Since faith is one, it must be professed in all its purity and integrity". Pope Francis/Pope Benedict
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Monday, 1 July 2013

The Abbe Martinet on Sacred Music

I am reproducing in its totality the remarkable reflection on liturgical music by the 19th century scholar, the Abbe Antoine Martinet. The Abbe's works reflect the French liturgical movement that reached an apex under the leadership of Pope Pius X:

MANY of our readers will be tempted to smile when they hear us speak of the beauties of the plain chant of our churches. Let us quote, then, a man above suspicion, since, from his own confessions, he is at present very far from the  Christian faith. 

" It is especially in the plain chant," says M. Adolphe Gueraut, "that we must look for the pure musical inspiration of Christianity, an inspiration simple and sublime, which only delights in the bare arches of the old cathedrals, which blends and harmonizes with the grave and slow movement of the priests, the holy obscurity of the place, the colored glass, the sculptured saints, and even the stone which is alone capable of answering to the full and resounding tones of the organ the organ, a truly religious instrument, whose manly voice and majestic charm is far from being replaced by the flexibility and brilliant vivacity of our orchestras."* 

The same writer answers, in a manner as novel as solid, to the reproach often cast upon the ecclesiastical chant, of having, by adapting itself to prose, deprived the music of that rhythmical and measured movement, which constitutes its charm and to which the ancients attached so much importance. According to him, rhythm, giving to music a movement, a form, a sensible and definite attraction, characterizes essentially the music of action : it is through this that it has the power to strike, to seize, to move. But for the very reason that it is dramatic, it tends to settle, limit, and repress activity of thought, it subjects the soul to the senses by exciting the latter too much, and thus counteracts the aim of religion, which addresses itself to the senses only, that it may, through them, attract the soul. Let this intelligent author speak for himself. 
" It is remarkable that, in the ancient chants of the church, rhythm is almost entirely wanting, or at least it is so vague, indistinct and confused, that the ear can scarcely recognize it. Hence it is, doubtless, that these melodies predispose so powerfully to meditation, prayer and ecstasy, nearly all are written in the minor key and in an undecided and undulating intonation, they bring to the soul only plaintive and sad inflections, following each other in a capricious succession like sighs, sobs, or emotions of the heart ; they have something intense without either form or outline, and which far from abandoning the senses to the reiterated attacks of rhythm, which constantly agitate them, pass over the organs, if I may thus express myself, without touching them, absorb them and blunt them, for the advantage of the soul, which disengaged from their power, forgetful of time and place, plunges into endless contemplation. They have something fluent, ethereal, dreamy and transparent as the smoke of incense which ascends towards heaven while diffusing itself around."* 

Let us leave, then, to the music of our theatres, its dramatic beauties, its beautiful orchestral effect. As it only sings of man with his passions and his caprices, it has need of mechanical resources to fascinate the pubic mind and veil the nudity of its hero. Religion sings of God : the boundless richness of the subject forbids the vain affectations of art. To detach the mind and heart from the earth, to transport them to the footstool of the Eternal, and to make us forget ourselves in presence of the Supreme Majesty, which is alone worthy of commanding our thoughts and feelings, is the aim of religious music. Catholic and universal as the Christian doctrines, it belongs to the ignorant as well as the cultivated, to the savage of the desert as well as to the inhabitant of the city. It must then free itself from the elaborate combinations and capricious variations of art, to attach itself to excellences universally and constantly felt. 
What we say of the music applies also to the words. Certainly we should not go to our missals, nor to the hymns of our anthem-books to study the richness and elegance of diction belonging to Virgil and Horace; but under a prosaic and negligent form, what glow of inspiration! what burning waves of poetry! what depth of thought! what lively imagery! and more than all what pathos! [Those who consider this eulogium on the literary wealth of our ancient liturgies as exaggerated, should read, beside the remarks of M. Adolphe Gueraut, cited above, the book entitled: De la Literature des Offices divins. (Paris, 1829.)] 

The expression is, like that of our holy books, so appropriate to the subject, that notwithstanding its inelegance, it could only be replaced by itself. If there is anything to be reformed in the style of our old liturgies, it is the reformation which talent purely human has seen fit to introduce into them. 

Finally, in poetry, as in music and architecture, Christianity has neglected the elegances of detail, and forms too definite, too earthly, which are only adapted to charm the senses and distract the mind. Aspiring uninterruptedly towards heaven, from whence it descended, burning with the desire to uplift entire humanity to the same elevation, it has drawn from the sentiment of its mission, from the nature of the human heart, whose depths it has so well measured, and from the grandeur of God whom it proclaims, those divine traits, those immortal beauties, which, soaring above time and place, belong to all ages and all countries, and like true sublimity, make themselves felt by the lowest intellect, while they enrapture the most exalted souls. 



* De la Musique sacrie et de Ja Musique profane, by M. Adolphe 
Guraut. (Revue EncyclopSdigue, 1832.) 

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