Monthly Archives: June 2016

Theology and Music

I would have loved to have been at the CMAA Colloqium last week, but I spent that time teaching at Benedictine College’s summer Cathedral Program. For one week each summer, a number of high school students make the pilgrimage to one of America’s great Catholic colleges (one can find it on the Newman Guide) for a week of prayer, study, work and fun. Each day students attend Holy Mass, pray the Rosary and learn how to–and pray Lauds, Vespers and Compline. Mornings are usually spent studying theology, while the afternoons are dedicated to one of several specialized areas of learning. I was privileged to teach the voice track and thought I would share with you one of my presentations, which I used to show the students how music and theology work together.

I began by reading St. Matthew 16:13-19:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death [the gates of Hades] shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

I explained that Caesarea Philippi was quite a distance out of the way for Christ and His disciples, and besides, an orthodox Jew was unlikely to find himself in this city named in honor of Caesar Augustus by Herod Philip, where there was an enormous cave believed to be the gate to Hades and where the ancients worshiped Baal. This cave was formed in the side of an enormous cliff 100 feet high and 500 feet long, which had the appearance of a gigantic rock sitting atop the entrance to the underworld. In front of the cave was a temple dedicated to Caesar Augustus where pagan sacrifice took place, among other more bizarre rituals.

Standing in view of such a sight, Christ asks His disciples who they think He is, and St. Peter professes that He is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. The pagan gods surrounding Christ and His disciples are meaningless and utterly worthless, for here before them stands the true God, in the flesh. Christ then bestows the authority of His Kingdom on St. Peter, who is “rock” (an infinitely greater rock than the nearby cliff) and tells Peter that the “gates of Hades” will not prevail against him.

Then I showed the students a picture of the inside of the dome in St. Peter’s Basilica and the text inscribed around the base in letters as tall as a grown man, “TU ES PETRUS, ET SUPER HANC PETRAM AEDIFICABO ECCLESIAM MEAM, ET TIBI DABO CLAVES REGNI CAELORUM” (You are Peter [Rock], and on this rock I will build by church, and I give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven). We know that St. Peter is buried beneath the papal altar under the dome of St. Peter’s, but even more importantly, that Pope Francis is the successor to St. Peter, who even today holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven as Christ’s Vicar on Earth. I shared that shortly after the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, Cardinal George of Chicago looked pensively across the piazza where the obelisk from the Circus Maximus stood. Later a reporter asked him what he was thinking and he replied that while many dictators and rulers and nations had come and gone in the last 2000 years, here the good Cardinal was, looking across at St. Peter.

I then showed the students a video of Palestrina’s Tu es Petrus from Pope Francis’ first Mass in the Sistine Chapel, followed by a video of James MacMillan’s Tu es Petrus, sung during Pope Benedict’s Mass at Westminster Cathedral during his pastoral visit to England in 2010. Afterward we compared and contrasted these two versions and discussed how each composer brought out various aspects of the text from Sacred Scripture.

Palestrina’s version is calm and regal, perfectly at home in St. Peter’s Basilica. During the time of its composition the Church had entered the glorious time of the Counter Reformation and sought to re-establish Catholicism throughout Europe as well as take the Faith to new lands around the globe. It was a time when the Church was very sure of Herself and Her mission to take Christ to the corners of the earth.

MacMillan’s very different setting came out of a country where the Church had been persecuted unmercifully for 400 years, and where, one might say, it is entering a new persecution. Great Britain has been home to epic struggles for those remaining faithful to Christ and His Church. These struggles are very palpable in MacMillan’s Tu es Petrus. As one student commented, it sounds like the music from a battle scene in The Lord of the Rings. I would agree, and personally find this to be a fruitful exchange between the sacred and secular realms of music.

I hope and pray the Church continues to raise up true artists like Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, Durufle, MacMillan and many others who will bring the Gospel to the world through the medium of the greatest of all the Church’s arts–Music.

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.

Choosing Choral Music

This year I attempted something different as I began the process of choosing music for our next choral season. I spent a week going through all kinds of choral music and came up with a list of about 50 different motets for various liturgical seasons, ranging in style from the Renaissance to the 21st century (yes, there is very good modern music being written, even if most Catholics don’t experience it on a weekly basis), then I sent it out to my choir members and asked for their feedback. I must admit that I have enjoyed reading the responses from various singers and it will be nice knowing that most of the choral literature we sing throughout the next year will be generally liked by everyone. Anyway, I thought I would share with you some of my findings. Please remember that our parish celebrates the liturgy according to the Ordinary Form, in English, but generally very reverently (we rarely sing choral settings of the Ordinary, with the occasional exception of the Kyrie, so my list contains motets only). I hope those of you in similar circumstances might find this post helpful.

Firstly, there is a general apathy to much of Palestrina, although the music of a number of his contemporaries, especially Tallis and Victoria, is much loved. Two exceptions to this attitude are Palestrina’s Hodie Christus natus est and Jubilate Deo. In general, many of my choir members think of his music as “vanilla” and would rather sing something with a little more flavor. Other works from this era that bear the stamp of approval are Parsons’ Ave Maria, Gesualdo’s Tenebrae factae sunt (everyone likes this piece), Tallis’ O nata lux, Gibbons’ O clap your hands and Victoria’s O magnum mysterium and Improperia. Peter Philips’ music also fared generally well.

The Baroque period did not do as well as the Renaissance, although to be honest, I didn’t include as much music from this era. While Bach (and numerous other Germans) is obviously beautiful, our choir doesn’t usually sing in German. A couple of notable and well loved pieces from this time period are A. Scarlatti’s Exultate Deo and H. Hassler’s Cantate Domino (if you consider it as early Baroque).

The Classical period did about as well as the baroque period. Unfortunately, our parish isn’t in a position to sing the great Viennese Masses and there is only so much of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus that one person can handle (sorry to several readers I personally know who love this piece). Mozart’s Regina Coeli in C is generally well liked.

The Romantic era provided a number of well loved composers and works, especially Rheinberger and Bruckner. Rheinberger’s Abendlied is beautiful and especially appropriate for the Easter season. I would love to sing more of this German-ish repertoire (yes, this will push our group, as I wrote earlier, we don’t usually sing in German). As I understand it, the German countries traditionally had permission to sing in the vernacular at High Mass and a number of beautiful works came about as a result. Holst’s Ave Maria, scored for SSSSAAAA is also popular.

The modern era, if one were to include the early 20th century to the present time, proved to be, besides the Renaissance, the other popular progenitor of sacred music. Casals O vos omnes is one of my personal favorites, as well as a favorite of many others. Other well liked works are Stanford’s Beati quorum via, Poulenc’s Exultate Deo, H. Howell’s Haec dies, Parry’s I was glad, Whitacre’s Lux aurumque, Kverno’s Ave Maris Stella and Ave verum corpus, Part’s The Beautitudes and Nystedt’s Peace I Leave with You. Much to my surprise, many choir members want to sing Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium, although one alto wrote to me a one word description of the piece–“scary.” Oh well, we are going to sing it anyway.

I plan to do more of this in the future and I would recommend it to all others who direct any kind of church choir. While I still have final say over what we sing, I have found in the past that if a motet is well loved, rehearsals and moods tend to remain positive. If we sing great liturgical music and everyone is joy-filled, then our singing during Holy Mass tends to be joy-filled.