OWARD THE END of this article, I will describe the joyful experience of communicating with Catholic choirmasters who have departed from this life. Before we get there, I discuss what I consider to be a serious problem among Catholic choirmasters. Now, you could undoubtably list tons of serious problems we face; our vocation is incredibly challenging. Under Covid-19, our vocation has become even more difficult. The temptation to “throw in the towel” can seem insurmountable sometimes. Believe me: I am not ignoring the other problems we face. I have been employed as a Catholic choirmaster for more than twenty years, in both small parishes and huge cathedrals. I have experienced what you have: unjust salaries, immoral priests, persecution for trying to follow the documents of Vatican II, reprehensible jealousy, unconscionable slander, and so forth.
But I believe that once Covid-19 finally calms down, we will enter a new situation. We have had the Sacraments taken away from us! Having gone through this terrible Covid-19 experience, good priests will be less inclined to put up with nonsense. They will be looking for serious Catholic musicians who have not lost the Faith. We must be prepared for this “New Springtime,” and for that reason I would like to speak about something I consider a serious problem.
Serious Problem? What Exactly?
I don’t have an elegant name for this problem, so I’ll simply describe it: “Musicians who can’t discern what sounds good.” Yogi Berra declared: “If you don’t know where you’re going, you might wind up someplace else.” As musicians, we must be able to tell the difference between a good performance and a lousy performance. I admit this is hardly a “Catholic” problem. As a teenager, I attended many concerts in Kansas City and soon noticed that the audience would clap just as loud for the good performances as they did for the terrible performances. I remember a performance of Chopin’s BARCAROLLE (opus 60) where the famous pianist had a major memory lapse in the middle, yet I was the only one—apparently—in that crowd of 2,400 who even noticed.
As musicians, we must be able to point to a performance—with confidence—and indicate specifically what was beautiful about it. We must be able to “diagnose” what is wrong with a bad performance. We must avoid being dishonest; for example, if someone we admire praises a composer whom we dislike, we should have the courage to be honest. If we don’t know enough to venture an opinion, that’s also fine. If we are “giving it some time” before stating our views, that is also fine. In graduate school, we had a musicology professor who was (sadly) allowed to conduct certain “early music” groups. Our choir had to collaborate with him on a performance, it was truly depressing. He would have us run the full piece, and he always had a puzzled look on his face when it ended. Then he would say: “Okay, let’s do it again.” Then we’d have to do the entire piece over again. The truth is, that professor could hear, but he had no “ears.” He had no idea whether a performance was excellent or hideous.
Describing Music With Words?
I have tons of theories about why we’ve arrived at this situation, but I’m not sure anyone necessarily cares about my diagnosis; so I’ll keep quiet for the time being. However, I will mention one possible cause—or perhaps I should say “result”—from the inability to discern excellence in a musical performance. It means that when people speak about music using words, many musicians don’t notice direct contradictions. The worst is the self-proclaimed “expert” who pontificates about music, yet can’t locate MIDDLE C on a keyboard! 1 I’m not saying it’s always inappropriate to talk about music. I’m saying we must realize that many aspects of music are too subtle to discuss.
Consider the words of Dr. Theodore Marier, which you can also watch on video:
Why was Toscanini such a great conductor? Why was he the great Beethoven expert among us? He respected every nuance, every note, everything! And he never let a detail of the music—as Beethoven wrote it—get by him or by the orchestra. He was a tyrant! He never changed anything. He never said: “Well, I like it this way.” Rather, he asked: “What did Beethoven say?”
Now consider the words of Vladimir Horowitz, who was very close to Toscanini. (Horowitz married Toscanini’s daughter, and Toscanini served as Horowitz’s witness for the marriage.) These words of Horowitz were recorded by Harold C. Schonberg, a WW2 veteran who later served as the New York Times senior music critic. About his friend and mentor, Arturo Toscanini, Horowitz had this to say:
We constantly talked about music. Mozart was a special subject. At that time, Toscanini conducted very few Mozart concertos, mostly because pianists those days played at best only two or three of them—generally the D minor [K. 466] or the A major [K. 488]. I had not played any in public. But both of us knew all of the major Mozart concertos and loved them. I own scores of the concertos with Maestro’s markings and metronome indications. Of course we discussed Beethoven. I remember him saying to me, “Horowitz, I know you don’t like to play many of the Beethoven sonatas, especially the last ones, because you think they are badly written for the piano by a deaf man. Why don’t you make changes? What is wrong if you make the changes in good taste? We conductors always change Beethoven’s scoring in the symphonies and nobody—the critics, the audience, nobody—hears the changes.” I told Maestro Toscanini that conductors could make those slight changes, but in a Beethoven Sonata if the pianist changed one little note everybody would scream “This is not in the text!” But Toscanini kept on asking me to make changes for better pianistic solutions of the text. “What do you care about what they say?” he would ask. But I never had the nerve.
Clearly, this is contradiction. 2 Dr. Marier says Toscanini was marvelous precisely because he never changed anything Beethoven wrote. We see from the Horowitz’s testimony that Dr. Marier was incorrect. I’m not sharing this to “attack” Dr. Marier, whom I greatly respect. I am simply pointing out that words are extremely limited when it comes to describing music—and the sooner we accept this, the better. I could cite hundreds of examples, but here’s just one more. Concerning the reciting pitch of Mode VIII, a famous Gregorianist once wrote that it was originally B-Natural, but eventually was moved to C-Natural (similar to Mode III) because B-Natural is an unstable reciting note. This famous Gregorianist said this was an “established fact” that only a moron would dispute…or words to that effect. However, another Gregorianist—one who’s studied Cantus Gregorianus for sixty years and teaches at an Ivy League university—wrote to me as follows: “I don’t think there is any evidence for a B-Natural reciting note for mode VIII. This raises some question about the theory that the B-Natural was unstable.” As musicians, we must be able to recognize a contradiction, even when it’s asserted by experts we respect. As I’ve already said, it’s difficult to speak about music using words. Many of the contradictions are the result of this reality.
Fixing The Problem
How can we address the problem I have mentioned? I should be clear; I’m not offering a panacea. Indeed, to offer a “simple solution” would be dishonest and reprehensible. On the other hand, I think I owe it to the reader to suggest a few items:
There’s an old saying: “No pain, no gain.” We must spend time sitting at the feet of the masters. If you want to learn about Gregorian accompaniment, an excellent starting point would be to carefully play through the entire NOH and compare it to other accompaniments (Henri Potiron, Julius Bas, Achille Bragers, Dom Desroquettes, Eugene Lapierre, Marcel Dupré, and so on). The NOH is 2,279 pages long, so don’t try to do the entire thing in one day.
When I wanted to really learn about Renaissance polyphony, one of the first things I did was transcribe about 300 pages from ancient clefs. Transcription really improves one’s knowledge. When Mozart wanted to learn counterpoint, he copied by hand the entire Well Tempered Clavier of Johann Sebastian Bach, and if you visit Salzburg, you can see his transcription. (They keep it in a museum.)
Starting in the 1990s, I sang for hundreds of Masses offered by the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Peter. We sang the full propers, and this is invaluable training—especially if you’re a slow learner like me.
Training at a music conservatory or university is also crucial. I became friends with a professor of music theory, and we spent weeks going through scores and discussing topics from Figured Bass to Claude Debussy. Sometimes, we’d spend more than 15 hours going through scores in a single day. This was incredibly important for my musical development.
Even before I was accepted at the conservatory, my brother and I played countless concerts. I say “concerts” because I am speaking of performing before real audiences. Our repertoire included Fauré, Bach, Medtner, Haydn, Mozart, Liszt, and tons of Chopin. (Ignaz Friedman was correct when he said: “Chopin opened the piano and he closed it.”) The minute you sit down to perform a concert, something “clicks”—it’s completely different than sitting alone in a practice room. In college, we had to perform juries each semester in front of the entire piano faculty. Most of the faculty members were famous artists: Robert König, Jack Winerock, and so forth. The works we had to learn were big works: Chopin’s Andante Spianato Et Grande Polonaise Brillante, Schumann’s Papillons, concerti by Beethoven, and so on. I was so nervous before one jury I felt I might pass out; I felt seriously ill with anxiety. But such experiences were quite valuable.
When you start to listen to a great masterpiece, be patient. Sometimes, you must listen many times before the music begins to make sense. Sometimes, listening to a masterpiece will cause “pain”—but eventually one begins to appreciate, love, and crave it.
In spite of what I’ve just said, listening to music should ultimately bring you delight. If you’re not enjoying the music—if you don’t crave it—try listening to a different composer. Also, remember that the performance makes a huge difference. For years, I hated Chopin’s 4th Scherzo…until I heard a recording by Leopold Godowsky. Now I love it. (The 1936 recording by Horowitz is also excellent. Incidentally, Horowitz once said all four Scherzi of Chopin should be played at the same tempo.)
During 2021, I will encourage my fellow contributors to help assemble a “listening list” containing excellent music performed well. That way, folks who wish to learn more about music can come to a greater appreciation. And great joy will come into your life!
These suggestions are offered in the spirit of helping others—if you dislike them, please feel free to ignore!
Talking With Dead Composers
Anytime an item enters the public sphere, certain people will begin to make foolish comments. (I’m guilty of making such comments in the past.) The release of the Brébeuf hymnal was no different, and certain quarters posted insults about it—even people who said they didn’t own a copy! People involved with publishing the Brébeuf hymnal asked me whether I would be willing to publicly refute these vicious (and false) attacks. In the end, I decided not to respond. For one thing, it would “elevate” these attacks to a level they didn’t deserve. Indeed, many of the most foolish comments emanated from “musicians” who had never held a real Church job, or who denied certain teachings of the Holy Catholic Faith. They are unworthy of a serious response. 3 However, there’s another reason I was hesitant to respond: any rebuttal would have been over their heads for the reasons I gave above. Musical truths are not easily put into words. I was heavily involved with creating the organ accompaniment volumes for the Brébeuf hymnal, and our team spent years comparing various harmonizations from different Catholic hymnals:
During this process,
I was communicating with
dead Catholic musicians!
Dr. Marier is not just a favorite of William Fritz, he’s also a favorite of mine. Comparing his harmonizations, I could see the problems he was desperately trying to solve, and sometimes he took bold approaches. It would be very difficult “put into words” these attempts by Marier, but I really felt like I was in communication with him. The same is true of Dom Gregory Murray, who re-harmonized almost every hymn in the New Westminster Hymnal. I could see the problems he was trying to solve, and he often found clever solutions—even though this occasionally created other problems. I really felt like he was alive, sharing the same struggles any good harmonizer must come to terms with. The same is true of the Edward C. Currie, who re-harmonized almost every hymn in the New Saint Basil Hymnal. Currie was not nearly as talented as either Murray or Marier, but he sometimes found decent solutions.
I really felt like I was communicating with these men, even though they’ve been dead such a long time. I could see their struggles to overcome harmonic problems that were often insoluble. I knew what they were going for, and their efforts were gallant. But this is not something I can easily put into words. It’s incredibly subtle, and demands a certain level of knowledge.
Musical truths are not easily put into words.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Part of the problem may stem from the movement to eliminate conservatories or “merge” them with universities. In the golden age, the great artists never had university degrees; if they went to school at all, it was at a conservatory. Think of Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Godowsky, Gieseking, Gould, Lipatti, Gabrilowitsch, Kapell, Tiegerman, Friedman, Lhevinne, Chasins, Fischer, Richter, Moiseiwitsch, and Hofmann—they studied privately or at the conservatory. None of them had a doctorate; their “degree” was playing so well that thousands of people paid money to hear them perform. For the record, when Josef Hofmann was in charge of the Curtis school of music, he found out that Wiktor Łabuński lacked a degree—so he decided to fix the situation. In 1935, he conferred a doctorate from the Curtis Institute on Łabuński, who was a Polish pianist who taught my teacher. Unlike Arrau and Horowitz, Hofmann was never jealous of other pianists. There was nobody for him to be jealous of!
2 Here Dr. Marier was not speaking of going “beyond the score” as all great interpreters—in my humble opinion—must do. Anton Rubinstein and Josef Hofmann were famous examples of this; they would observe all the markings from the composer and then go beyond. Leopold Godowsky would insist that his students be able to write out on a sheet of paper all the notes of a score they had memorized—and that would be extremely difficult since each piece contained thousands and thousands of notes! Harold Bauer, a famous pianist, had the following to say: “I was turning the pages for Paderewski during a rehearsal of a Brahms trio that he was to play with his friends Górski and Salmon. A discussion arose regarding a diminuendo that Paderewski wished to replace with a crescendo. ‘Cela ne va pas,’ objected the cellist, supported immediately by Górski. ‘Brahms has distinctly written diminuendo here for all three parts.’ I can still hear Paderewski’s impatient reply: ‘Il ne s’agit pas de ce qui est écrit. Il s’agit de l’effet musical.’ (The point is not what is written, but what the musical effect should be.) I remember thinking at that time that it was quite proper for a genius such as he was to take liberties which must be denied to the ordinary man. Later on I came to realize that the ordinary man who fails to realize what lies in the music beyond the printed indication is just…an ordinary man.”
3 In Corpus Christi, there were two priests who personally attacked me for several months. Instead of responding, I chose to take the high road. Both of them have now lost the right to minister as priests. One of them was caught molesting children, and the other secretly impregnated one of the girls in his parish; when the child was born he was defrocked. My point is: “by their fruits ye shall know them.” It was difficult to stay silent when they were making baseless accusations against me (out of jealousy), but in hindsight I was correct not to get in the mud with such people.