SELDOM REPEAT PIECES with my choir, and constantly find myself in search of new repertoire. Read the following excerpt—from TREASURE IN CLAY, the marvelous autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen—and you will understand why:
NE OF MY FRIENDS and distinguished colleagues there was Father Ronald Knox, a convert to Catholicism, whose father was the Anglican Archbishop of Birmingham. A graduate of Oxford, he was teaching Scripture and Greek at the seminary. Later on, he translated the entire Bible into English from the Hebrew and the Greek. Another colleague was Dr. Messenger, who was with me at Louvain and lived at a convent of nuns about two miles away from the seminary.
I worked hard to prepare each lecture to the fourth-year students of the seminary. This particular day I was to lecture on the subject of “Theandric Actions.” A theandric action is one in which both the divine and human nature of our Lord is involved. An example would be when He picked up dust, mingled it with spittle and applied it to the eyes of the blind man and cured him. But no theological subject of this kind is ever presented that clearly to students, for it is the business of a professor to complicate the simple ordinary things of life!
I spent hours reading Bonaventure, Aquinas, Suarez, Billot and other theologians. When I went into the classroom, if I met a theandric action coming out I would not have recognized it, so confused was I about the subject, but I lectured for an hour. On the way out of the classroom, I heard one deacon say to another: “Oh, Dr. Sheen is a most extraordinary lecturer, most extraordinary.” I said to him: “What did I say?” and in the best British accent he clipped: “I don’t quite know,” and I answered: “Neither do I.” That day I learned that sometimes when you are confusing, you are mistaken for being learned.
Five years later I met a former student of St. Edmund’s who was by that time a priest in the Diocese of Manchester. He inquired what I was doing. When I told him I was teaching at the Catholic University in Washington, he reflected: “I hope you are a better teacher now than you were then.” But at least it must be said for me that I tried my pedagogy on the English before I did it on my fellow Americans.
When I had completed the conditions for the agrégé of Louvain, I paid a visit to Cardinal Mercier. “Your Eminence, you were alway a brilliant teacher; would you kindly give me some suggestion about teaching?” “I will give you two: always keep current: know what the modern world is thinking about; read its poetry, its history, its literature; observe its architecture and its art; hear its music and its theater; and then plunge deeply into St. Thomas and the wisdom of the ancient and you will be able to refute its errors. The second suggestion: tear up your notes at the end of each year. There is nothing that so much destroys the intellectual growth of a teacher as the keeping of notes and the repetition of the same course the following year.”
I tried to follow these wise counsels of the Cardinal. In addition to searching for knowledge of contemporary thought, I also resolved never to repeat a course. When I first went into the school of Philosophy I was teaching natural theology. I found that I was using some of the same notes that I had used before and, therefore, was not growing intellectually.
I then decided to give a new course every year, but one that was related always to natural theology and to the existence and nature of God. So the course throughout the years varied. There would be a course on the philosophy of history; another year the philosophy of Marxism, another the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of science, etc. All of these were presented in the light of the thought of St. Thomas.
Why do some choirmasters repeat the same 3-4 pieces year after year? A few favorites by Byrd, Palestrina, and Victoria are done to death. If these were the only great pieces, I could understand—but there are so many other masterpieces!
Please Note: I do not mean to imply that we never do the same piece more than once. Anyone who looks at our repertoire will see this immediately. What I am talking about—and I address in the article—are choirmasters who never seem to expand their repertoire, choosing the same motets and mass settings year after year after year. I apologize if the title of this article caused confusion, but there is a character limitation when it comes to titles.