Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Faculty Profile: William Mahrt

The leader of the faculty at the Sacred Music Colloquium, and, really, the leader of the entire sacred music movement, is William Mahrt of Stanford University and president of the Church Music Association of America. I really do wonder sometimes what the state of Catholic liturgical would be without his forty plus years of brilliant work in the background, directing his own schola, turning out fantastic students, and quietly leading by example. In his work and his example, he is an absolute treasure.

The other day, he was must have been home with a few minutes on his hands and he graciously used those minutes to post a series of comments on forums and on this website. In one, he explained the responsory structure of the offertory chant and how it differs from other propers of the Mass. I learned something I did not know. In another, he made the point that the GIRM seems especially written to address vernacular liturgy and why that has implications for how Latin translations are treated - and this too what a special insight.

In yet another comment, he addressed an old controversy about the role of "voice of God" music at Mass, pointing out that ordinary chants are directed toward addressing God whereas the chants of the propers do in fact use the voice of God - and this has implications for whether the congregation ought to be singing propers rather than the chants assigned to them in the ritual structure. This was the first new thought on this topic in twenty years, and it absolutely blew me away.

These were just three passing thoughts tossed out from his vast store of knowledge on this topic. Even after knowing him for years and listening to so many of his lectures, I'm nowhere near finished learning from him.

At the colloquium this year, he is teaching not only singing but also offering a lecture series on the propers of the Mass. When I heard that he intended to do this, I just stopped and said, "wow." Truly this is going to be amazing. I hope it is recorded and posted. Even better is going to be actually hearing this live. This is important material, and there is no one in a better position to address this topic than Professor Mahrt.

It has been my great pleasure to work with him on the journal Sacred Music for the last five years, Time and again, he has made contributions that have given the journal its reputation for excellence. His knowledge is boundless and I'm often in awe of the things he knows that have been completely lost of me and my generation. He has so much to teach all of us.

He is also a unique case of a serious musicologist who is also a parish musician and practitioner of chant, working with volunteers in his parish for all these decades. He has always understood something that it took me many years to realized, namely that showing a lighted path forward is far more productive than wrangling over the past with hymn wars and the like. His combination of excellence in scholarship, practicality in performance, and absolute insistence on the primacy of beauty have formed the core of what the modern CMAA is all about. He also gave us all the language in which to discuss the whole topic of ideals in liturgy.