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Motu Proprio of Pope St. Pius X on Sacred Music

November 22, 1903

St. PiusX In his own introduction to this document, Pope Pius X says that, in their local Churches, bishops share many pastoral concerns. The Bishop of Rome is no exception. One foremost concern, he says, is that of promoting the "decorum of the house of God." It is here, he says, that the solemn mysteries of the faith are celebrated. It is here that the Christian people assemble for the sacraments. It is here that they offer the sacrifice of the Mass. It is here that they pray together the Divine Office, which is today widely known as the Liturgy of the Hours. Therefore, says Pius X, nothing should take place that would disturb or diminish the prayer and piety of the faithful. There should never be reasonable cause for disgust or scandal. Above all, he says, there should be nothing which directly offends the decorum and holiness of the liturgy. That would be unworthy of the house of prayer, of the majesty of God.

Pius X says that he will not consider each of the abuses of this kind that can occur. Instead, he directs his attention to one of the most common problems. It is, he says, very difficult to correct. This abuse can occur in places where everything else deserves the highest praise: the beauty of the building itself, the splendor and order of the ceremony, the participation of the clergy, and the reverence, the dignity of the ministers. He is speaking, he says, of abuse affecting sacred song and sacred music.

Such abuse can be due to the very nature of musical art, variable by its nature. It can be due to successive changes in taste and habit, as occurs in the course of time. It can be due to the fatal influence that comes from profane and theatrical art. It can be due to the pleasure that music produces directly and that is not always easily contained within appropriate limits. Finally, such abuse can be due to many prejudices on this subject, so readily acquired and so tenaciously maintained, even by responsible, dedicated individuals.

Regardless, says Pius X, one fact remains. There is a widespread tendency to deviate from the right rule which is determined by the purpose for which art is admitted to the service of the liturgy. That "right rule" is set forth clearly, he says, in church law, in general and provincial councils of bishops, in decisions of the Roman congregations, and in the teachings of his predecessors, the previous bishops of Rome.

He is happy to acknowledge how much has been accomplished in this respect in the last ten years in the city of Rome and in many churches in Italy. In an even more effective way, says the Pope, good has also been accomplished in other countries. Dedicated leaders, he says, have been filled with zeal for the liturgy. With the approval of Rome and the guidance of their bishops, these leaders have formed associations that are flourishing today. These people have restored sacred music to the fullest honor in all their churches and chapels.

Still, says Pius X, the good work that has been done is far from universal. He has not been Pope long, he says; and he has already received many complaints. This is why he wants to speak up, to condemn everything that is out of harmony with the "right rule" just mentioned. Both the Mass and the Divine Office should have music in accord with this right rule.

Pius X says he really wants the "true Christian spirit" to flourish in every way, to be fostered by all the faithful. Before anything else, he considers it necessary to provide for the holiness and dignity of the house of prayer. This is the place where the faithful assemble to acquire this spirit from its source, its first and necessary source: active participation in the holy mysteries, in the solemn and public prayer of the Church. It is foolish, he says, to hope that heaven's blessing will descend abundantly upon us, when our homage to the Most High does not ascend with the "odor of sweetness," when instead it puts into the hand of the Lord the whips with which Jesus Christ drove the unworthy from the Temple, those people who profaned it.

So that nobody in the future can say he did not understand his duty, so that any lack of clarity can be eliminated, Pius X says that he wants to point out significant principles for the use of sacred music in the liturgy. In one document, he intends to collect the more important laws of the Church against abuses in this area. "We do, therefore publish, motu proprio [on our own initiative], and with certain knowledge, Our present Instruction." With the fullness of his apostolic authority, the Pope gives the force of law to this instruction; he proposes it as a "juridical code of law, for sacred music."

Instruction on Sacred Music


1. Sacred music, as a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, shares in the overall purpose of the liturgy: the glory of God and the sanctification, the edification of the faithful. Sacred music contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ceremonies of the Church. Now, the principal function of sacred music is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful. Therefore, its purpose is to add greater efficacy to the text. This is done so that, through the music, the faithful will be more easily inspired, better disposed to receive the benefits of the grace that comes from the celebration of the holy mysteries.

2. Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, in particular, sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.

It must be holy. Sacred music must, therefore, exclude all that is profane, not only in itself, but also in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.

It must be true art. Otherwise, in the minds of those who listen to it, sacred music will not be able to bring about the effect the Church intends, in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.

At the same time, however, sacred music must be universal in this sense. On the one hand, every country can admit its own native music forms into its compositions for church. On the other hand, these kinds of music must be subordinate to the general character of sacred music. This must be done in such a way that, on hearing the music, nobody of any other country would receive a negative impression.


3. In the highest degree, these qualities are found in Gregorian Chant. Consequently, this is the song that is proper to the Roman Church, the only song she has inherited from the ancient Fathers, the only song she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical [books], the only song she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, the only song she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy, and the only song which recent research has so happily restored to its integrity and purity.

On these grounds, Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music. Therefore, it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: In its movement, inspiration, and mood, the more closely a church composition approaches the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes. The more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.

Ancient and traditional as it is, Gregorian Chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the celebrations of the liturgy. Everyone should accept it as a fact that a church celebration loses none of its solemnity when accompanied only by this music.

Special efforts are also to be made to restore the use of Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in celebrations of the liturgy, as was the case in ancient times.

4. The above-mentioned qualities are also possessed in an excellent degree by classic polyphony, especially of the Roman School, which reached its greatest perfection in the fifteenth century, owing to the works of Pierluigi da Palestrina. After his time, polyphony continued to contribute compositions of excellent quality, from a liturgical and musical standpoint. Classic polyphony is an admirable match for Gregorian Chant, the supreme model of all sacred music. Hence, it has been found worthy of a place side by side with Gregorian Chant, in the more solemn celebrations of the Church, such as those of the Pontifical Chapel. Polyphony as well should therefore be substantially restored in church celebrations, especially in the more important basilicas, in cathedrals, and in the churches and chapels of seminaries and other ecclesiastical institutions in which the necessary means are usually not lacking.

5. The Church has consistently favored the progress of the fine arts, admitting to the service of religion everything good and beautiful that human talent has produced, down through the ages. This has always been done, however, with due regard to the liturgical laws. Consequently, modern music is also allowed to enter the church. Contemporary music furnishes compositions of such excellence, sobriety, and competence, that they are in no way unworthy of the liturgy.

Still, since modern music has come into being mainly to serve secular purposes, greater care must be taken with regard to it. This must be done so that contemporary musical compositions, allowed in church, will contain nothing profane, will be free from associations with melodies used in theaters, and will be not written in the style of secular pieces, even in their outward forms.

6. Among the different kinds of modern music, that which appears less suitable for accompanying the liturgy is the theatrical style which was exceptionally popular during the [nineteenth] century, especially in Italy. Of its very nature, this style is diametrically opposed to Gregorian Chant and classic polyphony and therefore to the most important standard of all good sacred music. The intrinsic structure, the rhythm, and the "conventionalism" of this style are poorly adapted to the requirements of true liturgical music.


7. The language proper to the Roman Church is Latin . . .

8. The texts that may be rendered in music and the order in which they are to be rendered are determined for every liturgical celebration. Therefore, it is not lawful to mix up this order, to substitute for the prescribed texts at will, or to omit them either entirely or even in part, except when the rubrics allow that some versicles of the text be supplied with the organ. . . However, it is permissible, according to the custom of the Roman Church, to sing a motet . . . after the Benedictus in a solemn Mass. After the [Antiphon for the Preparation of the Gifts] has been sung, during the time that remains, it is also permitted to sing a brief motet, with words approved by the Church.

9. The liturgical text must be sung as it is in the books, without alteration or inversion of the words, without undue repetition, without breaking syllables, and always in a manner intelligible to the faithful who listen.


Featured Book 10. The different parts of the Mass and the Divine Office must retain, even musically, that particular concept and form which ecclesiastical tradition has assigned to them, which is admirably brought out by Gregorian Chant. The method of composing an introit, a gradual, an antiphon, a psalm, a hymn, a Gloria in excelsis, etc., must therefore be distinct from one another.

11. In particular the following rules are to be observed:

(a) The Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, etc., of the Mass must preserve the unity of composition proper to the text...

(b) In the office of Vespers it should be the rule to follow the Caeremoniale Episcoporum [the Ceremonial for Bishops], which prescribes Gregorian Chant for the psalmody and permits figured music for the versicles of the Gloria Patri and the hymn, with faux-bourdon or with verses similarly composed in a proper manner.

It is also permissible occasionally to render single Psalms in their entirety in music, provided the form proper to psalmody be preserved in such compositions; that is to say, provided the singers seem to be psalmodising among themselves, either with new motifs or with those taken from Gregorian Chant or based upon it.

The psalms known as di concerto are therefore forever excluded and prohibited.

(c) In the hymns of the Church the traditional form of the hymn is preserved. It is not lawful, therefore, to compose, for instance, a Tantum ergo in such a way that the first verse presents a romanza, a cavatina, or an adagio and the Genitori, an allegro.

(d) As a rule, the antiphons for Vespers must be rendered with the Gregorian melody proper to each. Should the antiphons, however, in some special case be sung in figured music, they must never have either the form of a concert melody or the fullness of a motetor a cantata.


12. With the exception of the melodies proper to the celebrant at the altar and to the ministers [which must be always sung in Gregorian Chant, without accompaniment], all the rest of the liturgical song belongs to the choir of levites. Therefore, singers in the church, even when they are [lay people], are really taking the place of the church choir. Hence, at least for the most part, the music rendered by them must retain the character of choral music.

By this it is not to be understood that solos are entirely excluded. Solo singing, however, should never predominate to such an extent as to have the greater part of liturgical song executed in that manner. The solo phrase should have the character or hint of a melodic projection (spunto), and be strictly bound up with the rest of the choral composition.

13. On the same principle, it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical function . . .

14. Finally, only [those] of known piety and probity of life are to be admitted to the choir. By their modest and devout bearing during the liturgical functions, these people will show that they are worthy of the holy task they carry out. It will also be fitting that singers, while singing in church, wear the [cassock] and surplice. . .


Featured Book 15. Although the music proper to the Church is purely vocal music, music with the accompaniment of the organ is also permitted. In some special cases, within due limits and with proper safeguards, other instruments may be allowed, but never without the special permission of the [bishop of the diocese], according to the requirements of the Caeremoniale Episcoporum [the Ceremonial for Bishops].

16. Because singing should always have top priority, the organ or other instruments should merely sustain it and never oppress it.

17. It is not permitted to have the singing preceded by long preludes or to interrupt it with intermezzo pieces.

18. In preludes, interludes, and the like, the sound of the organ, as accompaniment for the singing, must not only be governed by the special nature of the instrument. It also must possess all the qualities proper to sacred music, as pointed out above.

20. It is strictly forbidden to have bands play in church. Only in special cases with the consent of the [bishop of the diocese] will it be permissible to admit wind instruments, limited in number, judiciously used, and proportioned to the size of the place. In that case, the composition and accompaniment must be written in a serious and appropriate style; the composition and accompaniment must conform in all respects to that proper to the organ.

21. In processions outside the church, the [bishop of the diocese] may give permission for a band, provided no profane pieces be executed. It would be desirable in such cases that the band confine itself to accompanying some spiritual canticle sung in Latin or in the vernacular by the singers and the pious associations which take part in the procession.


22. It is not lawful, because of the singing or the instrumental music, to keep the priest at the altar waiting, for a length of time not allowed by the liturgy. According to church rules, the Sanctus of the Mass should be over before the elevation; and therefore at this point the priest must take the singers into consideration. Also, according to the Gregorian tradition, the Gloria and the Credo should be relatively short.

23. In general, in church celebrations, it must be considered a very serious abuse for the liturgy to appear secondary to and in a way at the service of the music. This so because music is merely a part of the liturgy and its humble servant.


Featured Book 24. For the exact implementation of what has been herein laid down, the bishops, if they have not already done so, are to institute in their dioceses a special commission made up of persons genuinely competent in sacred music. To this commission let the bishops entrust in the manner they find most suitable the task of watching over the music used in their churches. Nor [is this commission] to see merely that the music is good in itself. It should also see that the music is adapted to the abilities of the singers and that it is always well executed.

25. In seminaries of clerics and in ecclesiastical institutions, let the above-mentioned, traditional Gregorian Chant be cultivated by all with diligence and love, according to the instructions of the Council of Trent. Let those in charge be generous in encouragement and praise for their young subjects. In like manner, among the clergy, let a Schola Cantorum [choir] be established, whenever possible, for the singing of sacred polyphony and of good liturgical music.

26. In the regular classes on liturgy, moral theology, and canon law, given to the students of theology, let care be taken to touch on those points which regard more directly the principles and laws of sacred music. Let an attempt be made to complete this training with some special instruction in the aesthetic side of sacred art, so that the students will not leave the seminary ignorant of subjects that are so necessary to a full ecclesiastical education.

27. At least in the major churches [of the diocese], let care be taken to restore the ancient Scholae Cantorum [choirs] even in smaller churches and in country parishes. Indeed, in the latter churches, the priests will find it easy to win over both children and adults, to their own benefit and that of the people.

8. In the best way possible, let efforts be made to support and promote higher schools of sacred music where they already exist. Let efforts be made to help in founding them where they do not exist. It is of the utmost importance that the Church herself provide for the instruction of her choir directors, organists, and singers, in the true principles of sacred art.


29. Finally, there is a recommendation for choir directors, for singers, for members of the clergy, for superiors of seminaries, ecclesiastical institutions, and religious communities, for parish priests and rectors of churches, for canons of collegiate churches and cathedrals, and, above all, for [bishops of dioceses]. The recommendation is that you should support these prudent reforms, with all zeal. These reforms are long desired, demanded with united voice by everyone. It is the Church herself that has repeatedly proposed these reforms and now puts them into effect. Carry out these reforms, then, that the authority of the Church will not fall into contempt.

Given from Our Apostolic Palace at the Vatican, on the day of the virgin and martyr, St. Cecilia, November 22, 1903, in the first year of Our Pontificate. Pius X, Pope

[In this version of the 1903 Motu Proprio, ellipses and brackets are used to bring the text in conformity with later legislation, teaching, and idiom; sometimes, the purpose is clarity. For example, instead of Ordinary, this version says "bishop of the diocese." Instead of Offertory, this version says, "Antiphon for the Preparation of the Gifts." Instead of codices, this version says "books."]

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