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LISTEN: Sacred music from the Renaissance that still leaves Catholics today spellbound

Peter Kwasniewski Peter Kwasniewski Follow Dr. Peter

February 14, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – Can any serious Catholic choirmaster or composer not find inspiration in the Renaissance polyphonists? Composers such as Josquin, Palestrina, Lassus, Victoria, Tallis, and Byrd, sculptors of sound, possessed an unparalleled gift for handling liturgical texts with serene lyricism and plangent harmony. 

Here is Josquin des Pres, setting to music the poignant prayer:

Thou alone canst do wonders, Thou alone art the Creator, and created us; Thou alone art the Redeemer, and redeemed us with Thy most precious Blood. In Thou alone find we refuge, in Thou alone we trust, none other do we worship, Jesus Christ. … Hear our sighing, fill us with Thy grace, O King of kings! Thus may we remain in Thy service with joy forever.

Here is the chaplain Tomas Luis de Victoria, driving home to us the words: “O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see if there be any sorrow like my sorrow. Pay attention, all people, and look at my sorrow: if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.”

Or the Elizabethan recusant William Byrd, finding music to match the hushed awe, tender pleading, and humble supplication of this great medieval prayer, “Ave verum corpus”:

Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary! Having truly suffered, immolated on the cross for mankind, from whose pierced side flowed water and blood: Be for us a foretaste [of the heavenly banquet] in the trial of death! O sweet Jesus, O holy Jesus, O Jesus, son of Mary, have mercy on me. Amen.

There are thousands upon thousands of such gems. Not ten lifetimes would suffice to sing or hear them all, to be moved by them, to pray and to glorify God in and through them. No period afterwards quite equals the sacred fervor and spiritual purity of the music of this period. The Baroque indeed yields many masterpieces of religious music, but it is not coincidental that the main forms of Baroque vocal music—opera, oratorio, and cantata—are not Catholic liturgical music. The Baroque is aiming for drama, and the liturgy, though it has points of comparison with a drama, is nevertheless something inherently different: a contemplative ritual.

Monsignor Richard Schuler pointed out many times that sacred music was strong when the Church was strong, and weak when she was weak. After the Renaissance—more specifically, after the Protestant revolt—the Church lost hold of a part of the nations that had once belonged to her. The parts that broke away turned more and more secular over the centuries. Starting with the Baroque (or late Renaissance, depending how you look at it), secular forms ascended to occupy the place of honor that sacred forms had once held.

This led, in time, to composers writing “sacred” music that sounded very much like all the secular music being written and enjoyed in their secular societies. Even the mightly Viennese Masses of Haydn, Mozart, or Beethoven aren’t written in a genuinely sacred style, but are more operatic, theatrical, audience-oriented. St. Pius X considered these works, despite their artistry, not truly fitting for the sacred liturgy. Oddly enough, however, in our own day—“the most sinful age since the time of Noah,” as Pius XII put it—we find a resurgence of chant and polyphony and a driving desire for the truly sacred. Perhaps this is a new illustration of St. Paul’s ancient principle: “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.”

Monsignor Schuler’s observation can be generalized thus: Catholic culture is strong when the teaching and practice of the Faith are strong, and weak when they are weak. Since the fine arts are one of the most important elements of a culture, they will serve as a barometer of the ideals, or lack of ideals, by which a group of people live. This means that we can accurately gauge the spiritual health of the Church on earth by looking at the physical churches Catholics build, listening to the music Catholics sing, watching how Catholics celebrate their liturgy. 

This may seem a frightening prospect, and in many ways it is, if we look only to the mainstream. Yet we can be certain that since the Church on earth cannot perish, our Lord will always find ways to bring about genuine renewal—in spite of even the worst decisions of His own representatives. A new springtime will not come from a derailed aggiornamento, but it may very well come from the dedicated efforts of a new generation of Catholics who, having rediscovered their own tradition, will never let it be taken away from them again.

Just as those who are passionate about sacred music find great inspiration and endless resources in the Renaissance, so Catholics today are witnessing a rebirth of tradition and finding hope for a renewal of Catholic culture.

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Peter Kwasniewski

Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. After teaching at the International Theological Institute in Austria and for the Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Austrian Program, he joined the founding team of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, where he taught theology, philosophy, music, and art history, and directed the choir and schola. He is now a full-time author, speaker, editor, publisher, and composer.

Dr. Kwasniewski has published seven books, including Sacred Choral Works (Corpus Christi Watershed, 2014); Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (Angelico, 2014); Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness (Angelico, 2017); A Reader in Catholic Social Teaching (Cluny, 2017); and Tradition and Sanity (Angelico, 2018). Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis has been published in Czech, Polish, German, and Portuguese, and will soon appear in Spanish and Belarusian.

Kwasniewski is a scholar of The Aquinas Institute in Green Bay, which is publishing the Opera Omnia of the Angelic Doctor, a Fellow of the Albertus Magnus Center for Scholastic Studies, and a Senior Fellow of the St. Paul Center. He has published over 750 articles on Thomistic thought, sacramental and liturgical theology, the history and aesthetics of music, and the social doctrine of the Church. 

For news, information, article links, sacred music, and the home of Os Justi Press, please visit his personal website, www.peterkwasniewski.com.