Monday, October 08, 2007

Anno quadragesimo quarto

The St. Ann Choir , under the direction of CMAA president William Mahrt, celebrates it 44th anniversary -- which is a remarkable thing, and proof of the existence of liturgical continuity even during the dark days. This choir of Palo Alto, California, has been a model of excellence in the past and remains so.

They sing propers and Latin ordinary every week, and always have, but within the ordinary form. This includes even the Gradual instead of the Responsorial Psalm. Each week, too, there is a beautiful program available to parishioners with all words and translations.

The choir's repertoire is astonishingly vast. It seems impossible for any group but a professional choir! In fact, this is not a professional choir but a group of singers from the area who just love what they are doing. This kind of accomplishment is the fruit of decades of work.

Too often in Catholic circles people think of the music as a week-to-week thing. Just pick a few hymns, maybe a jazzy number for offertory, and see who shows up and what with instruments. In fact, I suspect that this is the method for the majority of Catholic parishes.

But the St. Ann's choir does something different. It cultivates a sense of mission and demands dedication from all members. If they can't be at rehearsal, they must let the director know. If they are going to be out of town for liturgy, there is a sheet that they must sign. But it isn't merely a matter of imposing internal discipline.

Because the choir as something important to do, they want to be part of the choir and they take their responsibilities seriously. The director takes it seriously and this is imparted to members. And also, the choir knows that it is a critical part of the liturgy. It is not there to merely support the singing of the people, or be a musical proxy of the people of God. It has its own role--exclusive to the schola--to play in the great drama.

People often comment about the abysmal state of musical knowledge within the Catholic Church. Even those who want to start scholas find that there are only a tiny number of parishioners who can read music or match a pitch.

But why should we be surprised by this? For decades, the role of the schola has been depreciated to the point that there is nothing much for them to do. What needs to be done can be done by a cantor alone. So why cultivate excellence more broadly?

Think of it this way. Let's say that we announce that scientists as such are really quite pointless, and that science really belongs to all the people at once, and that the true role of the scientist, if there is one, should consist in doing nothing but supporting the intrinsic expertise of the whole population, and that any attempt to do science apart from the people is really a kind of pompous power grab or an intolerable attempt to merely show off.

If we did that, who would be surprised to find that scientists would vanish and that the quality of just about everything would decline?

Well, this is precisely what Catholics have done to scholas and to musical specialization in general. And today we look around and wonder why the music is our parishes is so awful and we wonder why no one is even available to fix it or knows how.

In any case, the St. Anne choir has shown us another way for all these decades. Today, they celebrate and rightly so.

Here is the cake with the inscription: Schola Sanctae Annae, Anno quadragesimo quarto, Ad multos Annos!

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