Rorate Caeli

In Honor of the 111th Anniversary of Tra le sollecitudini (November 22, 1903)

The greatest and most influential church document ever written on sacred music appeared this day 111 years ago, from the hand of Pope St. Pius X. So very much has been written about this document’s general principles, its advocacy of Gregorian chant and polyphony, the checkered history of its implementation, and the tragic triumph of the incorporation of the Pope’s teaching into Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium followed by an almost total contradiction in practice, that it seemed to me more interesting today to recall a certain paragraph that seldom receives the attention it deserves:

19. The employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells, and the like.

Unlike the same document’s prohibition of female singers (n. 13), which was later lifted under Pius XII, the official ban on pianos in church has never been lifted. And how seriously ought we to take this fact? St. Pius X states at the start of Tra le sollecitudini:

In order that no one for the future may be able to plead in excuse that he did not clearly understand his duty and that all vagueness may be eliminated from the interpretation of matters which have already been commanded, … we do therefore publish, motu proprio and with certain knowledge, Our present Instruction to which, as to a juridical code of sacred music, We will with the fullness of Our Apostolic Authority that the force of law be given, and We do by Our present handwriting impose its scrupulous observance on all.

Indeed, the rationale for this ban—namely, that the piano was a secular instrument from the start and has always been associated with secular music—is often repeated in subsequent magisterial documents that urge the faithful to avoid any instrument suggestive of styles of music that originate outside of the temple of God. The 1958 document De musica sacra et sacra liturgia of the Sacred Congregation of Rites stated:

The difference between sacred and secular music must be taken into consideration. Some musical instruments, such as the organ, are naturally appropriate for sacred music; others, such as string instruments which are played with a bow, are easily adapted to liturgical use. But there are some instruments which, by common estimation, are so associated with secular music that they are not at all adaptable for sacred use. … The principal musical instrument for solemn liturgical ceremonies of the Latin Church has been and remains the classic pipe organ.

Even the Second Vatican Council followed this line:

In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things. But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority, as laid down in Art. 22, 52, 37, and 40. This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful. 

The Sacred Congregation of Rites reiterated the point in the 1967 document Musicam Sacram:

In permitting and using musical instruments, the culture and traditions of particular peoples must be taken into account. At the same time, however, instruments that are generally associated with and used only by secular music are to be absolutely barred from liturgical celebrations and religious devotions (Acta 1958, 652). Any musical instrument permitted in divine worship should be used in such a way that it meets the needs of the liturgical celebration, and is in the interests both of the beauty of worship and the edification of the faithful.

Pope Paul VI said in an address to the Associazione Italiana di Santa Cecilia one year later (1968):

The primary purpose of sacred music is to evoke God’s majesty and to honor it. But at the same time music is meant to be a solemn affirmation of the most genuine nobility of the human person, that of prayer. . . . Vocal and instrumental music that is not marked by the spirit of prayer, dignity, and beauty is barred from entrance into the world of the sacred and the religious. The assimilation and sanctification of the secular, which is today a distinguishing mark of the Church’s mission in the world, clearly has limits; this is all the more the case when the issue is to invest the secular with the sacredness belong to divine worship.

One could cite other texts that say more or less the same thing. It is noteworthy that the magisterial texts always say that the instruments must be such as to "edify the faithful." What this means is that, apart from traditional instruments already long-approved and therefore safely assumed to be edifying when properly played, any non-traditional instrument that is disturbing, distracting, or annoying to members of the congregation is ipso facto excluded from use in church. A simple survey of almost any congregation in the world would indicate the presence of Catholics who are gritting their teeth every time the strumming begins or the jazzy lounge-chords pour out from the electric piano. These people are certainly not being edified, and therefore the instruments in question are violating a fundamental precondition for their legitimate use.

Here, it is not my intention to go into particular arguments about the piano and the pianistic repertoire; rather, I merely call attention to this clear provision of Pius X’s motu proprio, and would suggest that, due to its regrettable violation, we are in a better position 111 years later to express total agreement with the theological intuition, the spiritual instinct, that led to its formulation. (For those who wish to delve into particular arguments, I have taken up the problem of the liturgical use of contemporary musical styles and secular instruments in a number of articles available online, such as “Contemporary Music in Church?”; “Banish All Guitars and Pianos from the Church”; "Church Music versus Utility Music".)

As it is in our own day, the situation of church music at the turn of the twentieth century was extremely wretched, impoverished, and desperate. When Cardinal Patriarch of Venice, Giuseppe Sarto already implemented a “minimum” program for musical reform, with diocese-wide requirements that might well be taken up as a model today by truly forward-thinking bishops:

The Cardinal ordered that, at least once a month, in all the churches [of Venice], the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei should be sung in Gregorian chant, as well as the Introit, the gradual, the offertory, the communion chant, and the office of Vespers. He forbade the piano and bands in churches, and ordered that every parish should set up a school of Gregorian chant. He also created a [diocesan] Sacred Music Commission, with the task of promoting the study and performance of sacred music and chant, and of making sure that the prescribed norms were observed.  (Yves Chiron, Saint Pius X, Restorer of the Church, trans. Graham Harrison [Kansas City: Angelus Press, 2002], 104)

It is fitting to conclude this commemoration with a few choice excerpts from the opening of the motu proprio, lines so full of the intense piety and evangelical zeal that motivated St. Pius X to issue this “juridical code of sacred music”:

Among the cares of the pastoral office, not only of this Supreme Chair, which We, though unworthy, occupy through the inscrutable dispositions of Providence, but of every local church, a leading one is without question that of maintaining and promoting the decorum of the House of God in which the august mysteries of religion are celebrated, and where the Christian people assemble to receive the grace of the Sacraments, to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar, to adore the most august Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and to unite in the common prayer of the Church in the public and solemn liturgical offices. Nothing should have place, therefore, in the temple calculated to disturb or even merely to diminish the piety and devotion of the faithful, nothing that may give reasonable cause for disgust or scandal, nothing, above all, which directly offends the decorum and sanctity of the sacred functions and is thus unworthy of the House of Prayer and of the Majesty of God. … Filled as We are with a most ardent desire to see the true Christian spirit flourish in every respect and be preserved by all the faithful, We deem it necessary to provide before anything else for the sanctity and dignity of the temple, in which the faithful assemble for no other object than that of acquiring this spirit from its foremost and indispensable font, which is the active participation in the most holy mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church. And it is vain to hope that the blessing of heaven will descend abundantly upon us, when our homage to the Most High, instead of ascending in the odor of sweetness, puts into the hand of the Lord the scourges wherewith of old the Divine Redeemer drove the unworthy profaners from the Temple.