28 September 2004

The Mundelein Conference

I suppose you're all breathless with anticipation to hear about how the conference went last week, and I think I've kept you in suspense long enough. The conference, titled "The Place of Chant in the Liturgy Today," was awesome. The organizers thought it would have been a success if 50 people came, but 73 actually showed up, and everyone wants to do it again next year. I definitely have a renewed respect for Dr. Schaefer, after seeing 73 experienced and educated parish musicians listening to him with the same rapt attention he gets from a class full of college sophomores. He really is an important person in his field--one of the only (perhaps the only) person in the US who deals with Gregorian chant in such a complete fashion: history, theory, and performance.

The most important part of the conference, for me, was where to start when introducing chant to a parish. I had always assumed that the place to start would be with the ordinaries: Sanctus, Agnus Dei, maybe even the Gloria if the congregation wasn't too intimidated by Latin. But Dr. Schaefer thinks otherwise. He did a comparison between the hierarchies of songs/chants in Musicam Sacram and Music in Catholic Worship. I don't think I need to tell you that they're very different.

Briefly, the introduction of chant ought to begin with things like the preface dialogue and the orations. If a priest sings, "The Lord be with you," people know how to respond to that. Also, if a lector sings, "The Word of the Lord," people know what to sing in response. It isn't difficult, and it can even be done in English (because, as we all know, Latin is scary). Once that is on it's way, other things will follow. It makes sense to me. If the priest sings chant, odds are that the congregation will follow. These are more important than the four-hymn Mass model because it is more important to sing the Mass than to sing at Mass.

It also isn't terribly important that the priest be an excellent singer. It helps, but even mediocre singers get along all right if the choir director can discreetly give him notes (Dr. Schaefer hums the first two or three notes for the priests at our Chant Mass). As long as the good Father isn't completely tone-deaf, it works pretty well, and I don't think the congregation really notices the note-giving.

The conference was also fun, despite not seeing anyone I would have recognized from St. Blog's there. I was a little concerned that the Schola would be treated like "Exhibit A," which we essentially were, but no one treated us like that. We were treated as experts in our own right in the performance of chant and sacred polyphony, as knowledgeable about the presenter, and just generally as interesting people. I think I've also found that there can't be more than six degrees of seperation among US conservative Catholics, because Fr. Jerome of St. Michael's Abbey in Los Angeles was there, and one of his confreres is the son of my high school chemistry teacher. He also knows the father of one of my high school history teachers, who was a founder of Thomas Aquinas College. How's that for trivia? It was very exciting to be with people who were interested in what we do and think, in a beautiful setting (Mundelein is awesome, and the weather was perfect), and to sing in a chapel with some of the best acoustics I've ever heard.

On a last note, Mundelein used to be run by the Jesuits, and there is still a lovely statue of St. Aloysius Gonzaga outside the door of the chapel. We were all thrilled to see our friend St. Aloysius there, and most agreed that we liked him standing peacefully in a cassock and lacy surplice better than the modernistic statue of him holding a dying man that we have here, however accurate it may be.

(I'd be better at explaining Dr. Schaefer's ideas about re-introducing chant into the liturgy if I had the materials from the conference, but due to the unexpected numbers of people, I was asked not to take any. I hope Dr. Schaefer will print some extras for me, at which time I may update this post.)

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