Monday, May 25, 2020

Interviews with Catholic Composers — (6) Paul Jernberg

Many NLM readers will need no introduction to Paul Jernberg, whose beautiful music has been mentioned in the past by my colleague David Clayton. Jernberg’s work is characterized by a Byzantine flavor of harmonization that he brings to settings of both Latin and vernacular liturgical texts.

Tell us about your musical background: when and how you began singing or playing instruments, your most influential teacher, how your interest in composing sacred music was enkindled. 

Born in Chicago in 1953, my earliest musical formation came from being immersed in beautiful music in my home and church. My paternal grandmother was a concert violinist, my father was also a fine violinist, and several of my aunts, uncles, and cousins were accomplished musicians. In the Baptist church which we regularly attended, there was always inspirational singing by the choirs and the congregation. Whenever our family gathered for holidays, there was also much singing and music making!

I began piano lessons at six years old, studied and performed throughout high school, and then continued as a music and piano performance major in college. While still in high school, I also began studies in music theory and composition at the American Conservatory of Music in downtown Chicago. It was my great privilege to study privately there with the great Irwin Fischer, himself a student of Nadia Boulanger and Zoltan Kodaly. Although at this time I had no thought of composing Catholic sacred music, Mr. Fischer helped me to discover the greatness of Palestrina and all the Renaissance masters, through my classes with him in Modal Counterpoint. At this point the composing which I did was generally as homework; it wasn’t until many years later that the sense of a vocation to compose music for the Sacred Liturgy became clear.

Salve Regina

Is there a sacred music composer—or are there several composers—whose work you find most captivating, either as a source of delight, or as direct inspirations and models for your own work? 

It is true that as a source of musical delight, I continue to be captivated and transported by the sacred works of the great composers of our Art Music tradition: Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Haydn, etc., and their many brilliant successors up until the present. However, as I began to discover the Catholic Liturgy during my time living and working in Sweden (1983-1993), I realized that the great patrimony of Gregorian Chant and Byzantine Chant has a specific genius, distinct from (though related to) the glory of Art Music, for drawing us into the contemplative dimension of the Mass. Part of this genius is in its discreet, sacred character which while beautiful is always pointing away from itself to the Mystery.

In the West, from the Renaissance and onward, the culture became increasingly oriented toward the flourishing of human artistic capacities in secular venues. This new cultural movement was in itself a magnificent thing, strongly influenced by its Christian, Catholic roots, and capable of reflecting the glory of God. Nevertheless, the standard parameters of music composition made a significant shift away from their traditional orientation to the Liturgy, to a new orientation to the secular venues of the opera hall and concert stage. This secular cultural orientation has continued to our present day. Even though there have been many devout Christians and Catholics who have contributed their extraordinary talents to the service of the Liturgy, the standard formation for serious musicians – including these church musicians – has continued to be based upon the Art Music tradition. While such a formation is a good and praiseworthy thing, it is nevertheless distinct from a thoroughly liturgical formation.

By contrast, the great composers of Eastern Europe, while participating in the Art Music movement, tended to maintain a clearer distinction between sacred and secular composition. In this regard I find the liturgical works of Russian Orthodox composers such as Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Rachmaninoff to be particularly inspiring. Among the several brilliant Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic composers of our own day, I am particularly influenced by those who aim to maintain this “Little Way” of inspired simplicity. One of the greatest of these, in my view, is my friend Roman Hurko. He is a Ukrainian-Canadian composer living in New York; his Liturgy No. 3 (in English) is a magnificent example of the integration of artistry and spirituality in an authentically liturgical style.

But having said all of the above, my own musical identity is deeply rooted in the Roman Rite, and most especially in our patrimony of chant and polyphony. It has been both a duty and a delight for me to be immersed in both of these great forms, which provide an indispensable foundation for anyone who aspires to integrity in composing music for the Mass.

The Lord’s Prayer (from the Mass of St. Philip Neri)

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

An unlimited budget would not necessarily be a good thing, just as winning the Lottery has often been highly problematic for many people! St. John Vianney’s holy extravagance towards all that was related to the church building and the Liturgy is a radiant model for us; however, this prodigality was in the spirit of the poor widow giving her mite. He gave everything he had out of his poverty, rather than from a surplus of resources. And I am convinced that a vitally important dimension of our work is in recovering the sense of holy littleness that characterizes Our Lady’s Magnificat.

Having said this, I have actually been very blessed, through the generous support of others, to prepare a number of Liturgies in which we have been able to pursue such an “ideal” program. These have always included a combination of Gregorian chant, classic polyphony, and new works which are able to “harmonize” deeply with this chant and polyphony. We have also been able to sing the entire Mass, with Priest, Deacon, Cantor, Choir, and Congregation fulfilling their respective parts of the Ordinary and Propers. In February 2019 we recorded one of these Masses – a Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit – which can be viewed and listened to here:

Or for a one-minute taste:

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 the liturgy? 

Latin was and is the traditional liturgical language of our Roman Rite. As a healthy piety calls us to honor our liturgical patrimony, it also calls us to honor the language which is an integral dimension of this patrimony. Sadly, most Catholics have now been effectively cut off from this treasure, just as our Western culture has generally been cut off from its vital connection to its linguistic roots in Latin and Greek. This poses the question of how to move forward in a way that integrates piety, prudence, and charity.

In affirmation of the direction of Pope Benedict XVI in this regard, I would advocate an approach that facilitates a robust renewal of the study of Latin, and of its use in the Sacred Liturgy. And the resurgence of the TLM is a sign of such a renewal in those communities which have embraced this form. Beyond this, it seems evident that those who are charged with the formation of priests, deacons, and church musicians have a responsibility to provide them with a thorough immersion in our great Latin liturgical and sacred music traditions. And as they teach them how to do and sing them well, they also need to communicate the fire of love which is at the heart of these traditions.

Having said all this, it is also important to realize that Latin itself was once “secular” in relation to the Sacred Liturgy. It required a long period of holy adaptation, from its Aramaic and Greek precedents, so as to become the great liturgical language that it is. Furthermore, this same process of holy adaptation has taken place in many of the other Rites of the Catholic Church, producing other venerable sacred languages such as Coptic, Ge’ez, Armenian, and Church Slavonic.

The use of the vernacular in the Mass of Paul VI has often caused concern among those who would preserve the integrity of the Roman Liturgy, because of the extent to which it has been used as a tool of desacralization. On the other hand, the longstanding witness of the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches indicates that it is possible – however long and difficult the task may be – to adapt and sanctify our vernacular languages for their holy liturgical use.

As a musician, I am grateful to have participated in both of the above dimensions of liturgical renewal: singing, conducting, and composing for the Latin liturgy, but also working within the vernacular (primarily English, but also Spanish, French, and Swedish) to develop a holy repertoire that is worthy of our great heritage.

Lamb of God (from the Mass of St. Philip Neri)

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, generally the more serious) younger people are intrigued by traditional forms that have an archaic feel to them. Would you agree or disagree with that assessment? 

I would phrase it a bit differently. From my own experience it does seem indeed that the “Vatican II generation,” those of us who are now in our 50’s and older, have often grown accustomed to the “new way” of celebrating the Mass, which has often been permeated by elements of desacralization, unsound teaching, and moral compromise. If this has been our steady liturgical diet, how could we avoid its having had a strong impact on our general approach to culture and art? Thankfully, there have been many notable exceptions to this generational tendency, who have faithfully pursued integrity in their approach to the Liturgy and culture.

Regarding younger people, we see a multitude who have abandoned the Faith altogether – and consequently, any sense of Christian culture – which in my mind is one of the most tragic, devastating effects of the disintegration of the Liturgy. For those who have returned or remained faithful, I do see a tremendous longing for integrity, for the robust pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty. This holy longing, and this pursuit, is manifested in a variety of ways. Many young people are indeed attracted to more traditional forms of the Liturgy and Art; others are more naturally attracted by opportunities to deepen their philosophical, theological, biblical, and spiritual formation. While none of the above are mutually exclusive, in practice one does see how different personalities and temperaments tend to be drawn to different expressions of the same fundamental aspiration.

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? 

The first great strength, as I see it, is the rediscovery and cultivation of our great liturgical and sacred music traditions. Secondly, for many people it has given a holy framework of Liturgy and life that has been a life-saver in the midst of a sea of irreverence, corruption, and secularization.

The weaknesses, in my opinion, are not inherent to these traditional forms, but rather the result of our human frailty – and as such they should be addressed and remedied as much as possible. I have observed at times a tendency toward formalism; by this I mean an emphasis on the external observance of the (necessary and holy) forms, without a corresponding emphasis on the spiritual, intellectual, and apostolic vitality of the faithful. In some notable cases, an apparent coldness and insularism among the traditionalist faithful has pushed away seekers who would otherwise be open to discovering the beauty of our sacred liturgical traditions.

Regarding the music of the TLM, I have witnessed some magnificent examples of integrity and artistry over the past ten years or so. However, I think we need a continued vigorous cultivation of both the artistic and spiritual dimensions of the music in the TLM. Without such efforts, the music can easily be “correct” but not particularly inspired or edifying. With such a movement, the singing can become more faithful to the Divine Love which is at its heart, and draw people more effectively to the Mystery which it is meant to serve.

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

I am presently the director of the Magnificat Institute of Sacred Music, based in central Massachusetts, whose mission is to promote an authentic renewal of sacred music in the Roman Rite. This is a full-time job as well as a labor of love, for which I am profoundly grateful. My work consists in composing, conducting, recording, writing, teaching, consulting, and a variety of other related tasks.

What are some of your future plans as a composer? How can people get in touch with you?

Within the coming year I am planning, Deo volente, to publish and record several more of my completed compositions for the Liturgy. These include a Missa Parva (a setting of the Latin Ordinary), the Mass of St. Monica, various settings of Vespers and Compline, many settings of the Mass Propers, and music for numerous other sacred texts in both Latin and English.

Beyond all these, I am also well under way on a new Mass setting – Misa del Camino - that has been inspired by my son’s recent pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.  I hope to be able to share more details about this within the coming months. And as if all of this were not enough, I am always open to requests and commissions for new compositions.

I would ask all of your readers to pray for me, and for the work of our Magnificat Institute. I can be reached through either one of our websites, or And thank you so much, Peter, for this opportunity to participate in the ongoing conversation on NLM!

To listen to more of Paul’s wonderful music, visit his SoundCloud page.

The other interviews in this series:
1. Nicholas Lemme
2. Mark Nowakowski
3. Tate Pumfrey
4. Ronan Reilly
5. Nicholas Wilton

Also pertinent:
Interview with Elam Rotem

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