Monday, January 20, 2020

New NLM Series: Interviews with Catholic Composers (1) — Nicholas Lemme

No one needs to be told that the Catholic Church on earth is experiencing a paradoxical simultaneous crucifixion and resurrection that would be impossible for anything other than a mystical body. Bad governance, bad theology, bad preaching, bad liturgy all continue apace and statistically dominate. On the other hand, we see the slow and steady spread of the traditional Latin liturgy on all continents, especially in the Anglosphere; we see the new youth movement, viz., traditionalism, establishing itself in many places; we see genuinely beautiful churches being built, magnificent renovations, new vestments, new sacred paintings and icons, new pipe organs, new children’s choirs, and a host of other signs of a vibrant renewal at the “grass roots” level. It does not dominate the news cycle, and it is certainly not tilting the scale in a worldly sense, but it is nonetheless real, and possesses the kind of dynamism that intensifies under opposition.

In recent years I have noticed, in my travels and correspondence, in reading articles online, in listening to recordings, that there is a notable uptick in the number of Catholic composers of “classical” music, especially sacred music. For a long time it seemed as if Kevin Allen was the only one people talked about, and his music is, indeed, a splendid treasure and a great gift to choirs. Frank La Rocca has also gained notoriety, especially with his ambitious Mass of the Americas (reviewed, e.g., here at NLM, in Dappled Things, and at OnePeterFive).

The idea grew in me of doing interviews with other serious Catholic composers whose work, though not (yet) as well known as that of Allen or La Rocca, deserves more attention and more performances. I decided to start with four composers — two Americans, Nicholas Lemme and Mark Nowakowski; a Canadian, Tate Pumfrey; and an Australian, Ronan Reilly. Each has been asked the same set of questions, but their answers really bear out the differences in their personalities, training, experiences, and aspirations, while testifying to their unanimous Catholic commitment. I will also insert, between questions, links to audio or video examples of their work.

We will start today with Nicholas Lemme (website).

Interview with Composer Nicholas Lemme

Tell us about your musical background: when and how you began singing or playing instruments, your most influential teacher...

I’m a late bloomer in this regard. I didn’t have any formal training until I was eighteen years old. As a kid I tinkered around on an old upright piano at our house. In my teenage years I began to write poetry and that eventually blossomed into writing songs on the guitar. Aside from various musicals, such as The Fiddler on the Roof, my earliest influences were from songwriters like The Beatles, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, and Radiohead. My only exposure to Western classical music before college was a bit of Mozart we’d sung in our high school choir, and a CD of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos (which I still love to listen to) that we had at our house. “Sacred music” in my early years was the “One Bread, One Body” Breaking Bread classic variety at our local diocesan church.

My journey to the Western classical tradition, hence sacred music, actually started when I’d fallen away from any serious practice of the faith. My first year of college I’d discovered Debussy’s Nuages from his Trois Nocturnes for orchestra. I’d never heard music like that before and was very moved by it.

My college years and thereafter were filled with exploring new music. My professors and the musicians I played with from then on were very integral to my musical discoveries and education. My voice teachers taught me a true love of art song, and our concert choir sang many of the classics from each period’s composers: Palestrina, J.S. Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Poulenc, Britten, etc… My tastes have changed quite a bit since then, but I must say that without those experimental years of learning about other types of music from Perotin to Steve Reich and even music outside the Classical tradition like Miles Davis, Ravi Shankar, and Balinese Gamelan, my tastes would somehow be deficient today.

After college in Wyoming I moved to Minneapolis, MN. There, I continued to write songs, but it was at that time that I started to put music to paper more often. I started playing mandolin and writing for and performing with an instrumental group of cello, clarinet, banjo, and mandolin. I composed for theater, film, and dance. I also sang with professional choirs during this time, most notably The Dale Warland Singers, as well as The Singers. I learned more about choral music in those professional settings than my previous college years combined. Dale Warland and the musicians in those ensembles taught me a great deal about the choral arts. Another advantage of singing in those choirs was the amount of new music we’d premier. I learned a lot by being a part of the process of making new music. New music has no precedent, so it takes a patient, generously thoughtful, and artful group of musicians to make it work for the first time.

Magnificat Fauxbourdon | 2018 | 3 voices | 3’

How was your interest in composing sacred music enkindled?

Those choirs sang plenty of sacred texts (e.g. Allegri’s Miserere) and in some very sacred spaces, but never for a liturgy. It wasn’t until I discovered the Latin Mass and the CMAA that I found that Palestrina could still be sung for a Mass, just as I had read in my history books! Unfortunately, the music being sung at some of the Latin Masses I was attending at that time was very substandard. I remember asking a choir member once if he’d like to start a small schola to sing the Gregorian chant Introits for the coming weeks. His response, “I don’t like that kind of music.”

Eventually, I found myself singing good repertoire (Gregorian chant and the classical sacred polyphony that was birthed from it) for the Latin Mass with competent musicians. It was here that I realized that I could write music for the liturgy. It was here that I realized I could contribute.

It took some time to start writing sacred music. In fact, I wrote very little for about six years. Since much of my background was in writing songs and instrumental music in a more secular realm, I had to drink deeply from the well of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony before I could conceive of composing it. The total immersion into chant seemed to give me a fresh approach to melody, and especially rhythm, in a drastically different way. I began to respect the unison melodic line with its linear harmony with fresh regard.

Is there a sacred music composer — or are there several composers — whose work you find most captivating, either as a source of delight (however different in style from your own compositions), or as direct inspirations and models for your own work?

If we’re considering sacred music to be the music that is “set apart” for a specific liturgical function, I would have to say that the anonymous composers of the chant melodies are the most impressive to me. I’m also in awe of the composers that followed them like Josquin, Dufay, Dunstable, Byrd, Palestrina, etc… They used so little and created so profoundly!

Interpreting sacred music composers more loosely, I would have to say J.S. Bach is a composer I hold in the highest regard. I also admire a lot of 20th-century composers. I’ve always found Benjamin Britten’s compositions for choir and voice so masterful and unique. There are so many fresh compositional voices out there today; it seems I discover a composer to esteem every month.

A living composer that never ceases to move me, however, is Arvo Pärt.  His music captures the mystery that is lacking from so many artistic pursuits of artists today. His music seems to purge the pain of life by allowing the listener to experience it so that true joy can be felt in its aftermath. It causes weeping to flow deep from within, only to leave a smile on the tear-stained cheeks of the listener. If I could write but one piece in life that does this for someone, I would consider my compositional work successful.  

A Solis Ortus Cárdine | 2017 | SATB a cappella | 3’
The language of sacred music, as of Catholic worship in general, remains a controversial subject. What are your thoughts about the place of Latin in vernacular liturgy and the place of the vernacular in Latin liturgy?

While I’m thankful for the many great English translations we have for the texts of our liturgy, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the great beauty, reverence, and mystery that comes when sacred music is set to Latin.

Again, if we are to take the word “sacred” literally, we are then referring to a musical language that is set apart for a certain liturgical action, and whose first purpose is for the “glorification of God and the sanctification and edification of his people.” I’ve come to realize that the use of Latin enhances in a special way the aura of mystery in liturgical music. It is like a veil, and veils cover sacred things.  As listeners we ask, “What is behind that veil?”

This mystery is most apparently lacking when the Gregorian melodies are set to the vernacular English. Something in their artistry, piety, and mystery is lost. I have heard the melodies set to Spanish with a less jarring affect, however. But, to this point, think of the absurdity of a music conservatory that would have their students singing Franz Schubert Lieder in English. Preposterous! Why should one treat the ars celebrandi of the Church with any less respect?

Additionally, I would say that Latin is a language that is no longer used colloquially, and therefore it has an “otherness” to it. It is intrinsically sacred to those in the Latin Church. When we hear it, we know we are in a sacred space. Latin is sometimes criticized for not allowing a full and “active participation,” but we must remember that the Church has taught in these past two centuries that participation must first be interior, and then exterior, and sacramental (see Pius X, Pius XII, JP II). Without interiority, the rest is just a show. Because Latin creates a sense of the sacred by being mysterious, it lends itself to recollection and piety, which are vital to a proper interior participation.

Of course, I do think that English sacred music can possess many of these positive qualities such as beauty and mystery — e.g. Tallis’ “If Ye Love Me,” Howell’s Requiem, but for me it seems a more difficult language to use for sacred music, and it seems to be a slippery slope into making music that smacks of the banal.

“Da Virtutibus” for organ and men’s voices (audio only)

Can you say more specifically what you see as the qualities of Latin that make it apt for sacred music?

This is difficult to explain briefly, but I’ve noticed several characteristics that are inherent in the Latin text that make Gregorian chant so suitable for prayer. Its flowing legato unison lines are easily executed with the five pure vowels of Latin, contrasted with the complex vowel pronunciation of English. The accent in Latin is something that is light and lifted, and it is one of a lengthening of time. This comes out in the Gregorian melodies; the heights of these melodies are never sung with the greatest emphasis in volume, but are rather lightened and lengthened. The English accent is more Germanic in nature and therefore does not call for this type of setting. One last point is that all of these Gregorian melodies end on the tonic note of the mode in a state of repose. This rise and fall (repose) is observed in the spondees (Dé-us) and dactyls (Dóminus), the smallest rhythms in Latin, that make up the greater phraseological lines. Thus, the words, when they are well set, are to rise like incense to God and return to the recollected heart of the singer. Perhaps these reasons are not convincing to everyone, but they have been revelations to me in how I set text to music.

I would say that Latin’s unifying power is also observed in the pre-Gregorian centuries of the Church when many styles of chant existed. Contrast this with the entrance of the vernacular into the liturgy and one can see the effects and the importance of the language of musical worship.

Auróra Solis Núntia | 2016 | TB or SA a cappella | 3’

In recent years many have been pointing out the strong generational dynamics in the Catholic Church: older people seem to want the popular or secular styles of art, while at least some younger people are intrigued by traditional forms that have an archaic feel to them. Have you encountered such dynamics in your own life and work?

In my short life I’ve witnessed that people are attracted to what is authentic and done well. Even when I was playing rock music or composing in more secular styles, I noticed that if the music was “artful” or done to the highest standard it was respected and enjoyed. Most connoisseurs of rock simply laugh at the genre of Christian rock for this reason. They see it as a cheap imitation of the real thing.

With sacred music, I think the younger generations are looking for something authentic, something that really speaks of the mystery of God, His “otherness.” Our culture seems to be hyper-sensualized and its music, art, and movies represent this. I’m not saying that sensual music does not have its place, but I am saying that I think the younger generations are intuitively recognizing that the older styles have an immanent mystery and speak to something deeper, both intellectually, and even more importantly, spiritually. They are saying, “Mom, can we have something else for dinner besides candy bars and Fruit Loops?”

If you have experience with the “traditionalist” movement, what are some strengths and weaknesses you see in it, particularly from a musical point of view?

I suppose all movements have their strengths and weaknesses, but one strength I see the traditional movement having is that it provides a platform of continuity for the Church and her composers to use to grow organically from what has been slowly developing throughout the previous millennia by preserving the liturgical tradition. Just as chant was born from the Jewish temple and then birthed Renaissance polyphony and the rest of the Western musical tradition, so does it now continue to influence composers to breathe fresh air into the Western tradition. To me, the more ancient forms of Western music, and the the newer forms that are like it, seem to find a happy home in the traditional Latin Mass. I’ve also noticed that the traditional liturgy and its accompanying art forms, such as Gregorian chant, have a great influence on modern composers who are seeking to express the mystery of God.

If there were a weakness to point out, it would be that of the “low Mass” culture. This is the culture that seems to prefer that the public liturgy be a private and meditative devotion. I understand our need for silence in this noisy world, but I do think that this attitude permeates into the greater celebrations of the Church, causing great harm to the beauty that is integral to the celebration of the Mass. In many places it seems that music has become just another volunteer side job at the parish, like mowing the lawn or buying and setting out donuts after Mass. (By the by, I’m very grateful for the hospitality crews after Mass.) As a result, few places seek out real artists to run their music programs. I realize that many factors are at play with budgets, and that most places are just trying to do the best with what they have, and I don’t mean to downplay those efforts, but until we start to devote our resources to the arts we cannot expect any type of change in the way of beauty in our liturgies or in our culture. By this, I do not mean orchestral masses with choirs of 50. A well-trained schola singing Gregorian chant all by itself adds a noble beauty to the liturgy.

Non Veni Vocáre Justos | 2016 | SATB a cappella | 2’ 15’’

What are you doing now in the field of sacred music?

Sacred music has been my full-time job for the last eight years, working as the music director and professor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, NE, and directing a parish choir in Lincoln. I’m very grateful for this work and have learned a great deal from it. Many of my compositions recently have been written with my students or choirs in mind. I’ve been very blessed to have talented and dedicated individuals to collaborate with in these settings.

What are some of your future plans as a composer?

My goal as a composer is to keep writing and learning each day. I have so much to learn from the greats in our tradition and from those who are composing in our midst today! I’m currently working on a few sacred choral commissions up through March and then I’ll see what comes next. This past spring I wrote some instrumental miniatures for cello and violin, which was a great challenge for me, but a lot of fun. It would be fun to take on a one-act opera, if there are any librettists reading this...

How can people get in touch with you?

My website features more information and additional recordings, including of my secular works. My email is

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