Thursday, July 5, 2012

Advent for Sacred Music

Somehow it seems that something gigantic and momentous has taken place in the world of Catholic music. After so many years, when enthusiasts, scholars, and dedicated musicians have worked to push the rock uphill, against all odds, there’s a new momentum out there, much to everyone’s surprise and relief. The rock is now rolling downhill. It is an energy that is broad, diffuse, and unquestionably authentic. The sacred music movement is set to define the future of Catholic music.

It probably doesn’t seem that way in your parish, not yet. But the times are changing. The ground has shifted. Scholas are starting everywhere today, parish by parish. They are using music that is both free online and sold in beautiful editions. These editions are most published just in the last two or three years. They are mostly published by institutions that have virtually no funding at all, and have either few employees or none. But the power of the idea (sing the liturgy) and the beauty of the liturgical song they embody is making converts by the day.

All these thoughts are prompted by spending a week at the Sacred Music Colloquium in Salt Lake City. This is where you will find the Cathedral of the Madeleine, which, to everyone’s shock, turns out to be the home to the best Catholic choir in America. Salt Lake City is probably the last place you would expect to find such a thing but such is the way the reform is turning out: there are delightful surprises around every corner.

When the conference director (Arlene Oost-Zinner) of the Church Music Association of America suggested shifting the annual event from the East Coast to the West, one could detect some degree of skepticism. Nothing like this had ever been tried before. It was a highly risky step for an organizing that is always one small step away from bankruptcy. But look what happened: the conference filled up to capacity (270) weeks ahead and we ended up having to turn people away.

And this was certainly the happiest group of campers I’ve ever seen at the Colloquium. They came from all regions. All ages were represented. There was a nice balance of new singers and professional musicians. They practically floated through the week. The faculty was varied and massive, as never before. More priests were in attendance than ever. The liturgical program was more spectacular than ever.

And the breakouts were amazing. We had sessions on English chant, hymnody, sight singing, vocal production, organ repertoire, chant typesetting, parish administration, and so much more. People left each session with high praise for the teacher and the learning environment. Also, the book that we brought all sold, with an English psalm book (again by Oost-Zinner) and a book for chant for kids (Words with Wings) topping the bestseller charts. Also, of course, all the official music books of the Roman Rite sold well.

We tried a new method for dividing up the chant choirs. We used to do beginning, intermediate, and advanced, but this approach didn’t quite achieve the goal. This year we had two beginning classes, two refresher classes, and two performance scholas that prepared nearly all the music for Mass. In addition, we had two master classes that delved very deeply into the scholarship of the oldest manuscripts, all in an effort to bring more sophistication to chant performance.

I gave a four-part lecture series on the history of sacred music in the United States, based on all my reading and research over the years. I set out to debunk two main myths that are in the air: 1) that all our problems began after the close of Vatican II, and 2) all the problems we face are due to liberal hippies who hate the classics. Once dispensing with those two ideas, we can begin to confront the complex realities of how we ended up in the awful state that we’ve seen for decades, and then, as a result, see that there is a way out of the mess.

The pathway forward is not as foggy as it once was. We finally have liturgical books that we can sing from, primarily the third edition of the Roman Missal, plus books of chanted propers that have recently become available. We are finally seeing hymnals come to print that are actually related to the liturgy itself and not just providing pop music that is external to the rite. Each year the number of people who are interested in making a change grows, and they are learning from other people who have traveled the same path.

In my sessions and many others, there was frank talk about the difficulties of making the transition at the parish level. There are few singers. There is no money. Pastors are afraid of change. Every change inspires some level of resistance from a small pocket of people. We spoke about all of these problems, and offers solutions from our own experiences. Also, this kind of exchange and learning continues daily at the forums, where members offer each other helpful advise and guidance.

There are too many people who were involved in making this event a great success to name them all. But certainly the Cathedral staff and Gregory Glenn deserve high mention here. What they have done in this city is just spectacular, and they supported the Colloquium in every way. There is a movie soon to come out about their efforts. It’s called “The Choir.” We saw an early screening of it. It was so excellent that it will surely inspired the creation of other choir schools around the country.

I should also mention the contribution of Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth, who has provided so much guidance, the brilliant leadership of William Mahrt, and the inspiration provided by Fr. Guy Nicholls of the Birmingham Oratory. Again, it’s dangerous to name names because so many people were involved, not the least of whom were the many attendees who scrimped and saved to raise the money to attend.

So here we have it, a movement with energy, enthusiasm, deep knowledge, true love for the beautiful, and all rooted in a genuine desire to do what the Church intends. There is just nothing else like it out there. This is truly the future, and that future could arrive much sooner than you think.