John XXII and liturgical chant

After the death of Clement V, with the cardinals divided into factions unable to reach a disagreement, a two-year interregnum followed, stoppered only when Philip, then Count of Poitiers, later King Philip V of France, managed to organise a conclave in Lyons (by locking the cardinals in the Dominican house there in March) in 1316, which elected Jacques Duèze, a compromise candidate, on 7 August, who took the regnal name John XXII. He became the second of seven Avignon Popes.

John XXII (2)
Jean XXII | Calixte Serrur | 1839–1840

John XXII is remembered for many notable things. Head on he confronted the controversy over the so-called Franciscan poverty, hinged on the question whether or not Christ and His apostles, in one way or another, owned property. This controversy provided fodder as well to the row he later had with the political powers of the day inimical to papal supremacy: the French King and the Holy Roman Emperor. In recent years, he received renewed interest, in light of this current papacy, due to his heretical views on the Beatific Vision, teachings he retracted on the eve of his death.

Our interest in him now, however, is not in his teachings as a private theologian.

John XXII is arguably the first pope (after Gregory the Great) to have legislated on sacred music. He reigned in an era when music sailed on the high waters of the ars nova, characterised by a hitherto uncharted level of musical expressiveness created by the confluence of advancements in rhythmic notation, the adoption of polyphony in secular music, and the emergence of new musical forms and techniques.

As commonly happens when the sacred communicates with the profane, they exchange paradigms. Ars nova principles little by little invaded sacred music to such a point when the degree of invasion so moved John XXII to pronounce a condemnation. In the ninth year of his reign, he issued the decretal Docta sanctorum on the life and decency of the clergy. As we do not know the exact date of the promulgation of this document, we unofficially begin this week the commemoration of the 693rd anniversary of the decretal. In the section Resources > Church Documents above, we have uploaded the Latin text of the document and our English translation of it.

Docta Sanctorum ENDocta Sanctorum LT

By quoting the first responsory of matins of the common of the Dedication of a Church, John XXII underscores the preeminence of intelligible vocal music, a concern which would be raised again by Benedict XIV four centuries later. John XXII invokes the principles of tenor maturus and distincta gradatio as requisite to sacred music. These two principles we have translated as perfect melody and distinct tonality, respectively. We understand the usage of tenor not just as a dominant note or a tune but as the course of the musical piece as well, which, when interpreted in the light of the plainchant tradition, points to the melody; maturus, on the other hand, is age-bound, but its usage does not evoke ancientness but rather an accumulation of quality over time, which leads us to matureness of the melody, and, ultimately, to its perfectness. We interpret gradatio, as well, in the light of the plainchant tradition, which compels us to reckon it not only as the degree of difference perceived when one moves from one pitch to another, but as their arrangement as well in a piece of chant, for which we cannot pick a better word other than tonality; distincta just cements our decision.

Cantus mensurabilis
The first mensural notes, maxima, longa, brevis, semibrevis, and minima, depicted in a modern edition of the French music theorist Jean des Murs’ c. 1340 Libellus cantus mensurabilis (in Edmond de Coussemaker’s 1864 Scriptorum de musica medii ævi nova series).

Having extolled the virtues of intelligible vocal music, John XXII proceeds to condemn the importation into liturgical music of the very foundations that gave rise to the ars nova. Symptomatic of the breakthroughs of rhythmic notation of the time, he decries how cantors are singing liturgical chant with “semibreves and minims”, ornamenting the sung text with “grace notes”. The text uses notula, which literally means small note, and probably referred to durations smaller than the minim (the crotchet, the quaver, and the semiquaver can fall in this category). These are elements of the so-called mensural notation, which was then beginning to replace the neumatic notation in secular music. While grace note is admittedly anachronistic, we retain its use purely to highlight how extraneous and unnecessary the resolution of a single note into smaller notes sounded to John XXII.

John XXII then attacks the new techniques that were being introduced into the execution of sacred music: the descant and the hocket. He accuses the descant (Latin discantus or biscantus), a technique contemplating a second cantor singing above the melody or cantus firmus, of “loosening” the chant. Considering that text reads discantibus lubricant, we consider the use of lubrico as akin to causing the chant to become lubricus, that is, unsteady; hence, loosen. Hocket, on the other hand, is a loanword from the Latin hoquetus used in the text, itself a loanword from the French hoquet, which is hiccup in English. Scholars sometimes equate the term with the trill, as in the case of Benedict XIV, who, referencing a dictionary compiled by the French philologist, Charles du Fresne, draws a specific connection between the French hoquet and the Italian trilli. A closer reading, however, shows a different sense, taking into account that the text uses the verb interseco, which we have rendered as sunder, synonymous to separate or divide. The hocket refers to the practice of splitting the melodic line between two voices, each alternating between notes and rests.

In sæculum d’Amiens longum, a 13th-century (between 1260 and 1290) textless hocket (top) in modern notation, and (bottom) in the original notation in the Bamberg Codex (Staatsbibliothek Bamberg, MS Lit. 115: ff. 64r–64v); listen to a vocal rendition here.

The descant and the hocket foresees at least two voices. John XXII then proceeds to lambast the detriment that forms involving multiple voices bring upon sacred music. Recall that the Notre Dame school, boasting the names of Pérotin and Léonin of the ars vetus, mastered the organum, the earliest polyphonic form used in the Church. Typically, the organa were known by the number of melodic lines: two lines made up a duplum; three, a triplum; four, a quadruplum. Non-ecclesiastical music soon took notice and adopted this form as well, which eventually spawned the musical form we call motet. John XXII upbraids cantors for using these forms when singing in church, particularly those that are “in the vernacular”. The text uses tripla et moteta vulgaria, a situation which refers to the then-prevalent practice of accompanying the plainchant in Latin with counterpoints sung to a vernacular text, literally sandwiching the sacred between the unliturgical and the profane. In certain scholarly circles, this mixture of languages is described as macaronic.

Helas! pour quoy / Corde mesto cantando / Libera me, a 14th-century bilingual motet in two languages (French counterpointing against Latin) by the French poet and composer Guillaume de Machaut (Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS C: ff. 216v–217r): the Latin tenor of which motet, Libera me, is taken from the versicle of the Lenten responsory Minor sum (9th responsory in the third nocturn of matins on the Second Sunday of Lent in the Breviarium ad usum insignis Ecclesiæ Sarum); listen to a vocal rendition here.

What John XXII laments most about the incursion of these novelties into the sacromusical discipline of the Church becomes clear immediately. By entertaining new theories, cantors are becoming less and less acquainted with the fundamental principles of liturgical chant, in bulk contained in the Antiphonary and the Gradual, effectively rendering themselves ignorant of the very foundations upon which they must build their practice. They no longer reckon the (eight) modes—tonos nesciant, observes the text—since the unhampered proliferation of mensural notes favoured by the new forms and techniques incapacitates the cantors from discerning the rising and falling of the plainchant melody. Anyone who has read decent chant literature will understand from the adscensiones pudicæ and the descensiones temperatæ, which John XXII mentions, the so-called arsis and thesis in modern chant scholarship, inseparable concepts which are of paramount importance in chant chironomy, particularly in the ictualist tradition.

Arsis et thesis
Chironomic depiction of the arsis (adscensio pudica) and the thesis (descensio temperata) in the 1903 Paroissien Romain (made available online by Corpus Christi Watershed).

But the crowning shame of this affair is the degree of musical expressiveness to which music was catapulted in the ars nova. Such expressiveness, to the ears of John XXII, is not benign, but rather insidious, an incentive for vice. He denounces this as lascivia, which we have sparingly only rendered as wantonness, when in reality the term means more than that, in one way or another a form of lewdness. Considering that lascivia sometimes appears together with luxuria (one of the seven deadly sins, lust), what lascivia suggests is that what church cantors get from learning and mastering the new musical techniques is tantamount to what the Marquis de Sade gets from practicing unfettered libertinage. One is reminded of that scene where Saint John Chrysostom, in his immaculate white vestments, upbraids from his pulpit a richly-attired Empress Eudoxia peering indifferently from an upper gallery.

Saint Jean Chrysostome et l'Impératrice Eudoxie
Saint Jean Chrysostome et l’Impératrice Eudoxie | Jean-Paul Laurens | 1893

After enumerating the indecencies, John XXII then lays down the punishment, which is shockingly light. Anyone who dares exercise the prohibited musical techniques and forms is to be punished with suspension for eight days. Having described the application of this penalty, John XXII confirms that aliquæ consonantiæ (examples of which are octaves, fifths, and fourths) that emphasise the melody—as opposed to what the ars nova techniques are perceived to do, which is to drown the plainchant melody—can occasionally be used. John XXII eventually suggests two criteria or checkpoints in deciding the admission of musical techniques in chant execution:

  1. the integrity of the chant melody is preserved; and
  2. the original chant rhythm is not altered.

Finally, John XXII proposes three ideal objectives for admitting such techniques:

  1. they assist sensory appreciation of the chant;
  2. they encourage devotion or deepen the faith; and
  3. they prevent cantors from losing concentration away from the Liturgy.

As Catholics who have taken up for ourselves the daunting task of keeping the barrier between sacred music and its profane counterpart from completely breaking apart (which would completely eradicate our sacromusical patrimony, slippery-slope fallacy considering or not), it is our obligation to ponder whether these paramount objectives are still applicable to the “musical scene” of the Church today. It is safe to say that the monopolisation of modern Church music, in the hands of people whose pervading influence and ecclesiastic clout grows inversely proportional each day to their knowledge of applicable Church legislation on sacred music (especially, those set forth in the last ecumenical Council, whose “spirit” they claim to promote), has completely discarded the dual Joannine criteria for admitting new techniques. Absent such criteria, we are forced to witness ordinary parishes trapped in the web of music dictators harbouring no affection to foster the above three objectives.

We do not have to wait for the seventh centenary of Docta sanctorum to begin seriously applying ourselves to the preservation of liturgical chant. The usus antiquior reserves the entirety of its musical dimension to liturgical chant. Any space allotted to other forms of sacred music is purely accidental and ancillary, not deliberate and necessary. Let us harness this opportunity. Minor crescit Ecclesia, it is said nowadays. By all means, let us ensure that in such infinitesimal space, when such time is finally to betide us and our children, liturgical chant retain its place and position.

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.


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