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Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord!

Perhaps it is due to the artistic temperament endowed to me by God, but among Truth, Goodness and Beauty, it is without doubt Beauty that speaks to my soul. To be sure, I love Truth and Goodness, but I love them because they are beautiful. God has called me to walk the via pulchritudinis along my earthly pilgrimage and I praise God for that!

At the same time, I acknowledge that the pilgrim way is not always as beautiful as one might hope. On a daily basis I am forced to confront the ugliness of my own sins, the hatred of God by some, the disdain shown for His creatures by many and a great apathy quietly professed by most in the world for anything heavenly. Unfortunately, the last of these plagues seems to be the modus operendi in too many celebrations of Holy Mass in the western world. As a society we have become completely exhausted with living; we are tired with everything and Mass is just another event to be endured and gotten through, another obligation. We no longer care. It is an irony supreme that in the face of a renewed focus on evangelizing in the Church today, we have ceased, in practice if not in belief, to care about the Church’s Sacred Liturgy. We no longer find it beautiful.

The celebration of Holy Mass should be the daily event in the life of the Church where the Christian worships the Lord, spends time with Him, receives Him, is renewed and strengthened by Him, where his love for God and neighbor is given new breadth and where he begins to live the life of the blessed in Heaven. But alas, no longer. Now the Mass is merely a filling station where the Christian hops in for a short time, inserts his coin into the basket and in return receives the Eucharist from whichever of the 20 vending machines (Eucharistic Ministers) is closest in physical proximity. He might even spend five minutes afterward in personal prayer where he tells God exactly what He needs to do so the day’s plans will be successful, after which the Christian can move on to the really important tasks of the day, which usually take place in the office.

This is in stark contrast to the view of so many saints who saw the celebration of Holy Mass as a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet (I am reminded of the text of the Ave verum corpus) where Christians were taken up, and if they allowed God, were formed more fully into His image and likeness to become like living tabernacles, sent out into the world to be other Christs. By sharing the joy of living as such, the saints thereby converted the world.

The former view, which we struggle with today, is an extremely utilitarian one, which uses the Mass as a tool to produce what the Christian needs. The second view, a very classical one, acknowledges the Mass to be a partaking in the Heavenly Liturgy, one which calls all of creation, the entire world, to enter into the worship and rest of God. To be honest, who is not tired of the modern world’s utilitarian view, which asks how useful a thing is. What is useful in a child’s laughter, or Thanksgiving dinner or in the worthy celebration of the Heavenly Liturgy. None of these things are useful in the eyes of the world and therefore we are exterminating each one by one. We abort our children, we cut short Thanksgiving dinner in order to shop on Black Friday (which has been transferred by our secular liturgists to Thursday afternoon) and we have given up anything more than the most banal celebration of Holy Mass.

I recently read the EU Report in my latest edition of The American Organist (March 2017) and was both fascinated and frustrated by Paulo Bottini’s article entitled The Organ and Organist in Italy. He writes “You can count on the fingers of one hand the musicians who, when asked the question, ‘What do you do for a living?’ could rightfully answer, ‘I am a church organist. This is because in the Catholic Church, singing and instrumental music are not considered constituent parts of the rite, but ultimately are optional (my emphasis). For this reason many pastors… prefer to rely on anyone to make do—preferably for free—clumsily accompanying the same few botched songs.” Unfortunately this is believed believed by most in the western world, including our clergy, which is why I was happy to see the recent publication of Cantate Domino Canticum Novum: A Statement on the Current Situation of Sacred Music on the 50th anniversary of Musicam sacram.

The first point made in Canticum Domino concerning the regrettable state of church music today is this, “There has been a loss of understanding of the ‘musical shape of the liturgy,’ that is, that music is an inherent part of the very essence of liturgy as public, formal, solemn worship of God“(my emphasis). I agree with the document’s authors–we must recover the biblical belief that all of creation is called to be caught up in “one triumphant hymn of praise” to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, what has been called the cosmic liturgy. This true (and ultimately beautiful) belief is indispensable if we hope to pull modern man out of himself and into eternity. I appeal to our bishops, pastors and seminarians, please re-orient the Church toward Heaven, to God. Do it first by re-orienting our worship, where Heaven truly meets earth. Give us churches that point to the reality of Heaven. Give us music that reminds us of the eternal hymn of praise sung by the angels, Give us homilies that inflame our hearts to love God and neighbor more deeply. Point us once again to God Who is Beauty Itself!

Music and the Imagination

Over the weekend I attended the second annual Prairie Troubadour symposium in Fr. Scott, KS, on the topic of The Restoration of the Imagination. The conference included a great line-up of speakers including Christopher Check, Dale Alquist and Anthony Esolen (among others) and finished with an evening of cigars and whiskey with the speakers and a host of great old friends (and now some new ones). As Belloc once wrote, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!” How delightfully true!

With the symposium fresh on my mind, I thought today I would take up the topic of the imagination again and its relation to sacred music, especially since most of our readers are engaged in the work of liturgical music, whether as a professional or as the true amateur.

In an article entitled The Importance of the Imagination, Laura Birquist notes that “[t]he old adage ‘You are what you eat’ could be changed truthfully to say, ‘You are what you see and hear’… If the soul has in it good, true, beautiful, noble, and heroic images, it will be disposed to become like those things. For as St. Thomas says, ‘The beautiful and the good are the same in subject because they are founded on the same thing, namely the form’ (Ia, q.5, a.4).”

Of course, the opposite could also be said. If the soul has in it evil, lies, ugly and base images, it will be disposed to become like those things, and therein lies the great problem of modern culture–we are inundated with people who find the good things repulsive, the true things nothing more than the demagogue’s opinion, the beautiful things mere tools for propaganda and noble and heroic ideals the notions of extremists. This could all be said equally of ugly music (I won’t call it ugly sacred music, for there is no such thing).

“Nay,” the church musician shouts. “Just give the congregation Gregorian chant and everyone will love it! They will recognize how beautiful it is.” Oh, if only that were true. When those in the congregation have weaned their imaginations at the breasts of pop culture and its cult of the material and sensual, they will have no inner receptivity to the beautiful and sublime treasury of sacred music, whether the ancient sound of chant or the modern sound of Part and Taverner. The question becomes how to form the imaginations of our young people in such a way as to attune their hearts to music that will ultimately lift them to heavenly realities. This process begins at home. The music a child hears and sings around the family hearth, surrounded by loved ones, will have a greater bearing on his receptivity to Palestrina and Messiaen than teaching him classes on sacred music (although this will be important later). In the same way, the music he sings in his Catholic school and in his school Masses will form his adult ideas about music and ultimately about God (be sure to read The Casualties of Bad Church Music). This is no unimportant topic.

If you want your children to know, love and serve God, it is up to you as parents to guide them along that path, and I would caution you to make good music an important part of the way. Do you yourself, especially you fathers, sing good music on a daily basis? Do you listen to good music? Make sure that true folk music forms the basis of what you sing and listen to. If your music comes primarily from the radio, just realize that such music is not “popular” or “folk” music in the classical sense. It does not come from the shared experiences of a people who have come together striving to live the good life, and therefore you will be shooting your efforts in the foot. There is plenty in the line of Anglo/Irish/Scotch/American folk music. If your ancestors come from other areas learn a few songs from that tradition. Include great hymns in the repertoire and consider ending your family night prayers by singing the proper Marian antiphon for the season. Your children will easily pick these up. Or, as one speaker at the symposium commented, teach your children how to dance and hold community dances. When you form your children in such a manner, exposing them to REAL music (nothing mass produced), they will naturally cross the bridge to an appreciate of the sublime beauty in the Church’s treasury of sacred music. Along the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty) they will come to know Him Who is Beauty itself.

Beauty, Music and the Sacred Liturgy

Mr. Joe Heschmeyer, a seminarian in our archdiocese and a student at the North American College in Rome, maintains an excellent blog entitled Shameless Popery, where he recently authored a post entitled The Worship of Beauty, and the Beauty of Worship. As I read his post I remembered a homily I heard delivered to a group of young people by an excellent priest who impressed upon the youth in the congregation that Sunday Mass (and Holy Day Masses) must constitute a non-negotiable in the Christian’s spiritual life. In an attempt to combat various reasons young people gave for not going to Mass every Sunday (it’s boring, I don’t get anything out of it, the music is bad) he boldly stated that as nice as hearing beautiful music at Mass was, we didn’t go to church for the music. I happened to be sitting in the congregation at that Mass in the front row and when he spoke the aforementioned words, he looked at me as if to ask me to nod my approval to what he had just spoken. While I would ultimately agree that we don’t go to Mass because of the music, I couldn’t help feeling that he missed the heart of the matter,namely, Who is the music for? As Mr. Heschmeyer notes at the beginning of his post:

“A frequent source of in-fighting amongst Christians involves beauty. How beautiful should our churches be? How beautiful should our Liturgies be? And why? In these discussions, there are two points that often go overlooked:

  • We Worship Beauty.
  • Created Beauty Points towards Divine, Uncreated Beauty.
  • Obviously, we don’t worship created beauty, but we literally do worship uncreated Beauty.” At the same time, “Creation rightly serves as a sort of ‘road’ leading to its Creator: beauty below points to Beauty above.”

    Truth, Goodness and Beauty are the three so called transcendental properties of being. Unlike attributes, Truth, Goodness and Beauty are Who God is in His very essence. Therefore, we can’t say that God is truthful, we must say that He is Truth itself. We can’t refer to God as being good in the sense of good being a description of His divine Person. We must say that God is Goodness itself. Likewise, we can’t say that God is beautiful, we must say that He is Beauty itself. All three of these properties of being have a definitive bearing on the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy.

    First, the Sacred Liturgy must be true. The real and valid matter and form must be used. The Word of God is “living and true.” The Creed is a true true statement about God and His Church. In the same manner, the Sacred Liturgy must also bear witness to the Goodness of God, His loving Fatherhood, His Justice, His unfathomable mercy toward each of us, His plan for our life with Him and with each other. Finally, the Sacred Liturgy must be Beautiful. The word of God is beautiful. The act of consecration is beautiful. The Blessed Sacrament is Beauty Himself. However, since God the Father has hallowed all of creation in the Incarnation, all creation must therefore proclaim the Praise and Glory of God, which means that everything, the music, the architecture, and especially the soul of the priest and the souls of all the faithful present are called to be beautiful as well.

    Yes, the Mass would still be valid (presuming valid matter and form) and of infinite worth whether or not the priest were a heretic, the faithful were bored and disengaged to the last man, woman and child, the music were terrible, the building ugly, and if there were a hatred shown for the widow and the orphan. At the same time, I can’t think of a better way to show ingratitude to our Heavenly Father. Such a state of affairs merely shows our own spiritual poverty.

    Ultimately, the Sacred Liturgy must be True, Good AND Beautiful. As Mr. Heschmeyer writes, “If Augustine is right that God is Beauty, then a Church without beauty would be as absurd as a Church that rejected truth or goodness. A full-fledged rejection or disregard of Beauty would literally be rejecting and disregarding God. So it’s not an option, or a perk. We need to take beauty seriously. And created beauty helps us by pointing us towards the true Divine Beauty.”

    Of course, the lived poverty of Christ is often presented as the impetus for whitewashed churches, banal music, fuzzy homilies and any other number of travesties perpetrated in the name of Christ. But Mr. Heschmeyer rightly points the reader to three biblical realities regarding the right worship of God. First, we have the example of the Israelites in the desert and the very detailed instructions given by God Himself regarding how He is to be worshiped. Secondly, we have the example of the costly perfume poured out by Mary of Bethany onto the feet of Christ (and don’t forget our Lord’s rebuke to Judas when the latter bemoans the waste of so much money that could have been spent on the poor) in St. John’s Gospel. Lastly, we have St. John’s description of the New and Eternal Jerusalem and the Eternal Liturgy that takes place in Heaven. All three examples point us to the conclusion that God is very much concerned with Beauty because He is concerned with our well being and He knows we need Beauty.

    While It is true that we have to guard against worshiping created matter instead of the Creator (Israel’s constant problem), it is also true that without created beauty we will never enter into communion with out Lord (the Sacraments being prime examples). Perhaps beauty in the Sacred Liturgy makes us uncomfortable in the same way that a bad husband or father is uncomfortable around a good husband or father and feels the need to justify his bad behavior. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with beauty in the Sacred Liturgy because it makes us realize that our hearts have grown cold and no longer have the energy to spend so lavishly and exuberantly on Christ. Perhaps beauty will return to the Sacred Liturgy when we once again turn our hearts to the Lord.

    Chorister Training Pitfalls

    I would like to point the reader to a helpful article that appears in the latest edition of The American Organist magazine (January 2017) by Sarah MacDonald, director of the Ely Cathedral Girls Choir (Ely, England). Mrs. MacDonald writes a monthly UK Report, sharing her extensive knowledge of the English Cathedral music tradition and the training of child choristers and chapel organists. She brings a professionalism to the discussion of training children in the art of sacred music that is often lacking due to a misguided belief that the quality of our liturgical music should be sacrificed on the altar of good intentions. In her current article she tackles 4 pitfalls she feels entrap choral directors working with grade school and junior high children: range, vocal sound, quality of literature (both musically and textually) and finally sight-singing. I would like to briefly touch on each of these.

    Mrs. MacDonald believes the greatest concern when working with children is choosing music in the child’s range (Eb 4 to Ab 5 in terms of the piano keyboard) and tessitura (around D 5), which can be difficult when most of the church music in hymnals is pitched lower than it was in previous eras. This is also compounded by the natural desire of children to imitate the so called “pop-music” they hear on a daily basis. Children might resist singing in their head voices simply because they have never experienced the sensation before, but it is worth the effort, both for the health of their voices and for the increase of enjoyment of their singing.

    The second problem MacDonald identifies is a lack of any quality in vocal sound and choral blend. I find such artistry is often sacrifice in the director’s drive to “get the notes correct.” If the director had chosen easier music, especially simple music in unison, this would have provided more time to pursue a beauty in presentation that possesses the power to move the heart of the listener (I accuse myself of this often).

    Third, Mrs. MacDonald stresses the need to chose choral literature of high quality both musically and textually. She writes “Avoid platitudinous or patronizing poetry–children can (and should) be taught to read and understand sophisticated texts as well as any adults. Teach them to have good taste in well-crafted repertoire.” I think more than enough electronic ink has been spilled attacking the ongoing problem of bad music and bad lyrics in church (I think of my experience as a child singing Great things happen when God mixes with us from the Glory and Praise hymnal in my Catholic grade school) so I will say no more.

    Finally, she makes a plea to choir directors to teach children how to read music. She reasons that teaching children to know only a few concepts by rote is unacceptable in any other school subject, so why should it be so in music. Why should children be shackled to the unfortunate circumstance of only being able to sing a few good pieces of music because that is all they ever learned by rote? The earlier music teachers and directors lay a good foundation in sight-singing, the easier it will be for children to learn.

    If I might be permitted to add my two cents to end this discussion, I think we as Catholics have an incomparable advantage in the Roman Rite in the possession of Gregorian chant (not withstanding the challenges of actually using it in the Ordinary Form). The repertoire is large enough to encompass any vocal range (and can be pitched accordingly), is very moving when sung in a beautiful, free vocal tone, contains music and text of the highest artistry and the simpler hymns and antiphons can be read at sight after the child is proficient in the use of solfege. Thankfully, even if your parish is stuck at Ground Zero, musically speaking, the number of pastors who would squelch even the occasional Gregorian hymn sung beautifully by a children’s choir is fast diminishing.




    When to Teach Children to Sight-Read Gregorian Chant

    I have heard it stated several times by those who love chant that teaching children to read plainsong is easier than teaching them to read tonal music, however, experience has shown me that this position is dubious at best. Examples given of easy pieces to teach children have included the Kyrie from Mass XVI or the Salve Regina, which ARE easy if the goal is to teach children by rote (especially considering these works are built upon the major scale and include large amounts of repetition in their melodies). I do not doubt that children can and should be taught Gregorian chant by hearing and repeating (after all, one learns one’s native tongue in the same manner), but this binds them to singing only what they have already memorized. I want to find the best way and time to teach them to sight read chant as well, otherwise, the Propers will always be out of reach of my choristers.

    At the end of each rehearsal we close by singing either the Salve Regina, the Alma Redemptoris Mater or the Regina coeli (we will eventually add the Ave Regina Coelorum) depending on the season. The Senior Choristers also love singing the Missa cum Iubilo (who can blame them), but teaching them to sight read chant on a daily basis was a process. Beginning last fall the high school boys joined the men singing the Communion antiphon each Sunday, which has been more successful than not,  so I would like to share with you some of the insights I have gained along the way with the hope that they might prove useful.

    Firstly, I taught them the Gregorian antiphons as opposed to simplified English versions based upon an experience I had several years ago when I first introduced the Communion antiphons to our adult choir. After several months of singing mainstream English versions of the antiphons I had to confront an undercurrent of rebellion (and this is not a generalization). The few who could already read chant preferred singing the real ones (the Gregorian versions), while those who knew nothing about chant thought the English versions were boring (and I had to agree). After switching to the Gregorian antiphons there were still members who didn’t care to expend the energy learning them, but two or three mentioned to me that at least the Gregorian ones were beautiful to listen to.

    Secondly, I had to realize that even though there were only two clefs in chant and no key signatures to confront, the sounds of the scales were completely different. Even though there were no accidentals to speak of, with the exception of flatting the Ti, the boys frequently encountered intervals that they didn’t often sing. Even though there were only four lines instead of five and I didn’t have to teach quarters, halves and whole notes, the music looked different and was therefore a hurdle that had to be overcome for every singer. Thankfully, the boys had heard these antiphons sung every Sunday for the last several years, so they were familiar with the sound of the Communion antiphon. They had sung quite a bit of Latin motets so they at least had a general idea of how to pronounce the words and even recognized a few.  These might seem like little hurdles, but put together, they were a formidable wall to scale for those new to chant.

    I started with a simple explanation of the two clefs so the boys could find Do (they were already familiar with solfege) and then pitch the other intervals. Also, I explained that the notes were read left to right, bottom to top. I didn’t mention any exceptions until we faced them in the music. The first rehearsal I had them sight-read the chants on solfege very slowly, phrase by phrase, until they were comfortable with each one. This was often all we tackled  in the first rehearsal of each antiphon. The second rehearsal began the same way, after which I had them switch to the Latin text and gave them a brief explanation of its meaning, especially of the important words. They knew from their years in the choir that I was more concerned that they “sing the text” than “sing the notes,” so the fact that the melody didn’t move in a strict meter didn’t bother them. As they became familiar with the process of reading neumes and the sound of the modes, I explained more and more, both musically and liturgically. To be honest, about 2/3 of the boys are thrilled about the chants and the other 1/3 don’t like them at all, with no middle ground. I pray that time will soften a few hearts.

    Six months later, some of the boys have become contributing singers to our small chant choir, while the others continue to grow. I know that next year will be easier as we go through the same chants for the second time. If any of our readers have suggestions for improving the learning process, I would be happy to hear them. At the same time, I would caution the new choir master, or the choir master new to a parish that diving into the murky waters of teaching young people to read chant before they can read tonal music could prove to be a very taxing process that would be better left to the future. I say this because my goal of introducing all of the Propers back into at least one of our Sunday Masses is a process not unlike building a new home, and if I don’t lay a good foundation and build upon that foundation in a methodical way, the home might very easily collapse. I wish you the best as you build your programs of sacred music.

    A Christmas Carol

    “‘Tis the season to… strike the harp and join the chorus.” One of my favorite pastimes in Christmastide is caroling with friends and family, accompanied by fine libations and delectable treats. Like the real wax candles that bedeck our family Christmas tree, though, caroling seems to have become an anomaly in the modern world–a bizarre ritual of old that delights the anthropologist but is of little other use. Christians as much as anyone else simply turn on the radio and think little more of it. Ask the average person in your parish to sing the first verse of Silent Night from memory and I wager he hasn’t got the mental reserve to make it half way through. Don’t doubt me.

    In opposition to this decay, I thought today I might refresh our cultural memory of, and hopefully our desire for, the once ubiquitous Christmas carol. To be honest, how many even know what a carol really is, from whence these beautiful songs came and why they are so important–not only for creating a festive mood, but for forming the imagination of our young people (and not so young) and passing on the Faith.

    Carols originated as circle dances, accompanied by singing, during the Medieval period. This dance-like quality (Angelus ad Virginem), as well as refrains (Birjina gaztetto bat zegoen, or The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came) and texts in either Latin (Quem pastores), the vernacular (Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen) or both (Psalite, unigenito) were popular–traditions maintained in the modern era. Carol themes run the gamut of the liturgical year or might be secular in nature (Deck the Halls), although the Christmas carol seems to have taken the high ground. Their texts are beautiful examples of popular piety put into words, whether a carol narrates a well know Gospel text such as the Annunciation (The Salutation Carol) or speaks figuratively about the time Mary bore the Christchild in her womb (Maria durch ein Dornwald ging).

    Carols developed around the same time as the great mystery and miracle plays (c. 1350-1450) in the golden age of Christendom (although no age is ever perfect) when the Church’s celebration of her liturgical life possessed the vitality to shape and form popular culture. Some carols, such as the Coventry Carol, were a part of these  mystery plays.


    European countries had a wonderful tradition of carols to which America contributed in her turn (It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and the Negro spiritual Rise Up, Shepherds, and Follow), but in the last seventy-five years the carol has become nothing more than warm sentiments crooned on winter evenings by the latest pop stars emanating from every electronic device imaginable. I’ll gladly admit to listening to and enjoying Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra singing Adeste fidelis (in an era when even the great Hollywood stars knew a bit of Latin) or I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, backed by a large choir and orchestra, but this is an impoverishment of the original carol.

    As our culture turns away from God, or more than likely, simply forgets about Him, the popularity of the carol has waned with the winter sun. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t partly the loss of the carol and many other worthy religious customs that has aided the demise of our Faith in the western world (and a loss of the true meaning of Christmas). I have noticed that parents who understand the importance of culture in the formation of their children and therefore instill  in their children a healthy skepticism toward the benefits of “popular” culture are more successful in raising faithful children. Perhaps it would be wise for families to resist the urge to turn on the radio and tune in to the popular “winter holiday” songs and rather, rediscover the simple beauty of the Christmas carol, a true folk tune full of beautiful imagery, Christian meaning and wonderful melodies. Then learn them as a family and sing them together. Click here for a great printable (and free) Christmas caroling book or here to listen to five hours of wonderfully sung Christmas carols.

    Keep the flame of the true Christmas spirit burning brightly, continue to wish your family and friends a Merry Christmas! and get together with those same beloved (and not so beloved) kin during the Twelve Days of Christmas and carol to your heart’s content. It is a wonderful way to instill in your children in the real meaning of Christmas, to marvel at the beauty and awesomeness of the Incarnation and to create lasting memories. While you are at it, make a bowl of Smoking Bishop (be sure to have the spirits you put in it blessed today on the Feast of St. John) and toast our heavenly Father, Who in His infinite love sent His Son to become man so that we might become like God! Merry Christmas!

    Where does your heart lie?

    Two weeks ago I wrote concerning a comment Msgr. Marini made in a talk regarding the friction that often results between priest and musician clash over matters musical withing the sacred liturgy. Over the next few weeks I would like to look at some of the other comments he made during his talk, points which I think are always important for us to remember.

    Msgr. Marini spoke about the ongoing battle between the external work of the musician at Mass, making sure that the music is technically and artistically performed, and the interior work of allowing the Holy Spirit to transform us into saints. How many of us have fought this battle within our own hearts, pouring all of our energies into making the music at Easter or Christmas (or any Sunday, for that matter) perfect and then realizing afterward that while we were physically present for the Holy Sacrifice, we were spiritually far from it. How many of us arrived home after Holy Mass and had nothing left to give our families (and never forget they are our actual vocation).

    In spite of all my faults (and my wife would gladly tell you how numerous they are), I feel that this is one area of my life in which I have a leg up, so to speak. I grew up in a family where my father was ALWAYS present. He earned a master degree in education but decided against going into the field because he knew he would have no time for his family. Instead he took a blue collar job in the oil field. When his time was up at work, he left for home and left work at work. His work time was flexible enough that he was able to get away for an hour whenever we had school plays, parent teacher conferences, etc. He came to so much that my siblings and I joked that we wouldn’t mind if he stayed home every once in a while. More importantly, he had an uncanny knack for knowing and keeping priorities in order. God was always first, even when vacation plans had to be moved around so we could drive three hours to the closest Mass for Assumption while traveling in Montana and Wyoming. We have to learn to keep priorities as musicians–God and family.

    I think what we can learn from this is that if you arrive at Christmas day and you haven’t been to confession, if your daily prayer has suffered and you haven’t eaten supper with your family at least five nights a week during Advent, then you are in too far. As musicians, we tend to love our work more than others, but that is no excuse for overextending ourselves. God really is concerned with internals before He is concerned with externals. Please don’t misunderstand, I believe in excellence and I abhor bad music badly sung within the sacred liturgy, we need regular practice, but we still have to get our priorities straight. Make a pledge to put God and your family first this Advent and Christmastide. Simplify the music at Christmas Masses if you have to. Take your family to confession. Pray before you ever get to work. And practice resignation once Mass begins, letting the music fall where it wills. You will arrive at Christmas Day (or any other day) full of the joy of the feast!

    Tips for the Organist

    I recently had the good fortune to attend several Masses at parishes other than my own, and each time was pleasantly surprised to hear at least an organ and cantor leading congregational hymns mostly worthy of the name. If I had to guess, I would assume that none of these organists was a full-time church musician, yet each had a very solid technique. It made me think about what I might suggest to each in order to take what was already good organ playing and make it better. What follows are a few practical suggestions for the parish organist.

    1. Practice: It should go without saying that hymns (and any other bits of music used on a regular basis within the liturgy) should be practiced each week, but I have found this is not always the case. When I was in graduate school, I confessed to my organ teacher that I had to practice hymns each week or else I made stupid little mistakes. I was embarrassed by this, having thought that everyone else was good enough to sight-read them. I felt better after he told me that he, too, practiced the hymns he had to play each week and felt that the playing of anyone who didn’t would suffer.
    2. Tempo: Singing a hymn quickly does not necessarily give it life. Once during my high school years my pastor actually stopped me in the middle of the opening hymn and told me to speed it up, so I dutifully played as quickly as I could. He liked everything fast and had a general abhorrence of rests, which he would routinely skip, even when it meant cutting beats out of a measure. Thankfully he and I always got along, but I have struggled with taking music too fast ever since. In reality, a hymn’s life comes from the organist playing it with a deep awareness of the underlying beat (and its division) and passing that feeling on to the congregation. Of course, one must take into account the size and acoustic of the building, etc. but those are of secondary consideration. I would heartily recommend the book Note Grouping by James Thurmond for anyone desiring to gain a greater understanding of how rhythm gives life to music.
    3. Playing the text: Make a concentrated effort to read and understand the text and how it works within the hymn tune. Just because a hymn follows traditional four bar phrasing doesn’t mean the text will. Do you put the tune to the text or the text to the tune? There is a vast difference.
    4. Breathing with the congregation: Stravinsky once quipped that the organ was “the monster that never breathes” and he had a point. At one parish I attended the organist played with incredible speed and vigor. If the final chord of a measure was marked for four beats, she dutifully held it four beats before moving at the speed of light into the next verse. I was holding two squirming children and a hymnal at the time and tried like made to suck in enough air to even start the next verse of the hymn with her. She always won. As a choir master I routinely ask my choristers to take a full beat of breath at the end of a textual phrase. The organ do the same. What about at a textual cadence within a verse? I don’t add an extra beat, but I definitely “stretch” the beat a bit.
    5. Hymn introductions: I almost always play the first line of a hymn for the introduction simply to give the congregation a preview of the coming attraction, and I play it at the SAME tempo as I will play it once they begin singing. Again, take out the guess work for the congregation. If the hymn is exceptionally well know and has a great refrain beginning in the tonic chord (e.g. To Jesus Christ Our Soveregin King) I might play the refrain, but that is more of an exception than the rule.
    6. Number of verses: This is where the problem of hymns within the Holy Mass rears its ugly head. In reality a hymn should be sung from beginning to end with all of the verses, whether Father has to wait or not. There is nothing worse than celebrating Trinity Sunday and the musicians stop the opening hymn following the required two verses to get Father to the altar, clearly leaving the Holy Spirit out of the hymn (and perhaps out of the liturgy!). If Father wants you to stop when the liturgical action is complete, then tell him you would be happy to do so with the Proper antiphons from the Graduale Romanum!
    7. Registration: Registration is not my strong suit, but it suffices to say that a little change within a hymn would be nice. Also, there is no reason to destroy the congregation’s hearing just because you like the reeds on a particular organ, but at the same time, if the congregation is keeping up with the registration, don’t be afraid to use them either, even when the little old lady with the hearing-aides has a fainting spell.

    I hope this proves helpful and I also want to say “thank you” to all of you who play the organ during the sacred liturgy. We owe you a great song of gratitude!

    Strive for Excellence

    The casual Reader might perhaps mistake me as a died-in-the-wool anglophile in the realm of sacred music, especially since I hold the English Choir School in such high regard, but let us face facts-the English cathedral system of forming church musicians works. I was reminded of this yesterday as I listened to an old BBC interview of Sir George Thalben-Ball describing how he landed the his position of 60 years as the organist and choirmaster at the Temple Church (named because of its original link to the Knights Templar) in London.

    While studying at the Royal College of Music, Thalben-Ball was called upon to fill-in for the afternoon service. He arrived at the Temple Church to find an orchestral score of Bach’s Mass in B Minor at the organ with a note that 10 movements would be sung that afternoon and that Thalben-Ball would need to transpose them all down a “semitone” because the organ was tuned almost half a step sharp. Thalben-Ball chuckled in the interview saying he must have decently well, since no one accosted him after the service, although he admitted to playing (transposed down a half-step) from the choral score instead of the orchestral score.

    If any parish were to call and ask me to fill in that afternoon for a Sunday concert featuring 10 movements of the B Minor Mass and as an aside mention that I would need to transpose the entire thing down a half-step, I would quickly dismiss the call as a prank or feign illness. I simply wouldn’t be able to do it. Had I been a choir boy and sung the Mass first as a chorister and then later as a choral scholar and had been playing and accompanying choirs to a high degree since I was in junior high I might have a chance, but that wasn’t the case. In that sense, I feel like a complete joke telling people that I am a competent church musician, much less one with a DMA. When it comes down to it, what do I really know?! Let’s face it, the English cathedrals know what they are doing and even on their worst days hit a mark of excellence that is simply beyond the reach of all but our best cathedral choirs in the US.

    Let us imagine for a moment a different situation. What if each of the 193 Catholic cathedrals (Roman Rite) in the United States were to model the English Cathedrals with a choir of men and boys and a separate choir of men and girls (and remember that most of them also have an excellent mixed choir to boot), where the boys and girls constantly rehearsed and sang the greatest music to the highest standards, especially the music native to the Roman Rite (Gregorian chant), took voice and piano lessons and sang daily for Mass and Vespers for the 5 to 6 years they were in the choir. In high school the girls would continue doing the same, while the boys would settle into their new roles as tenors and basses while singing the same music, only as a tenor or bass. A child who showed talent would begin studying the organ and playing and accompanying for services. When he went off to the university, each organist would receive a scholarship for playing for services for his separate college within the university, under the direction of a phenomenal choirmaster. After graduation, he would then be hired by a cathedral as an assistant organist and begin training the new singers as well (and he could, since he had been through the system himself and would be overseen by the director of music). He wouldn’t have to get a Masters Degree or a Doctorate in either organ or choral directing because he would have been singing in a professional choir and accompanying the same choir long before he even thought about shaving! It is nothing but the old apprentice system at work. Now imagine that happened at all 193 Catholic Cathedrals as well as our Catholic colleges, too. That is roughly 25 boy choristers and 25 girl choristers at each institution in one year. At the cathedrals alone that would be almost 10,000 children annually at least learning what good sacred music should sound like and having his/her moral imagination formed at the same time. Obviously only a small majority of those would go on to work in the field of sacred music, but even if it were 1%, that would mean 100 future professional church musicians, organists and singers, would be in formation each year (we aren’t even counting Catholic colleges). The other 99% percent would probably be open to financially supporting such a system because of the benefits they had received. So far the Cathedral of the Madeleine and St. Paul’s, Harvard Square are the only two who have joined the cause.

    I challenge every church musician today to begin forming our future musicians. It will change the face of church music in the US and will transform the lives and Faith of uncountable numbers of faithful. As Fr. Z says, just take the training wheels off and ride the damn bike!

    The Theology of the Organ

    Recently a generous family donated their late mother’s house organ to our parish, and last Saturday, my assistant, who works for an organ building company, and one of my recently graduated choristers and I took the newly acquired 3 ranks of lead plus wind chests to the organ shop for repair and maintenance. We hope to install the organ in our parish’s office chapel by the end of next month. As I pounded dents out of several pipes, it occurred to me that it might be useful to post on what I call the theology of the organ.

    Most readers of Views from the Choir Loft believe in the primacy of the organ among instruments in the Roman Rite, but if asked to give reasons for why the organ should have such a primacy, I fear many could do little more than quote documents or defer to tradition–and we know how well that works. Unfortunately, most Catholics in the US today believe that tradition is bad a bad thing (at least in the Church), and anyway, if the organ became a tradition in the the Roman Rite, why couldn’t the guitar follow the same process of inculturation, they ask? Recourse to quoting ecclessiastical documents falls on deaf ears of Catholics, who view obedience as something medieval. Like high school teenagers, too many of our congregations are only pleased with the latest fads. Fortunately, there are good theological reasons and arguments for why the organ should one again enjoy pride of place in our worship. I don’t pretend that these reasons will convert your died-in-the-wool, anti-treasury-of-sacred-music types, but I have found that they open a door for dialogue with fellow Catholics who bear genuine good. Thankfully, Dr. Kevin Vogt, the Director of Music at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Leawood, KS, has written beautifully on the matter.

    Dr. Vogt is the primary man responsible for bringing to fruition the magnificent Pasi, dual-temperament organ at the Cathedral of St. Cecilia in Omaha, NE, and he is truly one of the great minds of the age. He wrote his doctoral thesis on the organ project at St. Cecilia’s, but the document also contains a section on what I would describe as the Theology of the Organ, found here (specifically see chapter 2, pages 150-172). Some of it might be a little dense for the faint of heart, but it is ENTIRELY worth the read. He presents his insights (peppered liberally with Ratzinger quotes) within the context of Msgr. Francis Mannion’s call for a “renewal of the sacramental, heavenly, cosmic, glorious, catholic, paschal and traditional dimensions of the Roman Catholic liturgy.” Dr. Vogt proposes “that the organ could play an important role in this renewal, and [he constructs] a symbolic theology of the organ in terms of:
    (1) Cosmology, concerning music and the created universe,
    (2) Christology, concerning the doctrine of Jesus Christ as the incarnate Logos,
    (3) Pneumatology, concerning the agency of the Holy Spirit, and
    (4) Eschatology, concerning the heavenly liturgy of the New Jerusalem.

    It really is beautiful stuff and I encourage everyone to study it, take it to heart, memorize it and then begin to share it. Let’s put the organ back on the pedestal it rightfully deserves.