were joined with the voices of the singers.

As the Mater and Magistra of Sacred Music, the Church of Rome has always held the discipline of these chants, of which the most ancient have Apostolic lineage. It is her duty to discipline this child of hers whose spirit is Christian.

The progress of this musical art clearly shows how sincerely the Church has desired to render divine worship ever more splendid and more pleasing to the Christian people. It likewise shows why the Church must insist that this art remain within its proper limits and must prevent anything profane and foreign to divine worship from entering into sacred music along with genuine progress, and perverting it. The Sovereign Pontiffs have always diligently fulfilled their obligation to be vigilant in this matter. The Council of Trent also forbids "those musical works in which something lascivious or impure is mixed with organ music or singing." In addition, not to mention numerous other Sovereign Pontiffs, Our predecessor Benedict XIV of happy memory in an encyclical letter dated February 19, 1749, which prepared for a Holy Year and was outstanding for its great learning and abundance of proofs, particularly urged Bishops to firmly forbid the illicit and immoderate elements which had arrogantly been inserted into sacred music.