Thursday, December 17, 2015

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (Reposted from 2013)

Beginning today 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.”

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Sunday, December 13, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord, Always!

I am in the rare position of being in the employ of a Catholic church with a Pastor who is himself a trained and experienced organist. It was one of the main reasons why I applied for the position here at St. Mary's in the first place, and remains an important aspect of my work. Working with a Pastor who has "been there" and "done that" makes it far easier to set and accomplish goals, and while we may not agree on certain musical matters (minutiae), we at least have a basic mutual language with which to speak.

Fr. Lusk informed me some weeks ago that one of our parishioners, Jim Oliver, who runs a recording studio and is also our resident sound system tech had taken a collection of casette tapes recorded by Father while a student at Santa Clara University, and had remastered them to put on a CD. The end product is Rejoice in the Lord, Always! It is a collection of Advent and Christmas music recorded by Fr. Lusk on the Casavant organ in the concert hall at Santa Clara.  Alas, the organ no longer exists, so these recordings are doubly important.

It is a fine collection of hymns and shorter works by Bach, Bruhns, Manz and others, and represents Father Craig's skills as an organist. The pieces are rendered with great elegance and care, and his musicality is evident, as is his joy of playing the organ.

The CD is aptly named, Rejoice In The Lord, Always! being released on this Third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday (for the first word of the Introit for the day, "Rejoice".)

It can be purchased at the parish, or you can sample tracks and download them here.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Keeping Advent 2015

We've turned the corner into the Year of Grace 2016 with the First Sunday of Advent.

With this comes the usual rants among my serious-minded colleagues who bemoan and decry the over-commercialization and secularization of the season, raising the spectre of the push for a "happy holidays" agenda and the supposed PC sanitization of the use of terms like "Christmas", questionable colors and symbols on coffee cups, or a protest over the appearance of Nativity scenes in the public square.

I'd like to offer a slightly different approach. Advent is a penitential and preparatory season in anticipation of Christmas. But I also think we as hard-identity Catholics need to infuse the season with the joy that our hope in and expectation of the Parousia brings. In other words, I put forth the notion of "keeping Advent."

Here are some ideas on how to "keep" Advent.

Have an Advent wreath with candles (three purple, one rose) in your home. St. Mary's had a wreath-making event after Masses several weeks ago. I can’t use real greens, as alas I’m an apartment dweller and am not permitted them due to risk of fire.

My tree goes up with white lights, but instead of Christmas ornaments, the tree is decorated with purple ornaments and some rose-colored ones.  Sometimes there are gold ones hidden throughout as a symbol of the anticipation. The tree is topped with a large purple bow. I also have a swag of greens with white lanterns and a big purple bow hanging over the chest where the Nativity set goes.

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 his 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 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. I put the Infant King in the manger when I get home from Midnight Mass.

I'm sure there are plenty of other wonderful ways of "keeping" Advent. Please share them here!

Friday, November 27, 2015

The New View and Disclaimer

On October 21, 2015, I became the new Director of Sacred Music and Organist at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in historic Marshall, Michigan. The new blog title picture is of the sanctuary taken from the choir loft. It's my intention to update this picture regularly to reflect the liturgical season.

So far, my experience in this new position has been nothing but positive. The parishioners are welcoming and kind, the staff is well-organized and hard-working, and the Pastor is one of the best priests I've had the pleasure of working with. This is no surprise since he's: 1) a convert, 2) holds a bachelor's degree in organ performance, 3) held a job as a Catholic church musician, and 4) worked in the private sector for a number of years before entering the seminary and becoming a priest. Not since my tenure at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Wyandotte have I enjoyed such a good collegial relationship with a priest, and it has restored my confidence in my vocation and the future of the Church.

The choir here is a mighty and determined bunch. I have 28 registered singers, and regularly have 21 at rehearsal and in the loft on Sundays. So far, they have risen to the challenge of learning the Elgar Ave Verum, the John Romeri arrangement of Goss's Psalm 23 (Anglican chant), and continue to show eagerness to learn Gregorian chant and the riches of sacred polyphony that is such an important part of our Catholic cultural identity.

Upon my arrival, the choir shared space with the religious education program in one of the classrooms in the former K-8 school that had been repurposed for the school of religion. At my request the director re-arranged the use of space so that the classroom could be dedicated exclusively to the use of the sacred music program. I set to the task of cleaning out the 12-plus years of accumulated "treasures" found throughout the cabinets, closets and shelves of the room, rearranging the furniture to create a proper rehearsal area and establish an office area in one corner while also creating a work space for a librarian to assist with the sorting and organizing of the choral library. The maintenance supervisor worked closely with another volunteer to see to the task of running ethernet cable below the floor of the building (through a series of small tunnels that house the plumbing for the forced steam heating system) into the music room so that I could have internet access at work. The room had never been used this consistently as an office and rehearsal space, and so the change was welcomed by the choir, who appreciated having a clean and orderly area in which to work.

I have been busy creating email "blast" lists for both the St. Mary (adult/mixed) Choir and the Young Voices of St. Mary (the boy's and girl's choir), using these "blasts" as a way of communicating with members on a regular basis. I've also begun making use of the Facebook page that had been set up as a contact point for parishioners, by posting the lists of music for upcoming Masses, funerals and other events.

I'm looking forward to the ongoing work of developing and advancing a solid sacred music program here. The people seem genuinely interested and eager to undertake the work and while they do occasionally get discouraged, they "screw their courage to the sticking place" and work hard to master the various challenges I put before them.

I'm also looking forward to reestablishing this blog as a place to communicate information about my efforts both at St. Mary's and in the greater sacred music community as well as take the occasional opportunity to make observations or post "rants" about important issues impacting our Catholic identity.

To that end, I'm publishing, as I've done previously, the following disclaimer:

The views expressed on this blog are solely those of the author, and in no way reflect those of the Pastor, staff or parishioners of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church. Comments on the blog are moderated, and as there have been problems with certain individuals in the past, I reserve the right to block people who use veiled or open threats, profanity or engage in "troll" behaviors.

Please visit regularly, as I will be posting new things several times a week.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The View is Obscure

You may have noticed that 1) I've not been posting much, and 2) the photo at the top of the blog is gone.

Several weeks ago, quite unexpectedly, I was presented with a request to resign from my duties at Sacred Heart of Jesus.  I had no warning.  I wasn't prepared.  In fact, I was very hurt.

But, as my friend Wendi is fond of saying, "God's plan is perfect,  even if we don't understand it."

And I think she's right.   In fact, I reworked that little bit of wisdom, and this his how I put it to my Facebook friends:

God's plan for us, from the economy of salvation to our life in this world, is always perfect, even if we are unable to always apprehend it.

We never know what twists and turns in the road may appear. The quality of a man's character is not proved in how he behaves when he's in control, but rather when he's not in control. It is never a bad choice to take the highest moral and professional position in troubled situations, and to do so will speak louder than any words.

I have had a setback in my professional life, but I must believe that it has its purpose, be it to teach me something about myself and others, or to provide an opportunity to teach others by example.
We are often given these opportunities to reflect on things from our past, be it distant or recent, and put them in perspective.  I determined that God's love is proven by the fact that often the bullets we dodge are in reality mortar rounds.  When God whispers, "Duck", it's never a bad option to listen and do as He says.

So, I'm moving on.

I spent a wonderful week with fellow travelers on the journey toward Beauty, Truth and Goodness in sacred music in Indianapolis.  I sang countertenor under the estimable Horst Buckholtz, which is an experience I'm not likely to forget.  I shared adult beverages and collegial conversations with one of each and some you never thought of from the world of sacred musicians.

I have every confidence that I'll land on my feet.  After all, God's plan is perfect.  That's what Wendi tells me.

And she'd never lie.

As Red Green likes to say, "Remember, we're all in this together."

Sunday, May 18, 2014

True Beauty

I had a rough day today at church.  But I've been at this for many years, and I've learned to receive the repeated blows upon the bruise with a dull sickening and move on.

However, it is when I see others who are dispirited by a turn of events that I become circumspect.

I watch in almost transfixed dismay, not unlike how one might react to witnessing a fatal car crash, when I see people taking for granted what is at stake for those of us who are committed, unreservedly, to the work of restoring, reclaiming and advancing sacred music to our Catholic identity.

It comes down to this:

True beauty, beauty that has the power to redeem, the sublime beauty of music, takes hard work. Years, not hours, go into perfecting the craft of bringing to life music that is truly beautiful and transformative. One can accomplish a pale shadow of true beauty through imitation, but when put to the test this kind of sham aesthetic, put up for show and vainglory, fails utterly to transform either the performer or the listener. It is transitory, a false display of beauty whose underlying motivation is pride. Redeeming Beauty in music, a quality which is brought to life through a deep passion for that which is truly good, truly beautiful and possessing of the power to draw one's soul into a closer beatific vision, comes at a price. That price is a death to self, a sacrifice that one offers in union with the suffering of Christ who is the True Music of the Universe.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Polish By Adoption

I'll admit it.  I miss my "Polish family."

In years past on this day, I'd have taken my basket of traditional Polish foods over to Our Lady of Mount Carmel to be blessed, along with a children's basket (filled with candy, puzzles, games and a stuffed animal) to be donated to a family in need and a box of non-parishables for the local food bank.

Blessing of Food Baskets at OLMC had to be done in 4 "seatings" from 1 to 3 PM in order to accommodate all of the families.  The sanctuary was a riot of brightly-colored baskets for the children on one side, and a mountain of boxes and bags of food for the poor on the other.  To one side, a long table was set up with all of the foods that had been prepared for the Ptak Family meal. (Fr. Walter Ptak was the pastor and my boss.  He grew up in the parish and had a huge family that still lives in Wyandotte.)  Fr. Ptak also displayed his sizable collection of lambs made of sugar, porcelain, pottery, wood and other materials, and some of his pisanki, which are brightly and elaborately decorated eggs, also made of wood, pottery or real blown eggshells.

I recently wrote to one of Fr. Ptak's sisters who each year generously gave me a loaf of płacek, a yeast-raised sweet bread with blanched raisins and a crumb topping, to put in my blessed food basket.  I told her how much I missed these traditions and the difficulty I was having locating some of the more important foods for a traditional food basket.  She said, "I think you must really be Polish and kidnapped at birth!"  I doubt it, but I will tell you that when the Poles take you into their own, you are Polish by adoption, and to have been steeped in that tradition (the village tradition as lived out by Polonia in Wyandotte), it really does get into your bones.

Just for memory's sake, here is a picture of the last basket I put together, along with an explanation of what is in it and how the blessing is performed.

From the top, you see a bundle with pussy willows, myrtle and a palmki bound with a red ribbon.  Each are a part of the tradition, pussy willows and myrtle both representing new life; next is the neck of a bottle of a Polish sweet table wine (the name of which I cannot remember, but it was purchased at Srodek's in Hamtramck); tucked underneath you can see part of the small round loaf of "blessing bread" and then the butter lamb, next is a ring of smoked kiełbasa; in the middle are small dishes of horseradish prepared with beets (called chrzon) and salt.  The eggs are died with onion skins, which produce a beautiful cordovan color and are 100% natural.  Then comes a small picnic ham, the sugar lamb I bought that year and finally a small portion of płacek.  The white cloth you see rolled up is a traditional linen basket cover with beautiful eyelet work in it.

For the blessing, tradition has it that a basket, filled with various symbolic foods that are eaten after attendance at the first resurrection Mass of the day, is brought to the church on Holy Saturday and blessed. The blessing begins with a traditional liturgical greeting, "Niech będze pochwalony Jezus Chrystus ; Na wieki wieków. Amen." There is then a brief explanation of the traditions, then three blessings: one for the eggs, one for the bread and one for the meat. The priest then processes through the church sprinkling the people and the baskets with holy water. He concludes the service by exhorting the people to continue in their prayers in preparation for the Great Vigil, and to continue abstaining from meat until after the first resurrection Mass on Sunday. The full tradition is that one fasts and abstains from meat on Good Friday, and continues to abstain from meat through Holy Saturday until after attending the resurrection Mass on Easter Sunday. The first food to be shared is the blessed egg, the symbol of new and eternal life. This is typically eaten with horseradish to remind us of the bitterness of Christ’s Passion. Then all other foods are fair game, including various meats and sweets. 

Next, I'll post pictures of my modest pisanki and sugar lamb collection.