Monday, May 23, 2011

The Amazing Existence of the Sacred Music Colloquium

A new singer came to our schola this week. At his first liturgical experience with us, he read the Gregorian communion chant beautifully. We didn’t give him a crash course. He already knew how to do this.

How did this happen? He is from another section of the country, and is only visiting our area for the summer. He had been taught how to read and sing chant by a person who had attended the Sacred Music Colloquium, as sponsored by the Church Music Association of America. The skills had passed from person to person, eventually landing back in our own parish. This is a beautiful illustration of how the passion and fire for sacred music can spread, potentially without limit.

Note, however, that there must be an infrastructure in place that teaches and trains in the first round, one wholly dedicated to the task of rebuilding the chant tradition and helping it to live and thrive in the real world of parish life. This is the primary task of the Colloquium.

At a time when conventions, conferences, and colloquia all over the country are being scaled down or cancelled for economic reasons, the Colloquium thrives as never before (thanks be to God). And this is not due to resources (as ever, the CMMA runs on a wing and a prayer) but to the passion and drive of organizers and attendees.

A major problem I’ve experienced when trying to raise money for the CMAA is that people don’t see how training musicians outside their own parish can really be of any help to themselves personally. They know the musicians who rule the roost at home and potential donors often consider them to be tenured people with limited imaginations, essentially beyond hope. Potential financial backers of the Colloquium have no interest in giving money to help other parishes improve while their own parishes are stuck singing Carter-era classics.

This is an understandable perspective but it is rooted in a superficial understanding of how musical change happens. Music is unlike physical objects like pews, statues, buildings, or even books. Training one person to chant in another part of the world can make it possible for this person to train someone else, and then this person influences another, and so on, until the skills and love associated with authentic liturgical music eventually lands back home again.

There is no way to promise this or guarantee that this will happen, but it can and often does. And there is another point too: parish music programs often adapt to the changing culture of Catholic aesthetics in a broader sense. And there is no surer way to change that culture than through a large-scale annual program that is continuous year to year.

The sponsoring organization of the Colloquium has an incredible history. The CMAA was formed in 1965 as a coming together of the two Catholic music organizations in the United States. They Society of St. Caecilia was founded in 1874 and served mainly a German-speaking Catholic population. The St. Gregory Society was formed in 1913 and became the primary organizing infrastructure for the whole country.

During and immediately following the Second Vatican Council - which solidly affirmed Gregorian chant to be the preeminent music of the Roman Rite, never to be displaced from that role regardless of circumstances - everyone knew that the postconciliar scene would need assistance to achieve the ideals.

What if the two organizations united into something new? Surely that would create an fantastic new organization that would provide direction and leadership into the future. With the encouragement and official approval of the Vatican, the Church Music Association of America was formed in 1964/65 to bring Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony to the whole of Catholic life at all levels. It was to steer the musicians through the coming liturgical changes with an eye toward the promising goals and ideals of Vatican II.

Well, I don’t need to tell readers that it didn’t turn out this way. A struggle for control ensued immediately, with factions forming along personal and ideological lines. The faction that backed the founding mission won the day but it was unclear what they had won. These were tumultuous years of upheaval, and the old forms of organizing in a top-down manner no longer work.

By 1968, the organization found itself strategically outrun and financially bankrupt. The new Mass was promulgated at a time when the organization was at its weakest. The folk Mass was spreading. Non-liturgical music was sweeping the country. There was so much confusion that people were not entirely sure what they were supposed to sing. The Graduale attached to the new Mass did not come out in print for another four years. The prevailing attitude was: tear up the pea patch. Down with chant. Down with anything old. When the Vatican sent a scaled down chant Mass packet to all Bishops in 1976, it was virtually ignored.

At that point, the goal became the survival of the idea, and the survival of the organization itself. The list of heroes here is Msgr. Richard J. Schuler, Fr. Robert Skeris, Cal Shenk, Paul Salamonovich, Kurt Poterack, and many others who worked to keep the colloquium going on a small scale and keep the journal Sacred Music coming out as regularly as possible. This was certainly a period of near hibernation for the lovers of sacred music. It would have been easier to give up and move on. They didn’t: the work to build for brighter days ahead.

In the minds of those who defined progress as moving as far away from tradition as possible, an organization like the CMAA was not even supposed to exist. To them, it was just a waiting game for final extinction. The CMAA was a remnant, a holdover, the last of a dying breed, a bad reminder of what once was, a corpse in need of burial. In fact, what was happening was profoundly important: the candle was being kept lit and burning. Those people taught new people, and the distance between then and now was being bridged.

The revival was an extraordinary thing to live through. It began sometime around 2005 as more and more people were attracted to the offerings both at the CMAA’s conferences and through the organization’s online distribution of chant. People came crawling from every direction, all kinds of people of all ages. Some were very experienced in chant but had been in hiding; others were novices. Many were musicians who had taken the “glory and praise” and “praise and worship” models as far as they would go. Each year, half or more of the attendees were new to sacred music.

From a boutique meeting of dedicated chanters, the conference more than doubled in size each year until it has been capped at 250. A reason for that is that this program is not like a trade show, something you attend to hang out with friends and shop for goods, and only pretend to attend sessions. There are plenty of friends, but absolutely everyone sings in a choir that prepares chant and another choir the prepares polyphony - and there are five choices each for choirs. The conductors and teachers are world class. It is very hard work. The atmosphere is unbeat and productive -- dare I say progressive!

And this year, once again, it is full -- again, despite every prediction that this music would die at long last and be replaced by 100% non-liturgical pop music. The program seeks to embrace the liturgical ideal with Masses in the vernacular and Latin ordinary form as well as extraordinary form, each giving close attention to the propers of the Mass. Within this framework there is huge diversity. It appears that the singing packet this year is going to be some 275 pages! And there’s no question that the highlight of each day is the Mass that uses the music we’ve work on.

The program is a humbling experience for everyone there. Everyone feels a sense of inadequacy as compared with the greatness of the music we are singing. We are all surrounded by people who are better readers and better singers, and this can sometimes be a bit painful. But you can notice yourself improving as the week goes on. When you return home, you have a new sense of confidence in singing and conducting. It ends up as a gigantic musical upgrade in the lives of everyone who came.

And this is just the beginning of the activities of this unlikely story of the rise, fall, and rise of the CMAA. The new books that will be distributed this year are going to change many things. But, in the end, it isn’t really about an organization. It is about a vision and a dream - that of making the sounds of eternity a perpetuating part of the temporal order during that liturgy that alone causes time and transcendence to touch.

The Sacred Music Colloquium has no “sugar daddy,” no money bags donor, no access to a lucrative foundation somewhere, no connections to powerful people, or anything like that. Can anyone be surprised to know that the entire enterprise is sustained by equal measure of hard work and relentless faith that the impossible can happen.