Hermann Schroeder on Liturgical Music in the 20th Century
Schroeder on Liturgical Music in the 20th Century
The accessibility of Schroder’s choral music is probably in part due to Schroeder’s concern with liturgical music reform. Like Palestrina centuries before, Schroeder was looking for a repertoire of quality music that would serve the function of Christian worship without undue excess. Schroeder expresses what he believes to be the measure by which one assess ecclesiastical music in his essay, Zur Katholischen Musik Der Gegenwart:
So haben wir zwei Maßstäbe, nach denen liturgische Musik zu verwerten ist: nach ihrer liturgischen Eignung und nach ihrem künstlerischen Wert in der Verbindung von Wort (geheiligtem Wort) und Ton, wobei das musikalische Handwerk wie bei jeder Musik selbstverständliche Voraussetzung ist.
“So we have two standards by which liturgical music’s functional is to be measured: according to its liturgical suitability and according to its artistic value in its joining of word (hallowed word) and sound, in which musical craft, as in any music, is a self-evident presupposition.” (trans. by Jordan Key)
For Schroeder, ecclesiastical music should not only be functional to its liturgical use, but also of compositional merit in its marriage of music and text. Furthermore, due to its function, liturgical music must be accessible to a wide variety of musical skill levels and speak to the lineage of Christian liturgical music.
However, just like any composer concerned with liturgical music before him (Palestrina and Bach being two good examples), Schroeder was also concerned with the insertion of his own voice into this lineage. The concern that faces any composer in this situation is how their musical voice can hold its integrity under the scrutiny of functionality, wide accessibility, and stylistic synthesis. Schroeder even addressed this concern in the same essay on contemporary catholic music cited above. He wrote,
Der Wille zur Objektivität bedeutet aber nicht Aufgabe einer persönlichen Aussage, sondern Ein- und Unterordnung in den liturgischen Dienst. Für den schöpferischen Künstler bedeutet das weder Fessel noch Einengung, sondern Entfaltung seiner Persönlichkeit im höchsten Dienst, wobei sein persönliches Dekorum seine Ausstrahlung ist im Sinne der Augustinischen Definition der Kunst als ‚splendor veritatis'.
“The desire of objectivity [in liturgical music] does not mean the abandonment of a personal statement, but coordination and subordination [of the personal statement] with and to the liturgical service. For the creative artist stands for that which is neither bound nor chained, but rather the development of selfhood [or personhood] in the highest service, in which their individual decorum and charisma is in the sense of Augustine's definition of art as, ‘splendor veritatis' (‘splendor of truth’).” (trans. by Jordan Key)
Of course Schroeder has plenty of outlets to develop and express his own personalized musical voice outside of specifically liturgical music. Thus, such a self-subordinating declaration might be easier for him to make than one not availed of such non-functional resources (e.g. solo concerts, orchestral performances, and chamber recitals). Schroeder’s point, however, is true. Despite being subservient to these same restrictions as listed above, composers like Bach and Palestrina were able to carve out a stylistic niche for themselves in their work for the Church, writing masterful and quality music that both spoke to an ecclesiastical heritage and served its liturgical function. While they perhaps could not find the broadest forms of expression in Masses, motets, and cantatas, Palestrina and Bach’s sacred music hardly bespeaks banality. In fact, the Masses of Palestrina and the cantatas of Bach are works that are highly functional, stylistically accessible (for their time and even today), and technically manageable (granted some pieces are naturally more challenging than others).
Schroeder’s above quotation is reminiscent of (and probably intentionally so) the sentiments of Bach when he famously wrote that “the aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” Like Schroeder’s, this remark is clearly two parted: music serves God and music serves the soul (the individual being). Music does not have to limit itself to one or the other necessarily. There is place for the “and” between God and the soul. Thus, according to Bach there is a place for personal expression in the service of God via functional music, but as Schroeder adds (though Bach probably thought this to be without saying), the music must demonstrate masterful musical craftsmanship in equal measure to its ability to function. It cannot function well if it has not first been well-composed.
A further question Schroeder has to face, which Bach perhaps never had to confront was the issue of musical progress. Bach and Schroeder are both relatively conservative composers during their time, however, by the time of Schroeder, Bach’s music is well entrenched in the liturgy of the German church, making it a paradigm of excellence. Schroeder, in writing music that speaks with his own 20th century voice, was necessarily writing music that was progressive, at least in relation to Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Brahms. While his music is tame compared to contemporaries like Schoenberg, Messiaen, and Stravinsky, Schroeder’s music was not “classical.”
Schroeder was attempting to write liturgical music that could be original and yet fit within the confines of the conservative liturgical music reformation the Catholic church was undergoing during the early 20th century. Thus, Schroeder had to find a careful balance between the “modern” and the “classical,” serving both “God” (the needs and desires of the Church) and himself in some equal measure. In his essay on the role of contemporary catholic liturgical music, Schroeder addressed his ideas regarding the balance of conservativism and progressivism in music of the church. He wrote:
Dabei interessiert vor allem, wieweit die Versuche in der heutigen, zeitgenössischen Tonsprache bereits Eingang in die Liturgie finden können oder gefunden haben. Von den Elementen muß zuerst dem Rhythmus in der Liturgie eine Beschränkung auferlegt werden: Rhythmus ist Abbild der körperlichen Bewegung, betonte Rhythmik wirkt primär körperlich, tänzerisch, aufreizend bis zur ekstatischen Gestaltung oder Brutalität. Da der Rhythmus in unserem zeitgenössischen Ausdruck eine entscheidende Rolle spielt, kann die Musica sacra in diesem Element also nicht mit der weltlichen Schwester Schritt halten: der liturgische Ort verträgt keine dramatischen Steigerungseffekte, und die Singstimme ist ohnedies nur feinster und differenziertester deklamatorischer oder melismatischer Rhythmik fähig, von Natur im diametralen Gegensatz zu den für das Schlagwerk gebotenen Möglichkeiten stehend.
“Of prime importance [in the consideration of liturgical music] is the extent to which the experiments in today’s contemporary musical language may already be or have been incorporated in the liturgy. Of the elements [of contemporary music], first rhythm in the liturgy must have restrictions imposed on it: rhythm is the image of physical activity, stressed rhythm acts primarily on the body, dance-like and provocative to ecstasy or brutality. Since rhythm is crucial in our contemporary expression, the rhythm of sacred music cannot keep up with its worldly sister's step: the liturgical place does not tolerate dramatic inflationary effects and the voice is in any case capable only of the finest and most differentiated declamatory or melismatic rhythms, standing by nature diametrically opposed to the opportunities provided by percussion.” (trans. by Jordan Key)
Schroeder is making a clear distinction between the necessary character of functional liturgical music and the highly complex rhythmic experiments of the Second Viennese School, the Darmstadt School, and Stravinsky’s iconic primitivistic music. This idea is not new. In fact, it probably goes all the way to the origins of arrhythmic chant in the church, which adopted such weakly rhythmic music to separate itself to greater degrees from the probably strongly metered dance music of the ancient world. While Schroeder clearly does not wish to abolish rhythm in liturgical music, he does believe that a certain tameness of rhythm is necessary. He goes on to write.
In diesem Element dürfte also ein Unterschied zwischen geistlicher und weltlicher Musik notwendig sein. Bei der Melodik scheiden zwei zeitgenössische Richtungen für die Singstimme teilweise oder ganz aus: die überdimensionale Melodiebildung seit Schönberg scheitert am Umfang der Singstimmen, zum mindesten der chorischen, und das Punktuelle ist absolut ungesanglich. Es bleibt also nur die Erweiterung in den Zwölftonraum mit gleichzeitiger Überwindung der Dur-Moll-Funktionen. Hier kann man tatsächliche neue Möglichkeiten sehen, die bereits praktiziert werden, wobei Zwölftonraum nicht unbedingt die Reihen-Technik in diesem Raum in sich schließt, die in ihrer prinzipiellen Anwendung für chorische Singstimmen zum wenigsten problematischer ist.... Mit der Erweiterung des tonikalen Grundtons zum Zentralton, über dem sich alle Möglichkeiten der alten Tonalitäten räumlich neu ordnen lassen, erreicht man einen Zwölftonraum, in dem die alten Kirchentonarten neue Tonraummöglichkeiten erschließen, die sich sehr wohl von einer Singstimme bewältigen lassen, ohne daß die melodischen Bildungen vom Sänger als konstruiert empfunden werden. Solche neue Diatonik hat die Funktionsharmonik ebenso wie die Alterationschromatik überwunden.
“In [melody] a distinction may also be necessary between sacred and secular music. In melody there are two dissimilar contemporary directions for voice: the oversized melodic structure beginning with Schoenberg’s [music] fails at the periphery of the voices, at least in the choral, and the pointillistic [as in Webern’s] is absolutely unsingable. There remains only the expansion in dodecaphonics with the simultaneous overthrowing of the major-minor tonal system. Here you can see actual new opportunities that are already practiced, in which dodecaphonics, not necessarily speaking of twelve-tone serialization, is in its principal application for choral voices its least problematic…. With the expansion of tonality beyond the scope of classical harmony, one achieves a dodecaphony where the old church modes provide new tonal possibilities, which can cope well with a voice, without the designed melodic developments even being perceived by the singers. Such new diatonicism has overcome functional harmony as well as the older understanding of chromatic harmony.” (trans. by Jordan Key)
Again, Schroeder is drawing attention to the liturgical inappropriateness of the vocal styles of “avant-garde” music of the time, particularly in the style of the Expressionists and Pointillists. Schroeder does, however, recognize the virtue of a freer treatment of dissonance and the implications of dodecaphony. Schroeder, however, contextualizes the free use of all twelve chromatic tones not in a serialized, non-tonal fashion, but rather as a servant to broader notions of tonality, modality, and pitch-centricity. With Schroeder, contemporary liturgical music is always about finding this balance between modernity and tradition. In melodic and harmonic writing he realized this through his own form of pan-tonality achieved through tonal, modal, and dodecaphonic counterpoint.
While sounding like a staunchly old-fashioned composer, Schroeder expresses his concern that one not think of music appropriate to the church as absolutely defined. He recognized that liturgical music will necessarily never catch up with its secular counterpart; however, this does not mean that it won’t progress at all and could not in fact develop in the same manner at a later point in the future. To be functional, it is natural that ecclesiastical music be slower to change. Recall that most of Bach’s sacred (as well as secular) music was considered “old-fashioned” by the end of his life. Palestrina’s music could hardly be called progressive in the 16th century, placed alongside the secular motets of the younger Monteverdi or Gesualdo. Functional music tends to lag behind the fads; however, in so doing it does not necessarily lag behind in quality.
Schroeder does attempt to show that well-composed ecclesiastical music of the 20th century does share many similarities with its secular counterparts, despite its many conservative leanings. Schroeder writes:
Beim Vergleich mit dem zeitgenössischen Stil der weltlichen Musik sind die Parallelen unverkennbar: Priorität der Linearität und Polyphonie, … freie Dissonanzbehandlung, frei-schwebende Harmonik, Überwindung der Taktschemen und frei-rhythmische Bildungen, Ausschaltung der funktionalen Dur-Moll-Harmonik, statt dessen Erweiterung der Tonalität: mehrere gleichzeitige Möglichkeiten über einem Zentralton, damit ein Vordringen in den zwölftönigen Raum, Vorliebe für kraftvolle Diatonik in diesem Raum, … Neubelebung alter, vor allem vokaler Formen und Bauversuche mit konstruktiven Mitteln.
“When [ecclesiastical music is] compared with the contemporary style of secular music, the parallels are unmistakable: priority of linearity and polyphony, … free dissonance treatment, free-floating harmonies, the overcoming of standard metrical patterns, elimination of functional major/minor harmony for an extended tonality, multiple simultaneous options for a central tone allowing for a twelve-tone space, preference for pandiatonicism, … revitalization of the old especially vocal forms, and a constructive search with constructive means.” (trans. by Jordan Key)
While the extent to which sacred music does all of these things is paled in comparison to the efforts of secular music, his point is true, at least in the confines of what Schroeder might consider “well-composed” liturgical music. Furthermore, Schroeder attempts to do all of these things in his own liturgical music to varying degrees.
Schroeder’s music for chorus is not in the milieu of his time. Contrary to many of his contemporaries in the mid-20th century, Schroeder’s music is not striving for the esoteric. Rather, he is writing in accordance to the “Old Masters” (“die alte Meister” as Schroder referred to them), setting texts to music that would be appropriate to their time. Consequently, the music will necessarily sound “traditional” to the listener, however upon careful listening, one can perceive the touches of newness that Schroeder embeds into his pieces that allow his originality to shine though the otherwise conventional music. The most essential part to Schroeder’s modernity, particularly in his sacred music, is his free use of modal, tonal, and atonal counterpoint to generate novel harmonic structures that while defying classical functionality, define a new tonality of their own. In his essay on sacred music in the 20th century, Schroeder addressed his philosophy of modern harmony. We wrote:
Die Harmonik endlich ist in unserer Zeit noch das ungeklärteste Element. Hier muß man… gründlich aufräumen mit der irrigen Ansicht, als gäbe es absolut gesehen kirchliche und unkirchliche Akkorde. Beim Primat der Polyphonie tritt das Harmonische naturgemäß in seiner Bedeutung in den Hintergrund: das entbindet uns nicht, auch in den Klängen eine Neuordnung anzustreben; jedenfalls kann im Gottesdienst eine uneingeschränkte Rücksichtslosigkeit im Vertikalen nicht adäquater Ausdruck einer vor Gott betenden Gemeinde sein.
“Harmony is finite in our time yet it is the most unclear element. Here one must… thoroughly get rid of the mistaken view that there are absolute rules regarding ecclesiastical and un-ecclesiastical chords. When primacy [of music] is polyphony, the harmony occurs naturally in its meaning in the background: this does not absolve us from seeking a new order in the sounds; in any case, in the worship of God an unrestricted recklessness in verticalities may not be an adequate [or appropriate] expression.” (trans. by Jordan Key)
Here, Schroeder’s moderate stance on music at the end of the 1950s is clear. He embraces a non-absolutist view of what is appropriate and inappropriate in sacred music, allowing for a level of progressiveness to seek ”a new order in the sounds”. Indeed, such a search is a necessity for Schroeder; we are “not absolve[d]” from pushing the bounds of music, particularly in polyphony and harmony. However, Schroeder offers his conservative caution against a fully “unrestricted” music, critiquing such “recklessness” as inappropriate to the sacred.
These sentiments are so unmistakably “Bachian;” while Bach attempted during his lifetime to push the limits of contemporary tonality and polyphony (promoting equal-temperament, formalizing the fugal form, etc.), Bach was always concerned with the function and craftsmanship of music, particularly in liturgical music. The craftsmanship of his cantatas and motets is unquestionable, and in them he clearly seeks something more contrapuntally and harmonically progressive than had come before. However, he was also creating something that was intended to be accessible, functional, and ultimately educational, not pandering to trendiness. In his cantatas, Bach achieved something that was both progressive and conservative, expanding the Baroque while also preserving it. As a consequence, Bach was widely seen as overly conservative and culturally backwards at the end of his life.
As seen by many of his contemporaries (and even composers and musicologists today), Schroeder was probably held in the same regard. Compared to Boulez and Schroeder’s own student, Stockhausen, Schroeder is hopelessly old-fashioned. However, Schroeder, like Bach, was not interested in pushing music to its possible limits or changing musical paradigms. Schroeder’s ultimate goal was to create a music that functions, possess a high level of craftsmanship, and pushes bounds when appropriate and tasteful, while also adding to a long tradition of German polyphonic music stretching back to the Middle Ages. It took one-hundred years for the mastery of Bach’s compositional brilliance to be widely recognized against his contemporaries as not merely “old-fashioned” but “retro-progressive”, Neo-classical for its time, possessing a genius and truth of its own. Similarly, it will perhaps take time for Schroeder’s music to emerge in contemporary musical thought as not “old-fashioned” but as an artfully well-crafted and meaningful part of musical evolution in the 20th century speaking not only to the future of music but also its past.
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