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Sounds Of Hope… Gregorian Chant Conference Celebrates The Beauty Of Truly Sacred Music

April 4, 2017 Featured Today No Comments


“Illumina oculos meos” — “Enlighten my eyes”: With this polyphonic motet of Heinrich Isaac in the five hundredth anniversary year of Isaac’s death, the March 2017 conference “Gregorian Chant in Pastoral Ministry and Religious Education” began as Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth entered in solemn procession the magnificent 121-year-old chapel of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. The two-day event thus began with Solemn Lauds.
As conference director Dr. Jennifer Donelson was to observe afterward, “We have begun the conference in prayer, prayer will mark our time together throughout the conference, and we will conclude in prayer.”
Isaac’s motet was sung with stunning beauty by the Mueller Family Schola, an ensemble under the direction of Christopher Mueller consisting of his three young children together with him and his wife Constanza.
The March 10-11 conference, which brought together forty speakers from as far away as Peru and well as over a hundred attendees from as far away as Australia, coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the postconciliar document on the role of sacred music in the liturgy, Musicam Sacram, with remembrances as well of the International Congress of Gregorian Chant convened nearly a century earlier in the Archdiocese of New York (St. Patrick’s Cathedral, June 1-3, 1920).
With an assembly of many of the finest choir directors and Church musicians in America, participants found themselves immersed during the conference’s liturgical rites in a wealth of Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony, and well-chosen hymnody sung consummately by so many highly trained voices, making for exceptionally fine congregational singing at all the Masses and offices of the conference.
As a participant (albeit one utterly devoid of musical talent!), I often found myself stirred to the depths of my soul by such sublime music sung in unison by an assemblage of clergy, laity, and religious united by the shared vision of giving greater glory to God through the art of sacred music.
That the conference had the aura of a spiritual retreat was no accident. Conference director Dr. Jennifer Donelson set a high tone for the event, emphasizing in her opening remarks the priority of praying together, “to seek the beautiful face of Christ together,” during the two days of the assembly.
But in addition to refreshing the souls of its participants, the two-day event provided a forum for forty speakers and Church musicians to share their insights in a tightly organized schedule of “concurrent” presentations that maximized opportunities for attendees to find presentations specifically geared to their field of experience, study, or interest.
Commenting on the relationship between the spiritual and practical dimensions of the conference, Dr. Donelson explained, “We ascend the Mount of Tabor to see the transfigured, radiant Lord, and then we descend the mountain to pick up the daily cross of laboring to make Christ more known and loved.”
She dedicated the conference to the Mother of God, “who beheld the beautiful face of Christ as a babe and on the cross, and who intercedes for us as we go about our daily work.”
The conference was blessed with the inspiring presence of one of the greatest living champions of Gregorian chant in America, Msgr. Robert Skeris, who in his keynote address presented a diagram that he entitled “The Gregorian Trinity” to illustrate and explain the role of Gregorian chant in achieving an integration of liturgy, language, and music.
Noting that vocal music is necessary not for God’s sake but for our sakes, he explained that Gregorian chant draws its raison d’etre from the liturgy (“There is no Gregorian chant without liturgy”) and that each chant is intimately related to and dependent upon other chants.
As many of the speakers at the conference were to do, Msgr. Skeris cited the words of the 1963 Vatican II constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium (n. 112) that describe sacred music as an “integral” component of the liturgy. He observed that sadly in our time the very nature of the Mass is unclear to many Catholics, adding that if the celebration of Mass is “skewed,” the music of the liturgy will likewise be skewed.
Observing that instrumental music, and in a liturgical context works for the organ, can also elevate the heart to God, Msgr. Skeris recalled an anecdote that Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) had related. While attending a Mass in Fulda, Germany, in 1924, von Hildebrand heard the organist during Holy Communion begin improvising upon the opening of Anton Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony, finding himself as a communicant “lifted to a whole higher level” by the music.
Msgr. Skeris also told of a Mass celebrated at the Vatican by Pope St. John Paul II, wherein during the Benedictus portion of a Bruckner setting of the Sanctus the Pontiff was so transfixed by the beauty of the work that he remained totally motionless throughout this seven and a half minute segment of music.
Beginning his presentation with an exposition on the need for beauty in sacred music, as exemplified by Gregorian chant, Fr. Jon Tveit noted that beauty has an attraction that can draw people to the faith and lead them to “an encounter with God,” as he found in his own life and journey to the priesthood.
Drawing upon both the official pronouncements of the Holy See and his own personal experience with parish choirs, he explained that a successful parish music program requires both a pastor and a choir director who are willing “to implement the Church’s musical vision” of what truly constitutes fitting liturgical music, in particular through the use of the Propers of the Mass, rather than simply an assortment of randomly selected hymnody.
He likewise urged the implementation of chant or chant-like settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, especially the Creed. After these changes have been put into practice, he added, a choir can then begin building up a repertory of polyphonic motets and polyphonic Propers.
Offering a unique presentation on a pastor’s duty to provide spiritual care to Church musicians, Fr. Richard Cipolla stressed that priests need to be versed in the history of sacred music and to participate in the singing of the liturgy. In making the case for truly sacred music, he observed, “Don’t start with aesthetics,” but rather, one should begin with the priority of holiness in the sacred liturgy.
Fr. Cipolla also explained that while a pastor must impress upon his musicians the necessity of balancing beauty in sacred music with the practical concern of not unduly prolonging the Mass, the pastor must nonetheless bear in mind that “eternity touches time in the Mass.”
Keynote speaker Fr. Christopher Smith presented as a prime example of pastoral zeal in sacred music formation Msgr. Martin Hellriegel (1891-1981), who upon arriving at a Missouri parish in 1940 found a choir totally unversed in Gregorian chant. Seeing in the parish school a promising opportunity to change this situation, he began to catechize the schoolchildren in Latin prayers and Gregorian chant. This inspired the adult parishioners to learn as well, and before long the people knew several Gregorian Mass settings.
Noting that Msgr. Hellriegel began his efforts by introducing his parish to the centuries-old custom of blessing herbs on Assumption Day, Fr. Smith recommended that schoolteachers be urged to “fire up” their pupils’ imagination by “opening up the treasures of the liturgical year” to them, introducing them also to processions, devotions, and blessings, for these are the sorts of things children will particularly remember.
Fr. Smith advised pastors to get their people “excited about learning Latin,” especially by showing how the various Latin chants are derived from the Bible. He also urged priests to “have a conversation” with families that are failing to attend Sunday Mass. “If you are patient, you will win souls,” he advised.
Observing that “the entirety of salvation is tied to song,” Alexis Kazimira Kutarna explained that the Church’s sacred music, wrought by the Holy Spirit, prepares us for Heaven, for in sacred song we participate in the song of the angels.
At the Sanctus, in particular, she noted, “the door between this world and the next is cracked open for a moment.” Presenting a series of photos of the seminary chapel of St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., Mrs. Kutarna showed how the conspicuous use of images of angels in the chapel’s sacred art visually expresses the role of the choir as representing the choirs of angels in Heaven. Much of this angelic artwork is virtually at the eye level of those in the choir loft, including a row of eight statues of angels atop a colonnade across the chapel’s nave.
She added that when viewed from the sanctuary these colonnade angels are visually aligned with the choir loft, thereby visually linking the angels to the choir.
Fr. Innocent Smith, OP, explained the work he is doing to preserve and cultivate the distinctive chant traditions of the Dominican Order, and in particular to bring the Dominican chants given in the order’s 1950 gradual closer to their original forms by consulting thirteenth-century manuscripts of the order.
Fr. Innocent noted that prior to founding his own order St. Dominic (+1221) had been “immersed” in the liturgy as a Canon Regular. For his friars he saw liturgical prayer as supporting their apostolic labors of study and preaching. Due to the very active and time-consuming ministry of the Dominicans, their manner of singing the divine office was adjusted to avoid any unnecessary prolongation.
The Dominicans also developed what Fr. Innocent described as “progressive solemnity” whereby the length and complexity of the assigned chants were calibrated to the degree of solemnity of a particular feast.
In her talk regarding the historical context of Gregorian chant in Hispanic American parishes, Dr. Crista Miller told of evidence pointing to the use of both Gregorian chant and organs in the early Spanish missions of Texas.
She noted that despite this evidence, those who like her are working to promote Gregorian chant in Hispanic parishes all too often find their efforts opposed by a mentality from some Church officials who categorically condemn Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony, and the pipe organ as “disordered and oppressive,” claiming that “the organ has no place in Hispanic music.”
Dr. Miller described her strategy of countering this mentality through the use of a mixture of both Spanish-language and Latin versions of the Gregorian chants for Mass, adding that Latin serves as “a unifying element” in liturgically bringing together English-speaking and Spanish-speaking parishioners.
She also encouraged a changeover in the instrumentation at Spanish Masses to an almost exclusive use of the organ, as well as support for local choral groups that perform New World polyphony in concert.
In his presentation on sacred music in Latin America, Heitor Caballero told of how in his native Peru the Franciscan missionaries who first evangelized the country found a native musical culture that was already sophisticated, and which thus responded well to instruction in the sacred music of Europe.
He noted that over the centuries Peru’s secular music was not alienated from its Catholic sacred music in the way that contemporary pop music so often is. Caballero presented an example of a piece of Peruvian religious music featuring a steady instrumental beat that served to set a reverent pace for those walking in religious processions.
Dr. William Mahrt shared with attendees his fascinating findings as to how the aspect of “dynamic parallelism” in the Psalms, the amplification of what is said in the first half a psalm verse by what is said in the second half, is musically expressed in the Gregorian chant settings of the Psalms, demonstrating how this “purposeful” differentiation in the chant setting of the second half of a psalm verse is accomplished by changes of pitch, melodic contour, and melismas.
Dr. Mahrt presented as one of several examples an antiphonal rendering of verse 4 of Psalm 110 wherein the melody descends for the words of God in the second half of the verse, “You are a priest forever,” so as “to express the dignity and gravity of God.”

Education And Worship

Delivering his message with a delightful sense of humor, keynote speaker Mark Langley drew upon his experiences as headmaster and academic dean of a private Catholic school he founded in Ohio, The Lyceum, to stress the essential role of sacred music in Catholic education, explaining that insofar as music is “integral” to the liturgy, it is therefore essential to Catholic schooling because “the final end of Catholic education is the fitting worship of God.”
Langley also pointed out “the dense theological content of sacred music” that serves to inform one’s faith.
In her talk regarding the spiritual benefits of instituting parish youth orchestras, Lisa Knutson outlined the history of sacred music training in the Church, beginning with the cathedral and choir schools from the sixth century to the end of the Middle Ages, followed by the Jesuit schools of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that served as centers of musical training. A third era of musical education began in 1784 with the founding of the Paris Conservatory, an institution that facilitated a mutual exchange of musical insights and talent between the Church and secular musicians.
In a very memorable and moving comparison, Mrs. Knutson likened the beauty of sacred music to the precious aromatic nard with which Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus anointed the feet of Christ (cf. John 12:3).
In her conference talk, Dr. Jennifer Donelson explained that music befits the sacred liturgy because it is a reflection of the “cosmic harmony” of creation. Observing that “sacred music draws back the veil of this world from our ears to give us a glimpse of Heaven,” she stressed that by pursuing excellence in sacred music we strive to give our very best to God and to reflect His perfection. It encourages the heart and soul to “rejoice in those things which are noble, true, beautiful, and good.”
Emphasizing that sacred music must be first and foremost an act of divine worship, of “loving the source of love before all else,” she affirmed that the faithful deserve “to have words and music set upon their lips which are truly noble and worthy of the worship of God…beautiful music with excellent, orthodox texts.”

Spiritual Battle

One of the many achievements of the conference was the spirit of fellowship that arose almost instantly among participants, many of whom had seldom if ever met before — a fellowship of shared faith and shared aspirations, inspiring great hope in a time darkened by virtually unprecedented doctrinal confusion within the Church and hostility to her teachings from without.
Indeed, G.K. Chesterton’s prophetic hymn O God of earth and altar, sung at the Saturday Mass of the conference, seemed a haunting allusion to the troubling realities we are facing, far more acute than they were in Chesterton’s time. But this hymn is likewise an inspiring summons to spiritual battle, bearing in its final verse a promise of victory in and for Christ to those willing to answer the call.
Proclaiming the timeless teachings of Christ and His Church through the irresistible beauty of sacred music remains one of the most efficacious means of doing so.
Postscript: It is anticipated that quite a few of the conference presentations will be published as essays in the CMAA journal Sacred Music.

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