Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Sacred Music Colloquium: A Report

This is a report from the President of the Society of St. Gregory the Great, Stephanie Swee, on her attendance at the Sacred Music Colloquium, which took place in Salt Lake City, Utah, June 23-July 1. 

Opening dinner of the colloquium
For me it was a week I cannot match to any in memory. It seemed to be that for most participants, although, of course, I didn’t meet every one of the more than 200 people there.

General observations are: People from all over the country and, indeed, all over the world, came together in a bonding I have never experienced before. They sang – in the form of more than a half dozen choirs – chant and sacred polyphony for six different Masses, four in the Ordinary Form and two in the Extraordinary Form. They did this by practicing what would be sung that day and came up with amazing results. 

We had, of course, some excellent teachers and directors. I can speak best to the men’s chant schola, in which I was the only woman. I had been assured by organizers that they always had three or four women in the men’s groups, and some counter-tenor men in the women’s groups, but I was the only female with 39 men, four or five of them priests. There were, I am told, two or three men with the women’s schola, but I never saw them

There were three chant levels: beginners; those who needed some refresher work; and the scholas. This made six groups divided by male and female voices. Between them, they did all the chant propers for the Masses, while polyphony groups did some “part” propers. Some days the ordinaries were sung in chant, some days in polyphony. For the chant ordinaries, no one even practiced (except perhaps for the beginners); it was assumed we all knew them well enough to sing them “cold”. And it turned out fine.

In addition to singing practice and instruction, there were lectures and presentations on church music documents, conducting, and numerous other topics. If one had wished, one could have been busy from the 8:15 morning prayer until 10pm, when some concerts and films concluded. Mass was at 5:15pm on the weekdays, and at 11am on Saturday and Sunday.

If I have any criticism, it was that things were scheduled too close together. Most of us stayed at a hotel two or three miles from classes, taken in by bus each morning and back each afternoon. I had my own “chauffeur”, but sometimes getting back and forth meant missing some things – for both the “chauffeur” and for me. Finally we just decided to set priorities and forgot all the events we couldn’t make.

The Cathedral itself was the site for many sessions, while the choir school, up the steepest hill I have ever seen, was the place everything else was held. That often meant scurrying from a practice in the school to the cathedral with only 15 minutes until Mass. It all worked out, but there were a few anxious moments. The celebrants never started until we were all in place, however.
Due to hard work and a lot of talent, the Masses were glorious. The chaplain for CMAA, Father Paisley, was very well trained in singing and the EF form. He is pastor of a parish in New Jersey, which is the only diocesan parish in the country dedicated to the older form of Mass.

Our director was Jeffrey Morse, who is choirmaster for St. Stephen’s Church in Sacramento, CA. He has a choir of 25-30 and a small group of young choristers. He was very disciplined in his approach, but very amusing also. He studied under Mary Berry, a nun whom I had the privilege of hearing at Marylhurst (a former college of the Holy Name nuns in Oregon) during a chant workshop 30 years. It was only recently I discovered how important his woman was to sacred music. During a time when things were falling apart musically in both Europe and the United States, she often left her post as a don at Cambridge University and went around the world to carry the message of chant in the liturgy. She died in 2007 at the age of 91. Jeffrey told us her history, which included the fact that she had to be exclaustrated (released from convent life) to teach at Cambridge, and was never again allowed to use her religious name of Sister Thomas More. She fled the Nazis during World War II and her story is amazing.

Without getting too technical, Jeffrey initiated us into some 9th -century chant interpretations to use with the notation that Solesmes reformed in the last century. Often, just rehearsing took a lot of time, as we had some difficult things to do. However, the men I was with were very skilled, and after one day, it was hard to tell none of us had ever sung  together before.

Lunches outside – sometimes in nearly 100-degree heat – allowed some of us to come back together and talk. Universally there was a sense of happiness and peace I have never seen in such a large group. We also had two dinners at which we eagerly shared thoughts with other attendees. I met at least five people with whom I intend to continue a relationship, including a woman from Michigan with nine children, who is pretty much carrying her parish musically. We (along with her mom) became almost instant friends. There were others, especially two priests with whom I really had some good discussions.

The Mass on Wednesday was a solemn high requiem in the extraordinary form, said for all deceased members of the CMAA, including Msgr. Schuler, who started all this. It was incredibly beautiful, especially the sequence, Dies Irae, sung alternately by men and woman. Although our schola has practiced that Mass, I hadn’t sung it at an actual liturgy in more than 50 years. The parishioners who attended seemed stunned by the beauty of the music.

The Cathedral is also beautiful, but has had some regrettable renovations, such as removal of the side altars. This meant that the priests there had no place to say their own Masses, but some did concelebrate at the OF liturgies. Since that is not done in EF Masses, though, they had to say Mass in their hotel rooms for the most part.

The cathedral also has a large of choir stalls, normally used as overflow seating, but which was perfect for our purposes. We could the face the women’s schola and alternate the way it should be done. The frescoes on walls are wonderful and the stained glass windows and marble breathtaking. The acoustics are very good, also. We never got a visit from the bishop, but I guess he was occupied elsewhere.

The hotel, Little America, was palatial. For a reduced fee of $69 per night, we got suites that were almost the size of a small condo. The staff bent over backwards to assist us and I never had to open a door myself. We had the formal meals there and the food was wonderful.

In addition to the music practicums, we had lectures we could take in each morning and afternoon and also an hour talk from some of the presenters before Mass each weekday. Also, I should mention the Madeleine Choir School. It is a day school for young people who have talent and the desire to sing good sacred music. The director is fabulous. We got a concert on Tuesday night with fourteen selections of the most glorious polyphony and hymns I have ever heard in one place. Only Salt Lake City and Boston have such a school, although the Lyceum Catholic School in Ohio has a wonderful schola of young people as well.

On Saturday, we did only practices and the Mass was in the morning. Then we had solemn polyphonic Vespers at 3pm that almost brought us to tears; it was glorious. We were then free to pursue our own activities that evening.

On Sunday, we sang at the regular 11am Mass of the parish. That was full to overflowing, and a polyphonic Mass by Monteverdi made it long but very moving. After Mass we had a brunch and final words from the Association board members. Although this was the 22nd colloquium of the CMAA, the organizers were so impressed with the facilities, they want to come back to SLC next year or as soon as possible, but that had not been worked out yet. 

Here's the trailer of a video on the Madeleine Choir School:

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