Cecilian Movement

I have written a couple of articles recently about Don Lozenzo Perosi and his major compositions, in particular his oratorios and secular orchestral works. I mentioned his church music in passing, for its style is totally different. These works are generally for one, two, three or four voices and organ accompaniment. Here is an example of some of them them sung by the cathedral choir of Milan.

My own musical formation was in England, in the Anglican tradition, and I only learned about Gregorian chant when I crossed the Tiber. My biggest surprise was when I went to Rome in 1985 to begin philosophy at the Angelicum and my major seminary at the Pontifical Nepomucene College. We usually attended Papal masses at St Peter’s on the big occasions, like the major feasts of the church year and canonisations of saints (John Paul II was very generous for that!). The Sistine Chapel choir was on its podium near the organ installed in the basilica in the 1950’s under Pius XII. Papal churches were at one time as conservative about organs as the Orthodox Church! Only recently has a small two-manual instrument been installed in the Sistine Chapel. The greatest surprise is the choir! English ears just can’t get used to the sliding notes, the vibrato and the cloying slowness. Milan is just the same as Rome – it’s the Italian tradition!

Perosi’s church music is very telling, almost similar to some of our Victorian composers like Stainer and Goss, lacking the finesse and subtlety of S.S. Wesley or Stanford a little later in the century. Why this divergence of style in one man! The answer is Pope Pius X and his interest in reforming Roman Catholic church music. He found that Gregorian chant had all but disappeared and replaced by “operatic” compositions. Reform of church music is a part of Pius X’s liturgical movement.

Perosi had spent some time in Germany, and some of the scores one finds rummaging in the choir lofts of churches in Germany and Switzerland can be quite a revelation. To what extent there was any influence from Anglican hymns, it is difficult to tell. Together with a number of German musicians, Perosi and a few other Italians put together a Cecilian Movement to react against excesses of Mozart, Haydn and Verdi.

The Council of Trent came within an inch of getting rid of all music other than Gregorian chant! Pope Marcel II and Palestrina saved the day. Pius X and Perosi were much more moderate and sought to promote both Gregorian chant and a more sober choral style at Mass, Vespers and Benediction. Giovanni Tebaldini, Perosi’s predecessor in Venice, was the main motor force behind the beginnings of this movement.

We are given to believe that even choral polyphony disappeared during the nineteenth century. If this was the case, it is difficult to imagine churches in Europe with only operatic style music, mainly sung by soloists with reduced orchestral accompaniment. I also find this hard to believe, given the character of some of Mozart’s work, the Ave Verum being the best known “sober” choral setting. Bruckner in Austria was writing absolutely sublime motets, both a capella and with organ or orchestral accompaniment. Popes tend to generalise and mix everything together, as Pius X also did in regard to Modernism! Everything got tarred with the same brush – more Italian sloppiness!

It was certainly a wonderful thing to bring Gregorian chant and polyphony back into the repertoire of cathedral choirs. But, who would advocate the abolition of masses by Mozart and Haydn? Happily, the ban was never absolute.

Church music comes and goes. Anglican church music is mostly a nineteenth-century movement even though there are many fine anthems and service settings from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Surpliced choirs in Anglican parish churches only really came in from the time of S.S. Wesley, about the same time as the Oxford Movement, Pugin and the Ecclesiological Society.

Italian and German choirs are generally surpliced, and formed of boys and men like in England. Unfortunately, I have not seen them occupy the choir stalls in France, Italy or Germany. That seems to be an English peculiarity, which is wonderful for the quality of the music and response of the choir to the Master of Music directing it.

We don’t have resources in the ACC to do anything musical. It is difficult enough to find organists, let alone get an amateur choir of some competence together. Even a quartet is not easy, since you need singers with musical training and sight-reading ability to get together a repertoire in a reasonable amount of time. Even Church of England parishes are finding it harder to keep the choirs going.

In the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict XVI tried to promote good music as much as he could, and perhaps some of those initiatives survive. There is an Istituto di Musica Sacra in Rome, but I don’t know how much real influence it has. I was tempted to study there myself, but I didn’t have the money or sponsorship.

Nevertheless, we have to keep the light burning, composing new music and doing quartet and chamber choir work to a high standard. We are condemned to singing outside churches, and that is a real shame. Perhaps we could sing in my chapel, but we would be the only ones there! Keep calm and carry on – so the wartime slogan goes.

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6 Responses to Cecilian Movement

  1. Stephen K says:

    The subject of sacred music is of great interest to me. I find that certain harmonies appeal more to me than others, of course. My earliest exposure to religious music was to Faber hymns, a repertoire expanded by the publication of some lovely hymns by an Australian composer, Richard Connolly, in a book called “The Living Parish”. Of course, at some point I discovered Gregorian chant, courtesy of Latin Mass revivals and records from Solesmes and St John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota who produced a sublime album called Polyphonic Motets and Gregorian Chants , one I have still with me today. On that record, I discovered the beautiful and haunting Gloria modo Ambrosiano. Organum also resonated with me. I love modal music. I prefer Desprez’ Ave Verum to Mozart’s. Of course, I like Anglican ‘cathedral’ music too and Tallis, Shephard, Fayrfax and Byrd motets as well as those by Monteverdi and Victoria – just to name the first that come to mind! I also love the Russian liturgical singing I have heard. But all that said, I must say that personally, when plainchant is sung well, it seems most able to leave one in a spiritual place.

    Speaking of the Cecilian Movement, I came across a reference to a work called The Music of the Gilded Age by a John Ogasapian who writes, on page 85, that St John’s Abbey restored the exclusive singing of plainchant and polyphony in the 1870s but that “all but a few Catholic churches ignored or rejected the Caecilian reforms”. I think the book would be worth reading.

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you both for all this detail!

    On 7 February there was an interesting post on chantblog noting that J.M. Neale’s Hymnal Noted (1851) was online thanks to google books: it was published ” under the sanction” of the Ecclesiological Society and is a book of hymns from the Salisbury hymnal. It would be good to know more about it, as it is fascinating to think people in the Church of England were singing Gregorian chants with English words as early as 1851. So, when the congregation joined in such parts of Charles Wood’s St. Mark Passion at its first use, there was a tradition of some seventy years behind that, at least in some places.

    By the way, the Polish Wikipedia article on Perosi has a link to an English translation of an interesting interview with his successor, Domenico Cardinal Bartolucci!

    • It seems to be the same interview as I Had a Dream: The Music of Palestrina and Gregory the Great Had Come Back by Sandro Magister.

      Bartolucci is critical of Perosi, and this is partly justified. Perosi wrote oratorios in a way comparable to Puccini writing operas, but his church music is almost entirely homophonic in quite unimaginative harmony. Puccini complemented Perosi on his complete dedication to music. Perosi did write some fine counterpoint in his oratorios, but very little in his church music. Was he frightened that the music would be too difficult, or that the words wouldn’t be clearly heard by the congregation? If the latter, it reminds me of the rule introduced in sixteenth century Anglicanism – the words must be understood, so no counterpoint!

      Church music should have the same greatness as music performed at concerts in churches or concert halls. This is a tendency I have seen in Roman Catholic church music, with its consequence in the gulf that separates sappy hymns and songs in the liturgy from concert music. Thank goodness there are concerts, because otherwise much of the classical polyphony composed for the liturgy would never be heard! This is a weakness that seemed to start with Perosi. I find his liturgical music disappointing against his magnificent concert repertoire that won the praise of Puccini and others.

      Another interesting character was Edward Elgar who was a Roman Catholic and organist of his parish church in Worcester. There was also a great divergence between his secular and symphonic music, music written for Anglican music festivals (Three Choirs for example) and what he wrote for his Roman Catholic choir. On the other hand, these pieces like the Ave Verum, Ecce Sacerdos and many others are intimate and full of tenderness and imagination.

      The idea of restoring Gregorian chant was a noble one, but really singing Gregorian chant is quite difficult. The reality in many parishes would be the repetition of the same hackneyed Missa de Angelis Sunday after Sunday, something like Merbecke among us Anglicans. Singing a piece of Gregorian chant, such as a melismatic verse from a gradual or a reponsory, requires no less work than one’s voice in a piece of Renaissance polyphony. One problem with Gregorian chant is the way it was “restored” by the monks of Solesmes with a paltry level of scholarship, rather like what Bugnini did to the liturgy in a rush for quick results. Dom Gajard / Denise Lebon Gregorian chant is sickly, insipid and lacks punch. That was my main contention with my seminary rector: he wanted the old Solesmes style, and I wanted a more lyrical style. Eventually, I was sent out for pastoral work in Marseille and replaced by – – – Mlle Denise Lebon with her 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3 and pedantic methods for teaching the notes of the scale, the intervals and the neumes. De gustibus…, but there are limits! In the end of the day, I had never ceased to be an Anglican!

      Perosi reduced the lowest common denominator, though some of his Masses still remain demanding for the choir and the listener. A lesson can be drawn from Anglicanism, having the parishes doing their best to imitate the cathedrals rather than remain bereft of music and art. Obviously, things have to be in their just proportion according to the numbers of people with music ability and other resources. Music can be simple, yet noble and upwards-looking. The other pitfall is assuming that everything has to be sung by the congregation, therefore by people without musical training or rehearsal. The implication of that idea is obvious. The answer is obviously the use of a group of skilled musicians and putting on one or two “old favourites” known by all for congregational use. That is the role of Anglican hymns, which are also sung in cathedrals.

      Bartolucci complains that he is the last of the tradition of choir masters in the Pontifical Household. That is so sad, and makes me wonder how long the institution will last in our English cathedrals, colleges, Royal Peculiars and major parish churches. I would like to see the position of organist and choirmaster occupied by more priests, but who have received a full musical training from chorister to university-level (at the same high standard as any lay musician), so that there can be a greater degree of solidarity between the clergy and the musical institution of the church in question. Church music is shot to hell in 99% of the Roman Catholic Church, and I don’t see who will bring it back for as long as the clergy remains dominated by philistines.

      The ACC is too small and marginal to do very much, but a choir does come to sing the Synod Mass each year at Westminster Central Hall. Last year, they did a fine job, and it is encouraging to know that our liturgical standards attract musicians who are all too often alienated by the Establishment. A quartet of soloists is a good solution for smaller churches, and is far more satisfying than larger choirs of people unable to sight-read. I’m sure that two women and two men could get together, build up a repertoire and go singing in ACC chapels up and down the country. That would already be a great start. Unfortunately, I’m not in England, but I can give some ideas from my experience in quartet singing.

      • Stephen K says:

        Your comments about Solesmes chant are interesting. Of course it is more or less copied in many places. It has its place and imitating it is as good and as straightforward a start as can be imagined, However, that said, anyone with any feelings will naturally want to “lyricise” one’s rendition. The quality of voice and the acoustics play their part too. Not everyone has that distinct reedy timbre and French accent so distinctive of Dom Gajard. Through the miracle of records, I got to hear other styles, e.g. that of Maria Einsedeln, in Switzerland, and the singing of Ampleforth, in both Latin and English. But for my money, no-one beats St John’s Abbey, Collegeville. If you get a chance to hear the recording (made about 1962 or 1963, I believe), it will be very rewarding. It’s chant made for a cavernous abbey church, I think.

        By the way, one can’t talk about Solesmes and its role in the restoration of chant without mention of Justine Ward and her Ward method, and an interesting article can be read her at http://www.wardcentrumnederland.eu/justineward.pdf

      • As I tend to see the “big picture”, what really amazes me is the amount of work done in the 19th and 20th centuries, not only in music but also the restoration of liturgy and culture in general – and how it has all been laid waste over the past fifty years or so.

        It all seems to be a matter of how the Church ministers to what Berdyaev calls the aristocracy of the spirit. Just a couple of links to stimulate our thought:



        Without this notion, nothing is comprehensible. The ancients called it gnosis. We don’t have the right to despise the “masses”, or “the people”, but we need to individuate as persons and soar high with grace and our God-given talents. It is a paradox that will always dog us, but one we have to live with.

  3. Dale says:

    Fr Anthony, thank you for this article.

    I also have found Italian choirs not to be to my liking; they seem, well, too operatic and voices too thin. I do realise that this is more a cultural issue than anything else.

    Having myself learnt, badly, to chant Gregorian in school chapel from Helmore’s Psalter, I came to love his rather ponderous chant method and have always found the French school, well, different. It is perhaps too polished?

    I also enjoyed your recent reference to Ralph Vaughn Williams as well; what would our tradition be without the 1904 edition of the “English Hymnal”? It is truly lovely.

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