Monday, December 16, 2013

"O Come, O Come Emmanuel" - The Word Game

Icon of Our Lady of the New Advent: Gate of Heaven

Beginning tomorrow, and proceeding up to Christmas Eve, the “O” antiphons for the Magnificat are sung during vespers.  (The texts of these antiphons are the basis for the popular Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.  For those of you who really want to be “inside baseball” on this topic, Jeffrey Tucker wrote a brilliant article on the history of the tune over at the New Liturgical Movement, here.)

Several years ago in a discussion thread at the Musica Sacra forum, a member pointed out that the text of the “O” antiphons is actually a very clever word game.  The seven invocations in the original Latin are: Sapientia, Adonai, Radix Jesse, Clavis David, Oriens, Rex gentium and Emmanuel.  The first letter of each spell S-A-R-C-O-R-E, which when reversed spells “Ero cras”, which in turn translated from Latin means “tomorrow I shall be.”  An appropriate expression for Christmas Eve, the day after the "O Antiphons" end.

As the member said, “Very clever, those medievals.”

(The Icon of "Our Lady of the New Advent: Gate of Heaven" is (c) by William H. McNichols, from St Andrei Rublev Icons. My thanks to them for kindly granting permission to use it here. Please visit the site for other beautiful art.)

Monday, December 2, 2013

A Sacred Musician Reports From the Trenches

A colleague of mine took a job in Arizona last summer.  He's a talented and ambitious young sacred musician, fully committed to the restoration of orthodoxy to the culture of the Catholic Church in the 21st century.

I've been disturbed by reports he's been posting to Facebook, complete with photos of "hate mail" he and his Pastor have received in reaction to the work he's doing.

Here are some examples:

It's truly amazing that people would write such hateful, ignorant, manipulative stuff.

What is more amazing is that since the reforms of the Second Vatican Council were implemented, the Catholic Church has tragically lost so much of what made its cultural identity unique.  The "leadership" of the Church incredulously wrings its hands and wonders out loud why there's a crisis of faith and a crisis of vocations to the priesthood and religious life in the face of growing numbers of young people joining religious orders and pursuing priestly vocations associated with Magisterial fidelity and orthodox liturgical practice.  But that's for another time.

What is important, and what impressed me, was my friend's response in the Facebook discussion thread regarding the typewritten note.  They were words I needed, and not because I'm facing obstruction or resistance anything close to this kind of vitriol.  They were needed because those of us who are committed to this cause are easily dispirited in the work we've undertaken when faced with such selfishness.

He said,

These letters really don't bother me. We're called to be faithful, not successful, so I shall try to stay faithful in carrying out my mission.

The rule of thirds is applicable at my parish, I believe. ⅓ of the people will like you, ⅓ won't, and ⅓ won't care.

We simply have to do the right thing and trust in God. The sacred liturgy is Christ's work, not ours. The liturgy is not something we do, it's something that God is doing in our presence. It is not for cardinals, popes, bishops, or any of us, to do things with the liturgy. Rather, it is our privilege and duty to join in the liturgy as it has been handed on to us and to allow it, to allow Christ working in and through it, to do things with us!
Well said.

If your music director is working to reclaim our unique Catholic identity as expressed in orthodox musical practice, thank him or her for their commitment and let your Pastor know that you appreciate the work the music director is doing as well!

Pastors often only get  rambling emails, viturperous voice mail messages or noisome green-ink letters like the ones shown above.  And some, out of a sense of desperation or frustration, err on the side of compromise in the one area that they feel they can, without violating Church Teaching, in the name of pastoral sensitivity.  They need to know that the efforts to restore chant and polyphony to the Mass are worthwhile, and that people (who take their faith seriously) do want reverent, prayerful, and truly Catholic music in their liturgical celebrations.  They also need to know that sacred musicians are not just temperamental egoists who do what they do for personal adulation or who make their choices based on effete and eccentric tastes.  Truly educated sacred musicians understand that the Mass and its music are part and parcel of an unbroken tradition.  Priests need to understand that the cultural battles of our time go well beyond the cries for same-sex marriage, ordination of women and the evils of abortion and contraception.

Support your sacred musician, and let your Pastor know that you appreciate what he or she is doing!

Keeping Advent

In 2008, prompted by a thread over at WDTPRS to "keep" Advent as a penitential and preparatory season in anticipation of Christmas, I began establishing my own traditions that would do just that.

Here's how it works.

I have finally created a nice Advent wreath (artificial greens, as alas I’m an apartment dweller and don’t wish to risk the fire hazard) with the traditional candles (three purple, one rose).

A tree (again, artificial) goes up with white lights, but instead of Christmas ornaments, the tree is decorated with purple ornaments and a few rose-colored ones.  Some of them have gold decoration on them. The tree is topped with a large purple bow. I also have a swag of greens with white lanterns, pinecone lights and a big purple bow hanging over the chest with the Nativity set arranged on it (in stages, which is explained below).

I abstain from listening to Christmas music at home, limiting myself to the few recordings of Advent music I own (a recording of the Advent Procession from St. James' Episcopal Cathedral, Toronto, and J. Michael Thompson and the Schola Cantorum of St. Peter the Apostle singing Advent Lessons and Carols, called, "Redeemer of the Nations, Come").

On Gaudete Sunday I'll make my Christmas cookies and write and post my Christmas cards.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, the purple and rose ornaments will come down and the Christmas decorations will go up on the tree, over the door and elsewhere in the apartment.

There are some who have a tradition of putting up the various elements of the Nativity in stages: the stable goes up on Advent I; the animals go in on Advent II; the shepherds on Advent III; the Angel on Advent IV; Mary and Joseph on Christmas Eve morning, and the bambino on Christmas Eve when I get home from Midnight Mass.

Of course all of this would be for naught if prayer didn't figure into the picture.  I'll be the first to admit that I have for some time been in a bit of a spiritual "dry place", but I have resolved to regain my spiritual bearings during this month of preparation.

Here are some pictures of the tree and the Nativity arrangement. (The picture of the wreath was taken last year.)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Schola Sancta Caecilia releases new CD of chant and polyphony

(From the CD Liner Notes)
“Stella Splendens” features unaccompanied sacred vocal music sung by six ladies in high school.

Formed at the parish of Sacred Heart of Jesus in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the Schola Sancta Caecilia has been singing for the Extraordinary Form Mass since last year. All of the members are 18 or younger, but their approach to the music is very mature. This CD features Gregorian chant, ancient hymns, medieval polyphony and three recent compositions from the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles in Kansas City. Recorded in Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic church, the CD has a very “live” sound.

With their purity of tone and clarity of diction, the Schola Sancta Caecilia are the "Anonymous Six" of the Midwest.  Like the professional group, Anonymous Four, these young ladies sing Gregorian Chant and Medieval Polyphony with an expert tonal blend and a flawless intonation.  They also branch out into Renaissance Polyphony and more modern pieces with equal success.
            Kurt Poterack, Adjunct Professor of Music
Director, Choir and Schola Gregoriana
Christendom College

I was blown away by the purity of their tone, the blend, intonation and precision of their ensemble and their command of the liturgical music. It prompted me to pass along to them a setting by St.Hildegard of Bingen which they included on their new recording. They are truly using their gifts to praise God. What a pure sound they are projecting--something that more "mature" singers only dream of.
Linn Maxwell Keller,

The Schola has been inspired by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, in Kansas City, with whom the young ladies have had strong personal and family relationships. The sisters generously permitted the schola to record three of their original compositions for this CD. The Benedictines of Mary’s own best-selling CD “Angels and Saints at Ephesus” set a recent Billboard record by residing at #1 on the Classical chart for 13 weeks.

While four of the original members have moved on to college or the religious life, the schola will continue with new members this year.

A sample from “Stella Splendens” is available on YouTube. Physical CDs and downloads are available now on, and will be available through iTunes and Amazon. All proceeds from the sale of the CD will go to the Sacred Heart of Jesus music program.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Work Keeps Apace

I've been hard at work adding new material about the sacred music program to the parish website.

Please go visit it!  When you get to the homepage, scroll down and on the right-hand side, you'll find a block labeled "Sacred Music", and in the block are a list of articles and other entries that you may find enjoyable.

Meanwhile, I'm still trying to get some content (photos, etc.) posted here.

Just as a quick update, I'm in the process of developing and launching a number of new programs (as you'll read at the parish website), and it's taking more time than I'd anticipated.  There is certainly no shortage of talent or ambition at Sacred Heart; it is a matter of channeling it all, and making it fit into what is swiftly becoming a very active (and interactive) parish with a truly diverse (not in the progressive, liberal sense, but in the literal definition of the word!) parish.

Sacred Heart is much like St. John Cantius in Chicago - it is a single parish offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass according to both approved forms.  This is a significant paradigm shift from previous history, when the Tridentine Mass (now variously called the Extraordinary Form - my preferred term - or the Traditional Latin Mass) was first established in Grand Rapids back in 1990 and began its life for a short time at Our Lady of Sorrows Church.  A few months later it moved to Sacred Heart of Jesus, which remains the only parish to offer the Extraordinary Form regularly on Sundays and Solemnities in the Diocese.  With the commencement of Fr. Sirico's tenure, the "impenetrable fortress wall" that had been erected, brick by brick over the years, between those who came from miles around to attend the Extraordinary Form and the rest of the parish population was knocked down in one quick blow.  There has been, needless to say, a bit of a culture shock for those who sat on either side of this wall.  They are beginning to realize that Sacred Heart Church does not merely play host to the attendees of the Extraordinary Form, and that those who attend it aren't merely tenants of the space, but are fully-incorporated members of the parish, contributing to its financial support and participating in its apostolic work and mission.

Because of this dramatic shift, people are struggling to find their identity.  It is my hope that my work in sacred music at the parish in cooperation with Fr. Sirico will have a significant impact on bringing his vision for a truly unique mixed-form parish committed to orthodoxy and reverence in its liturgical and musical practices to fruition.

Please keep me in your prayers, and stay tuned!

As my friend Wendi likes to say, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The View Is Different Now

Back on September 1, I became the new Music Director and Organist at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church,Grand Rapids.

After a brief conversation about my desire to reopen the blog, my boss (Fr. Robert Sirico) gave his blessing, and so I will begin blogging about various events and important issues.

As you can well imagine, life in my new parish is hectic as I've hit the ground running to get a sacred music program in place for both the parish and the academy.

Come back in several weeks and catch up as I will be posting photos, commentary and lots of new material.