Monday, February 17, 2020

Interviews with Catholic Composers — (3) Tate Pumfrey

Today we interview a Canadian composer, Tate Pumfrey, who specializes in English hymns in the grand old style, with newly-written hymn texts of strong diction, rhyme, and meter. (As we learn in the interview, the texts are contributed by an Australian, Christian Catsanos, also pictured below.)

Tate Pumfrey, composer (left); Christian Catsanos, hymnodist (right)

Tell us about your musical background.

I’ve had a wandering road to get to where I am today. I played several instruments in my youth, but few of them really stuck with me. That said, I have been a singer for a long time and still sing quite regularly in a choral capacity. I started playing the pipe organ sporadically in high school before I began serious organ lessons in my first year of university (albeit outside of school) with Gilles Maurice Leclerc, of Ottawa, Ontario. Gilles is still a good friend, and he had a large impact on me. Not only is he an excellent organist and improvisor, he’s also a talented composer. He has been so kind as to look at my pieces and offer feedback, and I still send him my music.

How was your interest in composing sacred music enkindled? 

I started to become interested in writing sacred music around the same time I became interested in the Traditional Latin Mass, although I’m not sure if there’s a direct correlation. One day in October 2017, I spontaneously wrote a little hymn, both text and music, but was largely dissatisfied with my poetry. When a second hymn seemed to fall out of my head in February 2018, I wanted to see if I could find someone to write texts for my music. I sent out a call for a text writer in a Facebook group for church musicians, and a young organist from Australia, named Christian Catsanos, got in touch with me. Before I’d even sent him the music for this second hymn, I told him that the lines were He sent me a text that was appropriately penitential for the mood of the music, and all seven verses fit like a glove! It has been an awesome and fruitful experience working with Christian. He writes beautiful texts, and my hymns would not be possible without his wonderful words.

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?

I have a few composers who I greatly admire in the area of sacred music, but Anton Bruckner is certainly near the top. I find his ability to write in a complex harmonic language while still respecting the traditions that came before him to be fascinating. The Kyrie from his Mass No. 2 in E Minor always gives me chills. While Bruckner is not necessarily a direct influence, his motets do inspire me to write my own pieces in that vein someday. Another composer I enjoy is Ralph Vaughan Williams. While he wasn’t Catholic, I very much like his style of hymnody. His harmonizations are superb, and I love his use of modes and his melodic writing. Other favourites include William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Manuel Cardoso, Flor Peeters, Jean Langlais, and Louis Vierne, as well as the Anglo-Canadian composer Healey Willan.

If you were given an unlimited budget for musicians for a solemn pontifical Mass, what works would you put on the program? 

Of all the settings I could pick, and while it lacks an orchestral accompaniment, I would have to choose Peeters’ Missa Festiva. Scored for organ and SATBarB choir, this wonderfully modal work is one of my absolute favourite Mass settings. It lacks the operatic tendencies that one might find in Bruckner, and is overall a serious and beautiful work. I love how Peeters comes up with fascinating backdoors into other modes and chromatic avenues that are unexpected, all of which adds to the mystery and grandeur that one would hope to find in a proper Mass setting.  Honourable mentions include Bruckner’s Mass No. 2 in E minor, Cardoso’s Missa Miserere mihi Domine, any of Byrd’s three Mass settings, Vierne’s Messe Solennelle, Langlais’ Messe Salve Regina, as well as the contemporary setting by Yves Castagnet, also titled Messe Salve Regina.

Many have been pointing to generational dynamics in the Catholic Church. Have you encountered such dynamics in your own life and work?

Over the years, my taste in church music has shifted, and I now prefer Gregorian chant and traditional hymnody over the so-called “folk hymns” that I grew up with. As for a generational dynamic, I’ve found that many of my young Catholic friends are also drawn to that which is old and timeless, even if they are not able to attend the Extraordinary Form on a regular basis. This is in stark contrast to the older generations of parishioners, who in my experience seem to prefer the “folk hymns” to what they might call the “moldy oldies.”

I sang in my first year of university with the Adoramus Choir at St. Patrick’s Basilica in Ottawa, Ontario. We did chanted Mass parts, sang a motet most Sundays, and used strong, traditionally-styled hymns. While the liturgy was in the Ordinary Form, the time I spent there had a big impact on me, as I became acquainted with both Latin and Gregorian chant. When some university-age friends at Western University in London, Ontario during my second year asked me if I wanted to “try out” the Traditional Latin Mass, I said yes. I have been going most Sundays since then. I love singing chant, and everything that goes along with traditional Catholicism.

As far as traditionally stylings of my own music, I find the seemingly old-fashioned form of four-part hymnody very attractive. This is not to say that everyone my age find traditional sacred music as attractive. Some young Catholics I know are quite attached to the so-called “praise and worship music” (which is largely Protestant in origin); I find that style unappealing. It is musically difficult to distinguish it from popular songs on the radio, and the constant use of “I” statement, such as, “here I am to worship,” shows a tendency toward self-absorption, not worship of the Lord Almighty. This kind of music is a complete barrier to my prayer. Hence, I write traditional, four-part hymns that “sound like church,” even to someone who has rarely attended. By its very definition, sacred music ought to be set-apart, and this is exactly what I aim to do with my newly composed hymns.

What are some strengths and weaknesses you see in the “traditionalist” movement, particularly from a musical point of view?

I find the “traditionalist” movement to be strong in its support of good, reverent sacred music, especially chant, the music that is supposed to have pride of place in the liturgy. I love chant and the reverence it brings to Mass, and I feel we’ve lost a great treasury of beauty with the lessened use of chant. I must also say that I’ve been blest to have some of my hymns sung at the local Traditional Latin Mass, which has further encouraged me to continue composing. My main concern is that there is at times a sense of negativity about the future, but other than that, my time with the “traditional” movement and the Tridentine Mass has been a time of great spiritual growth and has also given me a refuge from the intensity of the outside world.

What are some of your future plans as a composer?

As I am now in my fourth year of an undergraduate degree in music, I hope to pursue a master’s and perhaps even a PhD in composition. I love to compose, both sacred music, as well as more secular, instrumental pieces, and I hope to go as far as I can with my music, as long as God wills it. Even if I do not go as far as a PhD, I will continue to write hymns and other sacred works.

Triptych for Viola and Piano

Postlude for Organ

The three hymns featured here may be purchased in a collection of 24 hymns for the Church year (link at Amazon):

Biography of the Composer
Tate Pumfrey (b. 1998) of Thamesville, Ontario, Canada is a music student at Western University, where he studies composition. Growing up in household with a musical mother, he played many instruments over the years and has more recently taken up the pipe organ. Composition has long been a part of Tate’s life, as he would “invent” tunes and pieces for friends as a kid. He began composing formally in high school, where composition lessons with Mr. Jim Brown helped him get his music off the ground. Now in his fourth year of an undergraduate degree, he hopes to continue his studies with a Master’s of Composition. For Tate, faith and music are deeply connected, and as such, it was a natural progression for him to write church music as well as secular classical music. His website is and can be reached at

Biography of the Hymnodist
Christian Walter John Catsanos is an organist and hymnodist. He was born in Sydney, Australia in 1993 and began his work as a hymnodist in 2004. His work has been largely influenced by the mentorship of Dr. Richard Connolly and Mrs. Donrita Reefman. Having had an interest in sacred music and having been a singer in his school’s chapel choir, Christian held an organist post at the school from 2006 until 2011. Since then, he has held several parochial organist positions starting in 2007. Christian holds a Bachelor of Music in organ performance from the Australian Institute of Music, awarded in 2017. He can be reached at

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