Saturday, May 08, 2010

Sacred Music Moves South

Two prominent Catholic musicians, both leaders in the profession and masters of the genre, have left their positions in New York and Connecticut to take high-profile positions in Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana. These shifts are more than symbolic. As they assume their duties, they are encountering a movement in Catholic circles in the South that is already burgeoning, with ever more people dedicating their talents to the renewal of liturgical music.

The first is Scott Turkington, formerly of St. John the Evangelist in Stanford, Connecticut. He is a student of Ted Marier and a leading proponent of the Solesmes tradition of chant interpretation. He has trained many hundreds of students of chant over the last five years, in workshops and programs sponsored by the Church Music Association of America. He is not only a scholar; he is also a serious practitioner, and not only of chant. He is also an excellent organist with specialized skills for Catholic liturgy. He is constantly in demand for workshops and recitals around the world.

He is now become the director of music at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Charleston, South Carolina. The Cathedral has a pastoral staff very dedicated to a full sacred music program. The Cathedral has children’s’ choirs, paid polyphonic singers, Gregorian chant scholas, and a full agenda of making this cathedral a center of excellence in Catholic music. The pastor saw what a treasure the cathedral would have and recruited him with an eye to the long term.

The cathedral, which has taken the step of introducing a week extraordinary form Mass, is extremely fortunate to have him. The cathedral will be assuming its traditional role of providing the best of the best, an exemplary program to serve as an example to the rest of the diocese.

The second musician is B. Andrew Mills, author of the musical guide to the extraordinary form (Psallite Sapienter) that has served as the authoritative source for musicians and the book that the Vatican has recommended to musicians. He is a famed organist and a much sought-after recitalist. And like Turkington, he is a choral conductor and chant specialist.

For many years, he has served as the organist and choirmaster at St. Agnes in New York, New York. In a city filled with stunning sacred music programs, most of them at Episcopal congregations, Mills turned St. Agnes into a venue for excellence that made the Catholics of New York feel very proud. Having attended Masses there myself, I can testify to the wonders of his program.

He has now left St. Agnes to take a position in New Orleans at Old St. Patrick’s parish Church, which already has a fantastic program in place, one that Mills will expand. The parish has Masses in both the extraordinary form and the ordinary form in the style of the London Oratory. This is great for Mills, who has a Fortesque-like dedication to rubrics and to the most beautiful and robust presentation of the liturgical life of the Church.

What should encourage every Catholic musician, and, really, every Catholic is to see examples of churches willing to recruit such outstanding talent. It reveals that the right kinds of priorities are beginning to be established in some places. These places understand that music is not something to slough off or just treat as a side issue. Instead, the pastoral staff of both St. John the Baptist and St. Patrick’s see that music is at the very heart of their mission. From a practical point of view, great music fills the pews, and it also fills the collection baskets. The money spent in this area is not so much an expense but an investment in the future of the parish and the future of souls.

A not insignificant aspect of their job changes concerns the willingness of the cathedral to invest money in their programs in the form of serious salaries for professional musicians. This is not a factor to be overlooked.

When I saw the advertisement for the Mills’s replacement at St. Agnes, I was shocked at the proposed salary for his replacement. The job description suggests a position that requires incredible training and 60-plus hours per week of work, not to mention massive responsibility in a parish packed from front to back for nearly every Mass. And yet the publicly posted proposed salary ($40,000) is on the level of what an assistant manager of a shopping mall retail shop would make in the first year of work. According to the New York Times, it is the salary for a Manhattan doorman (but he is provided a huge benefits package too). The man who installed my new dishwasher yesterday makes a higher salary. This salary doesn't even pay rent in a tiny apartment in Manhattan.

I just can’t imagine how such a thing could happen. All this talk one hears from the pulpit about social justice, a living wage, just compensation, and the like, apparently does not apply to liturgical musicians, even the most highly trained ones. This situation cannot endure. Thank goodness for the freedom to choose positions and move, else giants such as Mills and Turkington might be forever trapped in exploitative environments.

Great music also inspires a congregation to be more faithful to the teaching of the Church. It recruits musicians of the future. It also serves as a great example. If the parish is willing to go to the effort to present beautiful liturgy, parishioners feel the sense of obligation to apply themselves to the great project.

The South presents an interesting situation for Catholics. Both Charleston and New Orleans have large Catholic populations, but, in general, most of the South remains mission territory for Catholics. This means that the gifts of beautiful liturgy are especially appreciated, for they serve as a source of pride for people outnumbered by evangelical congregations that lack these traditions and treasures.

This helps account for part of the success of missions such as EWTN in Birmingham, Alabama, and our own program in Auburn, Alabama. Musicians in Florida are also thriving, and many scholas in Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas are doing very well too. Ten years ago, most of this activity was either not in existence or in its infancy.

With these two giants in the field moving to the South, establishing and expanding on great programs, we might begin to see a further flourishing of beautiful Catholic liturgy.

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