Liturgical Music After Vatican II

Director of Sistine Chapel Choir Views the State of Affairs

ASSISI, Italy, AUG. 30, 2002 (ZENIT.orgAvvenire).- Post-Vatican II reform opened great possibilities for composers “so long as they enter into the spirit of the rite,” says the director of the Sistine Chapel Choir.

For the past 10 years Monsignor Giuseppe Liberto has been the official composer of the national Liturgical Week, which was just held in Assisi. Here, he evaluates the liturgical evolution since the Second Vatican Council.

Q: Next year the liturgical reform will be 40 years old. How do you evaluate it, from the musical point of view?

Monsignor Liberto: Not everything has been valid, and not everything should be despised. Perhaps we should follow the advice of the parable of the wheat and the darnel. Let them grow together, because the time of the harvest has not yet come. But in the meantime, let’s discern.

Q: What are the distinctions to be made?

Monsignor Liberto: Above all, there is confusion between liturgical music and sacred music. This is already a first distinction. The term sacred music is quite ambiguous, whereas the object of liturgical music is the celebration.

And the one who composes for the celebration must be conscious of the fact that in the liturgy we celebrate Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Instead, many times it is thought that the music during the rite must only celebrate itself, in a sort of narcissistic self-complacency which serves itself only instrumentally of the celebration. In this way, the liturgy is turned into pure performance and sterile ritualism — precisely what the council eliminated forever.

Q: It should certainly not be a performance, but your musical colleagues lament the fact that, in favoring the participation of the assembly, the liturgical reform has reduced their own bounds.

Monsignor Liberto: There must be understanding of this issue, also. The assembly is all the people of God, who gather to celebrate Christ.

Now, this assembly is articulated in its different forms of ministry. Therefore, the president of the assembly sings as president of it, the deacon as deacon, the psalmist as psalmist, and so, [also] the choir. The response comes from the people of God, who acclaim, etc.

Not all should sing everything, but each one according to his ministry. And one must write differently for each one, which is, precisely, the challenge. Often, there are those who approach liturgical music without being clear about these differences.

Q: Is it, then, just a question of formation?

Monsignor Liberto: I think so. There are areas for composers and musicians, and these are very great, on the condition that they enter into the spirit required by the reform, also as regards musical forms. Today, many old musical forms are no longer workable in the liturgy of Vatican Council II. And we must be conscious of this.

Instead, many reason the opposite way: “Since my music does not fit the liturgy, the liturgical reform has failed.” Or, on the contrary, as they are incapable of writing music in more elaborate and complex ways, they reduce everything to a kind of musical minimalism, which often is nothing other than bad taste. Instead, the right way is formation. The musician who wishes to compose for the liturgy must have a specific liturgical education.

Q: To conclude, what is the advice of the director of the Sistine Choir for someone who wishes to be faithful to Vatican II?

Monsignor Liberto: Given that the work is only just beginning and that we are all searching, my advice is to avoid three very dangerous attitudes: idealism — music as the expression of subjectivism; romanticism — music in which everything is the resonance of a sort of unknown God; and functionalism — music reduced to a pure ornament centered on oneself.

However, if sacred music does not become holy music, namely, at the service of the celebration, we will never have true liturgical music.

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