First audio from the Colloquium: Tuesday, July 2

Here are some sample recordings from the Sacred Music Colloquium held in Philadelphia this month.

Tuesday, July 2

In the morning, Sr. Maria Kiely, OSB, an instructor in Greek at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, presented a talk on the six vesper hymns long associated with the name of St. Gregory the Great: Lucis creator optime, Immensae caeli conditor, Telluris ingens conditor, Caeli Deus sanctissime, Magnae Deus potentiae, and Plasmator hominis Deus. The themes of the six hymns reflect the unfolding of creation in the six days of the Genesis account. (approx. 60 min.)

Tuesday afternoon, after the first rehearsals of the various choirs that formed for the week, a votive Mass of the Holy Angels was celebrated in English. Here are a few excerpts (please note that these are my amateur recordings, so there is incidental noise):

Procession (improvisation by Michael Olbash, organ):

Introit (plainchant by Fr. Samuel Weber, OSB):

Responsorial Psalm (George Elvey, arr. Mahrt):

Communion (plainchant by Fr. Samuel Weber, OSB):

Motet (Richard Farrant: “Call to Remembrance”):

Motet (Richard Terry: “Richard de Castre’s prayer to Jesus”):

Postlude (Bach: “Fantasia in G”, BWV 572)

Repertoire for the Colloquium Masses


Colloquium week in Philadelphia

Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, Philadelphia

The Sacred Music Colloquium is underway at the cathedral in Philadelphia, and today had the most splendid event of the week, a sung Mass with a performance of the Requiem,  the Missa pro defuncto archiepiscopo Sigismundo by Michael Haydn (1737-1806), the younger brother of F.J. Haydn.

The various portions of the Mass were performed by three choirs under the direction of Charles Cole, David Hughes, and Timothy McDonnell. For the occasion, a generous donor made it possible for CMAA to include an orchestra with numerous performers from the Baltimore Symphony.

Charles Cole, choir, and orchestra rehearsing for the Requiem

Charles Cole, choir, and orchestra rehearsing for the Requiem



Here is one portion of the Mass, the Tract Absolve, Domine, performed by the women’s schola composed of colloquium participants under the direction of Mary Ann Carr Wilson:


Church music and the divinity of the Lord

When Arius argued a heterodox opinion and spread it through hymns, St. Ephrem famously counterargued, writing sound teaching in hymns set to the same tunes.

When the see of Milan was threatened with destruction, St. Ambrose wrote hymns to encourage his flock.

How can liturgical music help the Church in our days, scourged as she is these days by fightings without and fears within?

  1. Follow the liturgical year using the Proper texts of the Mass. The antiphons themselves are very nourishing, filling the imagination with scriptural prayers, often intimate cries for help to God. They introduce Psalms, and sometimes highlight beautifully Christological senses of the Psalms. They dig deeply into the meaning of the great feasts and announce them, framing our understanding of the mysteries of God.
  2. Choose musical settings that help people to pray. If there is one thing missing in modern life, it is a sense of peace. The Church has vast libraries of music that fill the mind and soul with a feeling of spaciousness and rest, much as the soaring spaces of gothic cathedrals fill the imagination with room to dwell in. If our Christian anthropology is correct, if we are “fearfully, wonderfully made,” then the superficial pastimes where our minds ordinarily live cannot possibly satisfy our souls. God can, and music, particularly chant and polyphony, can build aural spaces where the faculties can wander, recollected, innocent, and at peace.
  3. Set the bar a little high, for the sake of teaching. Church architecture, furnishing, and music, at their best, are themselves a liberal arts education. This is immensely important in the spiritual life. It is pretty hard to fool someone whose mind has been freed to think. Some of our best hymns, through the use of beauty, metaphor and simile, and by their sheer literary fluency, help free the mind to  see and think through the difficult aspects of life–and to pray. Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness. God has brought His Israel into joy from sadness, loosed from Pharoah’s bitter yoke Jacob’s sons and daughters, led them with unmoistened foot through the Red Sea waters. Singing texts like these with understanding, which takes some work to do, is an education. The Orthodox have a saying: “The best theologian in the Church is the little old lady in the third row.” God can teach, and those who sing for the Church can help.
  4. Sing worthy music with children. It almost goes without saying that children outgrow childish music. When they outgrow the music, won’t they be in danger of likewise outgrowing the faith? Given the number of young people who either outgrow their faith, becoming “nones,” or who turn to more formal expressions such as the Extraordinary Form, it seems worth looking at the option of teaching young people the best liturgical music–chant and polyphony, according to the Second Vatican Council–from their earliest years.
  5. Choose hymns that testify to Jesus’ Divine Sonship. Like the Arians of long ago, our greatest danger is losing our dependence on the Sacred Humanity, the divine Gift given in the Incarnation. The reason He is the way, the truth, and the life is this unique relationship between the human and divine natures of the Lord Jesus. Since He is our salvation, we should be singing about Him. An awful lot of songs do not, including a remarkable number of Communion hymns in common use. Since there is no other name, since He inspires and perfects our faith, we should be singing hymns that keep our eyes fixed on Him.

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A hymn for Trinity Sunday

This Sunday’s first reading in the Ordinary Form was recast into a hymn by the outstanding but troubled poet William Cowper.
Hymns that quote Scripture at length are rather difficult to write, which makes the fluency of this one all the more remarkable. Writing a hymn free-style, without predetermined content, is much easier, especially in a rhyme-poor language like English.
Like any art, hymn writing, apart from inspiration and prayer, is a series of problems to be solved. When working on a hymn from one’s own meditations and imagination, a rhyme problem that is not easily solved can simply be abandoned, and a new idea, with new potential rhymes, can be substituted. Like an organist moving forward through an improvisation, one can choose to take possible roads, rather than highly difficult ones. There are so many beautiful things that can be said about the faith, that good hymns are possible to write even if the initial trajectory has to be abandoned.
It is different in cases of lengthy quotes from Scripture, or translations from the Latin. One has to stay on the subject that is given rather than moving on to a new aspect of the divine plan. The American Anglican F. Bland Tucker, one of the editors of both the 1940 and 1982 Episcopal hymnals, was outstanding at paraphrase. He is well-known among Catholics for his Father, We Thank Thee Who Hast Planted, which paraphrases the anaphora recorded in the Didache. Perhaps even finer is his incorporation of the Hymn to the Philippians (Phil 2: 6:10) into his majestic All Praise to Thee, for Thou O King Divine.
Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) was a parishioner of John Newton’s, and a top-drawer poet of both sacred and secular works. To help him through his serious psychological struggles and scruples, Newton engaged Cowper to write hymns, and the two collaborated on the celebrated Olney Hymns, which include Newton’s Amazing Grace and Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, as well as Cowper’s God Moves in a Mysterious Way and the following, which may be sung to the tune AURELIA (The Church’s One Foundation).
Wisdom by William Cowper
(Proverbs, viii. 22-31)

“Ere God had built the mountains,
Or raised the fruitful hills;
Before he fill’d the fountains
That feed the running rills;
In me from everlasting,
The wonderful I am,
Found pleasures never wasting,
And Wisdom is my name.

“When, like a tent to dwell in,
He spread the skies abroad,
And swathed about the swelling
Of Ocean’s mighty flood;
He wrought by weight and measure,
And I was with Him then:
Myself the Father’s pleasure,
And mine, the sons of men.”

Thus Wisdom’s words discover
Thy glory and Thy grace,
Thou everlasting lover
Of our unworthy race!
Thy gracious eye survey’d us
Ere stars were seen above;
In wisdom thou hast made us,
And died for us in love.

And couldst thou be delighted
With creatures such as we,
Who, when we saw Thee, slighted,
And nail’d Thee to a tree?
Unfathomable wonder,
And mystery divine!
The voice that speaks in thunder,
Says, “Sinner, I am thine!”

The Via Pulchritudinis and Evangelization of Young People

Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.

Young people of every generation have their own slang and their own priorities. One of the expressions that comes up in young adults’ conversations about Church art and catechesis is “cringe.” Cringe is what young people experience when older people are trying too hard to meet them at their (supposed) level. This is one of the funnier memes used to express this experience.

Well-meaning efforts to reach devout young people often fail on this account: to the young people themselves, there is an obvious and embarassingly overeager desire to connect with them. The problem is more than just the lack of respect for oneself and others that this implies. The main problems, as expressed by the young people, include the following:

  • Older people guess, wrongly, about what young people need
  • Older people impose unwanted, supposedly relevant experiences on young people
  • Older people’s ideas of the relevant are often outdated
  • Older people do not listen to young people express their own preferences

Just to focus on this last point, it seems undeniable that young people who are serious about their faith tend to prefer more traditional expressions of worship than older people do. Increasingly, the “guitar Mass” is attended by older people, and the more solemn Masses are attended by young people. Young women wear veils. Young people kneel for Communion and receive on the tongue. Young people crowd Masses in the Extraordinary Form. In short, we have a full-blown “generation gap,” only this time–51 years now after the “Summer of Love”–only this time it is upside down. The devout young are not the revolutionaries, but the custodians of something that is deeper and richer than themselves.

Now this is not to say that all young people like traditional expressions, nor that older people all like casual expressions of liturgy. And the existence of a variety of expressions need not be a serious point of contention. It seems to me that young people would be perfectly satisfied if they would only be allowed to continue growing in their faith in the way that seems best to them. But they are not.

Because older people will not let them.

A number of memes illustrate some of the frustration that young people feel when trying to make their needs known. This older one plays on the parental intervention that would happen when a child is found to be using some sort of contraband.

I think that the Church should make a commitment to meet young people where they really are, instead of what often seems to go on: We meet young people where we would like them to be.

There’s a nice story about Walker Percy’s conversion to Catholicism. When he was in college, one of his fraternity brothers, who was otherwise a perfectly normal fraternity brother, used to wake up at the crack of dawn to go to daily Mass. This is the kind of witness that awakes the imagination: the beauty of a committed Catholic life in the midst of the world, like a small but authentic amount of leaven. It is fascinating and compelling and changes minds and hearts.

There’s also an odd statistic that came out a few years ago. One out of six young converts to Christianity attributes that conversion to a visit to a church building. The researchers were astonished.

I think if we really, really listen to the hopes young people have for the Church we would be astonished as well, in a happy way that leads to renewal for us all.