Category Archives: Arts

London Christmas, Musical Moments

Back from a splendid holiday in London.  Yes, it was soggy and it did seem to get dark awfully early.  However, there were always museums to visit and pubs to warm up in.

The best part – three splendid liturgies and a wonderful carol service.  At Westminster Cathedral and the London Oratory, music is important.  And they obviously put their money were their mouths are (to use an odd phrase).  When you get the best in directors, singers, and organists and when you recognize that the Church’s treasury of sacred music actually belongs in the churches, the result is astonding.  And I felt that it was also appreciated.

One of the sad results of the gutting of both church music and music education in this country is the loss of repertoire and the loss of understanding.  Most churches are just fine with music that is mediocre at best.  And the congregations feel the same way.  Many music directors know little about sacred music beyond the boundaries of their hymnals and whatever the “Big Three” publishers promote.  (The latter will not, needless to say, be in the public domain.)  Catholics (or anyone else) who’ve never learned to read music or sang in a chorus or choir that “did parts” are often indifferent to the music at Mass.

What did I hear in London?  Among other things, I heard chant that moved with energy and sureness.  I heard wonderful intonation and diction.  The Haydn Missa Nicolai at midnight at the Cathedral; the Mozart “Sparrow Mass” at the Oratory the next day.  The carol service featured both old and new music, with all the good stuff for the congregations to join in on.  And join they did!  And a nice tune for “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” during Communion at Midnight Mass that I didn’t recognize.

And yes, “Once in royal David’s city” always makes me weep.

“Unplugged at the Wedding”

A few weeks ago I played for an outdoor wedding in St. Augustine. One of the staples of wedding ceremonies now is the officiant with a wireless, the assumption being that no one would be able to hear him without it. This wedding was an exception.

Think of Eric Clapton’s “Unplugged” album.In this case, the minister, a preacher in his 80s, was unplugged!

Would we hear anything he said? Would we just be watching his lips move?

Guess again —

Everyone had to pay attention and everyone listened. Everyone could hear him and he wasn’t shouting. We were listening and I was in the very back of the pavilion. Even more interesting was the fact that we could actually hear the exchange of vows between the couple. Normally my experience at weddings with a wired clergyman or notary goes somewhat as follows:

“Now Bob, repeat after me…”
Maybe a mumble.
“Now Suzy, repeat after me…”
Another mumble.

Instead here we heard everything. I believe was because our ears were already tuned in and balanced for natural speech volume.

And I think there’s more to this than simply determining how weddings should be conducted. Consider your experience at church on Sunday. The minister or priest has a wireless; the reader and lead singer have microphones. There’s no need to pay more than half of your attention because the sound is blasted from multiple speakers.

Further, everyone knows that the people with the microphones are the ones count – the ones who really have something to contribute. Consequently, you might conclude that your spoken or sung responses are not very important. You’re just there to be talked at. At best, you can join in on the choruses like a Pete Seeger concert.

Now I’m not saying that anyone consciously thinks this or that this was a planned outcome. And yes, I know that there are large gatherings where amplification is a gift. At the same time, it might be worth considering the extent to which that which is meant to make things easier to hear in fact makes it harder to listen.

What if we pulled the plug on the unnecessary ecclesiastical wireless?  What if singers learned to project properly?  What if we built spaces designed for active listening?  What if we valued paying attention, even if it took a little work?

Why Were They Wowed?

There was recently a special jubilee mass for the local diocesan religious order at our Cathedral in St. Augustine. I was unable to attend because of travel, but everyone was eager to tell me about it on my return. And their praise for the mass, for the music, for the preaching – for every aspect of the service was unrestrained and uniform. This was surprising because this praise came from all over the “liturgical spectrum.” It didn’t seem to matter whether they were Traditional Latin Mass diehards or somewhat warm and fuzzy 80s music fans. All reports were glowing. When I saw the program, I was even more surprised. The music was the usual “greatest hits” with an up-tempo, slightly jazzy mass setting and ballad-like hymns. It was definitely nothing special. The celebrant and the homilist were local – nice enough, but not distinguished.

So why were they all so excited?

After thinking long and hard, I decided there were two factors at play here. The first, and most important, is that everyone was there because it was a specific celebration. They shared a common purpose in their attendance, in their intention, in their focus. Another way of putting this would be to say that they were all looking in the same direction. The second factor served to amplify the first. The cathedral was packed. It was filled with people who were all there with a common purpose.

And therein lay the secret to the happiness: a common purpose and a critical mass (no pun intended).

Compare this to the average Sunday Mass in the parish. Even if the church is full, is the common purpose there? Despite over 40 years of exhortations to be joyful participants, recent surveys disclosed a wide range of reasons for those bodies in the pews. From “it’s just what we do” to “recharging my batteries,” it’s a mixed bag that’s very personal and subjective. But we can’t have a special event every week. And no, you can’t build unity of intention with “faux community” gestures such as warming up the crowd with a call and response opening or demanding that everyone introduce themselves to their near neighbors in the pews or raise their hands if they’re visiting from out of town.

Instead it’s about real liturgical catechesis – teaching about worship, transcendence, immanence, thanksgiving, and the power of salvation history. And it’s about a celebration of the Mass that by language, gesture and music reflects the depth of those mysteries. If we were all on board, all agreed that there was nothing to equal God’s remarkable redemption and the amazing gift of the Eucharist – every Mass would dazzle us.

All the Saints of Paris

This charming video from the Fraternities Monastiques de Jerusalem is a Paris-specific litany of the saints, accompanied by architecture, stained glass, and other splendors.  Enjoy it as a “warm-up” to the Solemnity of All Saints tomorrow.  And why not be a saint yourself?  Or at least enjoy the riches of FMJweb. Born out of the tumult of the late 60’s, the Fraternity has always appreciated and exercised the attractive power of beauty in music and art.  Deo gratias!

CS Lewis Nails It

“The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility, rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper pleasure of ritual.”
C.S. Lewis

For those of us who lived through the “improvisational 60s and 70s,” truer words were never spoken.  And we’re not just talking religion here.  Think of those weddings with odd readings and folks shuffling around, guessing what to do next. Or concerts where no one appeared to have a set list, so the band stopped to confer on each selection.

Leaving Dallas with New Ideas

Three days with folks who are immersed in new media was quite intense.  And Inspiring.

Dreams of podcasts and tweets, more focused writing and network building dance in my head.

Ah, but what will actually emerge?  How to tie things together?

Something to ponder through 3 airports, 2 flights, and a Cathedral fund raiser this evening.

Stay tuned.