The CIMS and the Universality of Sacred Music

by Johannes Overath (1978)

On November 22, 1963, the last day of the Second Vatican Council’s vote in favor of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium on the Liturgy, Pope Paul VI signed the decree (chirograph) establishing the Rome-based Consociatio Internationalis Musicae Sacrae (CIMS), whose mandate is to deal not only with the great musical tradition of the Roman Church, but also with the problems inherent in the organic development of music in mission countries.

Since it is now possible to welcome in the liturgy traditional songs of different peoples, it is a question of opening the door to certain peculiar musical traditions. The Council was well aware that this problem of musical adaptation would not be solved by means of simple solutions, and that a long and difficult path would be necessary to obtain satisfactory results in practice. Up to now, many preconditions for the solution of these questions are still missing, even though in some countries – such as Africa, India and Japan – an organic development of music in the Church has already begun. For us, however, most of the work remains to be done.

The adaptation of the music must be closely coordinated with all the problems related to a missionary aggiornamento. It is a question of seeking the means and ways necessary to spread the truth and spirit of Christianity without linking it absolutely to European forms, but rather taking into account the cultural forms of the different countries.

The Psychology of Peoples and Ethnomusicology have been trying for decades to understand the musical perception and aesthetics of non-European peoples, fundamentally different from our European concepts, and they have been concerned with understanding the values of their musical life according to the foundations of their own minds. This has led to the conviction that while the musical culture of the West has established itself as an artistic expression of our civilization, it has at the same time lost much of what constitutes a living expressive force in the various non-European musical cultures. One need only think of the expressive capacity of pure melody, the variety of rhythmic and polyrhythmic structures, the sound qualities with their different timbres, as well as their variations and compositions.

If we consider how deeply music and musical expression are rooted in the soul of each people, we understand the impossibility of imposing our Western music on non-European peoples, as well as expecting this music to have the same expressive value for them as it has for us. The introduction of European religious songs, derived from the tonal and harmonic system of the West, is probably as inadequate to the quality of expression of non-European peoples as their music seems strange to us.

However, since Sacred Music is more than just a musical form, as an expression that, above all, comes from the heart and addresses the heart, it is necessary to find a musical language specific to a certain ethnic group. Everything must therefore be done to ensure that new expressions of Christianity emerge in the young Churches of the Far East and Africa.

In reality, each culture, while constantly developing, also allows for an exchange with other cultures. The Church, therefore, cannot be linked to any form of historical expression belonging to a particular era or a particular country. It can be shown historically that through the emergence of ever new forms of expression of the Christian spirit, a harmonious synthesis has been possible within the Church between the living tradition and the cultural heritage of peoples. Aggiornamento does not consist in placing the cross at the top of a cultural edifice; it actually requires a reconstruction of that same edifice on a new foundation which is Christ. Christ, in fact, responds to the expectations of the peoples, since he came precisely to build the Kingdom of God within all peoples and thus make them the one People of God.

What can we do then to promote this cultural growth? The collaboration of local people, specialists and cultural bearers of such music must encourage people not to be satisfied with the adaptation of a foreign text to already existing melodies or with a simple melodic imitation; rather, it must encourage a new creation according to the musical aesthetics experienced in each individual musical culture. Of course, to grasp the spirit of a particular music and to translate it so that it comes to life in a Christian sense is anything but easy and purely theoretical: this work requires a thorough study of the music as well as of the thoughts and feelings of the respective people who wrote it.

These demands were, moreover, intensely felt by the musicians of the Church, and expressed again and again by their most authorized representatives. And Pope Paul VI has indeed listened with great benevolence to these wishes of the Church musicians, and in canonically erecting the CIMS, he charged them, among many other specific tasks, to ensure “that help be given especially to missionaries, in order to resolve the serious and important question of Sacred Music in regions cultivated by missionary labor, and that in this matter, the various enterprises be closely connected among themselves in a suitably reasonable manner” (ut praecipue Missionariis auxilium praeberetur ad solvendam gravem magnique momenti questionem Musicae Sacrae in regionibus, missionali labore excolendis, atque varia hac in re incepta congruenti ratione inter se connectur ).

The development of a local Sacred Music, in the cultural field of the different peoples, will thus become a necessary task for our present Sacred Music, while the transfer of certain forms of Western popular music to the local populations in the extra-European missions, would cause very serious and fundamental disturbances. It was above all during an International Symposium organized by the CIMS in Rome, November 14-22, 1975, that this problem was raised and discussed in depth (Cf. Musica indigena. Symposium musico-ethnologicum, ed Johannes Overath, Romae 1975).

Nevertheless, if one genre of Western Sacred Music has the capacity to build a bridge between non-European musical cultures, it is Gregorian chant. It is a pure melody, like the music of all non-European cultures. This is why the tribes and peoples of Africa, as well as India and Japan, show us that they can perfectly assimilate Gregorian melodies, as the music experts of different peoples constantly attest. Gregorian chant is truly called to be a bridge for Sacred Music among all the peoples of the Universal Church. It is therefore understandable why the Second Vatican Council placed Gregorian chant at the forefront of its liturgical reflections, while at the same time opening the doors to other musical cultures of the world, always at the service of the Christian message and liturgy.

(“La Consociatio Internationalis Musicae Sacrae e la università della Musica Sacra”, Missionariis auxilium, Rome, 1978, pp. 13-15, translated from German into French by P. Pierre Le Bourgeois OSB and again into English by the monks of Our Lady of the Annunciation of Clear Creek)