Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Francis Xavier Witt

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 15
Francis Xavier Witt

by Joseph Otten


Reformer of church music, founder of the St. Cecilia Society for German-speaking countries, and composer, b. at Walderbach, Upper Palatinate, 9 Feb., 1834; d. at Landshut, Bavaria, 2 Dec., 1888. The son of a school teacher, Witt was instructed in singing and piano and violin playing from his earliest youth, and when he entered upon his Classical studies at Ratisbon he became a member of the cathedral choir under the direction of Joseph Schrems, through whose masterful interpretations of the long neglected sixteenth-century composers, Dr. Proske's reform ideas were beginning to be put into practice. Witt's unusual musical gifts enabled him to grasp and remember every composition performed by the choir, and his musical development received from his humanistic, philosophic, and theological studies a solid foundation. Ordained priest, 11 June, 1856, for the next three years he was assistant pastor in Oberschneiding. Although so zealous for the care of souls that for a time he thought seriously of becoming a missionary, he continued the study of music in all its branches, and acquired the remarkable technical, historical, and aesthetic knowledge and equipment so necessary for his future work. On 17 Aug., 1859, he was called to the theological seminary at Ratisbon as teacher of Gregorian chant, homiletics, and catechetics. After three years he applied for the position of director of the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary and choiormaster at the Church of St. Emmeran in Ratisbon. On 1 Jan., 1866, appeared the first number of his papers, "Fliegende Blatter fur Kirchenmusik", for teachers, organists, and choirmasters, founded, according to his own words, to make war upon existing conditions in church music. The journal met with immediate success, and continues its mission to this day. He also served the cause of reform with great effect as a forceful speaker and as a composer. On 1 Jan., 1868, he began the publication of "Musica Sacra", a complement to "Fliegende Blatter", for the adequate treatment of all questions regarding the relation of music to the liturgy. During the same year, at the general diet of German Catholics held at Bamberg, Witt founded the St. Cecilia Society for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. At the request of twenty-nine bishops the society was approved and given a cardinal protector by the Holy See in 1870. Witt served as its president for twenty years. In 1873 he became pastor of the parish of Schatzhofen, but, two years later, failing health forced him to retire to Landshut, where he spent the last ten years of his life without pastoral charge. Father Witt united practically all the requisites of a successful reformer. Indomitable energy and a highly artistic temperament were made to serve the theologian and zealous pastor who realized the harm which was being done to the faithful by unworthy music. With his vigorous pen and spoken word he urged upon church musicians, priests, and laymen the moral obligation of obeying the laws of the Church, and a return to the Gregorian chant as the basis and informing principle of all music for liturgical use. His reform ideas, propagated through the St. Cecilia Society with its 14,000 members, several music schools, and a large number of journals devoted to the cause, have not only transformed musical conditions in the countries where they were put forth, but have had an echo throughout the Catholic world. As a composer Witt created a style entirely his own. Virility in his melodic material, vivid and striking declamation of the text, masterful contrapuntal construction, spontaneity, and organic cohesion are some of the characteristics of his works. He wrote more than twenty masses for different combinations of voices, some with organ, some with orchestra accompaniment, and others a cappella, litanies, motets, covering practically the whole liturgical year, and a large number of other compositions, most of which are standard and included in the repertoire of the best choirs throughout the world.

WALTER, Dr. Francis Witt, ein Lebensbild (Ratisbon, 1809); CHALES (MAX CHOP), Zeitgenossische Tondichter, Dr. Franz Witt (Berlin, 1890).

JOSEPH OTTEN