December 2010 – January 2011
Vol. XVI, No. 9
Remembering the Pius X School of Liturgical Music
by Lucy E. Carroll
Picture a large, beautiful chapel filled with a congregation of musicians and music students. Imagine that congregation singing Gregorian chant from the Liber Usualis and singing hymns and motets in four-part harmony. Visualize liturgy with extraordinary attention to the beauty of detail. These are my memories of the two annual semesters I spent at Pius X, a bit of heaven on earth. I was a junior, then a senior, in high school, and I was privileged to be attending college-level courses at the Pius X School of Liturgical Music. I was admitted because I was already playing organ at Mass and working with choirs. Life was good.
The Religious of the Sacred Heart, a French order founded by Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat, operated the Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart in Purchase, New York. In summers, the entire campus was turned over to music, and it became the Pius X School of Liturgical Music. Priests, seminarians, nuns, organists, and choir directors came from all over the United States — and some from beyond our borders — to attend this most prestigious school.
Classes were offered in Gregorian chant (various levels), chironomy (the conducting of chant), theory, harmony, liturgical singing (from the Liber Usualis), organ, voice, polyphony, music literature, and even music education. We all sang in choir. One could take courses, or matriculate into a full degree program. Most folks simply took the needed courses for church work.
Stepping on to that campus in summer was like walking into a living encyclopedia of traditional religious garb. Nuns still wore full habits. White, black, grey and brown robes were topped with scapulars or capelets. Headpieces included wimples, coifs, bonnets and caps: pointed, rounded, squared, pleated, frilled. Veils were short, long, sheer, or full. Rosaries clatter at sides. Priests wore collars. Brothers wore hooded robes. We laity looked like poor country cousins. No one wore jeans!
A number of years before I arrived there, composer Richard Rodgers visited the school to hear accurate Catholic music as he prepared to compose the music for his new Broadway show, The Sound of Music.
He listened to the nuns chanting the Office, and circled in on the second Gregorian psalm tone. He used this for the nuns’ chorus in the show. He also composed music in four parts for the nuns’ chorus at the opening of the musical, based on what he heard. (Sadly omitted in many productions). Some of the nuns who attended Pius X while I was a student there told of meeting Mr. Rodgers and singing for him.
Hearing the Religious of the Sacred Heart chant the Office at Pius X was celestial food indeed. Singing sacred music in a large choir — everything from Palestrina to Fauré to Moussorgsky and lots in between — was exhilarating. I remember standing in the corridor of the practice room area, hearing all manner of organ, piano, and voice music emanating from the little rooms, and thinking that it just couldn’t get much better than this.
We learned chant under the aegis of the Solesmes Benedictines, who sometimes visited the school. We used Solesmes choirmaster Dom Joseph Gajard’s book. We sang the solfege syllable “te” (lowered seventh tone of the mode) as “ter” in the French manner.
I found myself writing term papers, something I had just learned to do in high school. I was an avid bookworm, and even assisted some of the sisters who were classmates because I kept such accurate class notes. I remember sitting under a tree and practicing my sight reading. I remember the serious recitals, and the fun ones as well.
Sister Mary John’s father, a vaudevillian, came to play the musical saw. Mother Jenkins sang spirituals so beautifully it brought tears to many eyes. I remember drawing and posting cartoons on the dorm bulletin board about funny events on campus. (No mice in those days.)
The campus library had a musty smell. There were so many volumes in French that I brought my dictionary and struggled through some of them. There were volumes upon volumes on chant, and on designing, building, and playing pipe organs. I absorbed as many as I could.
One day, while a group of us were reviewing class notes, a young Maryknoll sister came over to share sad news. She had tears in her eyes. She had just received word that she was being assigned to Mexico.
She was happy about the missionary work, but devastated that, in those days, Mexico’s secularization laws forbade the wearing of religious habits. She had just received the habit, she said, and it was the sign of her consecration to God and to her apostolate. She wanted to wear it.
I often wonder how the sisters could have so easily divested themselves of the habit just a few years later, given that one sister’s attachment. But it was the late 1960s, and the Church had turned upside down.
I attended Pius X in the heady summers of 1963 and 1964. The Council was closing; we had been receiving information about the meetings. We were told that Latin remained the official language, but vernacular could be used with permission. We began to be trained in setting chant into English.
We were told that choirs would be more important than ever, that the very best composers were going to be writing the very best music for the liturgy. We sang works by skillful modern composers such as Russell Woollen. Father Lucien Deiss came to hold workshops and have us sing through his new compositions. We were told that we organists were more needed than ever. It was heady stuff.
And it was true, of course, as far as it went. Within a few years, however, all of that was ignored. In the parishes, out went the pipe organs and in came the guitars and tambourines. Out went the beautiful sacred music; in came the popsy-folksy tunes.
It was devastating. But for those two summers, I bathed in the best that our church had to offer. I learned polyphony. I wrote music. I conducted. I sang. I played the organ. I attended concerts. I learned from everyone.
My second year there, there was a beginning undertone of dissent and questioning. Rumors flew: the Council would abolish religious habits, the Council would allow priests to marry, and so on. It was an undercurrent, and it disturbed those who read the actual documents coming from the Council which, of course, said no such things. I understand the undercurrent grew stronger the next few years.
Despite my tender years, I was treated well by everyone there. I spoke with nuns, priests, seminarians, organists, directors — and began to soak up their wisdom, experiences, and ideas. I knew that this was what I wanted to do all my life.
Alas, I was not able to do that until many years later. I found myself doing the sacred polyphonic works only in secular concert venues. What a loss, what a shame.
Today at the monastery, we do chants and traditional music. Our congregation, aided by the choir behind them and the nuns in front of them, sing chant Masses. Our choir may be small, but it is brave in approaching the difficult polyphony and other sacred choral works I present to them. In our first year together, when I first presented a work by Antonio Lotti, they called me “delusional”. Last year they conquered a difficult work by Tomás Luis de Victoria.
I often think of the days at Pius X and wonder what state our Catholic church music would be in today if we had all followed the letter rather than “the spirit” of Vatican II; if we had truly used the best and most elevated compositions rather than the bubble-gum variety; if we had emphasized choirs and organ as the Council Fathers intended.
The school is long gone, and I am one of few survivors. Even Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart is now a secular school and the “of the Sacred Heart” is missing from its name. I wonder what happened to the gorgeous campus chapel.
It was always my dream to head up a school like that. Instead, I found myself as music coordinator over nine public schools, and teaching high school, college, and graduate school. Quite a different world.
The training at Pius X was wonderful because everything was rooted in chant. It is impossible to prepare music for the sacred Eucharistic liturgy without a thorough grounding in chant, for all appropriate liturgical musical styles spring from it.
It is my sincere hope that such a school as Pius X arises again, at the national level. In the meantime, diocesan schools must be established, but they must be run by dinosaurs who, like me, were properly trained in the Benedictine school of chant, in the historic, diverse and sacred choral literature of the church, and in the true purpose of music in the liturgy, bringing souls to God by lifting them out of the mundane and into the sacred.
Lucy Carroll, DMA, organist and choir director at the Carmelite monastery in Philadelphia, teaches at the Westminster Choir College in Princeton. She frequently contributes essays on Catholic music to AB, and is the creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoons regularly featured in these pages.