What I’ve Learned in 12 Years

I sang at Mass this morning with one other person, and the experience really had me reflecting on what I’ve learned over the last 12 years. Essentially my opinions on how to achieve something beautiful in liturgy have been turned inside out and upside down. All the things I thought were true are not true, and the things that are true have come as a surprise. But this realization has taken me so long to finally cohere that I’ve not be entirely prepared to spell it out as simply as I will now.

In short, when I first entered this world, I thought that good Church music consistent of many singers singing hard music of mostly a polyphonic nature and entirely in Latin. This was all I dreamed about and our choir actually achieved this goal over time. It was difficult and heart rendering and exhausting — and then just a bit disappointing because I felt that the cost of doing all of this was way higher than the perceived benefit from the congregation and the celebrates. I had accept this model almost as a matter of faith. But my parish is a normal parish of Catholics in the real world, without a single parishioner that shared my imaginary utopia. I had to slowly work myself out of it.

Today, we sang almost entirely English propers all chanted, one piece in Latin, one hymn, no instruments, no microphones. The response was comfort, love, appreciation, and we both had the sense that something wonderful had happened. The music was very simple. We made no mistakes. We were not nervous. It was clear, solemn, pretty, comprehensible, suitable, right.

It was then that I realized that I had been wrong. I had flipped the priorities. If you can do a chanted Mass without wild personal drama, with a handful of singers, without a vast amount of rehearsal time, with a smile and gladness of heart, you have achieved all things. Everything else you do is wonderful but not necessary. What’s necessary is the simplest thing you can imagine. That’s what connects and makes sense. That’s what’s liturgical at its foundation.

To be fair, 12 years ago, the resources we used this morning did not exist. We had to commission them. Now we have Oost-Zinner Pslams, Bartlett propers, the Missal chants, editions of chant with Psalms. That’s about four books — four treasures that are relatively new in the postconciliar era. These resources should have been around 40 years ago. No looking back. They are here now and they are a godsend.

Now we have a sustainable model that requires very few resources in terms of time and money. It can be accomplished by nearly anyone at the parish level.

My satisfaction about this is very high indeed.

Before my father died, he gave me three pieces of advice stemming from his years as a church musician. He said: 1) always be genuinely grateful for everyone’s efforts in the choir and impose no guilt on people for coming and going, 2) never try to enforce attendance because it doesn’t work, and 3) never try to build a program but rather be glad to maintain consistency. His point was to simplify, be humble, be pleased with what you can do, be glad for the opportunity, and just be glad it happens when it happens, which, we can hope, it happens every week.

To me this is beautiful — and far cry from the Renaissance extravaganza I imagined at the outset. He was right. I know this now.

As you might know, I’m deeply involved in a new start up company that has taken over every waking minute, leaving very little time for this avocation of liturgical music. I hope to return to it someday but this is not the day. I look back at all the time and the writing and the labor and the energy and have a sense of profound satisfaction. What’s left today is continued work, inspiration, application, and that most normal of tasks of just singing with love and affection for the art and its divine meaning.

Thank you all for all that you do to make the world a more beautiful place, a place that allows us to dream of eternity.

Tribute to Charles Culbreth on His Departure

In the area of sacred music, I’m ever more convinced that we cannot go forward with wisdom and effectiveness unless we understand something of our mid-century past. The problem for those of us under a certain age is that we were not there during the great upheaval of Catholic life. It is hard for us to understand. I’ve spent some 15 years trying and reading and seeking to gather insight concerning what happened and what to do about it so that I can have greater clarity about where we go from here.

Charles Culbreth, the well-known ChantCafe.com contributor and parish musician/composer, has been an important bridge to my own understanding. He was there every step of the way. He understands the culture of the time and many features of why events transpired as they did. His knowledge of the names and the music of the postconcliar period is vast. At the same time, he made a intellectual transition to appreciating the beautiful and integrity of the deeper tradition, and became an important voice within the Church Music Association of America.

It was for this reason that when this blog was first established, I went to him and asked him to become a contributor. He agreed, and he has been a valued voice here, and, I must say, a helpful correction to my own excesses. His continued themes have been to show greater empathy to the practical demands of parish musicians, to never let our ideals become fanaticisms that trample on pastoral sensibilities, to seek peace in our own communities as a precondition for progress.

He has been a great champion on the sacred music tradition while still urging a sincere appreciation for those over the last decades who have worked to bring music to the liturgy in many styles. Sometimes he has posted his own compositions, and they have moved many people. In addition, he is an amazing singer. I recall once sitting next to him in the tenor section and feeling a profound sense of inadequacy as I listened to his clear voice effortlessly navigate even the trickiest of passages from complex polyphony.

Over the years, we’ve spent many hours on the phone and in social time at the Colloquium and enjoyed each others’ company. We come from different coasts and different musical worlds but we always delighted in the meeting of minds that would emerged in these conversations.

Sadly, he has asked to be removed from this blog in protest over something I wrote. The article in question is Why We Must Chant. It concerned the Islamic tradition of sung prayer that I experienced on a recent trip to Turkey and what Catholics might learn from it. Charles said he found my piece “revolting.” It is a “deal breaker” for him. He further urged that the CMAA “disavow” my article which left him “stunned” and “stymied.” To underscore the point he added: “remove my presence from the masthead.”

All of these comments were posted publicly, and so that left me little choice but to comply even though I remain confused about what he found so objectionable. Let me say that while I regret his departure, I hope that I can nonetheless retain his friendship. We fortunate that he will continue to post on his own blog, which I urge you to read for its insight.

Bill Riccio Weighs In: Voice of the OF/EF

Bill Riccio was MC for the Sacred Music Colloquium, and one of the leading rubrical experts on the planet. Here are his thoughts on the ongoing discussion of whether the OF has a distinctive voice and whether or to what extent it does or should depart from tradition.

In the ongoing discussion (one is tempted to call it “controversy”) occurring here and elsewhere concerning the Masses as celebrated during the recent CMAA Colloquium, a few points should be noted. As the person who was charged with putting the liturgical parts together into a coherent whole with Fr. Robert C. Pasley, I wish to dispel some suppositions that seem to be the underpinnings of many of the comments.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll not try to answer each criticism or objection, as they seem to be as numerous as the individuals making them. I will stick to some principles given and decisions made based on those principles. I will confine my remarks to the Ordinary Form as with the Extraordinary Form few decisions have to be made. One just opens the books, makes a few adjustments as to space and logistics, and proceeds.

The first principle — and one expressed by Fr. Pasley implicitly and explicitly — was that of continuity. This was our first priority.

I’m always intrigued by the fact those who seem to frown on Tradition have little to say except what their liturgical preferences are. There’s no acknowledgement of the fact that having the OF in the context of Tradition is the will not only of the Holy Father, but more and more people whose job it is to safeguard the liturgy. It always boils down to preferences, likes and dislikes. The “me” never comes out of the equation.

Some of the comments were written as if we were the ones breaking with tradition — that liturgical practice within the context of the Roman Rite-in-continuity is something avant garde.

Seeing the post-conciliar Mass as something breaking with Tradition is what got us into trouble in the first place. Trying to steer it back in line with Roman liturgical practice is what is necessary for the good of the Church. That is certainly the opinion of more august individuals than this liturgical traffic cop.

Fr. Pasley is exactly right when he states the years following the council saw liturgical practice never envisioned by the council fathers, and things done in “the spirit of the Council” served no purpose but to take us off our Liturgical moorings.

The Mass is the heart of the Mystical Body, and the problem with the Missal of Paul VI is not what it does, but what it says – or doesn’t say. The Mass as a re-presentation of Calvary and offering for sin is less evident because of deletions. Many of those deletions were intentional because the goal of the post-conciliar revision was to make the liturgy more accessible to a non-Catholic audience. That was the heart of Cardinals Ottaviani and Bacci’s famous Intervention.

The Intervention was written following the presentation of the Missa Normativa at Rome in 1967. It held up publication of the missal for two years, and allowed Paul VI to re-introduce Roman elements into the rite – including the Roman Canon, the Orate, Fratres, and incense. It also caused a re-write of the infamous No. 7 in the Instructio Generalis.

It was under this set of circumstances the new missal was published, and the fears of those venerable cardinals realized. A rupture occurred, and that rupture led to all kinds of liturgical abuse. But, it did more. It all but eradicated the ethos that surrounded Roman Liturgical practice. Admittedly, problems happened in the immediate years after the council, but the imposition of a new missal at just that time finalized the rupture.

Fast forward to the pontificate of Benedict XVI. He saw the difficulties in the revised rites and had first-hand experience with some of its problems. He sees the “reform of the reform” as going back to the seminal documents that came out of the council, and using those liturgical resources that stand on the foundation of Roman Tradition.

Using Sacrosanctum Concilium and the desires of Pope Benedict XVI as expressed in his writings both before and after his accession to the papacy as starting points, decisions were made. The use of Latin, the chants as listed in the Graduale Romanum and other liturgical books, and taking the missal at its word (in the matter of orientation) were conscious decisions made by Fr. Pasley and the CMAA directors. It was not an attempt at turning the clock back, but a way of showing what the mind of The Church was then and what it is now, some two generations after the 1970 missal was promulgated.

The second principle was set forth at the outset of the Colloquium. In his remarks at the opening dinner, Dr. William Mahrt expressed the goals of the Colloquium and said the decision was made to show the Mass, both EF and OF, at its most grand in music and ceremonial. In other words, a paradigm was used that showed members of the CMAA as well as others what could be done in their parish churches in part or in full.

I believe the CMAA and its directors should be commended. They accomplished what they set out to do.

The lack of the Prayers of the Faithful or decisions to have choral sections instead of congregational chants was a big criticism by some. The crux of the criticism (as I understand it) was the lack of participation on a certain level by those in attendance. I disagree. The amount of participation (actual, not active) was palpable in every Mass celebrated that week, regardless of the rite. And, to be clear, the decisions were more practical than agenda-driven.

I agree with at least one comment that lamented the fact after 40-plus years of the Pauline Missal, we are still having this discussion; but, it is a discussion that should have taken place long ago. That it is happening now is because people are starting to acknowledge the elephant at the cocktail party.

The question is not the Missal of 1962 or the Missal of 1970. The question, instead, is how does the Church convey what she believes about the Mass and herself in her worship?

A final note, one particularly irksome comment had to do with whether the CMAA was in the business of music or spirituality. One would hope it is a “both/and” not an “either/or” proposition. Music directors and those charged with the service of the altar, no matter how peripherally, must have a spiritual (one would hope “Catholic”) center.

This was my first Colloquium and not my last, please God. It was the spiritual side that touched me most. The participants were unabashedly Catholic and faith-filled people.

One can only hope such would be the case in all the choir lofts around the world.

Bill Riccio, Jr.

Master of Ceremonies

It’s a New World for Catholic Music

For years I’ve been teaching economics at the Acton University, an ecumenical conference that focuses on finance, economics, economic development and the intersection with morality and theology. I usually teach money and banking, interest and inflation, and the history of economic thought in the middle ages. There were 800-plus attendees this year. It was an absolutely thrilling event in every way.

It’s not just about economics. Every year, there are people who know me from my Wanderer columns and the chantcafe.com, which focuses on music (of course). And so of course there are plenty of music conversations with both protestants and Catholics (and others too). This event has served as an interesting test case for the status of music in the Catholic world because people are very open about their parish experiences and issues.

This year, I noticed a very strong difference with the past. My summary take away is that we are making actual progress in every area. It’s no longer just a few special cases; sacred music is making inroads across a very broad spectrum in the English-speaking Catholic world.

Among the younger clergy, of course, there is a near universal desire for change from the 4-hymn model that excludes the liturgical text from the parish music experience. But they are now working toward doing something about the problem. And also I met many people who are now singing in liturgy though they had no prior experience in singing. Many people reported ongoing transitions taking place from pop music to liturgical music, fully supported by the people in the parish.

The book that has made the huge difference, the one that finally broke through a half century of stasis in Catholic music, is the Simple English Propers by Adam Bartlett. It was only one year ago this month that the book was released. In typing those words, I actually had to go back and check to make sure that this is correct. It seems incredible that in only one year, any book of Catholic music could have made such inroads into the mainstream of Catholic life.

I’m probably just too close to the whole event and don’t step back to see the big picture. Talking to hundreds of people over the course of the week, I was able to refocus and see the big picture. What I saw was a sea change in not only attitudes but also in the actual practices of parishes.

At the Acton University, I spoke to so many, many people who use this source in their own parishes. This was true of parishes large and small and especially of Cathedrals. In surveying the way people use it, I heard many different models. Many are supplementing the standard hymn with the proper antiphon from SEP, usually inserting before the hymn. Others have replaced the hymn completely at entrance and communion.

The music is of course beautiful and accessible. But there is another benefit here. It changes the way we think of the music at Mass. This is probably the most lasting contribution of this book. It underscores the point that what we should be singing is the Mass itself and not something else. This seems like a simple message but it was not possible to get it across so long as we did not have a printed resource to make liturgical singing viable. Now we finally do, and this has changed everything.

Many people spoke to me about the unusual method that the CMAA used to distribute the book. We have given the whole thing away for free online, and imposed absolutely no copyright restrictions on the use of the book. Who has time for all that legal blah blah when there is so much important work to do? We also made practice videos available that help people come to read the square notes each week. Then we also printed the same book and sold it (I’m estimating that some 6000 copies are now in circulation, and this is a book for the schola!).

Once the method and goal shifts, a whole world opens up. The resources of Richard Rice such as Choral Communio and his Simple Choral Gradual are also being used, in addition to traditional polyphonic motets that feature the proper for entrance, communion, or offertory.

The SEP has also inspired composers to get to work on setting the propers of the Mass. The forums at musicasacra.com are filling up, sometimes daily, with settings of the propers. We have plans to put other books into print too, such as a book of chanted propers by Fr. Weber. And just a few days ago, the CMAA went to print with a fantastic book of Responsorial Psalms in the Gregorian style. Look for the Parish Book of Psalms by Arlene Oost-Zinner.

As I look at all these resources and the energy behind them, and the difference they are making, I find it most remarkable that the responsible organization, the Church Music Association of America, has no full-time staff at all and no real central office. It is fueled mostly by the energy of volunteers. And yet this model seems to be doing what none of the mainstream publishers, with all their money and staff, were able to do for many decades.

It is also a sign that the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite is finally, so long after its promulgation, becoming a settled, stable, and beautiful part of the long Catholic tradition, rather than merely a dramatic break from all that came before.

I had so many comments along the lines of the following. Why did it take 40 years to finally have a viable collection of music to sing at Mass in the ordinary for? How could we have gone from the introduction of vernacular liturgy in 1965 all the way to 2011 without an accessible collection of antiphons and Psalms to actually use at Mass? There is no one easy answer to that question. It does seem absolutely astounding in retrospect.

For all those years, we lived with this gigantic gap. Either we could sing songs with non-liturgical words or we could sing the Latin from the Graduale Romanum. The leap between the two is far too vast for any parish, not only for reasons of technical competence but also for social and cultural reasons. So long as this situation existed, we could make no progress beyond the niche that was already singing the Gradual.

What matters now is that the dam has broken and the water is flowing fast. So many people deserve credit and recognition for what has happened, too many to even list. It’s a change that has been brought about through faith, hard work, and total dedication to the cause. It is a rare thing that any of us can really look at our actions and say: what I did made a huge difference in this world in our time. But people at work in the movement for sacred music really can say that today.

Tu Es Petrus, Palestrina

I’ve loved this Mass by Palestrina so much and for so long, but it’s been years since I last heard it. Check out this fantastic performance by Schola Cantorum Franciscana, Paul Weber, director. Live performance, Sunday, April 29th, 2012, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, Carnegie, PA.

Chant, Polyphony, the Works

A fantastic performance by the choristers of St. Stephen the First Martyr Parish of Sacramento, California, USA, under the direction of Jeffrey Morse. The Mass ordinary is Victoria’s MISSA AVE MARIS STELLA and the offertory is Parson’s AVE MARIA (5 parts).

The glorious vessel of the extraordinary form makes plenty of room for the music.

Chant Inspires the Blogosphere

I’m thrill to wake today to three absolutely wonderful promotions of the Sacred Music Colloquium, June 25-July 1, Salt Lake City.

Fr. Z offers an excellent write up, and, truth is that Fr. Z. was trained to chant under the best of the best. Whenever we have Skype calls, he dazzles me with his knowledge and makes me feel like I should never write anything on this subject again. He is a true expert.

Then we turn to Fr. Anthony Ruff, who similarly trained under the best of the best in Europe. I dare say that he could sing the entire Gradual by memory — with notes corrected according to 9th century manuscripts. He blogs at PrayTell.

Finally, we look across the pond to the king of hermeneutical continuity, Fr. Tim Finigan. His write up points to all the wonderful things I like about the Colloquium film.

Thank you to all who have pushed this event, which promises to be the best in human history.

Beautiful Polyphony from Lyceum Schola Cantorum

How far do you have to go to hear beautiful, stunning polyphonic music of Catholic tradition? Certainly you can find it in New York. Or Chicago. Or San Francisco and Washington, D.C. It turns out, however, that If you live anywhere near South Euclid, Ohio, you are in luck. There is a co-ed high school there called The Lyceum. This school has a choir that will take your breath away.

I’ve just listened to their new CD, which you can buy at their website or perhaps by writing the school. I urge you to do so. This material is remarkable for particular reasons. The tuning and balance is exceptional, as are the interpretations. But more than that, what strikes me about the singing is the spirit. Spirit is something difficult to put your finger on, hard to describe. It is something you feel and sense. And you really do sense it in a big way here.

What is that spirit? In a word, it is love. These are high schools kids who are unbelievably fortunate enough to be an environment that really believes in this music. Every note is sung with love. It is love plus an appealing freshness, like the spring rain or new flowers in a garden. The colors are bright and enthusiastic about life and art. It comes through in every piece, from the opening chant (Ave Verum Corpus) to the last choral piece.

There is marvelous material here. It shows you what is possible. The dream can be achieved. The living reality of wonderful Catholic music sung by young people is something of our world and our times.

No doubt that the results here owe much to the director, who is James Flood. He must be a very humble man because I had a hard time even finding his name on the schola’s website. It turns out that he is a classical guitarist who studied at the prestigious Peabody Conservatory and runs the Foundation for Sacred Arts. Whatever it is that gives a person that spark of genius to build a great choral program, Mr. Flood certainly has it. He has managed to turn a random group of high school kids into a world-class liturgical choir right in the the heart of America. Incredible.

On this CD, the choir sings what a parish schola today might be called “standards” but which are nearly unknown by most parishes today. Palestrina’s “Sicut Cervus” has a calm feel but that brightness of spirit that characterizes all the music here. Mozart’s “Ave Verum” is expertly rendered. the two pieces by Christopher Tye schooled me in how to take this fairly simple music and extract from it a profoundly elevated message. The Pergolesi piece “Surrexit Christus” is new to me but joyful throughout, with that special harmonic spin that only Pergolesi can provide.

Two pieces bear special mention here. The first is William Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus,” which is widely and rightly regarded as a true masterpiece from the composer and of this period. It requires a great deal of maturity to manage its long lines, cascading entrances, and shifting moods. I waited to hear this because I knew that it would call on every resource from young singers. It turns out that the Lyceum Schola Cantorum managed this just fine, with great discipline and careful attention to phrasing and dynamics.

The second piece is the one that I initially thought didn’t belong: Handel’s “Hallelujan Chorus.” My first thought was: do we really need to hear this yet again? After hearing it, my answer is: yes! If you can believe it, they bring something new to the piece. The pull back from the over-the-top hysteria that is usually employed here. They are subtle and careful, maintaining an integrated blend throughout. And of all the pieces that exhibit that signature freshness and fun, this is the one that does it best. I’m glad they decided to put it on — even though it is a piece that arguably comes from a Protestant milieu. The truth is that this is not a liturgical piece; it is a theater piece. And there is nothing at all wrong with putting a theater piece at the end of a CD. It’s like a encore of a marvelous production.

I see now that the Lyceum is private Catholic academy that specializes in classical studies. So we have Latin and Greek and French taught here in many grades. The literary emphasis is classical. No doubt that doctrine is taught with an eye to orthodoxy. The faculty is stable and very impressive. In short, this is the kind of academy that is not supposed to exist today, because the whole of modern education seems to be structure to drive such places out of existence. And yet here it is stands, against all odds, teaching a great group of kids all that they need to know to have wonderful lives of faith.

In so many ways, this CD is a tool of evangelization. It shows what is really possible in our times. Even for a beginning schola, this production provides an excellent model.

I had to laugh when I read this comment from Fr. Samuel Weber: “I really didn’t know what to expect when I heard that a high school choir would be providing the music for the liturgy, but when they opened their mouths to sing the Kyrie I was amazed. They were unbelievable. Hearing the Lyceum Schola Cantorum while celebrating the Mass was a very moving experience for me.”

Yes, I can easily imagine that he was shocked!

As for the CD, it turns out to be extremely difficult to produce a good recording. It might seem easy to outsiders, but it is far from that. Every mistake shows up and repeats itself on each listening. You hear imperfections that you don’t hear in live presentations. The digits rendering the sound waves are merciless and unforgiving. But the Lyceum Schola confronted the challenge and conquered it completely, leaving us a beautiful artistic creation that can inspire others.

The director, the singers, the administrators of the school, and all the parents who support these kids all deserve a big thank you from anyone who imagines a world in which such things are more common.