Apr 15, 2011

St. Louis Conference Signals Growing Interest in Chant

Online Edition:

April 2011

Vol. XVII, No. 2

Musica Sacra

St. Louis Conference Signals Growing Interest in Chant

Church musicians gathered at St. Raphael the Archangel Church in St. Louis February 24-26 for the Musica Sacra St. Louis Conference, in order to study the Catholic heritage of sacred music. About sixty participants attended, including priests, deacons, seminarians and laity. The event was organized by a committee of local musicians chaired by Adam Wright, music director at St. Bernadette Catholic Church, with the assistance of Monsignor Henry Brier, pastor of St. Raphael’s and host of the conference.

Young adults were prominent among the members of the committee, the presenters, and the participants. Many had never experienced Gregorian chant or polyphony as children or teenagers, and were only later introduced to this musical heritage of the Roman Rite. They are now eager to learn more about it and to pass on this knowledge to others, especially by trying to introduce this music into local parish liturgies as the Church clearly desires.

Theological foundation

Two professors from Kenrick-Glennon Seminary provided a theological foundation for the workshops that followed: Dr. Ryan Madison, on “What is Sacred Music?”, and Dr. Daniel Van Slyke, who traced the history of the term “active participation” from its foundation in Scripture and in the works of Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas to the documents of 20th-century popes.

The rest of the conference was devoted to learning to sing sacred music, and how this music can aid the participation of congregations in ordinary parish liturgies.

Chant for beginners

Sessions for chant beginners were conducted by Father Samuel Weber, OSB, director of the Institute of Sacred Music, Archdiocese of Saint Louis. Father Weber explained that chant is a form of heightened speech applied to the Word of God. One often hears objections to the use of chant on the grounds that it is arcane and elitist — but Father Weber said anyone can sing chant, and he illustrated how chant is based on the most natural intervals arranged in a few basic patterns. The beginning chant schola sang these basic patterns and Father Weber showed how they could be elaborated for more complex chants. Chants in Latin were sung, as well as some settings of psalms and of parts of the Mass adapted to the very different accent patterns of the English language.

Advanced schola

For those more experienced in chant there was an advanced schola (or group of singers of ecclesiastical chant) directed by Nick Botkins, Director of Sacred Music/Master of the Choirs at St. Francis de Sales Oratory. This group learned proper chants from the Graduale Romanum (Roman Gradual), the Church’s official book of chant.

In addition, workshops on reading chant notation and chironomy (the technique of conducting chant) were offered.

Polyphony and vocal technique

Polyphony was by no means excluded from the conference. Conducted by Dr. Andrzej Zahorski, Director of Music at St. Anselm Parish, participants learned motets by 16th-century composers Jacquet of Mantua and Orlando de Lassus.

Workshops on vocal technique were given by Dr. MeeAe Cecilia Nam, Assistant Professor of Voice, Eastern Michigan University. An organ clinic was led by Bruce Ludwick, Jr., music director and organist at St. Gabriel the Archangel Church. A special session to teach priests, deacons and seminarians the celebrants’ chants for the new Missal translation was offered by the Reverend Mr. Henry Purcell, transitional deacon of the Archdiocese of Saint Louis.

Liturgy of the Hours and Mass Propers

In a workshop on praying the Liturgy of the Hours in the parish, Father Weber explained how this practice helps us to find the right rhythm in our lives — we carve out special moments for prayer, especially at sunrise (an experience of the Resurrection) and at sunset (an experience of death) which points us to our ultimate goal. He also explained the structure of the offices and the arrangement of the Psalms.

Matthew Baute, music director at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, presented resources available for singing the processional parts of Mass. The preferred settings for the Propers are contained in the Graduale Romanum; but because these settings are often rather difficult and the texts are in Latin, they are rarely used, and are generally replaced by hymns. Few contemporary Catholics, then, know this music, and are even unacquainted with the texts the Church prescribes for parts of the Mass such as the Introit or Communion.

Recently, however, several composers have provided simple settings for the English translations of the texts from the Graduale or the antiphons in the Missal, thus making it possible to sing the official texts. Most of these settings use the antiphons as refrains with psalm verses. One collection paraphrases the antiphon and the psalms, and sets them to existing hymn tunes. Most of these musical settings are chant-like, as are those composed by Father Weber for the forthcoming St. Louis Gradual.

Music for parishes

Some successes in introducing truly sacred music into parish celebrations of Mass were discussed. One participant, a volunteer at a parochial school, explained how she taught the children two short chants (one in Latin and the other in English) in a single fifteen-minute session — with some help from a puppet (a monk called Brother Gregory) who explained some of the history of chant and helped teach the melodies.

Mr. Baute presented an example of his own setting of Communion antiphons and psalms in a chant adaptation accompanied by simple chords. He said that after he persuaded a “contemporary choir” to try singing these chants for Mass, they later asked for more.

Sung Masses

Sung liturgical prayer was an integral part of the conference. Friday and Saturday began with the chanting of Terce (in English) and there was a sung Mass each day. On Friday the Mass included the chanting of the dialogues by the priest and congregation, and many of the celebrant’s prayers as well as chanted readings. On Saturday participants in the conference sang the regular Saturday evening Mass at St. Raphael’s. The music included Propers from the Graduale Romanum by the advanced chant schola, and motets learned in the polyphony sessions, as well as a chanted Latin Ordinary.

Organizers hope to hold similar conferences in the future. Adam Wright, conference chairman, would welcome questions and suggestions from those interested. Contact: [email protected].


Susan Benofy, AB research editor, attended the Musica Sacra conference.



The Editors