The Collapse-and Rebirth-of
Interview with Richard Morris - Spring 1999
are your thoughts on what passes for sacred music in most Catholic
Morris: There's nothing sacred about
it. The tunes, rhythms, and messages are drawn mainly from secular
culture. When it isn't aesthetically repugnant and downright offensive
to the Faith, it is utterly forgettable.
Ironically, we live in times that are awash in authentic sacred
music. We hear it in concert halls, on our CD players at home,
in our cars, in movies, on television, in shopping centers and
even in Protestant churches.
Never have so many recordings of the great Masses and motets
been in wider circulation. Record stores have whole sections devoted
to the chant. Groups such as the Anonymous Four, the Tallis Scholars
and the Monteverdi Choir perform Catholic music to sold-out audiences
wherever they go.
I just heard a young honors chorus from Georgia, which
consisted of a gaggle of Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian
kids. They gathered
together for a secular concert, under a world-famous conductor,
and what do they do? A Haydn Mass, the Mozart "Salve Regina" and
a Padre Martini motet-an all-Catholic program!
Catholic liturgical music, it would seem, is everywhere but in
the Catholic Church itself. Only the Catholic Church seems blind
to its power. This is one of the greatest travesties of the post-Conciliar
period. We've abandoned the sacred treasury and replaced it with
Tucker: Do you consider it a sacrilege that Catholic treasures are
so freely put to use in the secular world?
Morris: It bothers me when I hear it
in a car commercial or some such. But for the most part, it's better
than seeing sacred music relegated to the scrap heap. The renaissance
of sacred music in the secular world occurred in the last 25 years,
precisely the period in which the Catholic liturgy itself was shredded.
Its secular revival, then, may be God's way of preserving it in
spite of current liturgical trends. I see no reason why the Catholic
Church shouldn't reclaim its rights to this music in the context
of a fully restored Roman rite.
Tucker: The usual line is that Catholics can't
Morris: When the truth is that there
would be no great Western music, and certainly no decent choral
repertoire, without the Catholic faith. For two thousand years,
the Church has guided the development of music, carefully legislating
to fuse artistic talent and aesthetic beauty with the demands of
the Faith. Thus the slogan should be reversed: Catholics taught
the world what music is supposed to sound like, and, more importantly,
what it is supposed to mean.
And then in one fell swoop in the 1960s, it all came crashing
down. Even Catholic parishes today are not wanting for talent.
But no serious singer or organist will get anywhere near the typical
music program, at least if he wants to retain his self-respect.
The pastor of a parish will typically have no education in the
chant or in music, and he will hire the first music director who
walks through the door. The pastor doesn't even ask whether the
person knows anything about Catholic music; and the truth is that
there isn't anything to know anymore.
The democratic and pedestrian character of the new Mass itself
seems to invite the ditties that pass for hymns these days. And
this speaks to the larger problem that no one wants to talk about:
the restoration of the Roman rite is a precondition for a long-term
fix for the problem.
Tucker: What about the claim that the people need to participate in
Morris: For 35 years, Catholics have
had people beating them over their heads, screaming: sing, sing,
sing! And yet congregational hymns in the Protestant sense are
not part of the historical Catholic experience, except at extra-liturgical
services like novenas and at Low Mass. This contradiction is a
major reason why Catholic music is in such disrepair.
Yet anywhere serious Catholic music is used at Mass, the people
come to love it. It's just that they haven't been exposed to it.
At St. Francis de Sales, the faithful sing the Asperges, the Gloria,
the Credo, and the recessional very loudly and with great enthusiasm.
In these parts of the Mass, the schola could drop out completely.
At the same time, I don't see that much active singing in most
Novus Ordo parishes. When these silly songs come on, many people
just stand there befuddled as an invasive band of noisemakers pounds
away. Where's the participation in that?
In fact, I've always suspected that this participation claim
is just subterfuge. Many pastors just fear aspiring to something
other than the most bland mediocrity; they don't want to be called
snobs and they have no sense that the liturgy of the Holy Sacrifice
of the Mass requires special music.
Participation is easily obtained with Latin chant. The "Jubilate
Deo" collection of simple chants sent out by Paul VI in 1974 is
a snap. Anyone can pick these chants up very quickly. There is
no excuse for not preserving the chant or not making it an active
part of the Catholic liturgy everywhere.
Tucker: But it turns out to be much easier in the traditional Mass.
Morris: Infinitely so. You run into
problems if you try to use a complete Mass setting and traditional
polyphony in the Novus Ordo Mass. For example, the General Instruction
on the Roman Missal (GIRM) requires the people to sing the Sanctus,
which it erroneously calls an "acclamation" instead of a hymn.
This effectively precludes the use of a polyphonic setting. So
much for one-fifth of the great liturgical music written over the
last thousand years.
If you bend the rules and use a polyphonic setting of the Sanctus,
you've got people waiting there too long for it to finish. That's
because the priest has to wait for it to finish to begin the Canon
because he is required to say it aloud. Then, if you have people
waiting through the Sanctus and the Benedictus before the Canon
begins, it unbalances the Mass.
Similarly with the Agnus Dei. The GIRM says that it is
to be sung or said by the congregation. The only part of the
that the GIRM "concedes" can be the choir's alone is the Gloria.
So much for another three-fifths of the great liturgical music.
Inaudible prayers, particularly of the Canon, which at first
don't seem to have anything to do with music, end up being a very
important part of the aesthetic of the traditional structure of
the Mass. Getting rid of them created all sorts of unforeseen problems
that have warred against good music.
The same is true of the Mysterium Fidei, which the new Mass ripped
out of the words of consecration to tag it on afterward. Well,
there is no music written for this because such a thing never existed
in the Christian liturgy before. The hacks got busy and composed
a bunch of little jingles to interrupt your prayers as you contemplate
the sacred mystery that has just gone before.
There's nothing stupider than bursting into song for
seven seconds and then falling silent again. But most parishes
are at a complete
loss to know what else to do with these "memorial acclamations." Even
the chant given in the common tones for the Latin Novus Ordo for
this "acclamation" had to be made out of the "Crucem Tuam" antiphon
for Good Friday.
It's the same way with these elaborate Amens at the end
of the Novus Ordo Canon. What's the point? They call it the "Great Amen"-as
opposed to what? The other inconsequential Amens, I suppose. In
the traditional rite, this Amen is short and sweet. That just scratches
the surface of the problems of making the new rite work with traditional
Tucker: And yet the Council document on liturgy calls
the traditional music "a treasure of inestimable value, greater
even than that of any other art."
Morris: Yes, but the Council documents
are so incredibly ambiguous. A minefield, really. For example,
the document you refer to says Gregorian chant is especially suitable
in the Roman liturgy, and it should be given pride of place. But
then it adds: "all other things being equal." What does that mean?
In context, it means so long as everybody can sing it and everybody
approves. Well, that will not happen.
Take a look at the first altar Missal printed in the United States
after the 1963 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. All the rubrics
are in Latin, consistent with the traditional Mass. But the Introit,
for unexplained reasons, is entirely in English, and only in English.
Therefore the Gregorian chant becomes useless. Why? Because there
is no chant music for the Introit in English.
But it gets worse. The intonations are in still in Latin, and
then the remainder of the entire sung ordinary is printed only
in English. The sung ordinary! In the pre-Conciliar Church, everyone
knew the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei and even
the Credo, in their liturgical languages. And yet the 1964 Missal
scraps the Latin altogether in these parts.
So much for the chant. So much for "pride of place." The
reformers didn't have enough pride in the chant to preserve it
even in the
months after those words were approved. It was a step-by-step procedure
that led up to the 1970 Missal that spelled the end of the rite.
The destruction of the music had been accomplished by the time
that Missal was promulgated.
Tucker: Annibale Bugnini says the musicians were the primary resistance
Morris: Just by watching the debate,
they could tell what was happening. All over the world, choirmasters,
professors and performers had been going about their business,
forming choirs and making some progress in spreading the chant
and polyphony. Musical societies were thriving.
Then one day they woke up and it was all over. Their texts had
been abolished. The liturgical framework that made their art possible
was dispensed with and replaced with something completely unfamiliar.
Making matters worse, there was no guarantee the reform was over.
There were hints that it would go on forever. Why would anyone
compose for an endlessly changing liturgy? Why bother?
Music had always been the handmaid of the Roman liturgy. Then
suddenly the Roman liturgy disappeared as we knew it. With the
good musicians out of the way, the hacks took over. Guitar-strumming
Jesuits, who had never focused on the arts, and others, began to
dominate Catholic music. Dan Schutte and Marty Haugen became the
Palestrina and Victoria of our epoch.
Incredible. All you hear Catholics turning out these days are
pop versions of the old Protestant anthems. Catholic publishing
houses grind out this stuff and make zillions of dollars. But there
is nothing worth anything in it. Certainly nothing of lasting value.
You can count on one hand the number of Novus Ordo churches in
this country that feature a fully Catholic music program of any
quality, consistent with the Roman rite tradition. And to some
extent, they all bend the rubrics. They have to.
Tucker: The current fashion seems to be for the "blended" Mass,
in which you have a little old music together with a little new.
Morris: An old friend of mine in Atlanta
was telling me about the music at his parish. He said it was a
wonderful mix of the old and the new, and said, "I think that's
important, don't you?" I told him it was like preparing a glorious
dish for someone and then at the last minute throwing some dead
flies in the mix, to avoid being accused of elitism. It tends to
bring the level of the whole experience down, and rather dramatically.
In cathedrals that attract international visitors, you often
hear tapes of monks singing when Mass isn't going on. But that
turns out to be strictly for show. When Mass begins, out come the
guitars and the maracas and the strange mix of commercial and phony
folk music begins. It's a very strange scene. It reflects a deep
Tucker: There don't seem to be many encouraging signs that this will
Morris: Not so long as the current liturgists
are in charge. It's crucial to understand that the origin of all
of this began even before the Second Vatican Council closed. The
destruction of the treasury of sacred music was part and parcel
of the whole plan. Bugnini certainly had that in mind. The reformers
stripped out distinctive Catholic prayers and liturgical forms,
so it was hardly surprising that distinctive Catholic music was
For example, vernacular hymns at High Mass were traditionally
legislated against by the popes. Pius XII underscored the teaching
of his predecessors in this regard. Chant and polyphony were the
norm. But nowadays hymns are the norm, because people don't have
much else to sing. Even some Tridentine Masses miss the proper
course. They are often hymn-ridden as well.
At St. Francis de Sales in Atlanta, we do not have an organ.
We do not have rehearsals during the week. We do not have a professional
choir. We gather an hour before Mass. And yet: every week, we do
the full propers for the Masses, and a full setting of the sung
ordinary. Every week. We conform exactly to the wishes of St. Pius
X. This is highly unusual these days, but it is not as difficult
as it first appears.
Tucker: So the indult does offer hope?
Morris: As far as I'm concerned, it
offers the only hope. It is absolutely essential that pastors of
these communities encourage good music. Sometimes that means telling
nostalgic lay people who think vernacular hymns belong at High
Mass that they do not. It means working to cultivate the chant
and fund the choir by making good sheet music available to them.
It has to be important to the individual pastor. The Fraternity
of St. Peter fosters this by teaching the chant, and this is essential.
The point is not to return to the way the Mass was sung forty
years ago but to do it reverently and correctly now. A lovely woman
in our parish, who is 86 years old, has said to me that the music
is the most beautiful she has heard in her life. She had never
heard this music in Mass, not even before the Council. But there
was something about it that made her realize: this is our heritage
and this is our faith.
Once the Mass is restored to its rightful place, we will again
see choirs being developed. New compositions will be written because
the composers, like their forebears, will see the setting of the
Mass text to music as a means of possibly expiating their sins
and assuring their music's immortality. Musicians will fight for
the chance to become organists and choirmasters. The faithful will
clamor for it. It will again become part of a living tradition.
Tucker: Do you have a blueprint for starting a Latin Mass choir?
Morris: You can read about it all you
want, but there is no substitute for just doing it. Don't worry
about whether you sound like the monks on the recordings. You won't.
The important point is to get going. You can worry about perfecting
the thing later.
The most accessible sung ordinary is Mass VIII. That is why it
is printed in the Coalition Ecclesia Dei booklet. It is the best
known of the chant Masses, relatively late in composition and has
the feeling of the modern major mode. In time, when it appears
you can't take that setting another Sunday, the choir can prepare
Mass XI. The choir eventually needs to get copies of the Liber
Usualis, which is now available, and add propers over time.
And don't make a big deal about forcing the faithful to join
in. They will when they feel like it, and people will be relieved
not to be threatened with excommunication for not singing.
As for sacred polyphony, there is no reason to be afraid
of it. There is a simple Mass by Antonio Lotti that anyone can
Arista Publishers specializes in keeping polyphonic Masses in print.
Also the Gabrielli "Missa Brevis" is well within the capabilities
of the average parish.
The Palestrina "Aeterna Christi Munera" is a beautiful setting,
as is the "Missa Brevis." These are not overly long and not burdensome.
The Byrd Masses are more difficult still, but an above-average
choir can still throw them together with a few rehearsals.
Incidentally, there is nothing in this literature that
is more difficult than Handel's "For Unto Us a Child is Born," and practically
every community chorus attempts "Messiah" every year.
We are not lacking for recordings, which are a great aid in learning.
Choir members can get them and rehearse at home. There has never
been a time when there were more recordings available of sacred
music. As I say, this is a gift from God that we should use.
Tucker: What has the St. Francis de Sales Latin Mass community meant
to your spirituality?
Morris: Everything in the world. It
is as if everything I had tried to do for thirty years has been
useless by comparison. Instead of trying to cram good music into
the Mass, my only frustration is that I don't have enough time
to fulfill all that the Mass seems to demand. I wonder: why hasn't
this Mass been there all along?
Church musicians need to be aware of the awesome responsibility
they have before God. It is they who must create the aesthetic
structure in which the Mass is experienced by the faithful. The
music at High Mass provides the atmosphere in which we pray the
Mass. It can make the difference between the faithful being profoundly
aware of the presence of Our Lord or being distracted from that
reality. Pray for the musicians that they may desire, and have
the opportunity again, to do the Lord's work.
Some Recordings by Richard Morris:
Richard Morris: Organist
(Gothic Records #49090)
Richard Morris: Organ Masterpieces from France and Germany
records, 5801 Whispering Pines Circle, Mableton, GA 30126)
Fugues, Fantasia, and Variations
(New World Records #80280)
Richard Morris at the Cathedral of Christ the King