• Subscribe to Crisis

  • For God’s Sake, Make Music

    by John Jalsevac

    last-judgment-hans-memling

    Every Sunday in Christ the King Chapel at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia, the mass is celebrated with all the pomp and ceremony that the traditions of the Catholic Church and the humble means of that small college allow—glittering vestments, billowing incense, a liberal helping of Latin, and numerous grave-faced altar servers. And music. Good heavens, the music! For four years I sat in the congregation of that chapel, and every Sunday I melted in my pew as the forty or so voices of the college’s choir broke into the sublime harmonies of the great polyphonists. Palestrina, Hassler, Byrd, Bach—they all made an appearance at one time or another.

    I still vividly remember the Sunday when the choir ventured into uncharted territory, and during communion launched into the frighteningly difficult 8-part harmonies of Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria. By the end I was—quite literally—in tears. Afterwards I accosted one of the members of the choir in the cafeteria and demanded she tell me what that piece was. I didn’t have to say which—she knew. I then went off in search of a recording, but—alas!—all I could find was a disappointingly ponderous rendition by Chanticleer, the all-male choir out of San Francisco. Chanticleer’s recording dragged its feet, but under the direction of Dr. Kurt Poterack, Christendom’s choir had made it dance.

    The members of the choir were always humbly self-deprecatory, reacting with unfeigned surprise and delight whenever I complimented them. “If you had been up in the choir loft,” they would always tell me, “you would have heard all the mistakes.” Well, that may be, but I was in the congregation. And though I sometimes did hear mistakes, they never marred the enjoyment of those Sunday masses, which were the highlight of my week.

    Later, I was blessed to have fifteen members of the choir sing at my wedding mass. I asked them to do that Ave Maria, but without Dr. Poterack’s expert hand, they dared not tackle Biebl. But I still got Hassler’s Missa Secunda. And I will never forget the moments kneeling next to my bride after communion, when the choir sang an arrangement of the Lorica of St. Patrick that always reminds me a little of Allegri’s Miserere—a single, austere beam of melody that suddenly breaks into a spectrum of pure and utterly satisfying harmony. I still don’t know who the composer is. I have since acquired a copy of the score from one of my friends who was in the choir, and it is written out in hand, no composer named (perhaps it is Dr. Poterack himself?).

    It may seem strange that during all this time I never once considered joining the choir. But, to me, what they did was a kind of magic, and I was no magician. It’s not that I’m musically ignorant. I played in the school band at both of my high schools (percussion), and I knew enough of the piano to impress your average layman. But I did not think I was a singer, and certainly not the kind of singer who could dream of touching Bach or Palestrina, whose music is as nearly other-worldly as music can be. Nor was I entirely mistaken. I have never had a very good voice. My range is limited and my voice is subject to cracking at the most inopportune moments. The tone, as well, is never quite reliable, changing from one day to the next.

    But a few months after graduating from Christendom I moved to a small town about an hour and a half northeast of Toronto. My wife had landed a job teaching at a fledgling private school there, and it turned out that several people involved with the school were doing what Christendom’s choir did, albeit on a much smaller scale. Every week they convened for a few hours to practice polyphony, and every so often would venture into a choir loft somewhere in the diocese to sing for a mass. At some point they invited my wife—who has even less musical knowledge than myself—and I to join. We protested that we had neither the knowledge nor the talent. They persisted, insisting that we at least give it a try, arguing that after all they were just amateurs themselves. We didn’t believe them, but as we happened to like the choir members we had met, we decided that at the very least it would be fun.

    And so one wintry Wednesday evening we arrived at the house of the de facto director of the small choir. We were late and as we walked in the door we were greeted—lo and behold!—with the rich tones of the Hassler mass which Christendom’s choir had so often sung. The effect of hearing it, however, was to reinforce my suspicion that I was getting in over my head. Nor was this feeling immediately dispelled. This choir had been singing together for several years, and had a handle on a moderate-sized repertoire. I, who had never once looked at a polyphonic score, grasped desperately to keep apace, and more often than not found myself floundering.

    Where I first began to enjoy myself was when the choir began adding new material to the repertoire. This leveled the playing field. Together with the others I began piecing together these masterpieces note by note, and with them enjoyed the electric sensation when the music finally “clicked.” Best of all was when I was able to participate in the experience of bringing this music into its proper context. It was a very great day indeed when I was able to sing the same Lorica that had brought me to tears at my wedding at the mass before my first-born son’s baptism.

    Sadly our little choir has since disbanded, a victim to the hectic schedules and increasing responsibilities of the members. But all was not in vain. Many are the masses which that choir transformed into a transcendent experience, imparting to the congregation something of the full beauty and weight of the mysteries occurring on the altar. And as for myself, I learned that while it may take a great composer to write great music, it does not necessarily take great singers to sing it. Even an amateur’s grasp of theory is sufficient to cobble together a passable performance of some of the easier polyphonic works, while even many of the imperfections of the individual voice are swallowed up in the collective voice of the choir. And then, of course, there’s no accounting for the value of good old-fashioned sweat-on-your-brows practice.

    And so it was that I had the courage to stand last December in the midst of 100 black-clad men and women in the sanctuary of George St. United Church in Peterborough in a black suit I had borrowed at the last minute from a friend, and a black bowtie my wife had bought me at the last minute. The occasion was both the opening night of the Peterborough Singer’s annual Handel’s Messiah concert, and my very first concert singing with the semi-professional choir. Believe me when I say that I will never, ever forget the sensation of launching into that most magnificent of all choruses, Worthy is the Lamb that Was Slain, which comes just before the massive concluding Amen. As the organ shook the church, and as the choir gave it their all, I felt like I was floating a good two inches off the ground and as if I had never before in my life uttered so sincere and heartfelt a prayer. I do not think it is exaggeration to say that this first time singing the Messiah was literally a life-changing experience. I felt as if I had encountered both music, and the spirit of Christianity, more deeply than ever before.

    It seems that an increasing number of people are noticing that sacred music has taken a major hit these past few decades. And many of them are beginning to clamor for a renaissance. Such a renaissance will not occur, however, without those who are willing, eager, and able to effect it. And so I am here to tell you that if I can sing polyphony, and even Handel’s great oratorio (albeit a little shakily), just about anybody with a basic grasp of music theory and the ability to hold a note, can. All it takes is a little effort, and regular practice.

    If there is ever to be any such renaissance in sacred music, it will have to be spearheaded by ordinary people like me—unschooled in the niceties, but in love with the essence of sacred and classical music and what it can offer to the liturgy and the culture. Our little choir often bungled the music—often badly—but usually the congregation didn’t notice. If they did notice anything, it was generally that something uncommonly beautiful had happened in their church that day. Indeed, it is the amateur, and not the professional, who has the power to make or break culture, for culture is not what is done in our concert halls, but what is done in our schools, our churches, and our families. So, for God’s sake, get out there and make some music!

    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

    Subscribe to Crisis

    (It's Free)

    Go to Crisis homepage

    • Ford Oxaal

      Wait a minute — are you saying you don’t like the Barney Mass? Even my children can’t handle that latest rambling Gloria we hear on the occasions we venture to a suburban Mass. It’s almost like a mockery — it gets you making fun of the Gloria as you try to get that infernal jingle out of your head. AAAAHHHH. Just talking about it brought it back in my mind! Where does that garbage music come from? I really want to know. How does liturgical music wind its way to the top and then spread all over the place? I picture some evil, androgynous, overweight drone behind the curtain controlling everything. Or, it could be folks are really uplifted by this sort of stream of consciousness drivel, and this is what they need — but I just can’t believe that.

      • musicacre

        It’ s funny but my children and I had the identical experience of picturing some weird force behind the curtain, as in Wizard of Oz… Intimidating until you realize how impotent he was without his props. Maybe we don’t need to be intimidated by the New music people (I mean anti-music!)

        • Ford Oxaal

          That’s right. The reign of banality is coming to an end. It really is odd. I wonder how it is that the music gets adopted — do you know? — it must be parish by parish — but I can’t believe folks are going with that wretched Gloria. Maybe it’s because it requires little to no effort to sing it (but how embarrasing). We are lucky to have an historic church whose central altar survived the 70′s wrecking ball — the music reminds me of when I was Episcopalian growing up — big booming pipe organ (though electronic, but quite convincing) and songs I remember that sound like church songs. It’s so nice to have “Lift High the Cross” or something in your head all week… There is a “schola” that popped up at a Tridentine Mass nearby — they played something from the early 20th century — modern, yet brilliant. I think you are right (in your comment to Tout) — people are re-discovering beauty, and eventually it will blossom again. Even atheists who were into music were sad to see the Novus Ordo come online, because it put a huge damper on a whole musical tradition. Yet, it will come back stronger than ever one of these decades. Way to go Jalsevac!

          • musicacre

            I saw a b-movie ( I didn’t watch it to the end because it was so awful), but it was about some kind of disastrous storm that was going to wipe everyone out, and how a TV evangelist and his corrupt wife were dealing with (or exploiting) the situation. The part that struck me is when they a busload of souls were singing very happily, the wretched Gloria. It was only then I realized they are manufacturing these horrible campfire tunes for all religions, not just Catholic. Are we supposed to tell our priest the Vatican has definitely said they can’t mess with the Gloria and make it into refrains, like a pop hit?(Whoops..put too many o’s in there)!

            • Ford Oxaal

              It’s a tough question regarding priests — but I think in any case, one should be very careful being too critical or uncharitable to the hierarchy — then again, I really have no idea the issues, for example, Bishop Hubbard, here in the Albany Diocese, faces. I do know he is universally scorned as ultra-lib, and yet his sermon was the only one I ever heard where abortion was condemned — and he has also done that in writing in the local diocesan newspaper (which is quite the liberal rag, but has good stuff too). Who knows. I really think God is shaking out the Church, and the hierarchy is cooperating in one way or another. BTW, that b-movie sounds amusing in a sick humor sort of way — ha ha.

              • musicacre

                I understand about respecting the clergy, sometimes a suggestion can be made in areas they may not be too current on. We seem to have a bishop that has tried to fix a lot of liberal things his predecessor did on here on Vancouver Island.

          • musicacre

            Sorry, actually I wanted to comment on where you queried how these “songs” get programmed into our churches…there are definitely these large Conferences that have been going for several decades, and people come back from them determined..even if they have to browbeat and humiliate others who love Catholic music. Genuinely Catholic music. I think there has been a lot of psychology used, negatively unfortunately, to shut down opposition or even discussion. In all the churches I noticed, it was heavy-handed tactics that deliberately embarrassed and/or humiliated anyone that didn’t get “with It.” I still see it to some degree, and that’s why whenever I can make the drive, I try to go the Latin rite, finding unsurpassed beauty unmolested.
            Just a little side note, if you read Liturgical Time Bombs (book by Michael Davies) there are a lot of quotes and references to documents of Vatican II that stated Hymns should only be used for special occasions I think, and all the chant was to be not only retained, but given pride of position. I guess the modern church renovaters are all illiterate..I don’t think there was any permission to use non-liturgical music for the Mass.

            • Ford Oxaal

              That sounds awful about the heavy-handedness. These are certainly interesting times, but I keep thinking the sun is going to come out one of these decades :)

      • ciadrian

        much of the answer to your question can be found in a Crisis article by Jeffrey Tucker, here

        http://www.crisismagazine.com/2009/the-hidden-hand-behind-bad-catholic-music

        • Ford Oxaal

          Thank you — excellent article. The curtain is pulled back a lot. But then the deeper question might be phrased like this: is it possible to use the liturgical music of a Tridentine Mass for a Novus Ordo Mass — can the one be mapped to the other, or is too much missing from the Novus Ordo — from a music standpoint?

          • ciadrian

            I’m not quite sure what you mean by “liturgical music of a Tridentine Mass.” The ordinary of the Mass is the same for either form of the Mass; the propers have differences. So any composer’s Mass could be sung in either form, since that usually comprises only the ordinary. The “standard” form of the propers would be the Gregorian chant, and where they match they would be appropriate to the O.F. However, there is also an astonishing body of truly good new work being composed and compiled for the O.F. Take a look at http://www.ccwatershed.org/ and musicasacra.com, if you are not familiar with them already.

            • Ford Oxaal

              Thank you very much. I will check out those links. I converted to Catholic and only attended Tridentine Mass for a long time. That form is what really helped to push me to be Catholic — you could see so clearly the ancientness — unbelievable! I have never heard a Novus Ordo Mass like that, but you answered my question — you could use the same music where the propers match. Thanks again.

    • Draper

      I am glad to hear you got into it yourself. You were always our biggest fan at Christendom.

      • http://www.facebook.com/rcrice Robert C. Rice

        John was perhaps a most vociferous fan of the Christendom Choir, but I will declare myself the longest and most appreciative “fan” of the Choir since the days of the reverend Father Robert J. Skeris, when the heights of liturgical song really began to soar at Christendom and, thanks be to God and Dr. Kurt Poterack, continues its glorious celestial sonority.

    • Tout

      I remember some beautiful singing during the Mass in the 1930s. I probably will never again heat such voices.

      • musicacre

        You will hear those voices again; that’s John’s whole point, many people are starting small, but it’s a movement that is unstoppable. Because you can hide beauty only for so long!!

    • musicacre

      Great article! Just heard Handel’s Te Deum Dettingen, with the UVic choir and orchestra on Friday evening, and the beauty was not unlike The Messiah!

      • http://www.facebook.com/rcrice Robert C. Rice

        Since I am looking through these comments on John’s excellent article, I can’t repress expressing my enthusiasm for the Dettingen Te Deum. Of all the baroque Te Deums, I find it the most touchingly expressive, certainly because of Handel’s great, triumphal music, but also because it was written for an English translation of the Latin, an English of the English Augustan Age that was mellifluous and pure, as sure of itself as the Latin of Virgil’s time.

        • musicacre

          Thanks for that, I always like to hear the historical details about where a piece of music fits in. My kids know more about it than me since they are studying music in university!

    • http://www.facebook.com/Annie.DeLise31 Annie DeLisle

      The liturgical music at Christendom is, perhaps, what I miss most about my 4 years at Christendom. I will never forget hearing the Soprano’s soar to a piece by Pallestrina — I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! Fr. Skeris and Dr. Poterack did/do exactly what the Church asks of all musicians — to lead the congregation’s hearts and minds to the Sacred.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tony-Esolen/1184164082 Tony Esolen

      You know why we can be certain that polyphony was written for ordinary people? It was written for children — for boys! They sure didn’t have theory or degrees in music. All they had was treble voices and youthful enthusiasm. My daughter tells me that polyphony is the hardest thing to compose well and the easiest thing to sing, if you’re not singing in unison. That is because each polyphonic line is its own melody. Singing the four-part harmonies that Bach composed for hymns is a lot harder than singing Palestrina’s Tu Es Petrus …

    • withhope

      sounds glorious. at my parish – no billowing anything, especially not incense, no a hint of Latin, but a few times the priest said prayers in a the language of the indigenous peoples – none of whom were at Mass and of those who were at Mass, no one understood, a screen is rolled down in front of the statue of the Sacred Heart so people can miss every note on the miserable play school or romper room jingles four or five times before the final, Thanks be to God. the priest leaves the ‘table’- even my imagination can’t pretend the rectangle with the big doyle on it is an altar – and shakes the unconsecrated mitts of the a few pew potatoes in the front rows before returning take up Our Lord, the gender neutral ministers in jeans and windbreakers distribute into the filing mitts of the congregation the Bread of Life. and the homilies – depressing – they always start with the world and end with the world – heaven never gets a mention, oh except once we were informed that the kingdom of heaven could be found in a rubbish dump, meanwhile Our Lord listened on in the tabernacle. never seen a monstrance, the holy water is like some old vege broth most of the time – i sometimes think the clergy is aiming for the spiritual death of the flock – and their version of the Mass is one long ‘do not resucitate’