About this blogger:
A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he resides with his wife and children.
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Two pages of modal exercises reflect Liszt’s lively theoretical curiosity. On those pages he analysed the construction, transpositions, and “points of repose” of several modes, copied out several types of tetrachords, and jotted down several definitions of the effects and characters of certain modes. {…} Modality was not the only element of Gregorian chant that intrigued Liszt. Rhythm too was the object of his “studies.” He also copied out plainchant melodies using modern instead of square notation. In his letter from July 24, 1860, to Carolyne, Liszt refers to the necessity of this “modern” practice.
— Nicolas Dufetel on Franz Liszt's interest in plainsong

The Movie “I Confess” Shows A Liturgical Sensibility
published 25 May 2015 by Jeff Ostrowski

CAN HARDLY BELIEVE it has been twenty years since I sat in a rectory—along with several FSSP clerics—enjoying Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess. The other day, when I posted the VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS, it brought to mind Fr. Logan’s famous Ordination scene, which features this Gregorian melody.

Alfred Hitchcock was a Roman Catholic, and this film is “peppered” with snippets from Catholic life in the 1950s. Hitchcock seems to have possessed a musical ear—throughout this movie, the Dies Irae is fittingly used as a leitmotif. Moreover, the soundtrack really does “make” this film, as you can see:

Throughout the movie, Hitchcock seems to imitate the liturgy, by a certain technique which undoubtedly has a name; but I’m too ignorant to know it. Let me describe what I mean. In the Church’s liturgy, the official texts often have multiple levels. For example, the Pentecost Sunday INTROIT comes from the book of Wisdom but is a “secret” version of the Acts of the Apostles (chapter 2, verse 4). The characters in I Confess frequently say something with a deeper meaning.

In the following clip, Ruth Grandfort tells Fr. Michael Logan—through sobs—how sorry she is that blame for Villette’s murder is being placed upon him. (Needless to say, the true guilt ought to be felt by the murderer, Otto Keller, who earlier admitted his guilt to Fr. Logan in the confessional.) At that moment, Otto comes through the door and bumps into Ruth, who apologizes. Otto replies, “No; it’s not your fault. It was my fault, Madame.” Keller then passes in front where Fr. Logan is hearing confessions:

Some will feel this type of “deeper meaning” is overdone by Hitchcock, but remember that in 1953 nobody had YouTube, DVR, internet vines, DVD releases, Netflix, or even VHS tapes. Therefore, the movie had but one chance to make an impression. 1

WE HAVE BEEN TOLD time and again that Gregorian chant lacks emotion, but it’s difficult for me to accept this when I recall certain events in my life. I’ll never forget my brother’s Confirmation—when they sang “Veni Creator Spiritus”—or serving Mass for Holy Thursday as child—when they sang “Pange Lingua.”

Hitchcock seems to understand that “emotional memories” can occasionally strengthen our resolve to serve God. When Fr. Logan is struggling to accept the fact that he might be executed for a crime he didn’t commit, he visits the cathedral where he was ordained to gain strength:

That’s a powerful scene!

WHEN OTTO KELLER TAKES THE STAND to testify, he lies. It drives me crazy to hear the true murderer tell those lies. Hitchcock often made movies about people who were falsely accused because when Hitchcock was a child, his father unjustly traumatized him by sending him to the police with a handwritten note saying “keep him in a cell for five minutes” as punishment. Unfortunately, this too has a liturgical parallel. Scandalous behind-the-scenes manipulations took place after the Council, and we’ve mentioned a few on our blog. Some of these deal with the shameful sale of indulgenced Church texts. Others pertain to the way “permissions” for certain things are granted—or not granted—in an unjust manner. When I hear of such things, I get really angry.

Church musicians, however, are not 100% innocent in these matters. A situation exists among some musicians which I call “lack of honest appraisal”—when musicians are dishonest about how their choirs actually sound. Sometimes a choirmaster has a “dream” to perform some piece of music—perhaps a Motet by Palestrina for eight voices—even though the choir cannot properly execute it. He recklessly attempts it anyway and the priest and congregation (although they lack formal training in music) realize it sounds terrible. The only person in the whole church who doesn’t realize this is the choirmaster! All of us—myself included—have undoubtedly been guilty of this. Fixing this problem requires a willingness to tape-record one’s choir and be honest about how it sounds. 2

When the post-conciliar reforms came, some bishops & priests probably wanted to get rid of Gregorian chant because it was poorly done. We have an obligation to perform music well, but this is no easy task! The other day, I recorded this Sequence. But when I listened a few days later, I realized I recorded the piece too slowly—probably because I was focused on playing all the organ notes correctly—and I hate myself for doing that. Chant should not be sung too slowly; it’s terrible when it’s done that way!

SOMETIMES, WE MUSICIANS LAMENT the inability of our choirs to sing everything perfectly. We feel discouraged by this. We should realize, however, that our musical “ears” become more demanding each year and that’s a good thing! I hear music differently today than I did five, ten, or fifteen years ago. Performances by Vladimir Horowitz which used to thrill me sound different now. I relish music today I formerly detested—such as Chopin’s 4th Scherzo—and vice versa. I keep discovering new treasures in music I’ve enjoyed for twenty years, such as Bach’s Art of the Fugue. When I hear performances by choirs I conducted in the past, I sometimes blush with shame—but they sounded fantastic at the time. Thanks to Meaghan King, I’ve even begun to appreciate “crazy modern” French organ music, and actually…(deep breath)…enjoy some of it! Clearly, then, our musical ears change and develop.

I’ve come to love working with amateur singers who don’t read music. It’s fun to teach them and supremely rewarding to observe their progress. Last night, our FSSP.la choir astounded me by their lovely choir sound. We all make mistakes; but mistakes (strangely) don’t bother me anymore since I know we’re on the right path. Artur Schnabel famously said he only programmed music “that is better than it can be played.” I know our choir is imperfect, but—for some reason—I don’t care. I’m excited to keep making progress. 3

MY ARTICLE TODAY has pretty random, and I apologize for this fact. Let me conclude with a random piece of information: the FSSP parish in Canada says Mass in the same church Alfred Hitchcock used for I Confess. My French is not perfect, but I’m 99% sure this is the case.

How cool is that? But I’m not sure I could attend Mass there without thinking about the movie…


1   Besides, it’s hard to argue that movies have gotten better since then…if you doubt this, perform a google search for “Why didn’t Aladdin lend the lamp to Jasmine?”

2   Until 2012, I participated in numerous Church music forums & mailing lists. One participant was obsessed with the NEW ENGLISH HYMNAL (a truly excellent hymnal, by the way). I began to realize that this person lacked any objective standard for Church music; he only liked music found in the NEH. I started to lay traps for this poor fellow. I would submit samples from a hymnal I was working on and he’d immediately reply, “Sorry; I prefer the harmonization found in the NEW ENGLISH HYMNAL.” In fact, I had taken that precise harmonization from the NEH, but he lacked the musicianship to realize it! Sadly, this fellow is not unique; a surprising number of musicians lack an objective standard for their preferences.

3   I don’t understand this, because mistakes formerly caused me great distress.