Lessons from the Churches of Christ

My best friend and his wife (my wife’s best friend) grew up in and worship in the Church of Christ tradition, a Christian denomination popular in the Southern U.S., with roots in the Second Great Awakening. For theological and historical reasons (which are not the focus of this article), the Churches of Christ developed a culture of unaccompanied congregational singing. This singing style, heavily influenced by the Shape Note (Sacred Harp) tradition, is one of the core identifying characteristics of this religious tradition.

If you have followed much of my writing over the years, you know that I am quite enamored with the musical tradition of the Churches of Christ (and other “Primitive American” musics), and it has influenced my own thinking about congregational singing, the primacy of Gregorian Chant within the Roman Rite, and the transmission of culture across generations.

I am deeply concerned about the long-term viability of the musical heritage of the Church of Christ tradition, and I also think there are lessons to learn about the preservation of musical culture.

The Churches of Christ are not immune to the trends of popular religious music, and never have been throughout their two-century history. Old traditional strophic hymns, Sacred Harp music, popular “Gospel” songs, and (now) the latest pop Christian praise music have all found a place within their worship gatherings. Songs which were considered new-fangled a generation ago are now defended as “traditional,” while the latest generation of devotional music slowly but inevitably finds its way into the Sunday service, despite the occasional grumblings from the curmudgeons and defenders of the faith.

The ability of the CoC to bend and reshape each new wave of popular music to fit the denominational requirement that no instruments be used in worship has created a situation where these diverse styles and genres become unified, and can coexist without any sense of aesthetic discontinuity. This continuity is particularly interesting because almost no Church of Christ musician would consider aesthetic continuity, in a Catholic liturgical sense, to be a requirement of tasteful and dignified worship. All the same, I am of the opinion that aesthetics have a strong psycho-spiritual impact, even when your explicit theology says otherwise.

This strength of the CoC musical tradition suggests (to me, at least) that one of the keys to maintaining (or reclaiming) a truly Catholic and Roman musical culture in the Roman Rite might be a stronger sense of aesthetic continuity, even when (or especially when) local requirements dictate use of music other than Gregorian Chant and Renaissance Polyphony. It goes (more or less) without saying here on the Chant Cafe that “contemporary” (that is, pop-styled) music creates some artistic dissonance within the Mass. But I have also experienced “traditional” liturgy that seemed as much a hodge-podge as any Folk Mass I’ve attended. Just because several things are in Latin, or just because several things are old, does not mean that they belong together in the liturgy. At the same time, careful adaptation of style can bring more contemporary music into aesthetic alignment with more traditional selections.

Though the Churches of Christ have seemingly been able to absorb and unify each new wave of popular devotional music over the last two centuries, there is one trend within contemporary “Praise and Worship” culture which threatens severe disruption within this tradition, and which has already begun to wreak havoc on Catholic liturgy: performer-oriented music.

This “performer orientation” seems to be an artifact of the mega-church phenomenon, imported (as far as I am aware) somewhat unthinkingly along with other detritus such as projection screens and microphones.

In an average Church of Christ congregation, it is common for a “worship minister” or “song leader” to sing the melody of a song into a microphone, from the front of the assembly area. This leader is supposedly helping the congregation to sing, but is, in fact, doing no such thing. Rather, this practice is a serious threat to the integrity of congregational singing, for a number of reasons which should be obvious but apparently are not. Three in particular stand out:

First, the presence of a song leader implies to the congregation that singing is something done by a particular person with a particular set of skills. The congregation’s job, then, is not to sing, but only to “sing along.” Inasmuch as singing is no longer the domain of the congregation, it becomes optional for them. You might sing if you want to, or if you think you are good at it, but you no longer sing out of necessity. Since it is no longer essential that every person sings, it will of course become the case that not everyone sings.

Additionally, the artificial amplification of the melody over the other vocal parts destroys the aural texture of congregational part-singing, making it impossible for newcomers and children to learn to sing in harmony. People who grow up within the Church of Christ tradition learn to sing in four-part harmony without any formal training. The major enabling factor for this ability is constant exposure to it, in a context in which each individual part can be clearly heard by anyone within the assembly. When a song leader sings the melody into a microphone, the other parts are covered in such way as to make them nearly impossible to hear individually. Anyone who does not already know a harmony line has very little help in learning one. This problem is made infinitely worse by the use of words-only projection slides, which provide no musical information or formation.

Finally, the nature of individual singing performance is intrinsically different than congregational singing performance. Musical phenomena such as rhythmic content and melodic ornamentation simply work differently with a soloist than they do with a congregation. The placement of a single singer at the head of the congregation inevitably draws that singer toward a solistic style of singing which is musically incompatible with robust congregational singing.

Part of the reason that these developments have been allowed to take place is that, much like with many customs and rules in Roman liturgical practice, the heart of the Church of Christ’s congregational orientation – a theology of community derived from the Acts of the Apostles – has been reduced in common practice to a mere legalism: “No musical instruments.” Once a theological proposition has been reduced to a legalism, there are two inevitable consequences: circumnavigation and abandonment. Circumnavigation happens when the question becomes, “How can we do whatever we wanted to do anyway, without ‘technically’ breaking the rules?” Abandonment happens when the pretense of technicality is dropped and the rule is simply ignored or removed.

The history of the Roman Rite, particularly through the late modern period, involves many cycles of legalization, circumnavigation, and eventual (de facto and then de jure) abandonment. One example of this is the replacement of Propers with hymns. Another is the change in liturgical orientation from the East toward the people.

In the Churches of Christ, this process has meant that mega-church Praise Band culture was simply imported into unaccompanied, heavily microphoned soloists (circumnavigation) and now, in a small but growing number of cases, congregations have simply added “Instrumental Worship” services (abandonment). I get the sense, from my friends in other Christian traditions, that this process is universal and inevitable.

There are two typical ways of reacting to this seemingly inevitable evolution from law to legalism to disregard. Most people go along with whatever trend is currently in vogue, whether actively supporting the change or simply allowing it to happen without comment or resistance. A small minority oppose the change, but usually for spurious reasons having to do with legalism and habit.

Philistines and Pharisees. Progressives and Prudes.

In both cases personal comfort seems paramount, and neither “side” is really right. In fact we all find ourselves identifying with one group or the other, and this is a matter of temperament, not maturity.

As an outsider to the CoC tradition, it’s easy for me to back up, ignore the messy details, and offer some thoughts on a solution. I’m not hopeful that many Church of Christ congregations will take up my suggestions. I am, though, hopeful that the benefit of distance will provide some clarity into finding similar solutions to similar problems within the Catholic tradition of liturgical music. For this reason, I will only offer a few thoughts and a lot of questions. It seems to me that these questions are relevant to music ministry in all Christian traditions.

It seems to me that the best way forward for preserving the Church of Christ musical tradition is not to embark on a destructive reactionary campaign of strict rule following, but to embrace the spirit of the original rules and to evaluate new developments against their purpose, rather than against their technicalities. That is – to ask whether something is helpful, not just whether it is allowed.

On a practical level this means first re-evaluating both the need for and the nature of “Song Leaders.” Are they really helping the congregation to find their own voice? Or are they allowing the congregation to become more passive during worship? Do they need to hold microphones? What is the optimal volume for microphones? Should there be multiple singers on microphones (one for each vocal part), or just one, or none at all? Whether there is one Song Leader, or a choir full of them – what is their placement relative to the assembly, and what does this placement imply?

For those congregations which have decided to add instrumental worship – Is there a way to use instruments as an enhancement to congregational part-singing, rather than a replacement for it? Can decisions like placement of musicians, repertoire, and performance style be made in such a way that the congregation retains an active role in music-making, rather than abdicating that role to a small group of performers?

Another thing to consider is church architecture and acoustics – building worship spaces which either enhance congregational singing or which require extreme amplification. Additionally, the use of projection screens could be evaluated with an eye toward those practices which enhance congregational participation and long-term viability.

Critically – and this goes for all of us, in every tradition – we all must develop the habit of thinking theologically about our actions.

What belief is being expressed when a congregation sits back in padded chairs and sings-along with a performative soloist? What belief is being expressed when a people stand together and sing together? What belief is being expressed by choosing to worship in an acoustically dead, unattractive space? What belief is being expressed when one person’s voice is amplified over the voices of everyone else?

Historically, the people in the Churches of Christ pray a certain way because they believe a certain way, and that prayer life in turn forms them into that way of believing, and into a way of living. It is the same, of course, for us – for all of us.

We cannot import and capitulate to every new trend that comes along, but neither can we become reactionaries against all natural change and progress. Even our approach to change signals something about our beliefs: showing on the one hand that the forms of our worship are completely changeable and thus completely meaningless, or on the other that worship is a history museum with little relevance to human life.

This is the essence of Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. If we wish to form people into a way of believing, into a way of living (a Lex Vivendi), we must take care with the way we pray and worship.

A Summer Suggestion

My first year as a choir director, someone asked a question during a rehearsal sometime in May.

“Are we going to take the summer off?”

I was about two syllables into responding with “I wasn’t really planning to,” when I noticed the combination of hope and exhaustion on the faces of my choir members.

“What if we kept singing through the summer, but didn’t rehearse on Wednesdays? We’ll just come an hour before the service and work on things. Easy things, things we’ve done before. How does that sound?”

And so it was that my choir landed on what apparently (unbeknownst to me) is a typical schedule throughout church-music-land: no rehearsals after Trinity Sunday until about the first week of September. But we’re still providing music for 2+ months.

It seems the pattern of having your choir continue to sing, working on things before Mass and programming literature they’ve done before, is pretty common, and that the other common pattern is going from a full choir to just a small schola or a single cantor. Along with this is typically a simplification of the music overall, favoring smaller choral works and (often) more congregational music.

Among the problems with this for a music director is that there isn’t a lot of opportunity to learn music ahead of time for the summer months when they come. We’re all too busy on Lent and then Holy Week and then Eastertide and then Ascension and then Pentecost and then Trinity Sunday and then Corpus Christi. Throw in a handful of Confirmation services, Baccalaureate Masses, and other end-of-school-year festivities, and its easy to get to the Summer without any decent “general” choral music in repertoire.

And yet, as the summer months roll in, and the thermometer and weekly attendance move in opposite directions, we choir directors struggle to maintain a balance between our desire to offer our best and the reality of the summer lull.

So here’s a suggestion…
Chant the Propers.

After years of learning that the propers are THE IDEAL toward which we are all working and striving, it seems (sometimes) that singing the Propers – the authentic texts of the Mass – is some far-off goal that only a few can achieve.

But it can be so much easier than whatever you are doing right now. And the Summer time is the perfect time to start.

All you need is a set of good, simplified chant settings of the Propers. (And there are several available.)

Here’s what you can do…

Perhaps during the school year (“choir season”), you are singing a choir piece during the Offertory.

Just replace it with either that Sunday’s proper Offertory or one of the (allowed by the Church) seasonal options from (for example) the Lumen Christi Simple Gradual. Whether you have two people in your choir or twenty (or none), your singers can learn the antiphon quickly and easily after hearing it once or twice.

If you are using a resource that has an Antiphon and the pointed Psalm verses (like the Simple English Propers or the Lumen Christi Simple Gradual), you, or your one cantor, or your whole choir, or just the men, or just the women – somebody in your choir – can sing the Psalm verses.

You can sing the Antiphon once at the beginning and the end, with chanted Psalm verses in the middle. Or you can sing the Antiphon twice at the beginning (Cantor; All) and repeat after every few verses.

This is no more difficult than the Respond & Acclaim brand responsorial Psalms, and much more beautiful.

If your Offertory music is usually a congregational song or hymn, you can either put the text of the antiphon into their programs or (if you’re trying to clean out your end-of-year budget), you can get the assembly editions of the Simple Gradual and put the numbers on the hymn-board.

“Our song during the Preparation of the Gifts is number two hundred and ninety eight in the green Simple Gradual. That’s TWO NINE EIGHT in the GREEN book. ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’. TWO NINE EIGHT”

A similar change could be made at the Communion (in addition to, or a replacement for, a congregation hymn or song). And if you wanted to get REALLY DARING, you could do the same in place of (or after) the Entrance Hymn.

This is not hard to do, musically.

The problem with implementing sung Propers is almost never musical in nature, but “political,” so to speak. Change is difficult in any organization, and people don’t take kindly to it.

That’s why the Summer is the perfect opportunity to begin.

If you start with the Offertory as I suggest above, there would be very little interruption to what people are expecting. If you print the antiphon text in the program, or put the assembly edition into the pews, the proper antiphon becomes (to the mind of a complaint-prone congregant) just another refrain to just another nice piece of music. If you begin in the Summer time, the typical lull provides explanatory “cover” for a change to simpler, easier music; while the simpler, easier music makes your Summer lull so much more full and beautiful. Doing this during a specific season makes it easy to “backtrack” if needed, providing you an easy out if problems arise (though I suspect there won’t be as many as you fear).

Perhaps, when the Summer is over, you go back to what you have always done during the year. Or perhaps, if the response was positive, you continue implementing the rest of the propers with your choir or with your congregation. Perhaps the experience with modal chant (and square notes!) will provide the starting point for working towards a fully sung liturgy.

As I mentioned, there are several excellent resources available for doing this. One of the best is the newly available Lumen Christi Simple Gradual. There is an Assembly Edition, if you’d like to put the antiphons themselves in front of your congregation, and there is a Choir Edition which includes psalm verses for a soloist or choir.

The Choir Edition can be used by itself with no other investment needed, as described above. A copy for every person in your choir ensures that, whatever else happens – whether a copy machine breaks, or a shipment of octavos doesn’t arrive, or every member of your Bass section gets s cold – you’ll always be able to sing the proper and authentic texts of the Liturgy, in beautiful musical settings. And that’s worth having all year ’round.

Whatever the outcome and whatever your specific summer-situation is, whether you are just looking for something easy and good to get you through the Summer lull or whether you are looking for a way to begin fully implementing sung propers, the Lumen Christi Simple Gradual is a great resource to have.

Put a dozen copies in your choir room, relax, and enjoy your Summer.

Click here to purchase the Lumen Christi Simple Gradual.

The Chanting Presider

According to Musicam sacram, the first, most important, degree of solemnity is the chanting of the priest – in dialogue with the congregation and in the various prayers of the presider alone (the Collects, the Preface, etc.).

While more and more priests are taking up the singing of the dialogues such as “The Lord be with you” (and hearing back a typically hearty “And with your spirit”), many still find the singing of the proper weekly prayers a bit difficult.

Part of the difficulty is that the texts of these in the English translation of the Roman Missal are not provided with musical notation. A priest who wants to sing these has to be comfortable with the melody (the Simple Tone or the Solemn Tone) and then know how to apply it, more-or-less on the fly, to the text of the prayer.

While it is certainly admirable for a priest to have this skill, it is not something everyone is able to do. But that’s okay.

Thanks to the wonderful work of Anthony DiCello, director of music at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Ohio, priests now have a resource of fully-notated chants for the opening collect, the prayer over the gifts, and the prayer after communion. These are available in both the Simple and the Solemn Tone.

These resources are notated in modern stemless round notes and are easy to read and work with. They can be found in the Liturgical Resources section of the Mount St. Mary’s website.


For at least a year now, my friend Matthew Meloche, Director of Music at the Cathedral of Sts. Simon and Jude in Phoenix, has been trying to convince me to move to his diocese to join what he calls “THE SACRED MUSIC REVOLUTION IN THE DESERT.”

At first I thought it was just kind of a joke (as most ALL-CAPS TITLES tend to be), but I was there this past weekend and it turns out that a revolution really is going on there in the desert.

On Saturday evening I attended a Mass at the Cathedral where the music was provided by only a single female cantor and Meloche on the organ. The cantor intoned the antiphons and sang the Psalm verses for English versions of the Introit, Offertory, and Communion propers, as well chanted settings of the Responsorial Psalm and Alleluia. These were taken from a handful of sources, most notably from the new Lumen Christi Simple Gradual, published by Illuminare Publications. (Adam Bartlett, the composer of the Simple English Propers, was the previous music director at the cathedral and also wrote most of the settings in the Lumen Christi Series).

Use of the processional propers (in addition to strong, traditional hymns) was really excellent, but unsurprising (I already knew that both Bartlett and Meloche had made this a priority), but what really blew me away was the singing by the priests and deacons: dialogues, prayers, the preface. I attended four Masses at the Cathedral, hearing two priests and three deacons, and all of them sang. It was really quite stunning.

So as wonderful as this was, it was the Cathedral of a Bishop who takes liturgy and music seriously, where the current and most recently previous music directors are both chant experts.

Does that qualify as a REVOLUTION?

I also attended Mass on the Arizona State University campus, at the Newman Center. It was a sung Mass, with chanted propers and traditional choral music, at 9:00pm Sunday night at a public university.

The place was packed.

The processional propers were all chanted, in English settings drawn from both the Simple English Propers and the Lumen Christi Series. The Ordinary was the Missa de Angelis, sung (very well) in Latin by the whole congregation. The priest sang most of the dialogues. After the dismissal, the Marian antiphon Regina Caeli Laetare was chanted in Latin by the entire congregation, followed by a phenomenal organ postlude.

The Cathedral liturgy was really something amazing, but it was a Cathedral liturgy. A strong bishop, an excellent rector, and a decent budget ensure that the leadership there can implement a serious music program. To me, the Newman center at ASU confirms that there is a revolution afoot, and not just in Phoenix. There is a generational shift happening that will remake the landscape of Catholic music.

The 9:00pm Sung Mass is not the only Sunday liturgy offered on campus. Other Masses, at more “normal” times of day consist of typical Catholic folk-fare and high-spirited Praise and Worship music.

But the Sung Mass, I am told, is the most well-attended.

Moreover, the ratio of men to women was almost 50/50, an amazing thing given how under-represented males are in church attendance. (The dynamic young priest told me that this is unique to the Sung Mass congregation.)

Also, there were a number of people who were clearly not a part of the typical “College Student” crowd – older folks, young families with children. They may have been members of the University community (faculty, staff, graduate students), or unaffiliated locals. Either way, it was clear that this chanted liturgy was not catering to some niche group of college-Catholics.

Finally, the entire atmosphere of the Mass was nothing like what the detractors of chant and tradition so often imagine.

This wasn’t “lace and slippers” traddies or gloomy ultra-conservatives creating a bastion of purity and personal piety. It wasn’t awkward young men in crooked bowties or repressed young women dressed like the Amish. It was just a typical, rag-tag group of college students you would expect at just about any event, and an impressive handful of families and older folks. There were guys in suits, and guys in wrinkled t-shirts. There were ladies in conservative dresses and some in too-revealing gym attire. Some people sang, and some didn’t. Some prayed fervently before Mass, while others chatted and goofed off.

They weren’t rebelling against their hippie boomer parents or trying to revive Baroque aesthetics. They weren’t people who read blogs about liturgy and music, and I would bet that most of them love Pope Francis dearly and love also the Emeritus.

With respect to my good friend at the Cathedral (and I can’t really say enough good things about the music there), this is the real revolution. Young lay Catholics and young priests, together with devout and faithful people of all ages discovering and living into the musical traditions of the authentic liturgy of the Roman Rite. They are diving into the old books – the Graduale Romanum, the Liber Usualis. They are also taking advantage of the amazing riches of newer material available, resources like the Simple English Propers, the Parish Book of Chant, and the Lumen Christi series.

They are not, as is sometimes a danger among us obsessive liturgists, in love with ritual, but rather in love with God. Liturgy is not an end to itself, but rather it is the source and summit of their lives as faithful Catholics. The Mass at the Newman center wasn’t an exercise in liturgical excellence and rigor, but was instead marked with a noble simplicity that called those present into active, and actual, participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass and sent them forth into their community and everyday lives to be the Body of Christ and the Light of the World.

Singing Priest at Wedding: well beyond the liturgical problems

You’ve no doubt seen the video or heard the story about the priest who sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah!” at a wedding.

Praytell blog makes a good point and asks a thoughtful question.

On Facebook, I have many friends who are liturgists, music ministers, youth ministers, and clergy. There, I’ve noticed that those who are liturgists mostly cannot stand what this priest did in the video. Those who are youth ministers tend to be much more enthusiastic about this. Music ministers and clergy seem to be on both sides. Yet most all agree that the priest has a lovely voice and sang this song very well. And almost everyone I know loves the original song by Leonard Cohen.

I’ve already tried to explain to my Facebook friends why this is not an example of good liturgy. But the arguments I hear back from those who are overjoyed at what this priest did are not about what constitutes good liturgy but about what brings joy to the assembly. I lament that we’ve gotten to the point where for some, “good liturgy” equals joyless liturgy.

The social media conversation around this video is very telling. Liturgists (myself included) have not done ourselves or others any good by beating people over the head with rubrics. Yet rubrics do have value, as does human emotion. How can we bridge the divide?

So, without recourse to “It’s against the rules,” what is a helpful way of explaining why this is so inappropriate?

Well- I think you have to toss out all the liturgical explanations, and questions of style, or even questions about secular music in church in order to get at the root of it. Those things are all important, but the atrocity being committed here is much deeper than that, I think.

Let’s even lay aside questions about the theology of the song (which is a bit sketchy), since people don’t tend to care about that sort of thing (and God can withstand stupid things being said about Him).

The first big problem is that the wedding liturgy is about the couple, not the priest. (It’s about God, first. But, whatever, right?) The singing drew attention away from the couple and directed it toward the priest. This is selfish and narcissistic, and robbed the couple of what is rightfully theirs.

Priests tend to forget how a wedding functions in the life of the couple. For a priest – he may preside at hundreds or possibly thousands of weddings in his lifetime. A couple gets married only once. It doesn’t matter if the priest is bored, or has heard all the prayers before, or has to do this same thing again tomorrow. Each wedding is a unique event in the life of a couple, and a priest should not impose his own personality onto that.

Which brings me to the second point, the really disturbing one.

In singing this song in particular, the priest is not just intruding on the wedding celebration, but is intruding on the couple’s relationship. If the song has little meaning for them, the intrusion is only annoying. If it has real meaning to them (which, according to the social media advocates of this nonsense, it does for many many people), the intrusion is profoundly disturbing, even creepy.

Does anyone listen to lyrics anymore?!

It’s really a profoundly moving song, but its not even remotely appropriate to a wedding. It’s about the ways that lovers hurt each other and the glory that can be found even in that pain.

Love is a lot of things, including sometimes a cold and broken “hallelujah.” But a wedding is specifically about the “victory march” of love.

Because of its focus on the private aspect of love (hidden pain and secret joy), and not the public aspect (celebration) it is a remarkably intimate song, with the speaker of the song addressing it to his (or her, I guess) lover.

From a liturgical standpoint, you could fault the lyrics for their vagueness. But that misses the point. The mystifying and pseudo-biblical imagery allows any couple with a shared history to write their own meaning into it, to put fleshy details into the cosmic and romantic poetry. Any couple who finds this song specifically meaningful has a meaning in it that is unique to them.

It is really beyond inappropriate for a priest to publicly insert himself that way into a couple’s private story, taking on the vocal role of one of the lovers. Honestly, it creeps me out a bit, and makes me wonder about that priest’s personal life and his own private longings and struggles in a way that the public should not ever be privy to.

More than a violation of rubrics or good taste or even theology, it is a violation of the sacred rites and private stories that bind lovers together, like a confused idiot stumbling unaware upon two people sharing their first kiss, and not knowing enough that he should turn back around and let them be.

The priest apparently did not sing the original text of the song. I didn’t know this because I honestly could not bring myself to listen to it.

The problem with that is that everyone already knows the original lyrics. The song is embedded into our culture, and the story that we each associate with it- whatever that story is – cannot be separated out just by making it more “optimistic.”

Either the song is meaningless to the couple, in which case there’s no point in doing it, or the song has meaning to them, in which case this is an intrusion into their story. Changing the lyrics just makes it worse. And, since the priest didn’t ask the couple ahead of time, or give them any indication it was going to happen, he had NO IDEA whether the song was meaningful or not to them, no sense of whether he may have been intruding.

The people who advocate a “liberal/progressive” (for lack of a better term – I know it’s not a good term) liturgical paradigm, and/or the people who promote creative adaptations to liturgy and bemoan adherence to rubrics, those people tend to scream about sensitivity, about personalization, about the needs and longings of the individuals. This event, and all events like it, are contrary to all those values. It is ham-handed and awkward. The couple in the video may have been delighted, but the next couple may be appalled, embarrassed, hurt, or just annoyed.

It isn’t the violation of rubrics and theology that primarily bothers me. It is the potential violation of the couple’s relationship that I find so appalling.

Wyoming Catholic College Seeks Full-Time Chaplain

Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, Wyoming, seeks a full-time chaplain to care for souls at our growing institution. We are a faithfully Catholic college that combines a classical Great Books liberal arts education with an innovative outdoor leadership program. The College places at the center of its campus life the reverent and beautiful celebration of the liturgy in both forms of the Roman Rite. In keeping with the teaching and example of recent popes, liturgies and devotions are celebrated in a manner that stresses continuity with Tradition, with treasures such as Latin and Gregorian chant widely employed.

The College has a well-established program of sacred music. Each Sunday there is a Missa Cantata in the usus antiquior, with the schola chanting the full propers and the choir providing polyphony and hymnody. The choir also sings at the Wednesday all-school Mass and the schola provides chant for daily Masses. The chaplain should therefore be comfortable with chanting the parts of the Mass proper to the priest.

The chaplain’s duties include offering Mass in both Forms of the Roman Rite, hearing confessions daily, conducting spiritual direction, presiding at Benediction, organizing and leading processions, and promoting other devotions from time to time, in keeping with the liturgical year. To serve this community well, he should be energetic in working with young people, ready to preach in a way pertinent to students’ needs, and comfortable with offering spiritual direction. Interest in outdoor adventures (hiking, camping, rock climbing, kayaking, canyoneering, skiing, etc.) is a definite plus, but not absolutely required.

The chaplaincy is intended to run all year long, with a lighter summer schedule. The College employs two chaplains in order to allow one or the other to go on outdoor trips or personal trips as well as to have appropriate time off. The incoming chaplain would join our current chaplain.

If interested, or to ask any questions you may have, please contact Dr. Kevin Roberts, President (kevin.roberts@wyomingcatholiccollege.com). For more information on the College itself, please visit the website.

Gregorian Propers in the Light of Post-Hierarchic Theories of Soteriology

In any attempt to (de-)legitimize the ontological authority intrinsic to the notion of Mass Propers “as such,” we have to take into account the neo-Platonic view that positions music as representing an instantiation of some NP-complete quantum reality (or, array of probabilities – to be more exact).

It’s really not worth denying, at this point, that paradigms of authority which posit a ubiquitous resourcement are at least partially to blame for the crisis which has accompanied the 20th Century Liturgical Movement. More controversial is the precise nature of this (to my mind) relativistic nihilism, and the extent to which an all-pervading Freudian rationalism has destroyed all possibility for meaning within a Novus Ordo context.
Unsurprisingly, the critics of this viewpoint seem blissfully unaware of the cultural implications of their rhetoric: it’s one thing to offer semiology as a useful metaphor for understanding Trinitarian doctrine, it’s another thing entirely to suggest that such an understanding is native to orthodoxy, much less a Patristic requirement.
There’s no pleasing some people, I guess.
Given the impossibility of a true semper et ubique, what, then, should our response be as “pastoral” musicians within a framework of meta-orthodox scholarship?
First of all, I don’t want to suggest that anyone operating in a less-than-ideal psychic landscape isn’t adhering to a radicalized understanding of complexity. No one is being ex-communicated from the Reform of the Reform just because they programmed Javanese Gamelan in place of a chanted Ordinary. At the same time, it’s helpful to understand the Benedictine altar arrangement as an analogy to our present situation: who am I to judge?
Nevertheless, forward movement on key aspects of the ante-concilliar agenda can happen, even if compromises have to be made on minor issues of tuning, rhythm, and Petrine supremacy. Taking into account the racist undertones of our Anglo-centric ideology (Hispanic Ordinariate, anyone?) wouldn’t hurt, either.
All that being said, the endgame is clear: We cannot consider the verticalization of the liturgical focus and the horizontal aspect of the monastic epismata to be in conflict.
Of course it’s a mystery: That’s the whole point.

Historical scholarship and liturgical anamnesis

On an “ages old” MusicaSacra Forum post which recently had a little new activity, there is a discussion – one that is repeated and continued over and over wherever Catholic musicians congregate: What role should historical “accuracy” and other scholarly musicological work have on current performance practice? How important is it to get performance details ‘right’? Does it even matter whether we can know how chant sounded at some specific point in the past?

I am not a musicologist, so I’m can’t really comment on issues such as what is or isn’t known or what should and shouldn’t be considered accurate historical performance practice.

What concerns me, though, is a particular way of thinking about historical performance practice which I think is wrong in itself and which is related to a very wrong way of thinking about liturgy and its historical development.

The “wrong way” (in my opinion) is expressed by forum user ‘pulchritudo_musicae’ (who is, apparently, Amy Danielle Waddle, the author of the original Sacred Music article that sparked the discussion). I don’t really believe that she thinks exactly what her statements seems to say, so I want to focus just on the statement as a manifestation of a certain way of thinking, whether or not ADW holds that mindset or not. She wrote:

it is our duty and responsibility to try to determine the most accurate way to sing, the most accurate style, the most accurate notation [ . . . ] the task before us as scholars and as musicians to determine what chant should be

I think this notion that there is some accurate or correct ideal performance practice is wrong-headed, and that it is a manifestation of a modernist way of thinking which has, in other areas of the Church’s life, been destructive.

Moderns have a tendency to fetishize historical accuracy, cloaking a reactionary retreat into the past in the guise of intellectual progress.

This began in the Renaissance with the attempt to restore some perfect past version of Latin (that of Cicero). That project killed Latin as a conversational language among international academics, and halted the ongoing development and creation of new, and yet authentic, Latin liturgical texts.

At the same, the revival of Classical thinking and the adherence to Classical authorities in early-modern academia caused a substantial loss of Medieval philosophical and scientific development. While contemporary secular culture considers this period one of enlightened progress, the fact is that these Classicists wanted nothing more than to ‘turn back the clock,’ abandoning over a millennium of real and steady progress.

(And when Protestants, the spiritual children of the Renaissance, had the opportunity to write history, they swept all this under a rug of anti-Catholic propaganda, coining terms like “The Dark Ages” for a period of almost unparalleled freedom, stability, and intellectual progress. But, I digress…)

In the 20th century liturgical movements we can see first the liberal resourcement that wanted to strip away eighteen centuries of development in favor of some imagined “Early Christian Community Meal” (in exact parallel to the early-modern idolization of Classical philosophy). Then, later, a generation of naive traditionalists seemed to imagine that everything was wonderful before the Council and that history ended sometime in the Baroque era – rejecting false progress in favor of false nostalgia.

But history doesn’t work like that. And working performers – singers, directors, actors, dancers – know especially that the performing cannot be properly understood this way.

Any particular performance of a chant – or, really, any piece of music – is a unique event on its own AND ALSO is part of the tradition of that piece’s history. The first performance is not a ‘Platonic’ standard, with subsequent performances being merely re-enactments or instantiations of that single ideal.

When this notion of a past ideal and present re-enactment becomes normative in an artform, the results are usually disastrous and (Peter Brook would say) deadly. Opera, for example, suffers from this in many places. Ballet as well, and – to a lesser proportion but a greater quantity – Shakespearean theatre.

And this way of thinking, which is deadening to the performing and practical arts, is equally dangerous (perhaps, moreso) in liturgy.

The sacrifice of Calvary and the self-giving nourishment of the Last Supper are not simply remembered or re-enacted in the Mass, with the historical events standing behind us as Platonic ideals or as dramatic inspiration. Rather, the sacrifice is made entirely present and new in each Mass throughout history – even as it is the same sacrifice, offered once for all.

Because we cannot allow this deadening spirit to inform our understanding of liturgy, it is important that we guard against it in performance culture generally and especially with regards to the music which is so integrally a part of our liturgical heritage.

And I want to make clear that I am in no means suggesting an anti-intellectual approach to chant and liturgy, or that I would encourage an abandonment of the historical and musicological study of these things. Rather, I simply believe that we must keep these things in their proper perspective.

Historical scholarship is important. It is good to know what people have done in the past. It is worthwhile to preserve and work within the tradition, and worthwhile to revive traditions which have fallen out of practice. We should never approach music in a haphazard, “do whatever I like” approach, but humble ourselves and recognize our place within a tradition that has gone before us for a thousand years and will most likely survive us for another thousand.

At the same time, we shouldn’t let the virtues of historical and musicological scholarship become idols, and we should guard our theoretical frameworks, lest we let our academic pursuits become a deadening force on the liturgy and an impediment to the recognition of God’s all-present and life-giving grace in the sacraments.

Recording Music that has never been recorded before

The following was written by forum member matthewj.

Go on YouTube and search for a piece of polyphony or a specific Gregorian chant.

In most cases, you’ll find recordings (even if they’re not perfect).

This is a wonderful thing and makes our lives quite nice and easy.

Looking at a score for the first time in your parish office with the noises of an office all around you (chattering co-workers, photocopier, bookkeeper playing praise and worship music, etc)? Throw on some headphones and listen to a recording. Much easier than trying to hear the schola in your head sing the score with the background noise.

However, occasionally you will run across a piece of sacred music (Song X) that has no recording on YouTube, no sample MP3, etc.

How can you help make sure this doesn’t happen to the next person who comes along?

Record your (hopefully competent) choir singing the (hopefully public domain) piece! Upload it with a clear and easy-to-search-for title.

Then bingo – six months down the road some Music Director from the other side of the country who searches for Song X will find your video! You’ll have helped a colleague and you don’t even know it.

Orlande de Lassus has a number of polyphonic Offertory propers. Almost none of them have recordings available online. I will begin the process of putting them online this weekend with his Perfice Gressus Meos.

The next time you find a piece of music that doesn’t have a recording online, do the same.

I say: Heck yeah!

Arvo Pärt on Gregorian Chant

This is a guest post by NLM contributor Dr. Peter Kwasniewski.

My favorite living composer is Arvo Pärt. I have nearly every recording and score of his music, have been blessed to be present at several concerts where the composer was present (including the premiere of In Principio in Graz), and dedicated a set of seven choral compositions to him in honor of his 75th birthday, in thanks for which he telephoned me from Estonia and we spoke in German for about twelve minutes—truly one of the most memorable moments of my life as a musician.

What I find so powerful about his music is that it breathes the spirit of ancient religious chant and yet the overall idiom, particularly the harmonic language, is thoroughly modern. It is obvious that the composer deeply loves and believes in the realities with which he is dealing, and, as a result, treats every word, every phrase, with an intensely sympathetic and sensitive care. This is no less true of his purely instrumental works such as the Fourth Symphony. Often in his orchestral scores one sees a Slavonic liturgical text implanted in the instrumental parts, as if the violins are a choir wordlessly singing to the Lord—a striking re-interpretation of the idea of a “string choir.”

In an interview in 1978, not long after Pärt’s first tintinnabuli pieces, Ivalo Randalu asked him: “Let’s take, for example, ‘Tintinnabuli’. What do you try to discover or find or achieve there? That keynote and the triad; what are you looking for there?” To which Pärt responded:

Infinity and chastity. … I can’t explain, you have to know it, you have to feel it. You have to search for it, you have to discover it. You have to discover everything, not only the way to express it, you have to have the need for it. You have to desire it, you have to desire to be like this. All the rest comes itself. Then you’ll get ears to hear it and eyes to see it.

One could say many things about the special qualities of Pärt’s music, but the purpose of this article is rather to let the composer himself speak about a certain discovery that he considers decisive in his career, his discovery of Gregorian chant, and how that profoundly affected his entire artistic development. It is inspiring to hear this composer, considered one of our greatest living artists, speak about the greatest collection of melodies in the history of music.

In a 1988 interview with Martin Elste, published in Fanfare:

Gregorian chant has taught me what a cosmic secret is hidden in the art of combining two, three notes. That’s something twelve-tone composers have not known at all. The sterile democracy between the notes has killed in us every living feeling.

From a conversation in 1990 with Roman Brotbeck and Roland Wächtner, cited in Arvo Pärt in Conversation :

Gregorian chant was for me the first impulse [toward a new beginning]. It was unadulterated admiration. I had never heard this music before. And when I came across it by chance, I knew: this is what we now need, what I now need.

In December 2000, Jordi Savall had a conversation with Pärt that first appeared in French in 2001. The English translation was printed in Music & Literature in 2012. Here is how the composer describes his transformative encounter with chant:

In the beginning, during my twelve-tone period, I lived truly separated from original sources. And the turn I took, it was a matter of learning how to walk all over again. Undoubtedly, the reason such a metamorphosis takes place in certain people and not in others will forever remain a riddle; all I know is that when I heard Gregorian chant for the first time, I must have been mature enough, in one way or another, to be able to appreciate such musical richness. At that moment I felt at once utterly deprived and rich. Utterly naked, too. I felt like the prodigal son returning to his father’s home. I had nothing, I had accomplished nothing. The methods I had used before had not allowed me to say what I wanted to say with music, yet I did not know any others. At that moment, my previous work seemed like an attempt to carry water in a sieve. I was absolutely certain: everything I had done until then I would never do again. For several years I had made various attempts to compose using collage techniques, mainly with the music of Bach. But all of that was more a sort of compromise than something I carried in my flesh. Then this encounter with Gregorian music… I had to start again from scratch. It took me seven, eight years before I felt the least bit of confidence—a period during which I listened to and studied a lot of early music, of course.

Simply put, at that time [around 1970], I had already distanced myself from all those [political] movements and struggles for freedom. I believe that anyone who wants to change the world must begin not at the other end of the world, but that the starting point must be within him. And this is accomplished millimeter by millimeter.

Ideally I would be able to write a melody with an infinite voice, that carries on forever. Music that would be like speech, like a flood of thought. … In music, one could say that a voice or a melodic line is like a man’s soul. In this sense, polyphony would have more to do with the idea of a crowd. The richness of the music of many voices is, however, the sum of the wealth of each of these melodic lines—as was the case in the polyphony of the great masters of the past.

Lastly, Enzo Restagno held a lengthy conversation with Pärt in July 2003. Here are the pertinent passages from the English translation that appeared in 2012 in the book Arvo Pärt in Conversation :

In order to go on [after a crisis] one has to break through the wall. For me, this happened through the conjunction of several, often accidental, encounters. One of these, which in retrospect turned out to be of great importance, was with a short piece from the Gregorian repertoire that I heard quite by chance for a few seconds in a record shop. In it I discovered a world that I didn’t know, a world without harmony, without metre, without timbre, without instrumentation, without anything. At this moment it became clear to me which direction I had to follow, and a long journey began in my unconscious mind. … It wasn’t until later that I realised one can express more with a single melodic line than with many. At that time, given the condition in which I found myself, I was unable to write a melodic line without numbers; but the numbers of serial music were dead for me as well. With Gregorian chant that was not the case. Its lines had a soul. (18)

At the time [the years just after Credo of 1968] I was convinced that I just could not go on with the compositional means at my disposal. There simply wasn’t enough material to go on with, so I just stopped composing altogether. I wanted to find something that was alive and simple and not destructive. … What I wanted was only a simple musical line that lived and breathed inwardly, like those in the chants of distant epochs, or such as still exist today in folk music: an absolute melody, a naked voice which is the source of everything else. I wanted to learn how to shape a melody, but I had no idea how to do it.

All that I had to go on was a book of Gregorian chant, a Liber Usualis [PDF], that I had received from a church in Tallinn. When I began to sing and to play these melodies I had the feeling that I was being given a blood transfusion. It was terribly strenuous work because it was not simply a matter of absorbing information. I had to be able to understand this music down to its very roots: how it had come into existence, what the people were like who had sung it, what they’d felt during their lives, how they’d written this music down and passed it on through the centuries until it became the source of our own music. … I had succeeded in building a bridge within myself between yesterday and today—a yesterday that was several centuries old—and this encouraged me to go on exploring. During those years I filled thousands of pages with exercises in which I wrote out single voiced melodies. (28–29)

Pärt can help all of us to perceive once more, as with fresh ears, the tremendous, inexhaustible goodness and fertility of Gregorian chant. Although little of his music is based directly on chant motifs (the way that, for example, Bach’s Credo of the Mass in B minor, Liszt’s Totentanz [YouTube], or Durufle’s Requiem [YouTube] are), nearly all of his works—the Passio and the Te Deum immediately come to mind—are permeated with a chantlike feel and spirit.

They share chant’s fluidity of phrasing, where the musical rhythm cleaves to the exigencies of the word; its modal character and subtle emotion, which resists the superficiality of major-happy and minor-sad, tending rather towards a stance of contemplation. Both chant and tintinnabuli seem to be well described by Plato’s definition of time as a “moving image of eternity.”

For Pärt, as his compositions and conversations reveal, music is an elemental mystery that must be approached reverently and silently. Paradoxically, music can spring up only in silence, it originates and resonates only in silence, and the appreciator, no less than the composer, must have a quiet soul. Even when agitated, his soul must, in a deeper way, be still, that is, receptive to the influence of the muses, or grace. Grace accounts for man-made beauty; wherever there is beauty in man’s works, grace is operating. Whether it be supernatural grace or the gift of the powers latent in human nature, God speaks through the arts in their highest manifestations, so much so that the arts may be considered a nest for the Gospels, a translator of the obscure tones of mystery into the bright tones of human feeling and knowing, a fellow laborer of scientia in the work of preaching Christ.

“An interview with Arvo Pärt,” Fanfare 11 (March/April 1988) [Fanfare’s Website]
Arvo Pärt in Conversation (Champaign, Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2012)
Music & Literature 1 (2012)