Church Music Is Just the Worst (Circa 1840)

I would like to start a series of short blogposts, “Church Music Is Just the Worst (Circa)” focusing on primary sources and first-hand accounts of people in the western church throughout the ages who Can’t Even with their church music. They’ve had it up to here. Or they think the quality is bad, or they don’t like the songs, or they think musicians are just fops, or whatever.

My goal, to be clear, is not (a) to suggest that we really don’t have it so bad (we do, in fact, have it bad), that the grass is always greener (sometimes one’s grass is, in fact, brown), that there are mal-contents in every era (yes, I should know, I am one), nor is it (b) to belittle or make fun of how silly people back then were. Quite the opposite: we can learn a lot from understanding what makes our problems unique and what’s not unique at all. Hearing what other eras felt was the big issue with church music clarifies our own situation like little else can.

And I’ve also found it can make me quite uncomfortable to discover what other people considered a big deal that I do not consider a big deal. Perhaps, I think to myself, I’ve been missing something. Such are the salutory benefits of this exercise.

I plan to jump all around time (we’ll hit Alcuin and Charlemagne, don’t worry, and obviously the famous examples, like John of Salisbury and Erasmus), but I thought I would start with this quotation from an underrated mind, François-Joseph Fétis, the music theorist and historian writing in the middle of the 19th century.

Fétis, like any self-respecting declensionist historian, thinks it all went off the rails at some pivotal moment, and for him it was Claudio Monteverdi. Monteverdi introduced unprepared dissonance for dramatic effect, thus violating the fundamental tenents of harmony and subordinating it forever into the thrall of dramaturgy. While Fétis thinks this was, in a way, inevitable, his devout Catholicism and grumpy conservativism cannot help but note the downsides.

But everything in an art that is being transformed is not won. The boldness of the genius who discovered the new harmony and all its consequences was unable to accommodate the rigorous rules of the art of writing to which the composers of the old schools were indebted for the admirable purity of style which renders their works imperishable, and which made them models of disheartening perfection. Inaccuracies of every kind began to be profuse in the works of the musicians of Venice and Naples. Rome alone resisted and preserved some excellent traditions that more than two centuries have been unable to destroy completely. Proud of its success, the new school did not delay invading the church. The dramatic style was introduced into religious music and took the place of the staid, solemn, and pious tone of Palestrina’s works. Then the absurdity of this secular expression began to be applied to holy things: the “Gloria,” “Credo,” “Sequences,” and “Psalms” became dramas instead of prayers and professions of faith. The symbols of the suffering of the Savior were transformed into a representation of carnal agony, and one went to church to experience emotions rather than to go there to pray with meditation. 

This is not all. Choirs of instruments had become necessary since choirs of voices had ceased to constitute every type of music. Thus, instruments assumed the same importance in the church as in the theater and became indispensable especially for the accompaniment of motets for solo voice or two voices that were published in tremendous quantity in the first half of the seventeenth century. The concerto style succeeded the simple (osservato) style of older sacred music. From that time the genres were merged and, as Abbot Baini said, church music was destroyed. Since then some beautiful works have been written for church music in the system of expression: the Psalms [1724] of [Benedetto] Marcello, the Miserere of Jomelli, some of the compositions of Alessandro Scarlatti, [Leonardo] Leo, [Giovanni] Pergolesi, and, in more recent times, the masses of [Luigi] Cherubini offered some models of perfection in this genre. But the genre itself is an abasement of the primary object of art in worship. The degradation was so heartfelt that even Rossini, this leading propagator of brilliant art, frequently told me that the only profound and lasting impression of a sacred nature in church music that he had experienced was made by the works of Palestrina, which he had heard twenty-five years before in Rome. For worldly people, and even for musicians who only hear a mediocre performance of this music in Paris concerts, undoubtedly there is more than some exaggeration in the words of the composer of Guillaume Tell. But for anyone who has made a serious study of immortal works, objects of his admiration, there is a conviction that true church music ceased to exist with the appearance of theater music, and that one lost on the one side what was being gained on the other side. Thus, it was not for lack of motive that Artusi attacked Monteverdi and the other innovators in his book against the imperfections of modern music. Only he did not understand that instead of the older art, which they had ruined, they had fashioned a new art whose existence was immense.

François-Joseph Fétis, Esquisse de l’histoire de l’harmonie : An English-Language Translation of the François-Joseph Fétis History of Harmony, tr. Mary I. Arlin, Harmonologia Series ; No. 7 (Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1994).

Fétis is easy to undercomplicate. He is not unequivocally down on modern music. He does think that, when the concerto style was merged with the Palestrina-style sacred counterpoint, “church music was destroyed.” And yet he lists composers, who use the dramatic, instrumental, concerto style, whose music he seems to think is not too bad. (And what he fails to mention is that he himself has composed some music in this style.) But, he insists, “the genre itself is an abasement of the primary object of art in worship.”

Why would he compose music like this if he felt that it was an abasement? Well, he has no choice: “true church music ceased to exist with the appearance of theater music, and that one lost on the one side what was being gained on the other side.” If I were to put it in more modern terms, I would say that Fétis has noticed some conditions of possibility which no longer exist for the composition of excellent church music. And with this opinion I think I find myself in complete agreement. Of course I don’t mind instruments and the occasional chromaticism in church music, but I also think that Fétis recognized something far too often not recognized–that “sacred music” is not a subset of “classical music,” nor are they closely allied, but actually the latter (understood and defined properly) is directly responsible for the atrophy of the former. Before rehabilitating the former, the latter needs to be reckoned with.

For music recommendation, I submit Jordi Savall recording the music of Johann Rosenmuller, which is so lovely on a cloudy morning.


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