Saturday, May 01, 2010

Sacred Music at Ave Maria University

The presumption is that universities are ahead of the culture, foreshadowing trends that emerge with a social presence at a later. With regard to Catholic sacred music, this is not always true today. Most Catholic universities are not prepared to train their musicians for the emerging trends in liturgical music, which eschew the pop sounds of the last 40 years in favor of recapturing the long tradition of Gregorian chant and polyphonic music. Therefore, the training of new scholas is taking place outside the university environment, in private workshops run by parishes, religious orders, and the Church Music Association of America.

There are some exceptions within academia. Christendom College is one. Another is the program at Wyoming Catholic College. Notre Dame is even making some progress. They are all developing sacred music programs to train musicians in the age of Benedict XVI. In particular here, I would like to highlight the wonderful program at Ave Maria University in southwest Florida, which has a stellar program with an intense focus on the true and beautiful.

The university itself is part of a larger structure of an entrepreneurial town that is laid out in medieval style with the Church in the center, surrounded by coffee shops and other businesses. The university then surrounds this area on all sides, with large building for every department, libraries, and dormitories, while beautiful residential neighborhoods stretching out over the periphery.

I was honored with an invitation to speak at a conference last month at Ave Maria University, as sponsored by Musica Sacra Florida. It was exciting to see so many students attending lectures and working so hard to sing Gregorian chant from the Church's liturgical books. They were as excited about this music as I imagine many youth in the 1960s were about the emergent folk traditions that are thankfully and finally passing away.

The new generation as represented by these students is serious about liturgical ideals. They are devouring books on the topic, keeping up with blogs, and dedicated to constant practicing. I was surprised that most of the students who attend seem to have read my own writings and been influenced by them.

There can be no question that AMU is producing many who will be the leaders of scholas in the future, thereby leaving its mark on American Catholic culture for a very long time into the future.

Of course none of this can happen without sound leadership. AMU is blessed with two giants in the field of sacred music on its faculty.

The first is the music department chairman Timothy McDonnell, who came to the faculty in 2007. I had heard of his fantastic work at the Pontifical North American College in the Vatican, where he lead many seminarians to discover sacred music for the first time. Before that, Professor McDonnell was the master of the Music Chapel at the NAC. His credentials are in orchestral conducting, but his an outstanding organist and singer as well.

In the old days, the aspiration of every Catholic musician was to be able to sightread and perfectly render any chant from the Church's music books with Psalms. It was a common skill in the past. Today it is very rare, but professor McDonnell possesses it. In the AMU chapel, I sang beside him at a Vespers service in the extraordinary form - one with very long and difficult chants. He read them all perfectly, leading the full choir with his confident and solemn approach.

At one point in the service, he left the choir and I wasn't entire sure why. A few minutes later, at the end of the service, a stunning and magisterial organ solo began from the loft on the other side of the Church. I wondered what organ master had been brought in for the occasion. It turned out to be Professor McDonnell again!

I learn from his on-line biography that he is also a specialist in Mahler, having written new arrangements of Mahler's songs. As a huge Mahler fan, I regret that I did not talk to him about this subject at the time.

This range of talents in such a young man really does lift the heart. AMU is so fortunate to have his talents on hand, as a performer and also as a teacher. He has built an amazing program at AMU. Fully 1 in 7 students sings in some some schola on campus, helping to improve the liturgy and achieve what the Church is asking of musicians.

Another treasure at Ave Maria is Susan Treacy, who is also a long-time friend of mine and a frequent writer for Sacred Music magazine. She had previously at Franciscan University of Steubenville and Luther College. Her background is in opera and musicology but her specialization is in liturgical music, an interest that began as a private devotion but has become the very theme of her life. She has written a full tutorial on chant, and many articles on the topic. Professor Treacy directs the Women’s Schola Gregoriana at AMU.

Her expertise is legendary but she is personally very humble about her talents and abilities. Many young singers around the country can count themselves as proteges of her direct instruction. She is always on the lookout for new talent, and always interested in inspiring young people to take on the difficult task of singing for Mass and the Office.

Ave Maria as an institution got caught in the economic bust of 2008 and times haven't been as good as they might have been. But the future is still bright in this innovative community. The major reason is the focus and attachment to the fullness of the faith, especially as it is expressed in the liturgical life of the parish. The AMU maintains and grows this focus, there is every reason to think that it will fulfill the historic purpose of the university in being the garden that produces Catholic fruit in civilization.

They certainly have a great and strong start with the sacred music program, which deserves the support of everyone who loves Catholic liturgy and the Catholic life it supports.

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