Church, state, and culture at the turn of the century

Today, I want to talk a bit about a church in the turn of the century: a church trying to define itself within society, and wrestling with power struggles within the church establishment, politics, and government. And all of these conflicts are foundational to conflicts about the music of the church, as church leaders and musicians are trying to decide what’s appropriate for worship and what’s not, should we be drawing from secular music styles or not, and how the church’s music can define the church’s engagement with society.

That’s right, I’m talking about issues of church, state, and culture 100 years ago, at the turn of the 20th century.

Throughout the 19th century and into the 20th, the French Church was facing battles within long-standing opposing cultural forces of “art and liturgy, commerce and religion, patriotism and papal authority, liberty and unity, and authenticity, custom, and practical necessity,” many of which stemmed from the residual effects of the French Revolution, and would define the church’s place in French society, and music’s place in the French church, for generations.

The obliteration of church music

A major casualty of the French Revolution (1789-1799) was quality church music, as it was lumped in as part of the larger societal backlash against an overcontrolling, too-powerful Church. Many of the anti-Catholic sentiments of the Revolution were similar to the sentiments that fueled the split of the church during the Protestant Reformation. And just like during the Reformation, these sentiments turned reactionary, creating groups of people who essentially defined themselves against the Catholic church. As part of the backlash against the church, the cathedral choir schools that had trained the musicians and leaders of the church for generations were destroyed, not to be significantly reestablished until the second half of the 19th century. It wasn’t until these choir schools were reestablished that substantive liturgical music was restored to churches.

The plainchant revival

Simultaneously with the reemergence of quality church music was the beginning of the plainchant revival in France, which became a major contributor to the conflict and power struggles within the Catholic church. The French Catholic tradition came from a Gallican heritage, and the Vatican was Roman Catholic; the Vatican had been trying for years to unify the Catholic traditions under the Roman Catholic umbrella, but the French Gallicans were fiercely independent and stubbornly loyal to their own liturgical traditions. Eventually, a certain provincialism developed in the French church with the practice of a nearly papal sovereignty of individual bishops over the liturgy and music in their own dioceses, and this resulted in a variety of local musical and liturgical practices within the already distinct French tradition.

The Vatican achieved a victory in 1855 when Paris’s Notre-Dame Cathedral replaced the Parisian rite with the Roman rite, and in 1903, Pope Pius X continued the Vatican’s campaign with the publication of a motu proprio entitled Tra le sollecitudini, calling for a restoration of plainsong, the teaching of a basic chant repertoire, and the establishment and the widespread adoption of a set of chant texts that was “official,” “typical,” and “authentic,” meaning both authorized and authoritative. This would become the universal Catholic tradition, providing direction to the individual bishops and establishing a uniformity of worship throughout the global church. In France, the goal of this universal chant was to make the French church sound more Roman and less French/Gallic. Of course, this campaign for the publication of an authoritative text led to a vicious debate about whose musical tradition would be paired with Pope Pius X’s authoritative texts.

This debate over musical traditions centered between two individuals, Dom Mocquereau and Dom Pothier. Dom Mocquereau had a background as a cellist, and insisted that melodic patterns should be respected even if they conflicted with textual flow. He described it in terms of a hierarchically structured measure, with a stressed but lifted upbeat (arsis) that was followed by a soft landing (thesis) across a metaphorical barline. His musical background likely heavily influenced this musically-oriented approach to chant.

By contrast, Dom Pothier and the French Benedictine congregation at Saint-Pierre de Solesmes had developed a system which recognized an archlike rise and fall, or arsis and thesis, within each unmetered phrase, rather than by a structure defined by the hierarchical measure. It also advocated for the delivery of the chant melody to be dictated by textual rhythm and stress, regardless of metrical or melodic patterns one might find in the melody itself. And so, chant performance within this rhythmic theory was achieved through the study of the chant’s text.

Ultimately, the Roman Catholic church officially sanctioned the Solesmes method, establishing a text-centric approach to chant singing, although Dom Mocquereau’s method remained secondarily influential, especially with composers who were adapting chant melodies for instrumentalists, or textless music.

Church music and culture

By the start of the twentieth century, chant was regularly taught in the reestablished choir schools, and though the establishment and practice of an authoritative chant system served to unify the Catholic Church within the Roman tradition, chant was a point of division between the church and the culture; in fact, the practice of chant was distinctly counter-cultural in France, due in large part to the church itself being counter-cultural and in opposition to the secularist Third Republic government (1870–1940). The use of chant was a way for the church’s opposition to the secularist government to be codified in a musical style. In addition, chant was viewed by the cynical populace as free of secularism and the clichés of modern music of the time, and uniquely sacred, in contrast with other forms of music at the time.

This view of chant and the church made life very complicated for church musicians. The use of chant in church was no longer permitted to be merely an aesthetic or liturgical decision: through all of the subtext and implications of chant, its use conveyed an opposition to the ruling government, it made a statement about French culture, and it defined the musician as counter-cultural and rebellious, whether they actually were or not.

Maurice Duruflé, the Last Impressionist

One of the prominent church musicians from this era of France was Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986). Much has been noted about the influence of chant on Duruflé’s career and compositional style, and a connection to chant can be traced from his earliest musical training. As a schoolboy, Duruflé attended the renowned French choir school the Maîtrise Saint-Évode in Rouen and was trained in the singing of plainchant, before moving to Paris, where he took organ instruction with Charles Tournemire, the organist of Sainte Clotilde. Through Tournemire’s instruction, Duruflé studied organ improvisation and the use of chant in liturgical organ music, two of Tournemire’s great strengths as an organist and teacher. In 1920, Duruflé enrolled in the Conservatoire National de Musique et de Declamation in Paris and studied privately with Louis Vierne.

Despite his love of the ancient chants of the church, Duruflé composed in the style of his time, and his music reflects his embrace of the Impressionist style. Duruflé’s formation in Rouen in Roman Catholic liturgy and chant, and his subsequent training with Tournemire and Vierne, helped him combine his love of sacred chant with his identity as an Impressionist composer. This melding resulted in the distinctive style that is so recognizable in Duruflé’s choral and instrumental compositions, and his use of sacred chant in a secular style ultimately contributed greatly to the advancement of the chant revival.

Duruflé and the Church

Duruflé’s combination of ancient chant and modern compositional style put him at the center of the cultural tension between the sacred and secular in France, which was being fought out through the music of the church. The sacred and secular factions continually used the field of music as their battlefield, and this, along with many attempts by many individuals within and without the church to define the church’s place in French culture, would ultimately lead to Duruflé’s disillusionment in the 1940s, when the trends began to take the Catholic Church in a new direction, towards vernacular music and a rejection of the formal, classical style and the musicians who were associated with it. In 1964, when the inevitable end-result of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) became clear, he left the position at Saint Etienne-du-mont he had held since 1929, leaving the church he loved because it rejected him, along with the musical and faith traditions he and his peers held so dear.

The church today, in perspective

This complicated relationship between church and culture still uses music as a battlefield even today. The words “liberal” and “conservative” are used not only to define the politics of a congregation, but also the worship style and music of the church. Many churches in Protestant denominations are uncomfortable with plainchant, because of a reflexive uncomfortableness with anything that harkens of Catholicism, so rather than the fight today being over chant, it’s often over “traditional” hymns versus “contemporary” band music, with the different factions of church leadership using musical styles as tools for a power grab within the church.

But what if we lived in a world where these fights were hashed out outside of music? What if music was allowed to be music, and the power struggles and political nonsense were sorted out somewhere else?

I also like thinking about what it’d be like to live in a society where church is counter-cultural. It really still ought to be, but so many churches in the US espouse a kind of neutered theology, where living as a Christian boils down to being nice, and inoffensive, and in some areas, supporting the right (or left) politicians. It’s certainly not the radical teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. We’re so used to thinking of the US as a Christian country, and I think we too rarely ask if that’s actually still true.

Well, I’m not sure if it’s a consolation, but it’s pretty clear that the relationships between church, state, and culture have always been as complicated as they are today– in fact, I think I’d argue that post-Revolution France was a bit more complicated than today. And, it seems that music has always been the center of these kinds of complications, and is likely to continue to be.

Good news, though: if people remain intent on fighting these battles in the field of music, church musicians are given a unique opportunity to demonstrate radical love in these conversations. Instead of accepting the in-fighting and power struggles, and the eventual devolution into personal, opinionated attacks, we have the chance to teach the church how to love through the music of the church. Instead of letting them wield music as a weapon to bludgeon their opponents into submission, we can re-appropriate it as a tool to educate, to inspire, and to bring the church together.


If you’re interested in learning more about the politics of church music at the turn of the twentieth century, I highly recommend The Politics of Plainchant in fin-de-siecle France by Katharine Ellis; if you’re interested in chant and Impressionism, I can’t recommend James Frazier’s book Maurice Duruflé: The Man and His Music highly enough, as well as Ronald Ebrecht’s book Maurice Duruflé, 1902-1986: The Last Impressionist.


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