THOUGHT TODAY I would share some of the wonderful things going on in the field of Sacred Music in these United States of America. We can easily forget to count our blessings when we are surrounded by the constant barrage of bad news, irreverent liturgies and even worse music, but two wonderful weeks in June reminded me how many great musicians, choir directors, organists and clergy there really are in our country and how the face of Sacred Music is changing, and for the better.
CMAA Colloquium (Hagerstown, MD):
I was privileged to be on faculty for the CMAA Colloquium June 20-25, conducting one of three polyphonic choirs, alongside Christopher Berry and Horst Buchholz, comprised of roughly 125 singers, about two men for every one woman. If I remember correctly, I had 10 basses, 12 tenors, 6 altos and 5 sopranos in the choir, the reading level of which was quite high, making rehearsals a joy and allowing us to focus on the more musical aspects of the score. A particular highlight for me was conducting Anerio’s 8 part Venite ad me during the usus antiquior Mass on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, sung by a 60-70 voice choir. Berry’s improvisations during First Vespers for the Feast of the Sacred Heart, especially at the Magnificat, were a particular delight, as was Horst Buchholz’s rousing improvisation that led us into the Solemn Te Deum to celebrated the repeal of Roe vs. Wade. Listening to 125 voices lifted in the praise of the eternal God was powerful and won’t be easily forgotten.
Christopher Berry, organist and choirmaster at St. Stanislaw in Milwaukee, also taught an advanced conducting class in Gregorian chant, which I had the pleasure of sitting in on. At least half the class were under 35 and the young people enthusiastically hopped up to the podium to share their conducting skills, each learning from the other. I also enjoyed Susan Treacy’s talk about the connection between important Renaissance composers and great saints in Counter-Reformation Rome—I would highly recommend her book The Music of Christendom: A History—and it made me wonder what might one day be written of our generation, but the Colloquium made me hopeful.
Of course non-musical highlights figured heavily into the joy of the week, and I can only say that the faculty conversations in our “lounge” at the end of the day and far into the night, ranging on any number of topics from music to politics and everything in-between, were delightful and thought provoking. It is a shame that most of these wonderful musicians only meet once or twice a year, but then return to their respective homes fortified and strengthened intellectually, musically and spiritually, ready to give back in whatever way they can.
I should particularly say Thank You to Janet Gorbitz for all of her unseen work putting the conference together–all I can say is that the Colloquium simply wouldn’t be what it is without her.
Sacra Liturgia (San Francisco, CA):
The Colloquium finished Saturday afternoon and I immediately left for the airport to take a non-stop a flight from Washington to San Francisco to take part in the Sacra Liturgia Conference. I had the great pleasure of riding along the way with Mary Anne Carr Wilson, learning so much about her incredible music program Canticle in San Diego, as well as the chant camps she leads throughout the US. Canticle works with more than 100 children in 3 different choirs and operates a chorale for adults. If you live in the San Diego area and aren’t a part of her program, make sure you change that now.
Sunday morning I made my way to St. Thomas Aquinas, a quaint little church in Palo Alto, where Dr. William Mahrt, president of CMAA, has directed the St. Ann Choir since 1964. This particular Mass presented me with the very first time I have ever encountered the New Mass fully sung from beginning to end in a parish setting, and it was fascinating to watch the entire choir sing Gregorian chant from enormous illuminated manuscripts like the monks of old. The choir has a repertoire of around 250 Renaissance motets that they sing, in addition to the entire Propers of the Mass each week.
I had originally planned to go to Sacra Liturgia for the purpose of giving a short presentation on my fundraising methods for the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum, however, Peter Carter (of the Square Notes Podcast) informed me Martin Baker, former Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral in London, would be directing the 40 voice Catholic Sacred Music Project Choir, and asked if I would be a part of it. Of course, who wouldn’t want to sing under Baker! Alongside Baker were Dr. Timothy McDonnell (Conducting, Hillsdale College, formerly of CUA) and and Mr. Benjamin LaPrairie (organist for the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, D.C.), making a formidable musical trinity in charge of our week. The choir began rehearsing Monday morning for a Mass on Thursday to be celebrated by Cardinal Pell. The Mass included the full Gregorian propers, beautifully accompanied by LaPrairie, paired with Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli. I learned so much about leading a choir from Mr. Baker and was blessed to spend time with him and learn about his incredible work at Westminster Cathedral. Readers can view the entire Mass, televised by EWTN.
In San Francisco I encountered fantastic musicians who are doing incredible work in the field of Sacred Music both in the US and farther afield. There were two musicians from from Central and South America who are working to bring the great tradition of Hispanic hymnody to greater prominence, and another singer from Australia, who works with a group called Jubilate Dei, bringing sacred music to students in the Sydney area.
There were a couple of talks that were especially moving, including one by Dr. Jennifer Donelson-Nowicka entitled Emotion, Intellect, and Will: The Fruits of Sacred Music in the Spiritual Life. The next day Cardinal Pell spoke on his time in solitary confinement and the profound affect it had on his love for the Mass and its ritual after being almost entirely deprived of it for more than 400 days. He also mentioned something in his homily that struck deeply, the fact that devout Catholics throughout the first world look to the United States as a beacon of hope for the renewal and flourishing of the Catholic Faith. I have long asserted that the Catholic Church is more alive now in the US than it has been since World War II and the Sacra Liturgia participants are but a small number of all of those working on our shores to bring about the reign of Christ.
There was also a panel consisting of nine people intimately involved in church music who presented on different topics ranging from choir schools to Vespers and fundraising to tchorister training. I was particularly pleased to learn from Dr. Christopher Tietze, organist and choirmaster at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, that this fall the cathedral will officially begin it’s own choir school, making it the second Catholic cathedral in the US, after the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, to begin an official choir school.
Following Cardinal Pell’s Mass on Thursday, Sacra Liturgia hosted a VIP dinner for all the speakers and presenters, which I completely forgot about, but after a quick text reminder from Jennifer Donelson-Nowicka I arrived just as the main course was brought to the table. My plate had already been removed, most likely from the low end of the table, but in true biblical fashion a new plate was laid at the head of the table and I spoke with Archbishop Cordileone through the main course and Cardinal Sarah right through dessert, giving me the incredible opportunity to ask him about his childhood and his spiritual life. It was an evening I shall never forget.
Friday afternoon we traveled to the Mission Dolores for a Pontifical Mass at the Throne celebrated by Archbishop Cordileone to the accompaniment of a new Mass composed by Frank Rocca in Honor of St. Junipero Serra. We were treated to a group of angry protesters upon arrival, but even this proved a great lesson. If one were blind, one would have thought there were a hundred protesters, but in reality it was only about a dozen with a bull horn or two, mostly older, but all bitterly angry. The whole lot of them looked like a wild animal show escaped from the circus (and I mean this literally). However, their anger couldn’t diminish the beauty of the Mass taking place inside, offered for all of us, protesters included.
That evening Martin Baker led the Catholic Sacred Music Project Choir one last time in a concert of sacred music by living composers, among them Frank Rocca and Massimo Scapin, organist and choirmaster at St. John Cantius in Chicago.
I should also recognize one of Corpus Christi Watershed’s own, Chris Mueller, who at the request of the Benedict XVI Institute, typeset an entire anthology of sacred music by living composers, which is being offered free to church musicians in order to bring great sacred music into the hands of parishes across the nation. Music by Mr. Mueller and other names well known to our readership such as Richard Clark and Kevin Allen are represented in this anthology, as well as works by Massimo Scapin, Nicholas Lemme and Peter Kwasniewski.
These were two joyful, yet profitable, weeks spent with a dedicated group of devout Catholics who enkindled in me the desire to return home and take up my baton with renewed vigor. There is indeed much to be thankful for.