Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Four Masters of Catholic Music

At the Sacred Music Colloquium this year, 250 Catholic musicians were privileged to study under four fantastic masters of sacred music: Horst Buchholz, Scott Turkington, William Mahrt, and Wilko Brouwers. We need to thank God for them and their dedication to this cause. They are doing the bulk of the training for today's liturgical musicians and their work is going to have a massive influence on the music in all our parishes in the coming decades. Indeed, their influence will be pervasive long after they have left this earth.

In some ways, it is a miracle that they exist at all. Beginning at some point in the late 1960s, the music to which they are devoted was marginalized to the point of near extinction. We were told that it was a new Church and that chant and polyphony would no longer be part of our liturgical experience. There was a mad scramble to throw out the accumulated musical capital of many generations and start over completely with pop and folk music exclusively in the vernacular. Choirs and musical mastery itself came under attack. All music was supposed to be by the people, from the people, and for the people. (How strange that all this occurred only a few years following a statement from a Church council that choirs need to be fostered and that chant and polyphony deserve primacy of place in the liturgy!)

These four musicians, however, did not go along with prevailing tends. They chose Catholic music as their vocations and underwent all the necessary training with the seriousness that the subject deserves. They studied chant closely and wrote and conducted, keeping the flame burning during the dark years. They never lost hope.

There is not a trace of bitterness or malice in any of them. What we find is a burning passion to teach and to make the Church's music take flight in a liturgical setting. In these past decades, they carved out a special place for themselves within their parishes and institutions and cultivated singers and organists, keeping the repertory alive and seeking pupils wherever they could find them.

Today, they face a completely different environment. Their services are being sought out. They are revered by thousands of aspiring chanters and organists. Their insights are being shared with excited musicians of all ages. Their influence is already being felt in the Catholic world, and their names are on the lips of students of chant in colleges and universities around the country. And you know how this odd new fame has affected them? It has made them happy and encouraged them, but there is not the slightest hint in any of them that they sense vindication for their lifelong struggle. They are as humble as always and thankful to God for the opportunity to make a difference.

Let's look at each. (Photo below of pre-Mass preparations with Mahrt and Turkington planning. Photo by Jeffrey Ostrowkski.)

Horst Buchholz conducted the final recessional of the final Mass of the colloquium at which the entire colloquium sang Anton Bruckner's Ave Maria. You can listen to the results as There are no words to describe it. The singers are confident and emotive, strong and precise. Their dynamics move together, and they have no fear of soaring to the heights. This is a sense that Buchholz elicits from singers, with his sure-footed approach. At the same Mass, his own choir sang Monteverdi's Mass in F, and the results were similar.

In rehearsal, Maestro Buchholz, who has been music director at the Denver Cathedral for several years, is demanding but charming and fun. Singers want to please him, and the rehearsals go quickly. I enjoy watching him when he first opens a score. He doesn't see black lines and spots on a white page. Instead he seems to hear the music on the page, and an ideal enters his mind. The rest of the time is spent gently and carefully molding the choir's sound to conform to that. Intonation is a problem in every choir but his method of fixing that is to create a secure framework for singers so that they feel a sense of confidence. The pitch takes care of itself.

He has as at home with symphonic music and 19th century choral music as he is with the renaissance tradition. What he loves more than anything else is beauty and drama and he excels at making it happen, no matter the constraints of time or place. He is none of the pomp or arrogance to which his talent would entitle him. He is approachable and personable, seeing his role as director as nothing more than first among equals.

Scott Turkington, who directs music at a parish in Stamford, Conneticut, is the recognized American master of Gregorian chant pedagogy in our age. This is a man who single handedly taught a week long course in chant for 50 people the week before the colloquium, teaching 8 to 12 hours per day. Can you imagine such a thing? It takes enormous personal stamina to do this, especially since no class break or mealtime takes place without his being surrounded by eager learners asking questions. He did this for 6 straight days and then taught both chant and polyphony the following week, doing 14 and 16 hour days for another solid week. I find that just amazing.

The students were enthralled at every step. They never missed class. They never became bored. In fact, they were standing the whole time or, when sitting, perching on the edge of their seats with eyes wide open. When I had to interrupt class to make an announcement, you could observe the impatience on their faces: "that's fine, but can we can we please start singing again?" I recall the first class in which the schola sang Kyrie XI. I thought, "well, that sounds great. What's to say?" But Maestro Turkington had plenty to say. He focused on pronunciation, on making beautiful phrases, on helping singers to visualize the liturgical function of the chant. He never missed a moment to teach both the details of chant and also the big picture. He further taught on conducting, on Psalm singing, on the musical language of solfege.

From his point of view, he is only passing on the great tradition that he inherited, one that dates back to the early Solesmes school that began with Doms Pothier, Mocquereau, and Gajard, which was passed on to his own teacher Theodore Marier. But he adds his own special touch: a lovely humanitarianism and patience that helps singers feel great about what they are doing. He is demanding but he never raises his voice. The music itself fills him with great joy. He is quick to laugh. When he conducts a chant, a gentle smile comes over his face and his hands move like living art. And because he knows the chant so well, his sense of phrasing and beauty infuses the polyphonic music he conducts, so that there develops a seamless integration between the two.

William Mahrt, who is a music professor at Stanford University, would be a rare person in any age. He is both an academic musicologist, who has a long list of prestigious writings for academic journals, and a parish musician of forty years. His own choir never abandoned the music of the faith. His conducting style is minimalist in the best sense, and seems to convey a sense of freedom. The choir rises to the occasion and sings with great affection and unity. One person described the sound of his colloquium chanters as being like "a rich, deep, old wine." He avoids all the detracting controversies over chant rhythm and instead urges people to sing from the editions they have.

His consistent message to singers is that they must develop a spiritual and liturgical understanding of what they are doing. They must see how the text integrates with the melody, and, more importantly, how the whole of the chant in question serves a very precise liturgical function. The Introit is for processing. The Gradual and Alleluia should provide an environment for reflecting on the readings. The offertory chant tells a special story that creates a setting of anticipation. He explains all of this during his sessions with singers, drawing upon his encyclopedic knowledge of the literature and tradition.

The musicological literature can come across like rocket science, especially in the area of criticism, which can be incomprehensible to laypeople. But Mahrt completely eschews this approach. When he offers a running commentary on a particular chant, he uses plain and evocative language, speaking spontaneously with interesting words and descriptions. He seems to see the lines of chant as colors in the kaleidoscope and views his role as merely describing what he sees. This allows listeners to be part of his mental process so that we too can join him on his journey toward ever deeper understanding.

What I find most striking about him is disarming humility. Musicians of his caliber are often puffed up and spoiled, anxious to show off their in front of others. Not so with Maestro Mahrt. He listens carefully to what others have to say, hoping to learn more from him. And when he begins to speak, it is always in soft and affectionate tones, his sentences taking on the character of liturgy itself. You can see how Catholic liturgy as infused the whole of his life. As with the others, he is overjoyed about the changing Catholic musical scene but there is no sense of "I told you so" about his attitude. He is awed and excited that so many are coming to learn and sing, and feels nothing but gratitude for what he is now experiencing after so many years.

Wilko Brouwers is the head of the Ward Center in Holland, which has an uninterrupted chant tradition. Generosity of spirit defines his method of teaching. He is exceedingly gentle, hoping that his choir members will always feel comfortable and good about what they are doing. Indeed, his specialization is to help singers come to believe that they are doing something other than singing. He teaching method involves using metaphors that are anything but biological. He urges us to think about other sights, sounds, tastes, and smells. As we follow his imagination as it wanders off, the singing takes care of itself. The phrase that nearly defines him in my mind comes after a description of how we might approach a particular passage: "let's try it please."

How does his choir sound? The chant sounds hot, quick, and completely free, like a blue flame that catches your eye and enthralls you with its movement. His method is to break down the chant into its essential melody line and treat all the remaining notes as gentle elaborations on that core theme. The result is uniquely beautiful: it is not notes on a page but an image in the air that flies freely.

All week, I kept pestering him about his approach to rhythm. I couldn't understand how he approaches the subject. To which school of thought does he adhere? He never gave me a clear answer. Finally, in the end, I came to realize something. He loves looking at the paleographic evidence of old, but has no dogma on the subject. He sees that chant as lyrical music, not strict method. His goal is to help singers see the pictures that he sees in his mind and to use the instrument that God gave them, the human voice, as a paint brush to contribute to making those pictures.

Maestro Brouwers brings the same sense to conducting polyphony. He led a choir of 50 singers to sing a full Mass setting by Morales that required six sections of singers, as well as several motets. The musical apparatus of this music is more complex than pure chant, but that sense of innocent exuberance that inform his chant renderings was similarly conveyed in his polyphonic music as well.

His gentleness and generosity of spirit cultivated in his choir members nothing short of total devotion but he didn't revel in it. I caught him often in the early morning hours going on long walks and looking upwards at the movement of clouds and being fascinated at how the light of the rising sun played with the world around him. Once he said to me: "Look at this lake. It is different at every hour." Of course it was the same lake but it looked different to him. So it is with his take on the music of the faith. It is the same music of old but it is ever new in his hands.

Do you see what I mean about how fortunate we are to have these musicians with us? They stuck it out during the decades of confusion and now emerge to teach us the way to move forward. In some ways, they do represent a new school of thought in Catholic music, one that is infused with a kind of love that matches the love that new Catholics have for the faith. There is freshness to what they do. They've been through their share battles but bear no visible scars. What they offer is a light to the path of the future of music for all Catholics.

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