HIS WEEK the Catholic Institute of Sacred Music, a new initiative headed by Dr. Jennifer Donelson-Nowicka, held a conference in honor of the life and work of the extraordinary William Mahrt. The conference took place at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, CA. This is the seminary of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, where Dr. Donelson-Nowicka is a professor. As is usual with academic conferences, the schedule was packed with papers. Less usual, at least for music-related fields, was that many of the papers were presented in hour-long blocks, with 40–45 minutes for the paper, followed by 15–20 minutes of question time. This allowed for an amount of depth and detail that was unusual. Most time blocks had three papers going simultaneously, which left the participants with some hard choices. There were some more papers I wish I could have seen.
Also unusually for music conferences (at least in my experience), solemn Catholic liturgies were held several times a day between the paper sessions: Lauds, Vespers, Solemn Mass. The music was provided by Mahrt’s own St. Ann Choir, with conducting by Mahrt, Donelson-Nowicka, and David Hughes, my long-time former director in Norwalk. The singing was quite good. I particularly enjoyed sitting behind Fr. Bachmann, choirmaster at Clear Creek Abbey, during the office. He sounds like a monk of the Solesmes congregation, because that’s exactly what he is.
I had to arrive late and leave early because of schedule constraints, but I was able to attend three plenary events: keynote papers by Dr. Joseph Dyer on some Old Roman chant and Sr. Maria Kiely (of Solesmes!) on Latin as a sacred language and some of its rhetorical qualities in liturgical use. The third event was the banquet, with some very moving tributes to Mahrt and his influence.
As you might expect, I followed a chant-oriented itinerary through the conference papers. Especially noteworthy were two papers touching on the rhythm of Gregorian chant. Br. John Glasenapp (of Meinrad Archabbey) presented some really interesting research on the Cistercian reform of the chant repertoire in the late middle ages. He used this as a way to raise questions about some patterns of narrative (i.e., decay-restoration or decadence-reform) that recur throughout the history of the repertoire. Perhaps closer to my own research topics was a really interesting paper by Steven Ottományi on language and rhythm in chant. He was mainly looking at the Pothier-Mocquereau dispute, trying to come up with new and better ways to describe points of agreement and difference. His boldest claim is that the difference between their ways of accentuating chant may relate to regional variations in the way French is spoken in their birthplaces. Obviously such a cause, if it is true, is not entirely demonstrable and also would be in some quite deep stratum of their mental furniture, but it was an interesting point.
I also gave a paper this morning, on the connection between Mocquereau and various nineteenth- and twentieth-century theorists. It was based on the research in the fourth chapter of my recent dissertation. In some ways, I think my points were quite complementary with those of Glasenapp and Ottományi. Say of Mocquereau what you will as a chant practitioner, but I’m heartened to see the interest in my research looking at him as a theorist of music. The rhythmic signs, which have proven so controversial in chant circles, are really a very small part of Mocquereau’s theory.
From my point of view, the conference was quite successful. There was a lot of interesting scholarship to take in, and it was inspiring to see the fruits of Dr. Mahrt’s long career as both a practicing musician and a scholar, and a generous teacher. I hope to see many more such conferences in the future!