n one hand you had Vatican II clearly elevate the role of Gregorian chant above which it had ever been elevated in the history of the Church. On the other hand, you had the council give permission for the vernacular, but it was left open exactly how this was to be applied. It is obvious to me that the tension between these two things was not fully anticipated and the Council Fathers were not aware of the tremendous difficulties this would create. Suddenly all the Gregorian chant seemed irrelevant, mainly on the grounds of language.
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.
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.
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.