Church music, Vatican 2 and the Council of Trent

Does a recent recording’s release mark a change in the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude to music?

On 7 October, il Bollettino reported that the Holy See Press Office held a press conference to present “Palestrina. Missa Papæ Marcelli – Motets”, the latest CD of the Pontifical Sistine Chapel Choir.  Reading the presentation of  Archbishop George Gänswein, prefect of the Papal Household, we wondered whether the sentiments expressed can be regarded as more than a mere marketing  statement for the new Deustche Grammophon product? Do they represent a change in attitude to music in the Church post-Vatican II, reflecting views such as those of Damian Thompson who in the Catholic Herald asked Can a great composer revive a tone-deaf Church?

Il Bollettino announcement [extract]

“Archbishop Gänswein explained that it was not by chance that the second CD by the Pontifical Sistine Chapel Choir contained the famous Missa Papæ Marcelli and several motets on the theme of mercy, selected to emphasise also musically the extraordinary Jubilee convened by the Holy Father.

“Last year, on the occasion of the presentation of the first CD of the Pontifical Sistine Chapel, the principal intention was to promote awareness of the centuries-long history of this ancient institution of the Holy See, its artistic, cultural and above all spiritual function, and its special bond with the Pope … With this Mass, the prince of Roman polyphony [Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525 – 2 February 1594)] has successfully sought to respond to what the Council of Trent asked of liturgical music: that is, the intelligibility of the text united with the quality of the music”.

“This challenge remains pertinent today…and sees the Pontifical Sistine Chapel Choir engaged in positioning liturgical relevance the great musical heritage of the Church, intelligently acknowledging scientific studies on ancient music and experimenting new ways of implementing and proposing great music in the context of the liturgical reform of Vatican Council II. In this way, the aims of this CD, which is presented as a cultural operation, go far beyond in their endeavour to contribute to communicating the essence of the Catholic Church’s mission, which is to evangelise, that is, to announce the good news also through beauty, the way to God, and to invite the search for good, the querere Deum which is inherent in art and in religious music. This is intended to express that outbound Church of which Pope Francis speaks, a Church that is not afraid to speak the language of man and his needs, of which music is a high and universal expression”.

Vatican II and church music

As we have stated earlier, music in the Roman Catholic Church is not an issue on which an Anglican or a Quaker can offer any insights: both of us have a strong preference for “Byrd over Bernadette Farrell”, as Abigail Frymann described the opposing views in the RCC in The Tablet blog in 2013 [link unfortunately no longer available]; furthermore, Anglicans are by no means innocent bystanders in the developments of “Folk Masses” &c. [Friends, however, are not guilty of that – whatever else we might get wrong: FC]

Nevertheless, a number of eminent choral musicians have decried the alleged impact of Vatican II on the music of the church: Harry Christophers, conductor of The Sixteen and Peter Phillips of the Tallis Scholars are referred to in Frymann’s blog; Damian Thompson’s comments relate to the music of Sir James MacMillan, who in 2015 was referred to by Catholic Herald as “The holy warrior with a baton” and named as its “very first Catholic of the Year”.

Unsurprisingly, the Adoramus Bulletin – for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy frequently address the issue; and the September issue leads with a piece by Susan Benofy, The Instruction Musicam Sacram after Fifty years: Rediscovering the principles of Sacred Music. It quotes comments made by Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, “Towards an Authentic Implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium,” at the conclusion of his address to the Sacra Liturgia Conference, London, July 5, 2016

“We must sing the liturgy, rejoicing in the treasury of sacred music …, most especially … Gregorian chant. We must sing sacred liturgical music not merely religious music, or worse, profane songs.”

Although Archbishop Sarah’s comments in the same speech on priests facing ad orientem during the Mass were subsequently “clarified” by the Vatican, those relating to music were not and appear to be consistent with those of Archbishop Gänswein.


The interesting aspect in the comments of Archbishop Gänswein is his comparison of the (sometimes disputed) role of Palestrina’s Missa Papæ Marcelli in interpreting the requirements of the Council of Trent for liturgical music, and “the present-day positioning of the liturgical relevance the great musical heritage of the Church … and proposing great music in the context of the liturgical reform of Vatican Council II”.

Regardless of the historical importance of Missa Papæ Marcelli in the acceptance of polyphony in liturgical music, and its undoubted aesthetic qualities, the use of its settings of the Ordinary is impractical: the Kyrie alone [which is one of David’s favourite pieces] is almost five minutes long, and Archbishop Gänswein’s comments relate to the Church’s musical heritage rather than this piece in particular. However, it is equally important that such music is paired with musicians with the appropriate skills and congregations for whom its performance enhances their worship.

To outsiders such as ourselves, the answer as to whether the Archbishop’s comments mark a change in attitude to music in the Church post-Vatican II is probably in the negative. As Lucy A. Carroll suggested in an Adoramus post (in 2003), Vatican II didn’t abolish choirs. So who did?it was the circumstances post-Vatican II that were the cause of the musical decline:

“The cantor of the psalm suddenly became a soloist throughout the Mass. The utter abandonment of Latin brought an influx of hurriedly-written, oft banal music. Coming in the turbulent decade of the 1960s, the choirs were considered ‘elite’ and contrary to the new ‘democratization’ of the liturgy. In came the guitars, in came the bubble-gum music, in came nice, well-intentioned folks with little or no musical training, no knowledge of the church’s musical heritage, and no true understanding of the actual nature of the liturgical reform.


”The fault then lay in two areas, hopelessly intertwined: the amateurish new music, and the absence of trained professionals. And all because the actual intent of the Council was misinterpreted or outright ignored.”

We are not in a position to assess the truth of these assertions, made in the context of the US scene, and would be pleased to hear readers’ views on these and the statement of Archbishop Gänswein.


By coincidence, the Holy See Press Office announcement was made on the same day as the 90th anniversary of BBC 3’s Choral Evensong, the Corporation’s longest-running outside broadcast. This prompted several posts including those by Michael Sadgrove, Evensong and by Stephen Shipley, 90 years of Choral Evensong: Thank God for the BBC’s longest running show! The recent cathedral attendance figures for 2015 continue to increase with mid-week attendance rising, and it has been suggested that an important factor is the quality of the music and worship.

David Pocklington

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, “Church music, Vatican II and the Council of Trent” in Law & Religion UK, 13 October 2016,

7 thoughts on “Church music, Vatican 2 and the Council of Trent

  1. We profoundly trust that it does just that and in a related matter that Benedict forlorn Prisoner of the Vatican will eventually be released

  2. Maybe it ill befits me as a member of just about the only sect that never uses music to comment on David’s post – but as someone with at least a bit of experience directing choirs in liturgical music, here goes regardless.

    It strikes me that there are two major problems with church music: the standard of much of the music and the standard of much of the performance.

    The first time I heard Purcell’s Hear My Prayer, O Lord it was at Evensong in Westminster Abbey and I was in tears by about bar five: but the singing was immaculate. I had the same hairs-on-back-of-neck reaction on my first hearing of the Weelkes setting of When David Heard – though without the tears that time. (Incidentally, I can never make up my mind which setting I prefer, the Weelkes or the Tomkins.) The first time I sang Geoffrey Beaumont’s dreadful 20th Century Folk Mass, on the other hand, I just wanted to hide in a corner. If it was meant to have any relation to “jazz”, it certainly wasn’t related to any of the kind of jazz I was used to listening to. And there seems to have been a flood of churchy musical drivel since then.

    I don’t know why this should be. Why would people who, in their secular lives, are accustomed to music of enormous sophistication performed with an incredibly high degree of technical skill, be prepared to tolerate third-rate, badly performed crap in church? And it doesn’t matter whether it’s by JS Bach, Stan Getz, Lennon & McCartney or Kraftwerk: carefully-crafted and conscientiously-performed music of any genre has a validity and artistic integrity of its own – whether or not I happen to like it myself. Much church music, on the other hand, was barely worth the effort in the first place – all that dim Victoriana, all those dinky little chorale preludes by obscure organists who should have stuck to playing the organ, most of the modern “worship songs” I’ve ever heard – so why bother?

    There is some excellent modern church music around, but most of it – and a lot of the earlier stuff – is only capable of being performed by a decent choir. If it’s a choice between a bad performance of, say, Byrd’s Civitas Sancti Tui and no performance at all, I’d prefer silence every time. Or, laid end-to-end, the number of organists who make a fumbled mess of the runs in Karg-Elert’s Nun Danket Alle Gott would stretch from here to Oberndorf am Neckar and back.

    And another thing while I’m having a rant. When God created humans, mezzo-soprano and baritone created He them. So if, like me, you’re a bass, unless you happen to know the bass-line of an unfamiliar hymn – or can pick it up instantly from the play-over – if you sing the melody you are going to be hoarse by the end of verse five.

    Church music? Leave it to the pros, or at least to the pros plus the highly-committed, serious and talented amateurs. It’s no wonder that attendances at cathedrals have been rising at a time when attendances at parish churches have been falling.

  3. Pitching in as another Quaker: ‘When David Heard’: Tomkins, Weelkes or Whitacre? All fine but Tomkins is peerless. So heartbreaking it’s almost unsingable

    • Never heard the Whitacre – but I have now, thanks, on YouTube. I think, on a very fine balance, I’m with you on the Tomkins.

    • Like Frank, I had not heard the Whitacre version until I followed up his comment and looked on YouTube. For me, Whitacre is a “Marmite” composer and whilst I enjoy singing “Lux Aurumque” and “This Marriage”, I have great difficulty in appreciating “I Thank You God”.

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