Friday, September 24, 2021

The St Ann Choir Celebrates Its 58th Anniversary

Thanks to one of our long-time guest contributors, Roseanne Sullivan, for this tribute to Dr William Mahrt (who is also our publisher) and the St Ann Choir, for the extraordinary work they have done over almost six decades to preserve the great tradition of Catholic liturgical music.

Lovers of the traditional music of the Roman Catholic liturgy may want to stop a moment and marvel about the St Ann Choir’s unique achievement: fifty-eight years of continual performance of Gregorian chant and polyphony at weekly liturgies in diocesan churches—even while this kind of music was out of favor in the Church.
Dr William Mahrt and the St Ann Choir
This coming Sunday, September 26, will be the choir's fifty-eighth anniversary; they began singing on the last Sunday of September in 1963, and have almost miraculously managed to keep chant and sacred polyphony alive as it should be performed, as part of sacred liturgies, during the long decades since then when the Church’s traditional sacred music was virtually banned. The choir now sings at St Thomas Aquinas Church, which is located at 751 Waverly St. in Palo Alto, California. Every Sunday at noon, the choir and congregation sing the ordinary chants of the Mass, at Latin Masses in the Ordinary Form, and the choir also sings the proper chants for the day of the Church year —in addition to polyphonic motets from great Renaissance composers, with organ preludes and postludes. For special feasts, the choir also sings polyphonic Mass settings by Renaissance composers for the ordinary, along with chanted propers for the feast. All are welcome to these Masses with their unique musical enrichment.
A poster advertising the choir’s patronal feast in 2018, with music by Josquin des Prez.
The choir is directed by Stanford Professor William Mahrt, who also leads the Stanford Early Music Singers, is president of the Church Music Association of America, and editor of the CMAA journal Sacred Music. Mahrt joined the St Ann Choir when he was a Stanford graduate student, and has directed it, with some breaks totaling about five years breaks, since 1964, its second year of existence.
“The main achievement of our choir is to have maintained the traditional music of the Roman Catholic Church. We began singing Gregorian chant and classical polyphony and included organ music in liturgies before the council, and our program is pretty much the same as it was when we started,” says Prof. Mahrt. “Our choir started one year before the language changed [from Latin to the vernacular]—if we had tried to start one year later, we might not have been able to do it.”
The choir got its name because they originally sang at the St Ann Chapel in Palo Alto, which was the Stanford University Newman Center at the time. In 1998, the diocese decided to move the Newman Center to Stanford Memorial Church and an on-campus office. After efforts to keep the chapel as a place for Catholic worship failed, it was sold to a conservative Anglican group in 2003.
The chapel has a remarkable history of its own. It was built by Clare Booth Luce as a memorial for her daughter Ann, who was a Stanford senior when she was killed in a car accident while returning to campus in 1944 after Christmas vacation. The loss of her daughter precipitated a crisis that showed Luce the meaninglessness of her own life. After months of instruction and counsel from then-Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen, Luce converted to Catholicism.
Luce intended the chapel to illustrate her conviction that modernity and sacred art are compatible. She commissioned artists to decorate the chapel with expressionistic (and experimental) painted windows instead of stained glass, painted Stations of the Cross, a cubist-inspired mosaic of the Madonna, and a steel mesh flat baldachino decorated with mosaics and Cubist-inspired angels. It was dedicated in 1951. For years after the chapel was sold to the Anglican group, the choir was allowed to sing Vespers and some occasional liturgies there, until COVID precautions suspended those arrangements. Prof. Mahrt says, “I anticipate that we will go back, not for the expressionism and cubism, but the acoustics.”
As Susan Benofy wrote in Adoremus 20 years ago, “It is rare to hear chant in Catholic churches, and it is rarely taught in Catholic institutions. Catholoics who are familiar with the chant and polyphonic repertoire are more likely to have gained this familiarity from listening to recordings than to have experienced this music as an integral part of the solemn liturgy.” (Adoremus Online: March 2001) Another very telling commentary comes from René Girard, Stanford Professor Emeritus, and one of only 40 members, or ‘immortals,’ of the Académie Française: “When I first attended, I assumed that the Catholic Church and the University actively supported this unique contribution to the spiritual and cultural life of the community. The truth is that ever since 1963, Professor Mahrt has been very much on his own in this enormously time-, talent- and energy-consuming enterprise.” 

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