And I mean music. The actual music. The little dots written on the little lines can be sacred. Not the words, not the text, but the actual music being sung in itself can have a sacred quality. And there's a test for it too. Take something, play it with the instruments appropriate for it, sing the tune without the words. Does it seem like anything other than church music? Does it sound like a commercial jingle? Does it sound like a rock ballad? Does it sound like a pop song?* Does it sound like something from a Broadway musical? Then it's probably not sacred music.Compare it with something like this. Even if the music was just being sung on a single vowel, it does'nt sound like something you'd hear at a club, or something you'd rock out to on the radio. That's the basic distinction made by Pius X in Tra Le Sollecitudini when he said:
"It must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it."
"Still, since modern music has risen mainly to serve profane uses, greater care must be taken with regard to it, in order that the musical compositions of modern style which are admitted in the Church may contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theaters, and be not fashioned even in their external forms after the manner of profane pieces."
There is of course, music already written with these principles. It's the music that any and all modern compositions should be based on. Gregorian chant. The popes of liturgical reform, from Pius X even to Benedict XVI, gloriously reigning, have taught and reiterated that Gregorian chant is the music of the Roman rite. It's the music of the Roman rite in the same sense that rails are the means of going for a train. They were made for each other, and so inextricably bound up that to remove it and replace it with something else derails the whole operation. And just as rails guide a train, Gregorian chant is supposed to guide composers in sacred music.
I'll give you some examples here. Ave Maris stella, Marcel Dupre, Veni Creator, Durufle.
You can see, just from these organ works the principle at work. You can hear the tune for the gregorian hymn 'Ave Maris Stella' in Dupre's work. You can hear the music for the Gregorian hymn 'Veni Creator Spiritus' in Durufle's work. And what you see here in this organ music is also, as it should be, in choral music. Hans Leo Hassler's Ave Maris stella.Woven into the polyphony is the gregorian chant, just as Vatican II and Pius X said it should be. The same goes for mass settings. Palestrina set his missa "Nigra Sum" to the chant of the same name, which comes from the divine office. Even till fairly recently, composers like Durufle and Messien were writing their masses on the sacred chants of the church.
But then something happenned. People decided that 'Sacred' did'nt really mean anything in particular. Anything could be sacred. Any music, any song, if you say it's sacred, that it is.Hence it is that much of the 'sacred' music being used in parishes is admittedly, not set apart, not holy, not kept from anything profane. Instead, they try to be what is profane, in the sense that, whatever is commonly used outside of the church in music must become the church's music.
They often appeal to the example of the great masters, who wrote masses and motets based on secular art songs. But their work was different from that of modern composers. They wrote sacred music based on secular tunes.They did not take sacred texts and set them to secular tunes, or purpousely write masses to sound like secular music rather than sacred music.Theire writing was like a tapestry.From the secular tune, they wove a complex musical composition different from the tune, yet containing the tune interwoven in the harmonies. Similar to Hassler's setting of the Ave Maris Stella. The tune is in the music, but it does not encompass the music. The music of the modern writers is more like a screenprinting. They take the secular genres, and paste the texts of the sacred music onto them. This is divorced both from the musical tradition of the church and the liturgical tradition.
The Second Vatican Council called and pleaded for a return to the use of Gregorian Chant, sacred polyphony (The music written based on Gregorian chant) and the composition of new works with Gregorian chant as it;s reference and base.Somehow, we have (as in so many things) see the complete opposite happen.
*I'm a terrible person.With few exceptions, I share my brother's dislike of pop music.Actually, he hates it, and sounding like pop music is the worse insult you can say to him.