Music and the Church

(Address given at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Arlington, Texas, February 26, 2010)

Good evening. I'd like to first thank Fr Hawkins for inviting me to St Mary's tonight. I must confess I was a little intimidated when I saw the list of speakers, as I doubt that I am as distinguished--or nearly as holy--as any of them. However, since I am more accustomed to public performance than public speaking, I'd like to begin by doing the one thing I doubt any of the others will be doing, and perform for you the Prelude of Bach's Suite No. 2 in D Minor.


Thank you. Now for the hard part. While Fr Hawkins was rather vague as to exactly what I was supposed to talk about, I believe his intention was for me to discuss Music and what it means to me professionally and spiritually. I'm not sure how well organized all this will be but I'm grateful for the opportunity to share some thoughts which have been in my head for awhile and which I've wanted to communicate to, well, somebody, but which don't usually have an audience. Since the relationship of Music to the Church can sometimes be a source of controversy, from which I was not able to shy away completely when preparing these remarks, I hope he doesn't regret giving me such a platform.

I was born in 1978 to a musical family in Flint, Michigan, though we moved to Indianapolis, Indiana when I was 8. My great-grandfather had been an opera singer, both my grandmothers were piano teachers, and my paternal grandfather an Episcopal church organist; my father was the music critic for the Flint Journal and now serves in the same capacity at the Indianapolis Star; my mother was a piano teacher and is now music director at a Catholic church. My younger brother William, who has taken a path about as different from mine as possible while still within classical music, is a violinist who will shortly be moving to Afghanistan to assume the post of violin and viola teacher at Kabul's brand new Afghanistan National Institute of Music. So I've been surrounded by classical music all my life. I started cello lessons at 3 and piano lessons with my mother at 7, earned my degrees in cello performance at Indiana University in Bloomington and The Juilliard School in New York. After two years with the New World Symphony in Miami I was assistant principal cellist of the Charlotte Symphony in North Carolina for four years before moving to Dallas in 2008 to become associate principal cellist of the Dallas Symphony.

As you can infer from that brief biography, most of my life has been focused on secular symphonic music. But that's not, of course, where the story of Western music begins; any serious university music history course--such as the one I took at Indiana--starts with Gregorian Chant and the Mass, then moves on to Renaissance polyphony before instrumental music can be discussed in any depth. Apart from that brief academic overview, however, I had little direct personal involvement with sacred music in its fullness until I moved to Dallas and started singing in the choirs of the Church of the Incarnation and St Mark's School of Texas. Singing choral music of both the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions spanning five centuries has opened up a whole new world of music to me, including composers of whose existence I'd previously been ignorant. Last summer, with both choirs having conveniently scheduled England tours three days apart, I had the chance to spend four weeks in residence in some of England's greatest churches, singing with the Incarnation choir at Lichfield Cathedral and Westminster Abbey and with the St Mark's choir at Chichester, Southwark, and Canterbury cathedrals: probably the best summer of my life. The orchestral and sacred choral worlds tend to be somewhat separate, but I've really enjoyed having a foot in each, which seems to tie everything together quite beautifully.

Having been a cellist for as long as I can remember, I can't imagine a life without music, nor can I imagine doing anything else professionally. Few experiences can be more thrilling or rewarding than being part of the sound of a great symphony orchestra, which the Dallas Symphony under our new music director Jaap van Zweden certainly is. I've always loved the feeling of contributing to an exciting performance without the nervousness that can accompany solo performances. I think most orchestral musicians would agree.

But if I can highlight something a bit more personal, one of the things I particularly love about my profession is the way it transcends eras, linking us today with musicians of the past, many of them from several centuries ago, and translating fairly well into any previous time and civilization, since humans apparently have always made some sort of music. I would think it would be hard for someone whose profession is intrinsically dependent on modern technology to imagine what he might have been doing had he lived in a previous era. But watch any period movie, especially one involving royal or aristocratic court life (as all the best ones do), and invariably there will be some sort of dance scene in which an orchestra is tuning up or performing in the background. When I see that, I think, there's the 16th-century "me," or the 18th-century "me," as the case may be.

Most of what we play for classical concerts at the Dallas Symphony is music composed by European men of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, which is fine with me as I tend to take a dim view of the dominant musical trends of the past 65 years or so, both "serious" and "popular." This is a particular comfort for a reactionary monarchist like me--I would hope that it's safe to say this at a church with a shrine to the Blessed Emperor Karl--who often has trouble feeling that I fully belong in this country or this century. While I might in general have been more comfortable in Edwardian England or in Austria-Hungary under Emperor Franz Joseph, when I'm on stage at the Meyerson with my cello performing music by Bach, Beethoven, and Dvorak (as I did last night), or in the choir stalls at Incarnation singing music by Byrd, Purcell, and Stanford (as I did last Sunday), those are times when I truly do belong, happy to be doing what I'm doing where and when I'm doing it.

I don't mean to suggest that classical music is all about nostalgia--that's certainly not the message we professional musicians want to convey--but rather that great music is timeless and can move people across the boundaries of time and place perhaps more than any other art. It is not surprising then that music has long been associated with worship. Music expresses what words alone cannot, and I think sacred choral music in particular can elevate one's thoughts towards the divine in uniquely effective ways. The distinguished choral conductor Peter Phillips of the Tallis Scholars has made these points in his rather public feud with the controversial Jensen brothers (Peter Archbishop of Sydney and Phillip Dean of St Andrew's Cathedral) in Australia, who with their aggressively Low Church, even Puritanical, version of Anglicanism have dramatically reduced the role of traditional choral music in the life of the Anglican cathedral in Sydney. Fortunately my own rector at Incarnation, former Bishop of Saskatchewan Anthony Burton, is far more sympathetic. Sacred music certainly played a major role in my own conversion from Unitarian Universalist agnosticism to Anglican Christianity. (I was only just baptized at Incarnation last Easter, so this is my first Lent as a Christian.)

While it's perhaps not surprising that a professional musician would be drawn towards the Faith through participation in a church choir, I don't believe that it's at all necessary to have this background to appreciate the Church's remarkable musical patrimony and the way it has nourished the faith of generations of believers. Sacred music, like traditional church architecture, was developed by the Church, and defended by Catholics, high Anglicans, and Lutherans when radical Protestants attacked it, for a very good reason, namely the knowledge that many people are simply not cut out to be captivated by doctrinal abstractions alone and need to be led to, or sustained in, the Faith by the beauty of what they can hear and see. I am one of those people, the sort of person the liturgical Churches presumably had in mind when they sanctioned such "extravagances" as polyphonic masses, Bach cantatas, or daily Choral Evensong, and consequently am also the sort of person left cold and alienated by attempts to "simplify" and "modernize" worship, from the iconoclasm of the 17th-century Puritans to the allegedly "relevant" banalities of our own era, from which no Western Church or Communion has been spared. I don't think I'm alone in this.

As wonderful as anthems and motets are, the core of the Christian sacred choral tradition is the Ordinary of the Mass. The texts of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei have probably inspired more great composers than any other. That is why I was so pleased on my previous visit to your parish, on All Souls' Day, to have the opportunity to hear the complete Fauré Requiem sung liturgically. I get the impression that my views would make me rather unpopular with many of the Powers That Be in the liturgical Churches today, but I am firmly and passionately convinced that Christendom's incomparable treasury of choral settings of the Mass, from Guillaume de Machaut in the 14th century to Palestrina & Victoria to Haydn & Mozart to Gounod & Fauré to more recent composers such as Jean Langlais, belong first and foremost in the liturgy, not as a concert but as an integral part of worship, and not confined to the concert hall and recording studio.

As an Episcopalian daring to address Catholics, many of whom probably used to be Episcopalians, I'm trying to be as ecumenical as possible; I believe that what I'm saying applies to both of our Communions, Anglican and Roman Catholic, and perhaps Lutherans as well. We Anglicans also have the substantial body of English choral communion services by composers such as Stanford, Darke, and Howells from which to draw. Here at St Mary's you obviously know what I'm talking about since you did the Fauré. At Incarnation we sing a choral mass on the first Sunday of the month and on major feasts; for example, on March 7 we will be doing Byrd's Mass for Five Voices. But how many Catholics today, how many Anglicans today, will go through their entire Christian lives without ever hearing these Masses regularly sung in the context for which they were intended?

The cliché that makes me the angriest is, "if you want good music, go to a concert." Now a choral concert might be very nice; indeed, I have one to recommend in a moment. But I think this repertoire loses something when separated from the liturgy for which it was written. For one thing, while I love Renaissance polyphony, complete Masses from that era when performed all together in concert can tend to sound like almost too much of the same beautiful sounds at once; the music actually benefits from the space between musical movements that the liturgy--whether Catholic or Anglican--naturally gives it. I think few liturgical experiences can compare to the moment when after the priest has intoned the Preface, the choir comes in with a beautiful choral setting of the Sanctus; it is totally unlike hearing that same Sanctus in a concert, and does far more justice to the majestic words of that ancient hymn.

The usual objection to the liturgical use of this repertoire is that it does not allow the congregation to participate in the liturgy. In the name of congregational participation, vast quantities of sublime sacred music for which Christian composers have poured out their gifts for centuries have been thoughtlessly expelled from the normal life of the Church and deemed no longer relevant to worship. Its advocates, like me, are likely to be denounced as "elitist," but it seems to me that the real elitism would be the denial of exposure to this kind of music to anyone not in the habit of or unable to afford regular attendance at classical choral concerts. I am baffled by the idea that the entire congregation must always be singing most of the time in order to be "participating." Internal participation can be just as meaningful, if not more so, as external. Some might think, "well, he would say that, he's in the choir"--but for me that's only been true since September 2008. Previously, and still today when I travel, my experience when attending church has been that of an ordinary congregant in the pew, and I know that when in that position, being asked to sing the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, & Agnus Dei in addition to hymns can feel like a distracting burden; I would much rather hear the choir sing the mass and be overwhelmed by the beauty of the liturgical sights and sounds, free to let the music draw me closer to God. More importantly, I believe that the worship of God demands the very best we can possibly offer, and musically that is what a choral mass by a great Christian composer is.

I have never felt more truly involved, that is, mentally and spiritually rather than vocally, than when worshiping at my favorite Episcopal church, the magnificent Saint Thomas Fifth Avenue in New York City, whose fantastic choir of men and boys sings a choral setting of the Ordinary every Sunday, in addition to the usual Psalm, Anthem, and Motet. (As it happens, they will be performing in Dallas at Highland Park United Methodist Church on Sunday evening March 14 at 6:00, something I'd enthusiastically encourage you all to attend.) Similarly, the closest connection I've ever felt to Roman Catholicism was at St John Cantius Parish in Chicago, where on the Sunday when I visited in October 2007 a complete Mozart mass with full orchestra was performed, again not as a concert but as part of the liturgy, seamlessly united with the traditional rituals of the priests at the altar of that splendid church. (It didn't hurt that the sermon that day was about Emperor Blessed Karl.)

One of the Catholic priests I most admire is the late Mgr Richard Schuler, who built up a unique music ministry at St Agnes Church in St Paul, Minnesota, which I hope to finally visit for the first time this May. When Mgr Schuler first started incorporating orchestral masses by Viennese masters such as Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert into the liturgy there, some people complained that such elaborate music distracted them from their prayers. Mgr Schuler's gentle but--I think--powerful response was always the same: "the music cannot distract from prayer, because the music is a prayer." And while I'll be happy to answer any questions either about what I've said or about the life of a professional musician in general, I can think of no better way to conclude than with the words of a great Catholic priest, for that certainly sums up how I feel about music. Thank you very much.

Credo: Trite music blocks our ears to the divine in the liturgy (T1:9)