Saturday, October 3, 2015

Before it even begins, it has begun.

Last minute restructuring of the Synod on the Family announced Friday.

Please join me in praying for the Synod Fathers.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Redemptionis? Pronto, subito!

That last time I endured listening to a recording of Capella Sixtina I was in a choral seminar in grad school, in my advisor’s office (only five students IIRC.) I squirmed and shrank as he gleefully put on a CD that, at the time, was the last aural evidence of the death spiral Roman Catholic choral music had chosen after the “Golden Era, pre-Monteverdi,” with Vatican II as a chaser.

Downloaded and listening to CANTATE DOMINO, Capella Sistina, released September 25, 2015. I neither squirm nor shrink, but at first blush, I haven’t deciphered exactly what I’m listening to. It is truly “other” in so many realms. I intend to revisit it in depth many times via many different audio platforms, as that seems a necessity. But for us Catholic/Choralist/Musicians who concern themselves with such doings as what marks a bell-weather moment in our cultural history, I can readily attest this may be one of those. I will do a thorough review in the near future.

Random thoughts:

*Maestro Monsignor Palombella is to be reckoned with. Sonically, environmentally (spatially), his vision is laudable for its self-evidence. I’ve never been to Rome, remedied hopefully this January, but now I’ve a familiarity, once removed, of the ambient of the Papal Chapel. This collection has been recorded and mastered with intent and purpose, which many choral projects don’t receive if they’re studio efforts.

*Aesthetically and pedagogically I feel I’m wandering through a Venetian Masqued Carnivale of tonal complexity. The only remnant of the screamers are a couple of tenore primo’s who occasionally show up with a tempered down throaty vibrato in a mixed head-voice concoction. When that happens on the heels of the fully blended, floating tenor chanters, I wonder how many choral colors Maestro has up his sleeve.

*Which leads to the boys, the blessed boys. By Lord, they are set free. Maybe I doth project too much but I can see their little swarthy Mediterranean faces, eyes forward instead of up thankfully, sounding….well….Italian and pure! No Kings College, but no squawking hatchlings of old either. Now and then some pitch issues, but perfection I don’t think is Maestro’s goal, integrity and honor are I’d guess.

*There remains an equally swarthy manliness in the bass/baritones, but without the “watch me flex” muscularity that was so distracting under previous regimes. This is most evident in the “Adoramus te Christe,” where both the deep cardinal tones are refined with a measured but certainly present vibrato.

This is a collection of note and ought to be listened to repeatedly and discussed not only in Catholic music circuses, but also in the larger choral world. Could this be yet another renaissance, but in our lifetime?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Teaching the Truth in Love

My first real attempt at writing hymns arose directly out of theological error.

I was on retreat, and opened up a hymnal, published with ecclesiastical approbation, and found the section of hymns recommended for Communion time. It was appalling. Page after page of nothing but bread, wine, wheat, fields, grain, wine, wine, wine.... Any uncatechized person reading this hymnal would have no earthly idea that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ. They would, however, have a pleasant idea of agriculture.

I couldn't begin to count the number of times I have complained about a text that is frankly heretical, only to hear--sometimes from good theologians--"It's only a song." It's only a song. It's only a homily. But songs and homilies are the means by which error or truth can spread.

In my frustration, I wrote a bad hymn. It was bad because I am not a composer. But the text was all right. Soon I was told how to write hymn texts to Public Domain tunes, and haven't stopped writing since.

Early on in my writing, I took the pen name Ephrem after the great Syrian Doctor of the Church, St. Ephrem, and I took the same tactic. St. Ephrem wrote at the time of the Manichean heresy, which held St. Augustine's mind in bondage for some time before he found the truth. The heresy spread, in great part, by heretical hymnody.

St. Ephrem took the same melodies and wrote doctrinal hymns. Those accustomed to singing error--teaching themselves error by singing error--had a medicine to apply to their minds: the truth.

In his impromptu homily at the Prayer Vigil Saturday evening, the Holy Father alluded to a long-standing aspect of the Tradition. Bonum est diffusivum sui: The good diffuses itself towards others. This is a teaching that is at the heart of nearly all of Pope Francis' preaching about the mission of the Church. It is very fitting for God--perfect Love and Goodness--to pour out that love and goodness. It is not at all necessary that They did--but it was aptissimus: very fitting indeed. And this is how we and all creatures came to share in being. And as a Church, we are called to go out of ourselves in a similar way.

How many people in our Church have ever been taught to consider the Trinity, or the contingency of creation? Are these considered normal topics for homilies? For how many decades have these topics been considered too difficult and theological?

And the music in most of our parish churches teaches the emptiest of lessons: "I'm ok; you're ok." Without even beauty to challenge us, we are lulled to sleep, in an era that more than anything else needs disciples who are alive and awake.

Let's say a cohabitating couple decides one morning to go to Sunday Mass. "All Are Welcome" is the opening hymn. Sounds good, doesn't it! Sounds like we could keep living in any way we choose, and still be Catholic.

They go to Communion.

They go home and do what cohabiting couples do.

They do not go to Confession.

They may or may not go to Mass next Sunday. And no one tells them any of their actions might be harmful for them.

Does anyone care enough about the souls of uncatechized people to truly shepherd them, to teach them the truth, to lead them to meet the Lord in the fullness of the sacramental life?

Does anyone care enough to remove the obstacles--the skandala--that keep them from the encounter with the living God?

Ad multos annos!

CMAA members in the Washington DC area will be interested to know of a beautiful priestly anniversary.

Rev. Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth was ordained 25 years ago this Wednesday, September 30.

Please join me in wishing him many happy years!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Exemplary Music at Sunday Papal Mass

Sunday 27 4:21 pm EDT

Tune in to EWTN or another outlet to hear an excellent example of what a largescale Mass can be.

Currently the deacon is chanting the Gospel.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

If you've got nothing good to say, then...

A few thoughts from my not evil twin.

*How refreshing, enervating and humbling to hear our Pontiff and others employing the sacral language of Latin in these most recent Masses. When first I heard the orations my heart was unburdened from distraction, and even the oft-fertilized polarization of the OF to EF disappeared as does a blanket of fog that parts to reveal the Golden Gate Bridge in SF/Marin.

*Obligatory shout out to Fr. David Friel, CMAA compatriot and CCW contributor.

*Even tho' it seemed a skosh underwhelming, the  Rev.Schiavone's psalm setting, the contributions of Anglophone contemporary composers as my old classmate Dr. Nestor, Dr. Latona and our British cousin Philip Stopford, among others showed that there is a maturation after cultivation of composers who "get" the conciliar mandate to seek inspiration from the two named genres regarded as principle and secondary milieus that are the font of our musical sacred treasury. And to think, maybe the next papal go 'round we may actually enjoin the worship with music by Dr. LaRocca, Richard Rice, Jeffrey Quick, Paul Jernberg, JMO, Kevin Allen, Heath Morber or even Dr. K with a host of other composers working within the fold to create honest sacred music, that also is academically informed and
genuinely beautiful.

*Overall, I think the work of CMAA and those of a similar inclination has managed to bring a balance back to adjudicating the brilliance of music according to "sacred, universal and beautiful," as the balance of genres/styles seemed in greater measure more balanced than the last three papal tour liturgies. Even with performance practice, issues of texture and taste were mitigated from venue and personnel to the next. That is complimentary to Americans choosing to embrace the responsibilities of performance practice of the ars celebrandi (ie. chant with distracting vibrato v. a schola united in principle through the medium of chant presenting the ideal of human worship via the greatest instrument, the voice.

*Along a similar tack- it has been refreshing to notice that the employment of orchestral augmentation to the pipe organ wasn't employed at virtually every moment of all liturgical actions at all Masses from DC to NYC to Philly. The arrangement of "Hail Holy Queen..." actually enabled the ear to rest and compare/contrast aural textures through both instrumental orchestration and the deft use of Latin and English.

*Also, thanks to the planners at Philly for demonstrating the "Mahrt" conception of circumambulation at the Introit. I think that having the ministers process from the sacristy down a side ambulatory to the main aisle ought to be a staple at even just one weekend Mass in any parish whose size and attendance could support this approach to the entrance.

*As the liturgies went along and opened up, it seemed that both the style of the "cantors" and their amplified uber-presence was mitigated from archdiocese to archdiocese. But, I won't ever endorse the employment of any "songleader" when a choir is present. Canting lay readers and psalmists, yes. Touchdown, big vibrato'd Carusos/Callas' need not apply anymore, thank you.

*I can Richard Chonak calling out to me now: "That'll do, donkey, that'll do."

Soli Deo gloria.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Busy busy B's: from Beauty to Bartolucci to Brutal to Buffo

What can be said about our vocations? What needs saying? What should or shouldn't be said out loud in the public square?
I've been a conductor since the age of 18. Forty two years later I haven't changed my choral philosophy after decades of real study of both the physiology and the craft of beautiful singing, as well as how to acquire, prepare, perform and expand the repertoire base of what sacred choral music serves. When I first returned to the Central Valley in '87 as DMM of the Fresno Cathedral I had the opportunity to sit front row at a concert by Capella Sixtini under then Msgr. Bartolucci in my hometown. My rector, my wife and I winced at the excruciating (think about that word, think Lotti's magnificent "Crucifixus for 8v) bellowing of the men, the little boys strained and squealing tone like little fledgling birds screaming at momma bird for a piece of the worm, and lastly the wild gesticulation of the conductor, the ferocity and tension of his body magnified a hundred-fold on his face.
Our beloved Pope Emeritus obligingly provided Bartolucci not only the honor of finishing his pilgrimage as a Prince of the Church, but also a renewed platform to express his views about his disdain for effeminate (his words) interpretation of sacred choral works, and that if the choral world was his, all choirs would sound like opera choruses, in other words: muscular and manly. Singing in the Tudor style, or the Christiansen/Noble Lutheran manner, the Swedish style of Erickson, or any other refined and tested pedagogy was an insult and ignoble to properly rendering to God this most perfect art by which we worship.
But back in '87 I knew I was completely out of step with the other 99% of that concert's audience. They had just listened to two hours (Palestrina Song of Songs) of a Bugs Bunny parody (Bugs as "Leopold" torturing the tenor soloist into exploding) and then rose to their feet cheering, whistling and hollering. All of that dissonance came back to haunt me again yesterday at the nominal Vespers Service at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Why does everyone, from Raymond Arroyo to pastors to PIPs in the pews actually love the amplified (in so many different ways) bel canto, volume knob at 11, pushed pedal to the metal brutality of an opera chorus in the quire gallery, and mean it when they swoon "It was so beautiful, ahhhh."? Is it a knee-jerk reaction to the reality that most of them go to their home parishes and they have to endure a thin-voiced little ingénue singing a Sarah Hart or Maher tune accompanied by whatever instrument(s) are handy? So, when they hear this ROMAN CATHOLIC MUSCULAR PROWESS ENSEMBLE in this magnificent Manhattan sonic venue, the only reaction can be "Wow. Was that good for you too? Wow!"

I fear for my soul, literally, feeling that something is dreadfully wrong. And, as said earlier, this odd differentiation of mine predates my involvement with CMAA by three decades. It's nice to know via forum and FB, that there are many other Catholic choirmasters in my lonely little boat who share my frustration and concern.

Our dear Richard Rice put it nicely on FB responding to Jeffrey Morse's eloquent initial critique by simply saying that faced with a papal Mass, music directors tend to get all wonky and discombobulated, and thus throw convention into the window, caution to the wind and everything else into the kitchen sink of planning the ordo. (Can't help but think of Richard Dreyfus in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" throwing garden soil, plants, trees, wood and metal garden fencing through his kitchen window into the sink in order to build his vision, his Devil's Mountain.)

I suppose this last question will never receive a proper answer: Who is the buffo in all of this?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thomas Merton, on Gregorian Chant

"This is what I think about the Latin and the chant: They are masterpieces, which offer us an irreplaceable monastic and Christian experience. They have a force, an energy, a depth without equal. All the proposed English offices are very much impoverished in comparison — besides, it is not at all impossible to make such things understood and appreciated. Generally I succeed quite well in this, in the novitiate, with some exceptions, naturally, who did not understand well. But I must add something more serious. As you know, I have many friends in the world who are artists, poets, authors, editors, etc. Now they are well able to appreciate our chant and even our Latin. But they are all, without exception, scandalized and grieved when I tell them that probably this Office, this Mass will no longer be here in ten years. And that is the worst. The monks cannot understand this treasure they possess, and they throw it out to look for something else, when seculars, who for the most part are not even Christians, are able to love this incomparable art."

— Thomas Merton, in a letter to Dom Ignace Gillet, Abbot General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (1964)

“But the cold stones of the Abbey church ring with a chant that glows with living flame, with a clean, profound desire. It is an austere warmth, the warmth of Gregorian chant. It is deep beyond ordinary emotion, and that is one reason why you never get tired of it. It never wears you out by making a lot of cheap demands on your sensibilities. Instead of drawing you out into the open field of feelings where your enemies, the devil and your own imagination and the inherent vulgarity of your own corrupted nature can get at you with their blades and cut you to pieces, it draws you within, where you are lulled in peace and recollection and where you find God.”
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, Part 3, ch. 4, page 379

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Polyphony/Polyglot: many voices/many tongues

Preamble: As I don't tweet, could someone send one from me to Raymond Arroyo and his Papal Posse? "Gentlemen, if the summit of our witness is the Mass, could you not 'gab' during the reception of the Body of Christ? The music, such as it may be, is the only necessary accompaniment." Sheesh.

Okay, Deo gratias in that this was not Nationals' Stadium redux.

I don't have the Ordo. I heard the entire Mass of over 3 hours. Actually it's still going, and I hear the gritos of the Latino faithful that normally I only hear on December 12, which is oddly juxtaposed against the deacon's "Ite Missa est." Hmmm.

I'm not going to get all tendentious. But I'm gonna plea ignorance on many fronts. First, I had to wonder during many moments throughout the liturgy, what innermost thoughts might HHFrancis might've crossed his mind hearing the music ministry at certain points. (The following is satire only, for entertainment purposes only.)

*Americans sure do put out the dog for popes, n'est ce pas? They really are on a mission from God to prove they can out-sing any choral ensemble on the planet, even if little of it is authentically "Murican." That "Laudate Dominum" seemed to be taken up quite well. Que? Written by an Englishman? I think I've heard of this Briton, Sir Thomas Beecham, si?

*Ay, I get out of St. Peter's to get a rest from those pesky Capella Sixtina's alternating the Missa de Angelis, and I get the musical tennis match not only during the Gloria, but after the Entrada! El Coro de Azul is mas bueno, though.

*The Aleluya, it's really simple, mi amigos. But I had to stand up for another 5-10 minutos before the Gospel, and then you need to sing it again?

*Wasn't it muy bonita that the Oracion de los fidelis had so much going on: all the lovely tones of the Asian languages, the deacon's "Te rogamos al Senor" (e'er so quickly translated repeatedly by Raymond Arroyo into the lingua franca of the Estados Unidos) with English, Latin, Spanish responses? Ay carumba.

*Speaking of "Ay carumba," those coros brought the casa down with Lorenzo Florian, some sort of New World "villancico" secretly composed by Monteverdi (actually Zumaya) when he snuck over to the missions and performed by the opera company of Milan (odelay!), and then a very short, very lovely spiritual hymn allotted the Gospel Choir sung (muchos gracias not at fff but at pp, I wanted to kiss the drummer, but it ended too soon!")

*Peppy Santo! Quido told me they were starting with "Hosanna" as an estribillo. Okay. I don't think I've ever heard it that way before..... the nice lady sings "muy grande!"

*Tres horas! Santo Sciatica! What were those canticos at Comunion again?

*Maybe I will order the Rosetta Stone "Ecclesiastical Latin" from Amazon after all. Quido, take a note.

*One more thing, Guido, thank Maestro Latona for me, and then get me Dr. Osterman on the telefono, pronto.

Silence at Papal Liturgy

It is so refreshing to hear Sacred Silence at the Papal Liturgy this morning in St. Matthew Cathedral in Washington.  It is an excellent example of the importance of the absence of sound as beauty, accompanying the Sacred sound of liturgical music. Not every liturgical action needs the cacophony of a loud blasting hymn, although suitable in its own place.

This can be easily used as a teaching tool; not only silence itself, but the use of a similar reverential peace within Sacred chant, polyphony, and congregational music.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The America I hope Pope Francis sees

I suppose everyone has an agenda for the Holy Father's visit. Mine has to do with an America I've been able to witness, and which I hope Pope Francis has an opportunity to see.
  • Arts and beauty. Unlike Europe, the US seems to have regained some real ground from brutalism in all its forms. The music at the canonization, though undoubtedly a mix of good and bad, will feature at least some music that is excellently composed and well-performed. This is an area in which the US Church can, and does, provide leadership.
  • Young families. Everywhere you look in the Church in the US, you see large young families living their sacramental lives full of joy. The future is obvious: Serious Catholicism is fruitful and joyful and exceedingly promising. It is also challenging, and needs the support of the Church in not only concrete matters, but in its teaching and practice.
  • Poverty. The United States, while a perennial breadbasket for the world and a place where entrepreneurial dreams can still become reality, is also the home of large seedy areas of frustrated hopes, where children learn early and often that they are destined for nothing in particular, and that no one will help. Homes for the aged are ridiculously expensive. Catholicism has a traditional solution to poverty: men and women Religious.
  • Young Religious. Most religious communities in the US are fading out. A few are thriving.

Nothing Is Impossible from Carmelite Sisters on Vimeo.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Power of Beautiful Sacred Music

Just digging up an old post from my personal site, from my pilgrimage to DC for the 2013 March for Life. Enjoy!

The mosaic behind St. Cecilia’s altar in the crypt church
at the National Shrine, with a beautiful antiphon from
lauds on her feast day: Whilst musicians made music,
Cecilia sang unto the Lord, saying: O let my heart be
sound in thy statutes, that I be not ashamed.
As I mentioned in my previous post, assisting at Mass at the National Shrine was amazing, not only because of the beauty of the church we were privileged to worship in, but also the music. I will say without reservation that the shrine’s professional choir is the best choir I have ever heard. But on an even more important note, they are not only singing plain old standard music well, they sing sacred music well.

As I walked into the church on Saturday afternoon, the choir and congregation were singing Kyrie VIII, which a friend and I instantly and happily joined in on. After they finished the kyrie gracefully, the cantor intoned Gloria VIII and the massive organ filled the church as the congregation began: “et in terra pax homínibus.” I was intensely joyful, only having heard the gloria in Latin one other time in the Ordinary Form, and marveling at the grand sound of the massive organ filling the beautiful shrine with the praises of God.

Glória in excélsis Deo et in terra pax homínibus bonae voluntátis.

But as they reached “Laudamus te,” the organ fell silent, and I realized they were singing the Gloria in alternatim, as they often do at Papal Masses, and some larger churches on important feasts, and the choir broke out into fantastic polyphony. That’s when I just about lost it.

I went weak in the knees. My jaw literally hung open. I felt chills straight up my spine as I mouthed along with the prayers the schola was singing in such a sublime manner. The beauty of the church, combined with the stunning beauty of the music, had quite literally sucked me into the liturgy unfolding before me. It was almost a form of ecstasy.

Did I stay for the rest of Mass? You betcha. And the music was just as good throughout the rest of the Mass as well, as they sang the propers, Victoria motets, and fantastic organ interludes. It was one of the most prayerful Masses I had ever been to.

That’s what sacred music needs to do. I felt physically weak, and had a deep feeling of peace and joy after hearing what I will call one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.

Imagine if I had been an atheist walking off the street, not sure of the direction of my life, not appreciating the beauty in life, and that music had that same effect on me, causing me to stay, and come the truth, and be baptized the following Easter. Somehow I doubt that guy screeching away “Here I am Lord” on a guitar would have the same effect on me.

Our liturgies should be filled with the good, the true and the beautiful, but we need to focus especially on the aspect of beauty. We can reach the people through beauty. Sometimes it’s the only way. When people have their minds closed to the truth, sometimes the only way to reach them is through their emotions and their heart, as I was reached last Saturday.

\Pastors, hire sacred musicians who know their stuff, and pay them well. Music directors, know your stuff, and do it well. When done well, you will affect more souls than you will ever know.

And while you’re at it, send a donation to the CMAA.

Here’s a recording of the gloria (and some other music from the Mass, starting at about 0:48), so you can hear what I heard. The recording isn’t the best, but at least you can hear what I’m talking about. It begins with the congregational verse of the gloria, and then when the organ stops (on Jesu Christe), the polyphony verse (Domine Deus…). Keep in mind the sound of both the choir and the organ are filling the entire church the whole time. After the gloria, it contains part of the responsorial psalm, offertory motet, and organ improvisation after that.