Saturday, October 27, 2007

On a Conducting Legend, Musical Excellence, Hard Work--and Catholic Mediocrity

When I first started my conservatory training at Peabody, there was a fellow trumpet player in town, who had graduated a few years before my arrival in Baltimore. He was an absolute idealist; he did not congratulate anything that was less than good. In addition, he was truly the most efficient musician I have ever known. (I was in the room with him when he pulled the horns out for the first time in five weeks--and he played a Bach Brandenburg concerto flawlessly, on the spot.) He took me under his wing in his own way, as he did with many of us, and I learned a lot from him. He called me "Lawrence" and would listen to my playing and give me no-nonsense, direct feedback. He would also bluntly confront some of my youthful ideas that were, shall we say, less than sensible.

One day this same guy showed up on campus. "Lawrence! I'm coming up to your room. There's something you need to listen to." What he had was a tape of some of the most incredible music I had ever heard-- the angelic Benedictus from Bruckner's Mass in F minor, conducted by Sergiu Celibidache, the sometime music director of the Berlin Philharmonic who spent the majority of his career with the orchestra in Munich. "This is some Bruckner that I actually like," my visitor said. (He intensely dislikes the Bruckner symphonies.)

Sergiu Celibidache, who died in the mid-90's, is not well-known enough, in my opinion. He was truly a conducting legend. Some say that his players hated him ("tyrant" has been used), and I believe it, but the results this guy got were truly stunning. (Nota bene: Sometimes musicians forget that the conductor is essentially a benevolent dictator. Otherwise, chaos ensues. There are few exceptions.) Paradoxically (slightly), it's also said that Celibidache did not micromanage the score, that he actually gave the musicians interpretive freedom that other conductors would never give.

One of the aspects of his work that separated Celibidache from his colleagues was rehearsal. "Celi," as he was called, scoffed at the idea that any orchestra could put on the best possible concert on only three rehearsals--which is the standard in many quarters. Instead, Celi rehearsed his musicians for weeks in preparation for performances. It was, in his mind, impossible to attend to all the necessary details with any less rehearsal. Yet, he was not inefficient. Here is a video which includes some rehearsal moments:

I thought of Celi's work ethic earlier this week when, in the discussion about the Rossini propers, someone made the comment that the chants of the Graduale Romanum are too hard to sight read, thus necessitating the Rossini propers. Where do we get the idea that the music for the liturgy should ever be sight read? I've seen people do this--even trained musicians--and the result is always less than wonderful, even if there are no blatant errors. If Celi put in all that rehearsal for "mere" concerts with some of the world's best musicians, why should we not exert ourselves in preparation for divine worship? Every schola should rehearse the propers every week, even if they already "know" them.

Too often, the actions of many suggest--though they may say otherwise--that since church music is for God, it's okay if it stinks. This shows through when people are afraid to or even downright refuse to enforce any standard of excellence whatsoever. I am not necessarily talking about the Glory and Praise gang. This is a point on which all who are involved in Catholic church music need to examine their consciences. Are we afraid of the hard work that is necessary to present beautiful music at the liturgy? Are we too cheap to spend the necessary money on qualified musicians? Is there something inside many of us that secretly thinks that sacred music isn't worth all this effort? These are not rhetorical questions; I am in earnest. What is the cause of Catholic mediocrity in music?

Another attitude that seems to be gaining steam is that if the music is in Latin, it is therefore good--full stop. This is craziness, whether with respect to repertoire (e.g. the regrettable stuff the Cecilians gave us) or preparation (the lack of which can render even the most beautiful chant or motet a mere cacophony). I have a friend in the Northeast who tells horror stories from his Latin Mass days, when the schola would squawk through the Propers 30 minutes before the liturgy, and then do the same thing at the Mass itself. What's the point of this? If it is the worship of the Almighty, then we have failed miserably. If this is the way we intend to set up shop, then we can forget a renewal of the older form of Mass, as well as the Reform of the Reform, with respect to music--at the very least.

Early in his career, the Austrian organist Anton Bruckner worked at the church of St. Florian in Linz. This is also where he is buried. Sergiu Celibidache had the opportunity to take his orchestra there for a performance of the Mass in F Minor. "We want to show the world what choral singing is!" he said at a rehearsal before this concert. "We're singing in St. Florian! There can be no greater honour! Consider what you're doing!"

This was an honor that Celi took seriously. We owe it to God, to our brethren, and to ourselves to consider the art of singing at Mass an even greater honor and to take it just as seriously as Celi took his. Then we will be able to show the world what a treasure sacred music is.

Consider what you are doing.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: