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Celebrating Liturgica Music

Reforms of the Council of Trent

Medieval Liturgy

Although Charlemagne's reforms were successful in creating a common liturgical practice throughout most of Europe, there was never an attempt to create lock-step uniformity, or to limit the natural evolution of liturgical elements of secondary importance. Since liturgical texts were disseminated through hand-copied books, there was always the opportunity to include local adaptations and innovations each time a new manuscript was produced. Each diocese had its own liturgical calendar of feasts and often its own characteristic way of performing certain ritual details.

In the centuries between the time of Charlemagne and the period in question, liturgical change occurred in many areas as a result of spontaneous evolution, such as the addition of the sequence to the Mass. The sequence, an extended non-biblical song inserted after the Alleluia took a variety of textual and musical forms. The popularity of the sequence is attested by the many collections circulating in the middle ages, and the fact that in some areas a proper sequence was sung on every Sunday and major feast.

A similar type of liturgical evolution was the addition of phrases of music or text, or both, to the existing chants; these additions are collectively referred to as "tropes." Tropes were found in almost every type of Mass chant and some office chants. Often tropes acted as introductions to the existing chant, but many were a series of additions inserted between each phrase of the original text. Like the sequence, tropes were most frequently used on Sundays and important feasts. Both tend to be local; a given sequence or trope was often used in a particular geographical area rather than the entire sphere of Roman Liturgy.

A musical innovation of the middle ages was development of polyphonic choral singing. At first a traditional chant was elaborated by the addition of a second improvised or newly composed vocal line sung at the same time. A third line might also be added, creating a new, complex musical texture clothing the original chant. Later liturgical texts were set to entirely new polyphonic compositions, sometimes quite elaborate so that the texts were no longer intelligible to the listeners.

Other changes are seen in the official revisions of the liturgy, such as the important Tenth Century Romano-Germanic Pontifical and the Pontifical of William Durandus. These books regulating liturgical celebrations in which a bishop presides were important witnesses of medieval liturgy. In general, the changes recorded in these books show a careful assimilation and regulation of change in liturgical detail that shows a growth consistent with the traditional shape of ancient liturgy. One unusual trait of Western liturgy became codified and widely spread during this time — the splitting off of the baptismal anointing with Chrism (a fragrant blessed oil) into a separate sacramental rite known as Confirmation. This had been the practice in Gaul as early as the fifth century, but during the course of the Middle Ages it had spread to standard use in the West.

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The Council of Trent

Pope Gregory VII had initiated a series of general reforms in ecclesial life at the end of the eleventh century to address problems in the organization of the Church hierarchy. Similar issues such as poorly educated clergy and bishops not living within their diocese still needed to be addressed. The most immediate need for a council was the challenge of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers questioned the sacrificial nature of the Mass and nature of the Real Presence of the Eucharist. They also dismissed many liturgical practices as superstitious and called for worship in vernacular languages rather than Latin.

The Council of Trent was convened by Pope Paul III in 1545 and continued until 1563 under the leadership of four different popes during a time characterized by political turmoil. It established the system of seminaries to improve the quality of clergy formation and decreed that each bishop had to reside in his own diocese. In response to the Protestant Reformers, this council affirmed the Catholic Church's traditional beliefs in the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and in the doctrine of the Real Presence. It also called for the continued used of Latin in liturgy, although there was no specific condemnation of the use of vernacular. In fact, the council fathers decreed that vernacular explanations of some of the liturgical texts had to be given in the context of liturgy on every Sunday and holy day.[1]

In the matter of music, polyphonic music was permitted in addition to the use of traditional chant as long as the texts of polyphonic pieces were not unduly obscured. Tropes were banned entirely and the sequence was suppressed except for a handful of favorites.

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The Missal of Pius V

The liturgical ideas set forth in the Council of Trent were embodied in the Missal of Pius V published in 1580. Although extensive research in the history of liturgy was not done at that time, the compilers of this missal chose prayers they could identify as part of the older tradition and tended to exclude prayers they knew were of medieval origin. The structure of the Mass remained the same general shape as it was at the time of Charlemagne, although medieval accretions at the beginning and end of Mass were now codified as part of the liturgy. What were formerly dispositional sacristy prayers of the clergy became the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar at the beginning of Mass. In medieval times the reading of the first part of the Gospel of John was thought to bring blessings on the hearers, so this practice was retained as the "Last Gospel" at the end of Mass.

The most important effect of the Council of Trent and the new Missal of Pius V was the intense regulation of every liturgical detail. Unlike the hand-copied books of earlier centuries, the printing press assured that all copies of the new liturgical books were exactly the same in every church. The Pope decreed that all its rites and texts were to be used exactly as prescribed without change or addition, and that the liturgy set forth in this missal was definitive for all time. This strict uniformity was to guard against any of the ideas of the Protestant Reformation infecting Catholic worship. In spite of this desire for extreme uniformity, the fathers of the Council permitted the continuation of the Milanese and Mozarabic Rites, although the use of the latter had shrunk to only a few parishes in Toledo by the end of the eleventh century. Religious orders who had developed variants of the Roman rite in use for over 200 years were allowed to keep their distinctive features.

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Different Forms of Celebration

The types of celebration of Eucharist as encoded in the Missal of Pius the V were divided into three forms depending on the degree of solemnity: the solemn, high and low Masses. The solemn Mass form followed the traditional shape of liturgy where the presiding bishop or priest was assisted by one or more deacons, subdeacons, lectors, acolytes and singers. The ordained ministry of the deacon, one of the central ministries of the ancient church, fell into disuse during the middle ages in the West. The diaconate became a temporary stage in the formation of clergy, no longer a permanent ministry. The same was true of the minor orders. Thus, except in seminaries, in the celebration of a solemn Mass, the liturgical roles of deacon, subdeacon and lector were performed by ordained presbyters in the vesture of these lower orders.

Except in seminaries, monasteries, and large cathedrals, sufficient clergy were not often available for the performance of the solemn liturgy, thus the high Mass form was used. In this case a single priest performed the liturgical roles of deacon and lector assisted by only a few "servers," lay men or boys performing the roles of acolytes. In a high Mass, a choir performed all the chants, although the priest was required to recite all the texts the choir performed. In a low Mass there was no choir; the texts of the chants were recited by the priest alone. Most people experienced liturgy only in these two simpler forms, with the solemn Mass as a rare occurrence. Thus, the appearance of the liturgy took an unusual form: instead of a Christian community gathering and together celebrating Eucharist, the Mass appeared more and more like a ritual performed by a single priest on behalf of the congregation who became merely spectators of the action. This collapsing of diverse liturgical roles into a single person also helped guard against unwarranted changes that the council fathers feared — it was easier to regulate the behavior of a single priest than a group of liturgical ministers with differing levels of education.

During this period the Rococo style of art and polyphonic music changed the experience of worship. This new style of art with its vibrant color and dramatic depiction of biblical scenes filled the interior of the church with an impressive visual display. Polyphonic choral singing and the use of musical instruments led to the creation of large musical productions in the context of liturgy. The worshipper who could no longer understand the Latin text or participate in any way other than watching and listening was now presented with a dramatic ritual of great artistic splendor.

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Selected Bibliography

Adam, Adolf. Foundations of Liturgy: An Introduction to Its History and Practice. Translated by Matthew J. O'Connell. Collegeville, MN, 1992.

Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Vol. II. Ed. Norman Tanner. Washington, DC, 1990.

Duval, André. Des Sacraments au Concile de Trent. Paris, 1985.

The New Saint Andrew Bible Missal. Ed. The Missal Commission of Saint Andrew’s Abbey. New York, 1966 [An English translation of texts for the Tridentine liturgy with commentary]

Wegman, Herman. Christian Worship in East and West. Translated by Gordon W. New York, 1985.


Joseph Metzinger

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[1] Compare: Session 22 Chapter 8 and Canon 9, Session 24 Canon 7. Translations found in: Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, Vol. II. Ed. Norman Tanner.