Category Archives: Music

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.

My Liturgical Rubicon

Last week I drove five hours each way to sing in a schola for the Feast of the Assumption. The occasion was the celebration of the Solemn High Mass in the Extraordinary Form at the Church of the Gesu in Miami. Why? Because I knew that only in the Extraordinary Form would the splendor of the Mass truly reflect the splendor of the feast. And it did.

So I’m “coming out” for the Extraordinary Form.  While this may not mean much to you, for me it is mentally crossing the Rubicon. Since Summorum Pontificum, I’ve kept my opinions to myself (and tried to talk myself out of them).  At the same time, I wouldn’t be a Catholic today if I hadn’t stumbled across the Extraordinary Form at St. Agnes Church in New York one Sunday in 1989.  There I found a Latin Rite Mass equal to the Orthodox Liturgy – a Mass that embodied the doctrines I was studying as I acknowledged the Petrine claims and re-oriented myself to Western theology.  And even though I knew it was not the norm, at least I knew it still existed.

For 20 years I have defended the 1970 Missal, attributing its shortcomings to the manner in which it was celebrated, not to the rite itself.  Since I was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1990, my battle cry as a musician has been “we can make it better.” I believed  better hymns, better vestments, chanted propers, an improved translation or celebration in Latin – some combination of these could raise the 1970 Novus Ordo to the level of the Missal of Pius V or the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Church.

We can make it better.  But it will always fall short.  I do not – for one single minute – doubt that it is the Church’s authorized celebration of the Eucharist and that it carries all the graces of the sacrament.  I truly believe that Our Lord is present there and is adored by the angels.  But is this the window into Heaven that liturgy is meant to be?

The Novus Ordo‘s stripped-down text, its multiplicity of options for readings, Eucharistic prayers, and its preference for suggestion over precision are built into its structure.  The bare-bones version is as uplifting as a Protestant prayer service. More elaborate celebrations are confections of local taste – ranging from LifeTeen to beautiful chant at the taste of the presider, choir director, and the liturgist.    It is a child of the mid-20th century – iconoclastic, mistakenly ecumenical, and with a bad case of faux archaeologism.

The Latin Rite has constantly “re-formed” itself through history.  The revered 1570 missal that followed the Council of Trent was itself a revision. Beginning in the 19th century, liturgical theologians, musicians and others all knew that it was time to revivify the rite’s celebration.  Dom Gueranger, Lambert Beauduin, Louis Bouyer, Romano Guardini and a host of others in Europe and the United States wrote, met, worked for liturgical reform.  And by the mid-20th century, it was happening – the Gregorian chant revival, the dialogue Mass replacing the dead-silent Low Mass, adult education courses on liturgy and doctrine, and increased lay interest in the breviary.  Anyone who reads Sacrosanctum Concilium knows that this document sought continued movement in this direction.  For reasons that don’t bear discussing here, there was instead a radical shift, a rupture.  The result was the Novus Ordo Mass.

Is it the Latin? No, most definitely not. The Liturgies of St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil are celebrated in a multiplicity of languages from Greek to contemporary African tongues with no loss of dignity.

While I love Latin, I know that it lies far out of the reach of most of the current clergy and that worshippers aren’t interested in reading their way through a hand missal. By limiting the Extraordinary Form to the Latin language, we shut out potential celebrants and worshippers with barriers they can’t overcome.  I know sincere priests who study the rite, but they will never be sufficiently comfortable in Latin to celebrate anything more complex than a Low Mass.  And the Low Mass was not meant to the the preferred public celebration of the rite.  In the transitional missal of the mid-1960s, we had a good translation of the Missale Romanum.  The English Missal of the Anglo-Catholic movement is another fine translation and could be a wonderful consequence of Anglicanorum coetibus. Our worship needs the depth and expansiveness of the old rite, its universality, its orientation to the supernatural.  Let us not keep language as a barrier. 

Worship is honor and adoration given to what we love.  And that love goes on to inspire great deeds.  The Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite is the Western Church’s great treasure.  What could happen if it were allowed to flourish?