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Friday, March 28, 2008


Ma Beck

I can appreciate your conundrum. I know many people have it.

I personally love Tenebrae. Perhaps it's because I know what is being sung.
I am familiar enough with the music to have memorized it.

It IS very, very prayerful to me.
However, I can recall a few years back when I didn't know what was being sung that I felt exactly as you do. It was a big distraction and felt like a concert. 20 minutes of listening to something you don't understand, no matter how beautiful, is a distraction and an annoyance if you are trying to remain prayerful.

Sorry I don't have anything groundbreaking to say.

I know many fine people who worship at SJC who absolutely loathe the big huge Masses, for different reasons.

I'm not one of them, and I have many friends in the many choirs.

To each his own, I s'pose.


Ma Beck:

I appreciate your comment. I really do. I think what took me by surprise was that I was fine until the choir kicked in. While by no means highly skilled, I know plenty of Latin. I was actually a bit surprised when the chanting of the psalms was done in English rather than the Latin. I would have been fine if they had used the Latin. It was the settings that the choir used that gave me such problems. I suppose if I knew the music, I might have found this less of a problem.

I'm curious -- based on what you mentioned -- are the choirs at SJC aware of this criticism? And what do they think about it? I've got to imagine that they struggle (in a different way) with this line between beauty in prayer and doing a concert performance? How much of this is a tangible question in front of the SJC community or is it one of those that goes unspoken? I'm just curious.


Part of the reason I ask, Ma Beck, is that my reaction was a surprise to me. Not that long ago, I spent three years as a member of a parish that did a sung liturgy with a full boys choir and men's schola. I never had that reaction once during those three years. And I think the reason is that they made a deliberate effort to avoid using entirely settings that were not accessible by the congregation. Maybe they'd do a flourish on a particular verse of the psalm setting, etc., but for the most part, it was beautiful gregorian/plain chant that anyone could participate in without too much difficulty.

Ma Beck

I wish I could answer those questions, but I can only speak for myself. I do know that the friends of mine that are in the choirs are perfectly fine with "praying twice" during Mass -singing the polyphony of Palestrina, Victoria, etc. They give concerts with the Grant Park Symphony, etc.
At Mass, they are praying with the instrument God gave them.

Of course, there are far more people in the choir who are just paid professionals - they are also members of the Lyric, the CSO, etc. and they aren't praying at all, I'd imagine.

Again, people like me don't feel like they're at a "concert" - we're not. We're praying. When I hear Miserere Mei at Cantius, I'm don't feel like I'm being entertained. I feel somber and sorrowful and penitent.

I also wish the chants for Tenebrae were in Latin, but I think having them in English is one way of trying to get the community to participate. I don't know, honestly, though. I don't care for chant in English, but I guess some people do, or don't care either way.

I like participatory chant, but I also like Palestrina. And I wouldn't dare sing along with the Mozart Requiem on All Souls' Day, but it still moves me to prayer and contemplation.

Does that make any sense? I suppose the only correct answer is that every person is moved to prayer in different ways and that we are all different. I know people who, upon hearing Palestrina, become agitated. I know people who become drowsy when they hear "Veni Creator Spiritus" chanted.
I am not fond of many pieces of music found at SJC.

It is very interesting to hear your take, though, and I can certainly appreciate it.


Ma Beck:

I appreciate your comments and they are a good challenge to mine. Because I was struck by the fact that you are perfectly right, not knowing the words doesn't mean the song can't be an aid and expression of one's own (and the community's) prayer. I suppose if I stayed in such an environment long term, I might grow to appreciate the music in the same way. Still, I must confess that if all (or most of the music) was of the sort where participation by me vocally was out of the question, I'd find it quite difficult. It's certainly not the only way to actively participate in the Mass (as many TLM folks often -- and rightly -- would remind me). But it clearly is a way, and I would lament the loss of that opportunity. We often sing before my local School of Community (think a small group). I'm a horrible singer and I personally don't like to sing where my voice can't fade into the overall sound because I'm quite self-conscious of it. But I must admit that I do see the purpose in singing. It truly does break through my mindset and thoughts of the day. It very naturally and quickly engages more of my person, more of myself, in what I am doing. And I think so in a way that is just not the same when I am merely listening to someone else sing (although certainly the beauty of a song can be striking and engaging in that way). But something I think is lost when I am not expected to sing or in fact discouraged from doing so by the intricate arrangement of the song. And I can't help but ask whether parishes like SJC wrestle with that question consciously. It would seem an obvious one to me to ask when a parish first thinks about hiring professional singers to sing at mass rather than a choir of the parish members.

Ma Beck

Good points, all.

I also like to sing but am not very good at it.

I know that Tenebrae is one of the times you've been to SJC, and I imagine the other time was something big and special, too. Most Masses do indeed have participatory singing, at least in part.

SJC has 8 or 9 choirs. I think six of them are made of parishioners. The one which sings intricate things like Tenebrae is paid, at least in part.
The Resurrection Choir, AKA the "everyday choir" is comprised of parishioners, and so is the children's choir, the schola, etc.
And we could never have Mozart without paid musicians. We just don't have enough violinists in our ranks!
Catholics of the last forty years have been conditioned to think of professional choirs as an oddity - they hammered "Sing! Sing! Sing! We're all a big community!" into our heads, so we very nearly abandoned the treasury of Catholic music like Palestrina, Mozart, etc., because Joe Parishioner can't read music, much less sing polyphony.
"Sing!" the jolly cantors demand. We sometimes think it's elitist to have professionally trained musicians sing the music of Palestrina, so we demand that everyone sing "I am the Bread of Life." And that's not fair either.

I don't mean to say that singing "Immaculate Mary" is wrong. I love that hymn and I love singing it. But it's also good to occasionally have Cantate Domino singing "Tu Es Petrus" so that I can immerse myself in the majesty of those words: "Upon THIS rock I will build my Church."

I think it's a positive thing to pass on the treasury of Catholic music to the next generation by paying trained musicians to sing it occasionally. Hopefully, within a generation or so, our kids who have been raised on sacred music will have enough skill so that our paid professionals will become fewer and fewer.
By the way, my friends (good Catholics) are among the ranks of the paid professionals. They spend a month rehearsing Holy Week, etc. They don't drink for two weeks before these ginormous events because they don't want to ruin their voices. ("Come on, have one beer." "Can't. Gotta sing Requiem in D next week.") They devote hours upon hours to sound perfect. They are musicians who happen to be good Catholics. It is only fair that, for their hours of work, they are compensated. They sing for free when the Res choir sings - they give and give and give - but it is hard work for them, and it also takes them away from things like Lyric where they would be making rent money.
Being a professional musician in Chicago is not a money-maker. I know that some of my friends struggle financially because there's an enormous amount of competition for jobs here, and things like being in the chorus at Lyric don't really pay a great amount. And I see many, many non-Catholics come into SJC for "big" events - and they put money in the collection - probably not a little money. These musicians bring funds to SJC from people who wouldn't normally be there.
When you think about it that way (and no one likes to talk Church finances), it sort of makes sense to pay them.
Our little kids at SJC now sing wonderful things like Victoria and Palestrina because they have heard it since they were born.
We think nothing of paying a cantor or an organist to come in and hammer out "On Eagles Wings" - ack!
We should expect our pastors to (if they can afford it) pay people to sing beautifully, to create beautiful art, etc., so that we can pass along these treasures to our children.
Mozart's Requiem in the CD player is great, but it absolutely pales in comparison to hearing it as Mozart intended - at a Mass.
It's easy to forget, when we go to the CSO and the GPSO and listen to 98.7 FM and buy Musica Sacra cds for use in our cars, that this music was intended to be at a Mass. So it's the CSO patrons who should feel like they're at Mass, not the Catholics who should feel like they're at a concert.
I would highly suggest a trip to SJC during an off-week, when it's just chant. But just remember, it's not in the Code of Canon Law that one must fall in love with SJC, no matter what the blogosphere says.

My favorite Mass at SJC is, in fact, the Wednesday evening Mass. Just chant, low Mass - so beautiful! It's followed by public vespers which is chanted by the community - including the parishioners - and it's striking.

Wow! That was rambling - sorry!


(But I am very much enjoying the conversation. Start me on church music and I won't shut up!)

Ma Beck

Okay, seriously?

I am *not* double-clicking or double-posting.

Why does it keep posting my comments twice?

I am so ashamed.

Ma "Almost scared to click 'POST' for this one" Beck


Ma Bell,

The previous time I attended it was at the invitation of the Order of St. George (they had invited me to join them, but I declined). So I know it was a Mass on St. George's feast day, but I don't think there was anything particularly unusual about that Mass. It was the Novus Ordo in Latin and I recall a schola sung.

I have to admit, I am one of that first generation that has been raised in the Church without this part of our musical tradition being part of my daily experience. So I do come at the question from a different experiential base than some. Maybe if the emphasis on beauty and participation through interiority was more of my experience growing up I wouldn't find the same things striking.

Please don't think I was denigrating the idea of having a paid choir or the effort that these musicians put in. I simply wanted to acknowledge a choice that was being made. It certainly has merits, but it's worth evaluating. It seems like a natural consequence though that a paid choir singing such settings lends to a deemphasis on the benefits of active participation that I mentioned. It strikes me, like what I suggested about my School of Community, one of the most important things for my participation at Mass is in my being present, truly present, to what is happening. To Whom is present. Singing is a method that very naturally aids me in being present in that fashion. More than me just being present intellectually, but with more of me. Now I fully see the benefits of the bold display of beauty that these musical traditions provide. I just simply suggest it is a choice.

Another example would be of a way to experience unity. Again, not to suggest that this is the full expression of unity or that not singing is a suggestion that unity isn't present. But I've often been struck (particularly with chant, such as in the Byzantine rite) about the power of voices in unity. The most recent vivid example that I can think of is when I was in Rome last year. I was in a side chapel at St. Ignatius one morning when a small group of what looked like French seminarians were celebrating morning mass. Couldn't have been more than 8 of them. They sung, though, with such intentionality. They clearly sung with an effort to be one voice, together, each keeping their voice in line with the others. It was a simple song that they sang, but the unity they worked for, combined with the acoustics of the church, filled the entire church with a wonderful, beautiful sound. It was a wonderful sign that their unity was rooted in more than some mere friendship, more than what was present at first glance. There was One in whom they were all united. That experience of unity lived wouldn't have happened if they had not sung.


Don't know why it was posting twice, Ma Bell. I've cleaned up the double postings.

Ma Beck

Very true, and that Mass at Rome sounds like something to see.

No, you make perfect sense.
I am only 35, so I was also raised without music, so to speak.
When I started going to SJC, I had looong fallen away from the church and had not been to confession since I was about 13 years old.
But I loved sacred music, believe it or not, simply as a showpiece.
(I was an idiot.)
I would go to SJC and roll my eyes at the homilies against abortion, birth control, fornication, etc.
I was just going for the music, for the concert, if you will.
I can almost pinpoint the exact time I had a conversion.
It was on a Mother's Day, and Deacon Bart gave a most extraordinary homily on abortion and sin and confession.
(Though my heart had been softening a bit before this.)

Suddenly, it clicked. I knew I needed the sacraments, I knew I needed God, I knew.

I went to confession (yowza. That was painful.) and came back into full communion.
It was amazing.

Some time after this, I attended "Bach Night" a music fundraiser at SJC. I happened to be talking to Dan Robinson, the uber-talented choir director at SJC.
(Dan studied under Robert Shaw and is a gifted, sought-after musician.)
When I met him, I thanked him and told him that he and his music had been instrumental (ba dump bump!) in allowing the Holy Spirit to turn my heart.
He was truly and deeply touched. He was, in fact, speechless there for a minute.

You can understand why my fondness for the music repertoire at SJC is so great. Honestly, it was the tool that the Holy Spirit used to bring me back into the fold.

I knew nothing about Palestrina or chant or Byrd, but I knew the biggies - Mozart, Bach, etc., and now I feel as though I have received a gift because I got to know all the other music, too.
And it has deepened my faith significantly.

But I have a friend who absolutely has no use for the music. I tease her all the time, but honestly, I understand that everyone has something, their "thing" - and music is mine - my external that helps me to look inward.


Thanks for sharing that! What a great testimony to the fact that we don't dictate to God how He reaches us and He reaches us through many ways.

Yes, that Mass was a great contrast to the event I was in Rome to attend (CL's meeting with Pope Benedict). I guess more evidence of how diverse our Church is as that trips two most vivid moments were a small daily mass of 8 people in a side chapel and a meeting of 120,000+ people in St. Peter's square.

Ma Beck

You're welcome!
And you're right - we just never know how He's going to reach us, but I am fully confident that He IS trying to reach us all.

What an amazing event in Rome - and I love your observation and your insight. It's so true.

When some of my friends were talking about their different visits to the 7 churches on Holy Thursday (I couldn't this year - I have a 14 month old baby - 'nuff said.), they were saying, "Oh, we went to SJC, then to Holy Trinity, then to St. Stanislaus" etc.
I laughingly reminded them that the point of visiting the 7 churches is to remind ourselves of the diversity and universality of the Church - NOT just to go to Polish churches much like our own.
It was all in good fun, of course.



Yes, how true. One of the more striking experiences of unity-in-diversity was to go to Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Parish in Homer Glen. There's something striking (at least to me) as a Latin Rite Catholic to be present at a Divine Liturgy and recognize everything, yet for it to be all quite different at the same time. Fr. Giussani was fond of speaking of charisms being like "accents" and the faith like a language. I've found that analogy for understanding diversity/unity/universality quite helpful over the years. I was once one of those Catholics who proudly told Protestant friends of the majesty of being able to go to any Catholic Mass anywhere in the world and know exactly what they were reading, the order of the liturgy, etc. There's truth to all that, but boy I didn't understand the difference between uniformity and unity/universality at the time.

Ma Beck

I think Annunciation is a website I've visited - it seems like maybe their choir is amazing - I believe they have a CD out? (Of course, it's possible I'm talking about a completely different Byz. church!)
But that sounds very familiar. If it's the one I'm thinking of, they have audio samples on their website. Amazing!
I LOVE the Byzantine rite - matter of fact, I went to a Byz. church for a while years ago. I was still fallen away, but I was enamored with the Divine Liturgy.
I love that about the charisms/accents. I will have to remember that.
One of my sisters is currently in Macedonia for work for 8 weeks. She has been visiting all the churches/monasteries over there and has been quite struck by the entire experience.
A friend of mine told me there's a Ukrainian Orthodox church here (not St. Nicholas, but somewhere in the vicinity) that I m-u-s-t go to - he said it's unbelievable how beautiful it is.
I recently purchased Rachmaninoff's "Vespers" - even though I can't really understand it (thank goodness for liner notes!) it transcends language, familiarity, rite - it is exquisite. Apparently, Rachmaninoff said, after first hearing it performed (and I mean literally performed - it was sung in concert before it was ever used for vespers), "In all my dreams I could not imagine I could write something like that." It really is breathtaking, if you ever get a chance to hear it.
(My CD is of the choral group called "Tenebrae" - I have a few of their CDs - they are wonderful.)
I would love to experience the Russian Orthodox Vespers of old - when they started before sundown and went until sun-up. But I'm not sure if any of them actually do that anymore.

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