Sunday, June 25, 2006

Hope and Exuberance at the CMAA

A few reflections on the CMAA's Sacred Music Colloquium XVI at Catholic University:

This was nearly a full week of Gregorian chant and polyphony, with daily liturgies that featured the music prepared in rehearsals. For a musician who loves great liturgy, this is the closest thing to Heaven on earth.

The conference was packed with 85 people, who stretched the limits of the facilities—a nice problem to have—and this is certainly a record. If you have never sung renaissance motets and chant with so many voices, I can only say that it is an unforgettable experience. Two thirds of the attendees had never been before, but most all currently direct and sing in Catholic music parishes.

What did this conference give them? Full immersion into the musical culture of the Roman Rite, something that is sadly lacking in parishes. It's like learning a language. The best approach is to live in the country that speaks it. This week was the "country" of Catholic sacred music.

But here is the best part: rather than merely bemoan the dreadful music that still dominates Mass in this country or kvetch about the missteps after Vatican II, there was a real sense of optimism—even unbounded joy—among most everyone there, as the musicians in attendance experienced a strong sense of collegiality and looked to a bright future.

The music was at once beautiful, inspiring, and challenging. We sang full Mass settings by H. Hassler Missa Dixit Maria and Josef Rheinberger, five Latin motets by great renaissance composers, and most of the Propers in Gregorian chant as they appear in the Graduale. The director of the polyphony choir, Horst Buchholz of Denver, and two chant instructors (Scott Turkington and Amy Zuberbueller) did an amazing job in achieving this ambitious goal.

It was my impression that most attendees had no prior understanding that the Roman Rite comes with its own built-in music. It came as a real surprise to see the Gregorian Missal and experience who these chants so fully enrich the liturgy. The music is challenging in the extreme but after decades of having been spoon-fed praise choruses, what true musician can't but welcome such a challenge?

After one Mass that used chant to its fullest, a person came up to thank us for doing the old rite. I explained that this was in fact the new rite. She didn't believe me. I had to cite several specific instances of difference to convince her that this was postconciliar liturgy. And truly it would take a liturgy geek to spot the difference.

After the final liturgy (a great integration of chant and high romanticism) a person in attendance came up to ask: what amazing choir was this that brought back chant to Catholic liturgy so he could hear Latin chant for the first time in decades. I told this tourist visiting Washington, D.C.: this is the Church Music Association of America and it's just the beginning. The revolution will come to his hometown in his lifetime. He responded: thanks be to God!

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