Catholic Entertainment

Build Your Faith

Redemptionis? Pronto, subito!

That last time I endured listening to a recording of Capella Sixtina I was in a choral seminar in grad school, in my advisor’s office (only five students IIRC.) I squirmed and shrank as he gleefully put on a CD that, at the time, was the last aural evidence of the death spiral Roman Catholic choral music had chosen after the “Golden Era, pre-Monteverdi,” with Vatican II as a chaser.

Downloaded and listening to CANTATE DOMINO, Capella Sistina, released September 25, 2015. I neither squirm nor shrink, but at first blush, I haven’t deciphered exactly what I’m listening to. It is truly “other” in so many realms. I intend to revisit it in depth many times via many different audio platforms, as that seems a necessity. But for us Catholic/Choralist/Musicians who concern themselves with such doings as what marks a bell-weather moment in our cultural history, I can readily attest this may be one of those. I will do a thorough review in the near future.

Random thoughts:

*Maestro Monsignor Palombella is to be reckoned with. Sonically, environmentally (spatially), his vision is laudable for its self-evidence. I’ve never been to Rome, remedied hopefully this January, but now I’ve a familiarity, once removed, of the ambient of the Papal Chapel. This collection has been recorded and mastered with intent and purpose, which many choral projects don’t receive if they’re studio efforts.

*Aesthetically and pedagogically I feel I’m wandering through a Venetian Masqued Carnivale of tonal complexity. The only remnant of the screamers are a couple of tenore primo’s who occasionally show up with a tempered down throaty vibrato in a mixed head-voice concoction. When that happens on the heels of the fully blended, floating tenor chanters, I wonder how many choral colors Maestro has up his sleeve.

*Which leads to the boys, the blessed boys. By Lord, they are set free. Maybe I doth project too much but I can see their little swarthy Mediterranean faces, eyes forward instead of up thankfully, sounding….well….Italian and pure! No Kings College, but no squawking hatchlings of old either. Now and then some pitch issues, but perfection I don’t think is Maestro’s goal, integrity and honor are I’d guess.

*There remains an equally swarthy manliness in the bass/baritones, but without the “watch me flex” muscularity that was so distracting under previous regimes. This is most evident in the “Adoramus te Christe,” where both the deep cardinal tones are refined with a measured but certainly present vibrato.

This is a collection of note and ought to be listened to repeatedly and discussed not only in Catholic music circuses, but also in the larger choral world. Could this be yet another renaissance, but in our lifetime?

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Ad multos annos!

CMAA members in the Washington DC area will be interested to know of a beautiful priestly anniversary.Rev. Msgr. Andrew Wadsworth was ordained 25 years ago this Wednesday, September 30.Please join me in wishing him many happy years!

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Busy busy B’s: from Beauty to Bartolucci to Brutal to Buffo

What can be said about our vocations? What needs saying? What should or shouldn’t be said out loud in the public square?
I’ve been a conductor since the age of 18. Forty two years later I haven’t changed my choral philosophy after decades of real study of both the physiology and the craft of beautiful singing, as well as how to acquire, prepare, perform and expand the repertoire base of what sacred choral music serves. When I first returned to the Central Valley in ’87 as DMM of the Fresno Cathedral I had the opportunity to sit front row at a concert by Capella Sixtini under then Msgr. Bartolucci in my hometown. My rector, my wife and I winced at the excruciating (think about that word, think Lotti’s magnificent “Crucifixus for 8v) bellowing of the men, the little boys strained and squealing tone like little fledgling birds screaming at momma bird for a piece of the worm, and lastly the wild gesticulation of the conductor, the ferocity and tension of his body magnified a hundred-fold on his face.
Our beloved Pope Emeritus obligingly provided Bartolucci not only the honor of finishing his pilgrimage as a Prince of the Church, but also a renewed platform to express his views about his disdain for effeminate (his words) interpretation of sacred choral works, and that if the choral world was his, all choirs would sound like opera choruses, in other words: muscular and manly. Singing in the Tudor style, or the Christiansen/Noble Lutheran manner, the Swedish style of Erickson, or any other refined and tested pedagogy was an insult and ignoble to properly rendering to God this most perfect art by which we worship.
But back in ’87 I knew I was completely out of step with the other 99% of that concert’s audience. They had just listened to two hours (Palestrina Song of Songs) of a Bugs Bunny parody (Bugs as “Leopold” torturing the tenor soloist into exploding) and then rose to their feet cheering, whistling and hollering. All of that dissonance came back to haunt me again yesterday at the nominal Vespers Service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Why does everyone, from Raymond Arroyo to pastors to PIPs in the pews actually love the amplified (in so many different ways) bel canto, volume knob at 11, pushed pedal to the metal brutality of an opera chorus in the quire gallery, and mean it when they swoon “It was so beautiful, ahhhh.”? Is it a knee-jerk reaction to the reality that most of them go to their home parishes and they have to endure a thin-voiced little ingénue singing a Sarah Hart or Maher tune accompanied by whatever instrument(s) are handy? So, when they hear this ROMAN CATHOLIC MUSCULAR PROWESS ENSEMBLE in this magnificent Manhattan sonic venue, the only reaction can be “Wow. Was that good for you too? Wow!”

I fear for my soul, literally, feeling that something is dreadfully wrong. And, as said earlier, this odd differentiation of mine predates my involvement with CMAA by three decades. It’s nice to know via forum and FB, that there are many other Catholic choirmasters in my lonely little boat who share my frustration and concern.

Our dear Richard Rice put it nicely on FB responding to Jeffrey Morse’s eloquent initial critique by simply saying that faced with a papal Mass, music directors tend to get all wonky and discombobulated, and thus throw convention into the window, caution to the wind and everything else into the kitchen sink of planning the ordo. (Can’t help but think of Richard Dreyfus in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” throwing garden soil, plants, trees, wood and metal garden fencing through his kitchen window into the sink in order to build his vision, his Devil’s Mountain.)

I suppose this last question will never receive a proper answer: Who is the buffo in all of this?

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Thomas Merton, on Gregorian Chant

“This is what I think about the Latin and the chant: They are masterpieces, which offer us an irreplaceable monastic and Christian experience. They have a force, an energy, a depth without equal. All the proposed English offices are very much impoverished in comparison — besides, it is not at all impossible to make such things understood and appreciated. Generally I succeed quite well in this, in the novitiate, with some exceptions, naturally, who did not understand well. But I must add something more serious. As you know, I have many friends in the world who are artists, poets, authors, editors, etc. Now they are well able to appreciate our chant and even our Latin. But they are all, without exception, scandalized and grieved when I tell them that probably this Office, this Mass will no longer be here in ten years. And that is the worst. The monks cannot understand this treasure they possess, and they throw it out to look for something else, when seculars, who for the most part are not even Christians, are able to love this incomparable art.”

— Thomas Merton, in a letter to Dom Ignace Gillet, Abbot General of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance (1964)

“But the cold stones of the Abbey church ring with a chant that glows with living flame, with a clean, profound desire. It is an austere warmth, the warmth of Gregorian chant. It is deep beyond ordinary emotion, and that is one reason why you never get tired of it. It never wears you out by making a lot of cheap demands on your sensibilities. Instead of drawing you out into the open field of feelings where your enemies, the devil and your own imagination and the inherent vulgarity of your own corrupted nature can get at you with their blades and cut you to pieces, it draws you within, where you are lulled in peace and recollection and where you find God.”
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain, Part 3, ch. 4, page 379

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Silence at Papal Liturgy

It is so refreshing to hear Sacred Silence at the Papal Liturgy this morning in St. Matthew Cathedral in Washington.  It is an excellent example of the importance of the absence of sound as beauty, accompanying the Sacred sound of liturgical music…

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The Power of Beautiful Sacred Music

Just digging up an old post from my personal site, from my pilgrimage to DC for the 2013 March for Life. Enjoy!

The mosaic behind St. Cecilia’s altar in the crypt church
at the National Shrine, with a beautiful antiphon from
lauds on her feast day: Whilst musicians made music,
Cecilia sang unto the Lord, saying: O let my heart be
sound in thy statutes, that I be not ashamed.

As I mentioned in my previous post, assisting at Mass at the National Shrine was amazing, not only because of the beauty of the church we were privileged to worship in, but also the music. I will say without reservation that the shrine’s professional choir is the best choir I have ever heard. But on an even more important note, they are not only singing plain old standard music well, they sing sacred music well.

As I walked into the church on Saturday afternoon, the choir and congregation were singing Kyrie VIII, which a friend and I instantly and happily joined in on. After they finished the kyrie gracefully, the cantor intoned Gloria VIII and the massive organ filled the church as the congregation began: “et in terra pax homínibus.” I was intensely joyful, only having heard the gloria in Latin one other time in the Ordinary Form, and marveling at the grand sound of the massive organ filling the beautiful shrine with the praises of God.

Glória in excélsis Deo et in terra pax homínibus bonae voluntátis.
But as they reached “Laudamus te,” the organ fell silent, and I realized they were singing the Gloria in alternatim, as they often do at Papal Masses, and some larger churches on important feasts, and the choir broke out into fantastic polyphony. That’s when I just about lost it.

I went weak in the knees. My jaw literally hung open. I felt chills straight up my spine as I mouthed along with the prayers the schola was singing in such a sublime manner. The beauty of the church, combined with the stunning beauty of the music, had quite literally sucked me into the liturgy unfolding before me. It was almost a form of ecstasy.

Did I stay for the rest of Mass? You betcha. And the music was just as good throughout the rest of the Mass as well, as they sang the propers, Victoria motets, and fantastic organ interludes. It was one of the most prayerful Masses I had ever been to.

That’s what sacred music needs to do. I felt physically weak, and had a deep feeling of peace and joy after hearing what I will call one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard.

Imagine if I had been an atheist walking off the street, not sure of the direction of my life, not appreciating the beauty in life, and that music had that same effect on me, causing me to stay, and come the truth, and be baptized the following Easter. Somehow I doubt that guy screeching away “Here I am Lord” on a guitar would have the same effect on me.

Our liturgies should be filled with the good, the true and the beautiful, but we need to focus especially on the aspect of beauty. We can reach the people through beauty. Sometimes it’s the only way. When people have their minds closed to the truth, sometimes the only way to reach them is through their emotions and their heart, as I was reached last Saturday.

Pastors, hire sacred musicians who know their stuff, and pay them well. Music directors, know your stuff, and do it well. When done well, you will affect more souls than you will ever know.

And while you’re at it, send a donation to the CMAA.

Here’s a recording of the gloria (and some other music from the Mass, starting at about 0:48), so you can hear what I heard. The recording isn’t the best, but at least you can hear what I’m talking about. It begins with the congregational verse of the gloria, and then when the organ stops (on Jesu Christe), the polyphony verse (Domine Deus…). Keep in mind the sound of both the choir and the organ are filling the entire church the whole time. After the gloria, it contains part of the responsorial psalm, offertory motet, and organ improvisation after that.

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