The Power of Music

I have yet to find a culture or religion that does not have its representative music. Early on, rock music represented and shaped my own culture, or way of life. Now, I tend to be drawn, and to draw from, music that elevates the soul without negating the intellect. Gregorian chant seems to be the paradigm of this, but other examples can be found that encourage the pursuit of virtue as well.

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Hearing Chant in a Completely New Way

I’ve always been intrigued by the results of semiological studies that attempt a more precise rendering of the early signs, and comparing the results with the conventions of the first half of the 20th century when chant was rendered with a more equalist approach to rhythm.

A great way to discover the results of these studies comes from Fr. Anthony Ruff and his choir at St. Johns Abbey and University. A new CD called “Singing with Mary and the Saints” provides just this. The results are bright and fresh and, for those of us who sing propers year round, a fascinating look at a different approach. It might be the most compelling version of this revisionist approach to chant that I’ve heard.

For one thing, there is a certain bow to modernity in that the CD uses mixed voices. This is very difficult to do. Intonation must be perfect, and blend too. But they pull it off really well. This helps modern choirs too because mixed-voice chant is just part of the reality of our times. The two octaves can be startling at first but then you settle in and come to really appreciate its musical and sociological dimension.

Not knowing that much about how to interpret the old signs, I can only defer to Fr. Ruff here but it is fascinating to say the least. He goes further than most semiologists by changing not only rhythmic conventions but even notes (many Bbs are changed to B naturals). Is this the way chant was sung in the 9th century? I don’t see how anyone can know but it is surely interesting to hear one interpretation. It is very competently and confidently rendered. There are no missteps here. Both choir and director are determined and sure footed throughout.

If you just want to listen for reasons of piety and not musicology, there is a large pay off also, since the antiphons they chose are some of the most famous and interesting for the liturgical year.

Nicely done. If you have never heard the results of these kinds of studies, Singing with Mary and the Saints is a great way to familiarize yourself with this approach.

Review of St. Agnes Conference

Here is a wonderful review of the CMAA conference two weeks ago in St. Paul, Minnesota:

by Mary Catherine Levri

On October 14th, I had the pleasure of playing a short recital at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was one of six musicians who performed for a conference sponsored by the Church Music Association of America. It was titled, “The Renewal of Sacred Music and the Liturgy in the Catholic Church: Movements Old and New.”

I usually attend the CMAA’s annual Colloquium that takes place in the summer, but my business with the Basilica Summer Choir (plus the opportunity to play this recital at the October conference) caused me to opt for this smaller, more academic conference in the fall. Directed by Dr. Jennifer Donelson, the Academic Liaison of the CMAA, the conference focused on issues at the heart of the renewal of liturgical music before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council. In a special way, the conference reflected on the legacy of Monsignor Richard Schuler (1920-2007), a musician priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis who gave much of his priestly life to the preservation of the Catholic musical tradition. He is most famous for founding the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale in 1955. Part of the conference took place at St. Agnes Church, the church at which Msgr. Schuler was pastor for thirty-six years. It was in this beautiful Baroque church that conference participants were treated to the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale’s performance of the Mozart Vesperae solennes de confessore on the first night of the conference.

The following two days of the conference consisted of spoken presentations, music recitals, and participation in liturgies. A number of the talks were quite good, and some were especially enlightening. Fr. Robert Johansen, a priest from the Diocese of Kalamazoo, gave a talk on the musical initiatives of the Liturgical Movement in the two decades leading up to Vatican II. Fr. Johansen explained that in these initiatives, active participation in the liturgy was fostered in a particular way through the congregational singing of chant. He asserted that the singing of chant by the congregation is a liturgical action that possesses a “sacramental” quality, making it all the more important for this sung participation in the Mass to be encouraged today. Having lived in nothing other than the post-Vatican II Church, it was enlightening for me to realize that such practical musical reform was already taking place in the United States before the Council. Fr. Johansen’s presentation led me to realize that as lonely as I can sometimes feel in my efforts as a church musician, I am not starting “from scratch” when I encourage congregations to sing the music of the Church. I am always already standing on the work of others.

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Sacred Music Resurgence at Catholic College

Good piece!

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — According to three notable college professors, a comeback for sacred music is well under way on many Catholic campuses. While incoming students are usually not well-versed in sacred music or the theology behind it, they are generally open to learning both. Once this knowledge is imparted, they are well-equipped to bring its beauty into parishes.

“Students enter with varying degrees of exposure to the Church’s musical patrimony,” observed Nicholas Will, first-year professor of sacred music at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. “Yet I’ve found that almost all of them, regardless of their current knowledge level, are receptive to the Church’s treasury of sacred music and her teaching on the subject.”

Will attributes this receptivity largely to the influence of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whose knowledge of and love for sacred music have sparked a genuine reform in the Church. “Pope Emeritus Benedict has a refined taste for good music, especially sacred music. He was able to clearly identify worthy sacred music, and he was also able to clearly convey that message to the world through his writings, but also, and more especially, in his example as pope.”
The highest form of song, as expressed in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the sacred liturgy, is Gregorian chant. The form, history and performance style of this centuries-old liturgical practice are taught by Will to Franciscan music majors. Despite most of them not having prior experience with the subject, they have been comfortable with learning it.

“The students with the greatest exposure levels enjoy learning even more about the art, and those with lesser exposure quickly recognize the timeless beauty and universality of Gregorian chant, as well as its relevance today,” Will explained. “Not only do students accept Gregorian chant as a legitimate expression of liturgical music, but they appreciate why the Church values it above all other musical forms. This mindset is remarkable when one considers the state of liturgical music even 10 years ago.”

Now, Will deeply appreciates the fact that he can lead others in the exercise of this art form: “While the beauty of our art is witnessed anywhere it is performed, its most fitting place is in the liturgy itself. It’s so significant that we are teaching students about sacred music, not just from the standpoint of a hobby, but as an integral part of their lives in the Church. The Church’s musical patrimony is an essential part of the liturgy, and the liturgy is a living, breathing entity.”
Will takes this to heart while leading the Schola Cantorum Franciscana and serving as director of music at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish in Carnegie, Pa. He is able to live out, in close connection with other worshippers, the reality that liturgical music is not simply a matter of singing our favorite hymns: “The liturgy itself is musical, and by singing it excellently, we glorify God. Participating in beautifully sung liturgy is both a foretaste of the eternal heavenly liturgy and the principal means of nurturing our faith in the heart of the Church.”

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Assumption College professor says Gregorian chants beat today’s ‘loud’ songs

News item:

WORCESTER — The Rev. Donat Lamothe said he doesn’t like much of the music that’s being produced today, but those who disagree with the Roman Catholic priest might want to think twice before picking an argument with him.

After all, he’s spent much of his 50 years at Assumption College teaching undergraduates the beauty and intricacies of the art form.

“I respect the right of people to embrace whatever music appeals to them,” said Rev. Lamothe, a member of the Augustinians of the Assumption, the order that foundedAssumption College. “But much of today’s music is not refined and it has no structure. It’s just loud.”

Given his classical training, it’s no surprise that Rev. Lamothe’s musical preferences trends toward pieces from the Renaissance or Middle Ages, or from the Baroque era whose dramatic and sometimes strained style dominated Europe from the early 17th to mid-18th centuries.

“I really enjoy Gregorian chant and other forms of sacred music,” said the clergy­man.

Rev. Lamothe has been a presence on the Assumption campus for five decades.

At 78 years old, the New Hampshire native is in good health.

However, he has decided to cut back on his faculty chores and is now teaching part-time. Students can still draw from his vast knowledge by enrolling in the basic History of Music course.

College officials said they couldn’t recall anyone with longer faculty longevity.

“I love what I do but it’s time to cut back,” said Rev. Lamothe in an interview in his office in Founders Hall, which features a harpsichord that he had built many years ago.

Rev. Lamothe began his music studies as a child taking piano lessons.

He greatly admired his uncle, the Rev. Francis R. Lamothe, a diocesan priest in Manchester, N.H. At the age of 6 or 7, he considered following “Uncle Rudy” into the priesthood, so his parents sent him to Worcester to study at Assumption Preparatory School.

After two years at the school, he entered the the Augustinian novitiate, making his first profession of religious vows in 1956.

He was ordained a priest in April 1962 in Lyons, France, and began teaching philosophy at Assumption College in 1963.

Over the course of his studies, Rev. Lamothe amassed a number of degrees, including a licentiate in philosophy from the University of Ottawa in Canada, a master’s degree in theology from St. John’s University in Minnesota, a master’s degree in musicology from Boston University, and doctorate in musicology from the University of Strasbourg in France.

He has taught music, philosophy and Bible studies at Assumption.

In 1965, Rev. Lamothe, who has mastered the piano, the harpsichord, the recorder, the lute, and the viola, founded and served as music director of the former Salisbury Consort of Early Music, a semi-professional ensemble that utilized instruments from the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

In 1997, he became the director of the Assumption Schola Gregorian, a group of singers who perform the Gregorian chant tradition at various events.

Rev. Lamothe is also the college’s archivist and was given the Presidential Award for Excellence in Contribution to the Mission of Assumption College.

In 1997, after studying for some time with a Russian immigrant, Rev. Lamothe, an Assumption College alumnus, began painting the religious icons of the Eastern Orthodox churches.

“Music and iconography are prayer, and I love them both,” he said.

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