HEN I FIRST became actively involved with helping organize the FSSP’s Sacred Music Symposium about six years ago, one of the things that most surprised me was the discovery that many traditional choir programs had begun popping up all around the country. I spoke to many choir directors and singers that told me they had been thrust into greater responsibility in their parish choir, before they were comfortable with it or even fully prepared. I would have never guessed that this return to traditional sacred music was actively afoot in other places if I had not personally seen it, because I was in the thick of choral development myself. It was electrifying to discover that I was in fact, not alone in my choral struggles, and that so many other parishes around the country were developing choral programs parallel to my own relatively new choir. This renaissance of authentic sacred music was recently covered in an article by Symposium attendee and journalist Anna Farrow in a British Catholic newspaper:
* ‘The best good in the world’: The US organisations leading a renaissance of Catholic sacred music
—4 September 2023 article published in the Catholic Herald • (external URL).
Farrow points to the visible signs of this resurgence in sacred music, namely the Pacific Symphony and Chorale’s performance of Sir James McMillan’s “Fiat Lux” at Christ Cathedral in Southern California as well as the Sacred Music Symposium, both taking place simultaneously not far from one another. After having attending the Sacred Music Symposium for the last 7 years alongside numerous return attendees, I have seen how these singers and choir directors have developed in their abilities year after year—furthering their skills in conducting, singing, chant and composition. Yes, the renaissance of sacred music has indeed arrived. Farrow talks about the wonderful setting of the CONFÍTEOR, which I have written about before. If you read the entire the article (above), you will find at the end a ‘live’ recording of that CONFÍTEOR, conducted by Dr. Alfred Calabrese at the symposium a few months ago.
An Embarrassing Admission • Because I have been attending the Symposium annually even through many of my most active childbearing years (with a couple of toddlers, pregnant with twins, with newborn twins, etc. etc.), while also helping to organize and run it, I have missed my share of important Symposium sessions. But this year my kids are a little older and I was able to be very present. One of the benefits of not missing any lessons during Symposium week was that I was able to really immerse myself in the chant workshops with Dr. Charles Weaver. I’m embarrassed to admit that somehow, even though I have been singing chant for over 15 years, I have never fully understood how to shape chant until now. After listening to this recording from Symposium 2023, I think you’ll agree that the effect is heavenly.
* Mp3 Download • Friday’s Communion Antiphon
—Recorded during Sacred Music Symposium 2023.
Letting Your Student Go • The challenge of any musician is to put the lessons they learned into practice. Without their professor at their side they must continue to analyze what they learned and attempt to execute it. Learning it and singing it is one thing—putting it into practice with your own choir is a completely different beast! It took instruction from a Julliard professor to get it through my thick skull. Now I have to figure out how to teach it to my choir and force myself to dedicate the time necessary to developing our chant as an ensemble. The temptation is to run through the propers for each Sunday and quickly move on. But as I write this I realize that I am not doing anyone any favors by rushing through our chant practices. There is also another major obstacle to shaping my choir’s chant…I am no Charles Weaver! Whatever clumsy explanation I may give will not compare to the teachings of Dr. Weaver. Nonetheless, one absolutely must try.
Below are some things you can do to develop your choir’s chant, even if you were not able to attend the Symposium this year:
(1) Dedicate a set amount of time at each practice to work exclusively on phrasing.
It is true that a choir, especially one that sings for the Traditional Latin Mass, has a lot of music to perfect from week to week. Consider how much music is actually sung in a Missa Cantata—what Jeff Ostrowski accurately calls the “insane crunch”. But consider setting time aside at each rehearsal to work on phrasing, not just on getting the correct notes. Even a small amount of work on your phrasing will bring your chanting to the next level. Consider also the fact that Gregorian chant scores can be quite vague as compared to the precision of modern notation, which has a lot more information notated on the music. A choir has to come to some agreement about what shape it will be given. No chant manuscript, new or old, will ever tell you precisely when to crescendo or decrescendo, nor what shape to give a certain phrase. You have to have a shape in mind and then rehearse it with your choir so that everyone is observing the phrase in the same way.
Consider also that there are many levels of proficiency between terrible and sublime. We cannot always attend sublime levels of chant in the way that we did at the Symposium but perhaps you can be somewhere on the spectrum of beauty if you will only attempt it. The point is to try!
(2) Before working on a new chant piece, have the choir read the translation together.
It is true that chant is first and foremost a prayer, and so for this reason it is critical that your choir understands what they are singing. More that just reading it aloud, encourage your choir members to spend some time with the text of the prayer between rehearsal and Mass. Many of the chanted prayers are incredibly ancient, and one could argue that they are a more perfect way to pray. To pray something in a more perfect way gives glory to God, and for that reason if you pray these chants numerous times, your prayers will be greatly pleasing to the Lord and more graces will abound. It is what Fr. Fryar referred to as ex opere operantis in his excellent Symposium 2002 keynote address.
“There’s two kinds of grace that you can get from liturgy: from Mass and from our prayers. You get the graces ex opere operato and ex opere operantis. The graces ex opere operato are from the thing itself. So, the Mass has all the graces from Calvary there, and when you go to Mass, you’re participating in Calvary and so there is a huge amount of grace available at every Mass, no matter how it’s offered, wherever it’s offered, by the Mass itself. That’s why some people will convert to the Catholic faith, just by assisting at Mass, by these graces ex opere operato of the Mass itself. Then you have the ex opere operantis and that is everything else to do with the Mass. The more fitting it is for the Mass, the more graces we get out of attending that Mass. So, for example, if you celebrate Mass with a plastic cup, you are going to get the graces ex opera operato of the Mass itself, but if you celebrate the Mass with a very valuable chalice, you are going to get so many more graces, just because of the chalice. Now, if you put everything together, then you’re going to get so much more grace. If you’ve got the beautiful chalice and the beautiful cruets and the beautiful vestments and the beautiful church and you’ve got a really good choir and you’ve got a really holy priest and if you have really holy altar servers and so on, if the congregation all went to confession right before the Mass and so they are all in a state of grace, there’s going to be a lot of grace going on at that Mass because it is so much more fitting for the glory of God and that’s what ex opere operantis is.”
(3) Catch up on the Gregorian Rhythm Wars series.
No matter who you believe ‘won’ the Gregorian Rhythm Wars, it will be greatly edifying to hear the various perspectives from these modern experts in chant. Read through the various perspectives in this epic battle of knowledge and draw your own conclusions. In the end, there is no substitute for the kind of intense, focused education such as is experienced at the Sacred Music Symposium. But there is also a lot to be attained through independent study and much groundwork that you can lay for yourself. Arm yourself with as many tools as you can, pray for wisdom and understanding, and go for it! As the famous painter Pablo Picasso once said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
(4) New Releases of Symposium Recordings.
Each of the Symposium faculty members has decided to release one of the recordings each week (but we’re a little behind at the moment). We intend to continue releasing these recordings as frequently as we can. You may want to catch up on recordings that have already been released. For example, check out the video of Dr. Calabrese teaching the Symposium choir Byrd’s SANCTUS .
Don’t Blow My Cover! • Don’t tell Jeff Ostrowski—because I don’t believe this photograph has been released publicly yet—but you can actually see all the participants of the Sacred Music Symposium if you click here:
* PHOTOGRAPH • Sacred Music Symposium 2023
—This photograph was taken at the end of the Sacred Music Symposium.