Also by this author: Revisiting Mass
From June 30 to July 6, I had the privilege of traveling to Indianapolis to attend the Church Music Association of America’s annual colloquium, a gathering of church musicians from throughout the United States and Canada.
The CMAA was celebrating its 50th anniversary. The association was born out of the Society of Saint Gregory of America and the American Society of Saint Cecilia. Both had been involved in decades-long efforts to promote Gregorian chant and polyphony when the groups merged in 1964. In doing so they aimed to heed Sacrosanctum Concilium’s urge that the “treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care” (§114), and wanted to give Gregorian chant “pride of place in liturgical services” (§116).
Since 1990, the CMAA has offered the annual colloquium as an opportunity for people of all musical levels to learn about the Church’s enormous tradition of liturgical music. There was a fascinating range of attendees: college professors, parish choir members, middle schoolers, and doctoral students. There was an African-American Episcopal priest starting a chant schola in the women’s prison where she serves as chaplain, a college student who had never read music, cathedral music directors, pastors, and a woman who runs a three-person schola, the only schola in the state of Montana.
The conference began with choral evensong at the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Indianapolis. The church’s established and respected choir and organist provided gorgeous music. For many attendees, it was their first exposure to the rich Anglican liturgical tradition.
On the first full day, participants selected one each of chant classes and polyphony choirs for the week. These daily classes and choirs were tailored to particular skill levels, from no previous exposure to chant or polyphony to more academic tracks. I was fortunate enough to have a class on Gregorian semiology with Dr. Edward Schaefer from the University of Florida. Put simply, Gregorian semiology is the study of chant notation. It usually deals with notes called unheightened neumes, small squiggles that were probably the first written music in the West. After several hundred years of transmitting chant solely through oral tradition, monks began writing these neumes around 800 AD. The neumes reminded chanting monks of a melody’s general pitch and rhythm. Musicians continue studying these neumes today to garner insight on how to interpret and perform chant. The neumes provide an especially rich tool for expressing text, which is the true basis for every aspect of chant. Dr. Schaefer skillfully led the class of about 20 people in studying several chants, comparing their neumes from two different manuscripts and singing two of the chants for Mass during the week.
Each day included a plenary lecture. Fr. Christopher Smith presented on the future of liturgical theology, Dr. William Mahrt on the liturgy’s musical shape, and Dr. Denis McNamara on church architecture. Dr. McNamara’s presentation on sacred architecture was the highlight. He gave an excellent introduction to the subject, emphasizing the corporate body of worshippers and their relation to the space where they pray. The liturgy, he explained, occurs in the present world but helps heal fallen humanity, drawing it back its original state and simultaneously ushering it toward beatitude. Dr. McNamara offered insights into the relationship between Eden and church architecture. He pointed out the long-standing practice of adorning church interiors with floral imagery to imitate the Garden. A church is an Eden we may enter despite our fallen state. Stained glass images of saints remind worshippers that beatitude is not merely a long-lost or far-distant event, but a reality that has already taken active root in the Church’s life. The presentation affected my experience of church architecture almost immediately. Dr. McNamara’s talk enriched the time I spent in downtown Indy’s historic St. John the Evangelist Church, where most of the colloquium’s liturgies occurred. The nave’s upper walls were lush with floral designs. Such ornaments, which never meant much to me, helped me to understand the liturgy a little better. The sanctuary is surrounded by striking murals of angels casting down their crowns before God’s throne (Rev 4), a reminder of the liturgy’s relation to the beatific vision. Over the week I experienced the building less as one in which we prayed and more as a place whose very structure was a kind of prayer that aided ours.
Each afternoon participants chose from several hour-long workshops on a variety of topics. I took two workshops with Dr. Jennifer Donelson on the (surprisingly easy!) art of conducting chant, and one on organ improvisation with David Hughes, the immensely talented music director of St. Mary’s in Norwalk, Connecticut.
Each evening, participants had Mass together at St. John the Evangelist. As you can imagine, the congregational singing was quite strong! The morning chant classes and afternoon polyphony rehearsals prepared music for the week’s liturgies. I had the opportunity to sing under Dutch conductor Wilko Brouwers, whose lively spirit and creative instruction did a marvelous job coaxing emotion and expression from the choir. Polyphony comprised only about half of what my polyphony choir sang. We also sang some 19th-century music as well as a beautifully modern setting of “O Saving Victim” by Zachary Wadsworth. The musical highlight of the week was the Saturday afternoon Mass, when one choir sang Victoria’s ethereally serene four-part Missa pro defunctis.
Two qualities made the conference especially enriching: charity and genuine collegiality. Both pervaded the week. It can be hard for anyone at all to discuss liturgical matters without getting mean-spirited, sharp-tongued or just a little crabby, but everyone at the colloquium demonstrated a remarkable openness and charitable frankness that helped make the week a refreshing pleasure. There was a strong sense of fellowship too. Folks at the colloquium came from a huge variety of backgrounds, musical experiences and parishes, but they were all united in the goal of helping the Church pray. Working toward a goal, co-working in the vineyard, cliché as it is, cannot be underestimated. Of course, we also celebrated the Fourth of July. We watched the fantastic Indianapolis fireworks from our hotel roof and later on some new friends and I huddled around our books and phones, sight-reading motets (with moderate success) late into the night.
You can read more about the colloquium and the CMAA’s numerous free resources here. I returned from the colloquium informed, enlivened, and refreshed for continued service with liturgical music. I highly recommend the colloquium to anyone who wants delve a bit more into sacred music, learn about liturgy, or deepen their participation in the Church’s prayer. As often as I can return to this plot in the vineyard, I will.