Votive Mass for the Blessed Virgin Mary

Saturday of the Sacred Music Colloquium is the day on which the Mass occurs earlier in the schedule, at 10:30m. This year the Mass of Saturday celebrated the votive Mass for the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the extraordinary form. The music was of a very special character. It used polyphonic Mass propers written by William Byrd, creating one of the brightest and most revealing aesthetic and spiritual experiences of the entire week.

The usual structure of High Mass with a polyphonic choir is to use Gregorian chant on the Mass propers (Introit, Gradual Psalm, Alleluia, Offertory, Communion) and set the ordinary parts of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus) to a beautiful polyphonic composition whether old or new. This is the standard mix throughout history; indeed, this is the structure that, more than any other single genre of composition and performance, gave rise to Western music as we know it.

But what if the two roles are reversed? What if the propers of the Mass are sung to polyphonic settings while the ordinary of the Mass is sung in Gregorian chant? There is nothing in the rubrics to prevent it. Many Renaissance composers wrote large settings of Mass propers. To use them at Mass becomes a bit impractical for most choirs, who are not often able to learn five large works of music to sing only once in the course of a year.

But this year at the colloquium, and for the first time in history of the colloquium, this is precisely what was done at this Mass on Saturday. The choice for polyphonic propers set against chanted ordinary has a dramatic effect on the texture of the Mass itself. It’s almost like taking a picture and inverting the colors: the shapes and meaning remain the same but one sees them in a completely new way.

The Mass began with a dramatic organ prelude played by Benjamin Cornelius-Bates, an organ student at Duquesne University (and a student of Professor Ann Labounsky, who has hosted us this week). Then the introit began, Salve Sancta Parens by Byrd, as sung by Wilko Brouwers’s choir. This music at this point in the Mass was a revelation in every way.

The music of Byrd stands alongside that of Brahms or Bach for its technical brilliance and beauty. This motet in particular was written for 5 vocal parts, which equally dependent on the other for the overall effect. It is bright and sparkling music written to honor Mary with all the qualities of Marian music throughout the ages. It lifts up the heart in joy.

The Kyria and Gloria following according to the Cum Jubilo setting of Mass IX. This is a setting that is somehow less familiar to me and it was a stunning, particularly the Gloria, which I don’t recall ever hearing before. The entire congregation of singers sung it all beautifully without having rehearsed it even once. But here again, the juxtaposition of these chants with polyphonic propers made for striking contrast and an intriguing interrelationship.

These pieces by Byrd should have a very special place in the hearts of Catholics. Clearly, they constitute some of his best work. But consider the circumstances under which they were written and published. Byrd was the court composer to Queen Elizabeth, whom he delighted with settings of the English Anglican service during times when to be a practicing and faithful Catholic was to commit a crime. Byrd, a devout Catholic, was tolerated only because he had so much talent to offer the court.

His books of Gradualia were therefore written and circulated in secret, to be used in the Masses held in private estates and castles. This was politically subversive music written not for professional purposes but as pure acts of heroic piety. In some way, he was actually risking his life by doing this – part of the double life he lived as England’s most important composer of Anglican music by day and England’s most prolific Catholic composers on night’s and weekends.

The reversal of the traditional roles of propers and ordinary has an interesting consequence for the role of the people and choir. When the proper is chanted by the schola and the ordinary is sung by a specialized choir, the role of the people is to sing only the dialogues with the priest. Unlike today’s “participation” fanatics, I don’t have a problem with this: just as we gain by listening to a great sermon, we can benefit too by being attentive listeners throughout the entire Mass. The music adds nobility to our prayers.

However, when the propers are sung to polyphony, and the ordinary is chanted, there emerges a very important role of the people’s singing during the main parts of the Mass. As a singer in the pews, one feels a special sense of inspiration to sing the Mass ordinary once having heard the Byrd propers at their appointed times. Mass IX, then, was sung by the entire congregation with great enthusiasm.

The results was the brightest and most brilliant of the Masses of the colloquium (this is written before Sunday’s Mass that features Schubert’s Mass in G with orchestra). One stands in awe at the flexibility of the structure of Catholic liturgy, one day solemn and contemplative with a focus on the Cross and the next day joyful and bright with a focus on the life of Mary.

Talking with participants and what they are doing in their parishes, it turns out that the Choral Propers of Richard Rice . They are easily managed by any parish choir that has four parts. Many Catholic music directors have been using them in the ordinary form as a way of re-introducing the Mass propers to their congregations after their tragic loss in the confusion in the year’s following Vatican II. This structure that emerges from this choice has much in common with the structure given to us by the compositions of Byrd.

This is also a wonderful way to begin to foster choral singing in liturgy. And that choice has major implications for parish life. There were some fanatics around in the years following the Council who disparaged choirs and their role. With an exaggerated emphasis on the “people’s song” many choirs were left with nothing to do other than become group-based cantors singing the melody along with the congregation. It is not surprising in light of this that choirs in parishes entered a long period of decline, and musical literacy plummeted at the same time. The typical parish today, then, has no music program to speak of – an astonishing fact in a Church culture that gave us the likes of Byrd.

This is one of the problems that the Colloquium seeks to address. It is designed to give people skills of singing and develop those skill in service of the liturgy. It is also designed to show these people how these skills can be effectively used in service of the faith. Singers and musicians come to have a highly valued place in the social structure of Catholic culture.

The sermon by Fr. Robert Pasley offered special thanks to the musicians for their role in inspiring the priests to undertake the hard work and sacrifices necessary for their ministry. He said that he wished all priests could come to the colloquium so that they could see the level of dedication of the musicians and come to place a higher value on their role. Truly, people like William Byrd made monumental contributions to the faith and the world by applying their talents in he hope of lifting up the liturgy.

One participant told me that he knew that the colloquium would give him training in chant and polyphony. What he had no expected was what would happen to his own temperament and outlook by spending a week deeply immersed in such an environment of beauty. He said that he feels personally transformed by the whole experience. In some ways, it is indeed a mystical experience unlike any on earth.

Vespers of the Holy Cross

Our own beloved Frogman Noel Jones sums up the Vespers service, which combined chant, polyphony, and hymns from several choirs into an overwhelming experience that was surely a first for most everyone present:

This Colloquium service, sung in the church where Fr. Carlo Rossini was choir director and organist (Thanks for that information, Fr. Frank Phillips, CR!), was full of chant and polyphony.

Jeff Ostrowski’s chant choir set a high standard that was met then by Wilko Browers as he directed his Intermediate Women’s Chant choir chanting O Crux Gloriosa,their sound soaring through the building, as if the building were on fire. It was a performance that made you wish it would go on and on….and it did, getting better and better.

It was amazing.


Then Dr. Mahrt conducted the Vexilla Regis by Tomás Luis de Victoria.

The dynamics of the mens and womens parts created waves of sound, the men on the left and women on the right, that were like floodlights of different colors washing around the entire church.

It was not better than the chant version, it was equally stunning, both raised goosebumps.

Amazing. Hearing two known Masters conducting and one on his way up there.

And the entire faculty were in attendance.

For my part, it was easily the most challenging musical experience of my life. It lasted one hour and twenty minutes, and perhaps one hour of that involved chanting and singing. The amount of Latin was overwhelming even for someone with experience. The navigation between the chant and polyphony was never anything but extremely tricky. One had to always be intensely focused on the mechanics.

The eyes had to be super disciplined the entire time. If you lost concentration for an instant, it was all over. So, for example, you had the first verse in chant and you had to focus on the pointing, which different tones for each Psalm, but in the very next verse you were singing polyphony, a piece that might be SATB, SAT, or ATB, depending, but you had to know in advance and get it right immediately. There were transposition issues throughout. Just singing the right notes at the right time was a challenge enough, but then you add style and text plus standing and sitting and bowing rubrics and you have a serious job here.

The pressure intensified given that we had only 3 days to prepare, a total of maybe 5 hours of rehearsal time. In my own tenor section, the level of excellence was so high that I certainly developed a lower opinion of my own skills. One wrong note, one missed accidental, and everyone knew it.

What did I gain beyond this musical experience? I had something of a dawning of consciousness about the sheer massiveness of the apparatus of the Roman Rite and its place in history — the moving parts, the fitting together of such a vast tradition through the ages, the coming together of so many countries and places. There is just no way for one person to “compose” what we sang last night. It was composed by the passage of sacred time. And now we come to the point really: my experience really demonstrated to me what it means to pursue the sanctification of time.

The loss of the Divine Office in the lives of Catholics is deeply tragic. I understand that now better than I ever have.

Yesterday’s Events at the Colloquium

There is far too much happening to even begin to provide comprehensive coverage but let me first mention the extraordinary form Mass yesterday that celebrated the Feast of St. John Baptist, one that ended with the great hymn Ut Queant Laxis as the recessional. The Mass setting was Palestrina’s Missa Brevis, as sung by Kurt Poterack’s choir, along with motets by Tallis (sung by Brouwers choir) and Guerrero (sung by Horst Buchholz’s choir).

St. John has a special place in the hearts of all musicians because all scholarship indicates that it was he (not Cecilia) who was long considered the patron saint of music in the first millennium (the job was handed over to St. Cecilia after St. John’s long service).

The Mass was of course very beautiful, complete with all sung readings and the most solemn sung parts.

The evening’s events broke new ground. The idea was initially proposed by William Mahrt and carried out by Arlene Oost-Zinner: a panel on the growth of sacred music programs in academia. The panelists included Kurt Poterack (Christendom College), Paul Weber and Alanna Keenan (Franciscan University Steubenville), Ann Labounsky and Sr. Marie Agatha Ozah (Duquesne University), Susan Treacy (Ave Maria University), and Peter Jeffery (Notre Dame University).

Each talked about the program of his or her institution and commented on the dramatic change in the attitudes of students today as compared with the past. The interest in sacred music and chant is very intense, to the point of representing a serious paradigm shift. Professor Jeffery in particular spoke of the support he has received from the administration to forge a program that will have national influence, and he looks forward to working with student groups in the year’s ahead.

To see all these panels and here their comments struck many people as very significant, for it demonstrated that the change we are seeing at the parish level is being mirrored in higher learning as well.

Here is an image of Professor Jeffery buying a colloquium tee!

The Privatization of Liturgy and the Suffering of Publishers

One stands in amazement at what the USCCB and ICEL – in fact, it is rather difficult to locate the center of responsibility here – are forcing upon publishers as they frantically attempt to provide musical settings of the Mass for the forthcoming new English translation.

I do not deny the right of the national conferences to regulate the texts of the Mass but the policies in place to keep this text and its music under wraps defy all good sense. No one has explained why it is so absolutely necessary that no publisher on the planet be permitted to distribute full Mass settings of the upcoming translation, even though the texts are widely available and many efforts are underway to educate the faithful. Is having music available not part of education?

ICEL has even opened up a website to explain why the new translation is necessary and wonderful (and I agree): http://www.becomeonebodyonespiritinchrist.org/. I’ve enjoyed these videos (which feature Vivaldi’s Latin settings as background music!) but I still find no instructions concerning what may or may not be published and under what conditions. Nor does the USCCB website seem to explain this.

The instructions must be arriving via private email. But here is the bottom line in the words of World Library:

We have been asked by the United States Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship to remind you that no publisher may take orders for Mass settings until the final text of the Missal is issued. We have also been asked to remind you that the musical settings are for preview only and not yet approved for liturgical use. In addition, we are not yet being allowed to share any complete settings.

Moreover, it is not even clear what power is being invoked in order to prevent production and distribution. Is it a matter of copyright or a matter of religious obedience? It is hard to say.

Nonetheless, the publishers are doing heroic work, trying to be obedient while attempting to preview their music without giving full versions or permitting you to buy it: WLP, OCP, GIA, and Liturgical Press (which doesn’t seem to have a special section on this set up yet).

You will enjoy touring the WLP site. I appreciate the efforts puts into this strangely truncated preview, even if the settings conform to the convention of metrical songs that are dependent on accompaniment and are based on tunes regarded as catchy in a popular sense. The Richard Proulx Gloria is of high quality, and Lisa Stafford’s Mass of Grace has potential, and surely we cannot place blame on either the composer or the publishers for attempting to turn the Gloria into an antiphon/response structure; the root of the problem is really deeper here.

I would love to understand the thinking of those who are so emphatic about keeping the texts from being released until the last possible minute. If the goal is to put as much financial pressure on the publishers as possible, that surely must be counted as success. But how this approach is helping to prepare the way for the new texts is unclear.

Crochu and Gatté Officium Nocturnum

Andrea Sanguinetti sends the following:

Hi, i suggest that in your page of latin chant books you put the following link: http://www.gregofacsimil.net. In that page follow the link ‘RESTITUTIONS’ (in the left part of the page), and you’ll find the whole responsories of officium nocturnum in square notation in pdf files in a transcription according to Hartker manuscript made by D. Crochu & D. Gatté. I think it’s a very important and good work. Regards. Andrea Sanguinetti.

Following the instructions, with my navigation complicated by language and many non-standard characters that do not render properly on my windows laptop, I do find many beautiful PDF files. Perhaps some can explain more about the origin and goal of the project. 

Reasons for Peace and Contentment at the Colloquium

After many years of attending the Colloquium, I’ve noticed what many people have noticed about the special environment this year: there is a blessed peace and contentment at this year’s event, one that is supportive of learning, productivity, good singing, social happiness – all preconditions to the most generous occasion of  grace. I’ve been trying to think of the particular sources of this special environment this year, and I have a few theories.

  • The organization of this year’s event, led by program director Arlene Oost-Zinner (who is also leading the intermediate women’s schola), is truly a marvel. The hugely complex machinery of scheduling, events, rooms, music, along with a thousand details at each time slot, from morning to night, is humming as never before. The assistance of many volunteers has been inspiring. 
  • The Duquesne University staff has been pleased to have us on campus and has been extremely helpful at every turn. The same is true of the Church of the Epiphany, which has welcomed us, even to the point of making special physical accommodations for the extraordinary form in the sanctuary.
  • Issues that usually split liturgical musicians and Catholics have settled down to a civil coexistence, most especially the old struggle between partisans of the new vs. the old liturgy. The new consensus was nicely framed by Ed Schaefer: the preconciliar structure of Mass and the Divine Office is the elder brother from which the structure of 1969/70 can learn. 
  • Remember the rhythm debates that dominated the chant scene during a huge part of the 20th century? There was a time when ever singer had to take a side in the great debate and defend it and organize one’s musical colleagues around it. At this event, I suspect that most people just aren’t that interested in some kind of battle or taking a side. Each conductor is different. Each singer has a special appreciation for one or another way of singing. We are all glad to learn from various perspectives and approaches. Even at individual Masses, the chant propers come across as musically unique events. Seeing how this works, one wonders what all the fuss what about. 
  • Even on issues of contemporary vs. traditional music, there is a sense of peace. Everyone now knows what the Second Vatican Council meant by giving chant first place. And yet most of the musicians here are working within parish reality, which is to say, they are all transitioning from one place to another, but with direction and purpose. I’ve heard very little in the way of put downs toward the problem music in the Catholic world today (even I’ve controlled my tongue!); rather, energies are all focused toward doing more to achieve the ideal.
  • One final area of peace concerns the old cultural split between academic musicologists and parish-based practitioners. There are many of both types here but they aren’t arguing. They are talking to each other and learning from each other, working to build bridges between the world of scholarship and the world of relentless parish schedules.

That Requiem Mass

Ten years ago, it was exceedingly difficult to hear or experience the Dies Irae of the Requiem Mass. That was before the age of Youtube (where there are dozens of recordings and performances) and also online editions, as well as ever more use of this grand and glorious Sequence in the Catholic Mass. For reasons that seem very unclear at this late a date, someone apparently had an issue with this chant and discretely failed to list it for the Requiem Mass in the post-1969 liturgical books. But that doesn’t mean that it cannot or should not be sung, for one of the blessing of the new liturgy is its liberality and openness to a wide range of traditional experience. So while the chant it is not printed in the books, it can still be used in the Mass, and so it has been at the Colloquium for many years now.

This year was special in many ways.  The chant was never rehearsed ahead of time. We had a plan for alternating low and high voices but we did no dry runs before Mass. But it was hardly necessary. The intonation began, the low voices picked up the song, and then the high voices took over at the double bar. On it went through the haunting melody and text from first to last, with 250 singers spread randomly throughout the large parish space. It was an amazing sound, all encompassing. It is a long chant but it was strangely disappointing when it ended. I think everyone wished it could have gone on longer.

It was not in the interest of an “authentic” performance that the air conditioners and fans had all been turned off in the parish. It was to keep down the static noise level. But, to me, the temperature of the building was nearly sweltering, and grew hotter throughout the Mass. To sing this stunning music of the Requiem Mass in that temperature did lend to the experience something approximating authenticity. I didn’t hear a single complaint about it. It would have seemed unseemly, given the subject matter, which the fiery Gradual from Brouwers’s high-voice schola seemed to capture perfectly. 

Fr. Pasley’s homily was absolutely brilliant. He reminded us that the purpose of this Requiem was to pray for the departed souls of the deceased members of the CMAA. He told of their trials and struggles and all the sacrifices they had made professionally and personally for the cause, at time when telling the truth about the music of the Church and keeping it alive was to write yourself out of the history books. Of course the trends of history have changed, and now the current generation looks at people like Msgr. Richard Schuler and the others as prophets who saw the future. They did not live to see their cause victorious. Maybe we will not either. We must think beyond our time and time itself – and isn’t this the very point of the liturgy?

Following the Mass, we made our way to the next sessions. To everyone’s amazement, the clouds began to darken suddenly and sheets of rain came pouring down on Pittsburgh, trapping hundreds in porticoes of buildings and under canopies. The rain did not let up for a long time and many had to make their way to dinner and become soaked along the way. But we greeted a great crowd in the dining hall, ate fresh Southwestern food, and listened to a gentle and erudite talk by William Mahrt on the structure of the Psalm in the Divine Office. As is usually the case with his lectures, people listened with amazement and a growing sense of humility in the face of the marvelous theological structure given to us by our history and liturgy.

The Astonishing Isabelle Demers

Isabelle Demers played a recital last night at the Church of the Epiphany in Pittsburgh for the Sacred Music Colloquium XX. Her program was wide ranging, from Bach to Messiaen, but this PhD student at Julliard provided much more than a perfect performance; she brought to that technical perfection a rare spirit of adventure, daring, and deep conviction, seeming to manufacture whole worlds before our eyes and spiritual imaginations. It’s as if she took it upon herself to re-establish, this night and once and for all, that the organ remains today what it was in Machaut’s time: the reigning king of all instruments. She fully succeeded, prompting several spontaneous bursts of applause and an extended standing ovation at the end.

Here was her program.

1. J.S. Bach (1685-1750). . . Prelude in Eb-Major BWV 552/1

2. Max Reger (1873-1916). . . Chorale-Preludes op. 67

  • 1 – Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr
  • 5 – Christus, der ist mein leben
  • 2 – Alles ist an Gottes Segen
  • 20 – Jesus ist kommen, Grund ewiger Freude
  • 4 – Aus meines Herzens Grunde
  • 39 – Straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn
  • 42 – Von Himmel hoch, da komm ich her

3. J.S. Bach (1685-1750). . . Fugue in Eb-Major BWV 552/2

4. Sigfried Karg-Elert (1877-1933). . . Symphonic Chorale on “Jesu meine Freude”

  • Introduzione (Inferno)
  • Canzone
  • Fuga con Corale

5. Herbert Howells (1893-1982). . . Psalm-Prelude op. 32/2 “But the meek shall inherit the earth; and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace.”

6. Olivier Messiaen (1910-1992). . . Dieu Parmi Nous

Any program that ends with Messiaen will always exists in a state of extended suspension and excitement for what awaits. His music has this astounding capacity to conjure up images and visions. His music has had presence at the colloquium over the last five or so years, given his status as the leading Catholic musician (and some would say theologian!) of the 20th century. The performance of Dieu Parmi Nous was indeed dazzling and, following the recital, listeners enjoy sharing their impressions.

A note on Isabelle: she is a delightful person, unassuming and personable in every way. She was there to greet people at the front entrance when people arrived and was downstairs after the concert to thank everyone for coming. It did not go unnoticed that she did not carry any sheet music at all with her to the loft. She was just one small-framed person alone who did all of this with a mighty instrument, her hands, her feet, her mind, and her heart.

Once again, please forgive my iPhone images. Here is the loft before the concert and the people gathered, awaiting the first notes. 

And here she is following the recital, sitting with Wilko Brouwers and talking with attendees until late in the night.