Young Voices Singing Sacred Polyphony @ Saint Jude’s

A few weeks ago, Mr. & Mrs. Johnson Lui were married at St. Jude’s Church.  The groom is the choral teacher at St. Thomas More Collegiate, Burnaby, BC, Canada, and the chamber choir sang at the wedding.  They sang very beautifully, but one piece which really stood out was their rendering of Sicut cervus by that giant of Sacred Polyphony, Pierluigi Palestrina (1525-1594).  As beautiful and fitting for the liturgy that this piece is, and as others in the same genre are, sadly they are almost never heard by the vast majority of Catholics at their regular Sunday Mass.  Yet the Church, in her documents dealing with music for the liturgy, tells us that  “The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care.” with polyphony especially mentioned. (Vatican II, Sacrosacrum concillium ##114, 117)

Pope John Paul II had this to say about polyphony back in 2001: “Although the Church recognizes the pre-eminent place of Gregorian chant, she has welcomed other musical forms, especially polyphony. In any case, these various musical forms should accord “with the spirit of the liturgical action”.  From this standpoint, the work of Pierluigi da Palestrina, the master of classical polyphony, is particularly evocative. His inspiration makes him a model for the composers of sacred music, which he put at the service of the liturgy.” (Address to the International Congress of Sacred Music, January 27, 2001).
In the same year, he addressed the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music saying: “…..You, teachers and students, are asked to make the most of your artistic gifts, maintaining and furthering the study and practice of music and song in the forms and with the instruments privileged by the Second Vatican Council:  Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony and the organ. Only in this way will liturgical music worthily fulfill its function during the celebration of the sacraments and, especially, of Holy Mass. ….”
However, these more recent recommendations of sacred polyphony are echoes of Pope Saint Pius X’s Instruction on Sacred Music, issued on the feast of Saint Caecilia, the patroness of musicians, November 22, 1903: “The above-mentioned qualities (holiness, expression of true art, and universal fittingness) are also possessed in an excellent degree by Classic Polyphony, especially of the Roman School, which reached its greatest perfection in the sixteenth century, owing to the works of Pierluigi da Palestrina, and continued subsequently to produce compositions of excellent quality from a liturgical and musical standpoint. Classic Polyphony agrees admirably with Gregorian Chant, the supreme model of all sacred music, and hence it has been found worthy of a place side by side with Gregorian Chant, in the more solemn functions of the Church, such as those of the Pontifical Chapel. This, too, must therefore be restored largely in ecclesiastical functions…”
Unfortunately, like most Catholics, I too was deprived this great heritage of Catholicity growing up.  It was not until I hit university in the UBC department of music that I experienced this treasure, not at first in the context of the liturgy, but in my musical studies.  This repertory of music is considered by the musical intelligentsia, even among non-believers, as a great monument of musical culture and high art.  It was created not for the glory of man, but for God’s glory and was to be used in sacred worship.  It would do what sacred music is supposed to do — glorify the Deity and lift the soul up to God.  During my time in the university choirs, sacred polyphony was a mainstay of our programmes.  Since the texts are almost always taken from sacred scripture, and the inspiring character of the music, choir practise for me was like being on retreat.  As a pastor of souls, I would like to provide for my parishioners the experience of worshipping with sacred polyphony as the occasion presents itself.
If you are unfamiliar with this music, you owe it to yourself to experience it.  Look for the choral music of Palestrina, Tomas Luis de Victoria, William Byrd, and Orlando di Lasso, for starters.  Hit upon the link below and see and hear the St. Thomas More Collegiate Chamber Choir’s concert rendition of Palestrina’s “greatest hit”.
Sicut Cervus by Palestrina

About Didobonaparte

A Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, I am the parish priest of Saint Joseph's Catholic Church, Langley.
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