Sacred Music for Both Young and Old
Christopher Mueller brings timeless treasure to World Youth Day and beyond
By Trent Beattie
Even though Gregorian chant was endorsed by the Second Vatican Council, you would never know it from the music that became popular in most Catholic churches in the 1970s. Since then, pianos and guitars have become the principal instruments at many Masses, accompanying musical genres and singing styles described as “folk,” ”popular,” “praise and worship,” or even “rock.” Chant, not to mention polyphony (singing simultaneous yet independent melodies), has largely been forgotten.
However, Christopher Mueller is among the growing number of sacred music practitioners trying to turn the tide toward tradition. Because most Catholics today are unfamiliar with the names of once-renowned sacred music composers such as Palestrina, Victoria, Byrd, Handel, and Lassus, Mueller decided to use his own name for an organization he started last year. Putting a name — and a face — to sacred music makes it more accessible, so The Christopher Mueller Foundation for Polyphony & Chant was born in November 2015.
One of Mueller’s 2016 highlights was leading the music at the weekday English-language Masses held during last summer’s World Youth Day in Kraków, Poland. Chant and polyphony filled the air — a pleasant surprise for pilgrims who later expressed their appreciation to Mueller. The beauty and serenity of the music provided an excellent context for pilgrims to pray — and this “prayer standard” is the true mark of success for any liturgical music, according to Mueller.
Mueller, a Nashville, Tennessee, native who currently resides with his wife and children in the Connecticut countryside, spoke with Catholic Digest regarding both World Youth Day and other experiences involving the promotion of sacred music in the Church today.
What was your overall impression of World Youth Day?
Quite positive. It was heartening to see young people from all over the world be of good cheer as they did things such as attending catechesis or going to Mass, things that “the world” wouldn’t necessarily expect to be a source of joy. And of course everyone was excited all week to see the pope!
Did your choir get to do the music that was planned, and were people appreciative of it?
We were able to do the music as planned, and I think that the music fostered an atmosphere of prayerful contemplation quite fitting for the liturgy. I was encouraged by how much congregational singing I heard during the Mass Ordinary, Responsorial Psalms, and Gospel Acclamation; and many people told me throughout the week how beautiful they thought the music was.
One seminarian said to me, “You know, I’ve been to a lot of big Catholic gatherings over the years, including international ones, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen a huge crowd like this so reverent for Mass. I attribute that to the music.” We were written up quite favorably by Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, and by Father David Friel from Philadelphia (presently studying in Washington, D.C.). I’m glad that so many people were appreciative!
Do you think that, considering the success of your musical program at World Youth Day and the general popularity of albums from groups such as the Sisters of Mary, Queen of Apostles, and Gloriae Dei Cantores, traditional music will be a part, not only of World Youth Days, but of more frequently occurring events?
While sacred music grows in popularity even with non-Catholics, it remains a small subset of the music that most people are exposed to. At the Mercy Centre — the principal English-language venue for World Youth Day in Kraków — “praise and worship (P&W)” was the musical focus heard throughout the day, both as a focal point (when certain P&W groups/artists performed) and via the use of preexisting tracks as accompaniment or segue music during other activities (catechetical instruction, rallies, et cetera).
In a surprising twist, this focus on P&W was probably a contributing factor to the success of the Masses, which had such a different musical sensibility. At last the noise abated, and reverent and solemn prayer could begin. If we help people to pray, then our liturgical music is a success. It seemed from my vantage point and from the numerous comments I received that by this “prayer standard,” the liturgical music at these Masses was very successful.
In August (after World Youth Day), Bishop Conley hosted a sacred music conference for the church musicians of his diocese at which he talked about the distinction between devotional music (for rallies, prayer groups, and even some Eucharistic Adoration) and liturgical music (for the Church’s public worship — most particularly the Holy Mass). I hope that our approach to liturgical music at World Youth Day may become a template for future events in the Church, both large and small. My sense is that there is a growing chorus of priests and seminarians who want precisely this: a liturgy that is reverent and transcendent, with music that fosters those sensibilities.
You’ve stated that not everyone is immediately receptive to chant, but everyone — whether religious or not — seems to be receptive to sacred polyphony (the use of simultaneous yet independent melodies in liturgical song). Why do you think this is the case and what are you doing to take advantage of it?
Our foundation hosts online videoconferences for young people, and they typically begin with a 3-4 minute YouTube video of an ensemble singing a piece of polyphony. For the remainder of the time, the participants talk about the music they just heard; what it might be like to have that musical experience at Mass; for those who already have polyphony at their local parish, what that is like; and what they can do to raise awareness of that music among family, friends, singers, choirs, priests, et cetera. So the first element is simply to expose people to this music. Play it for friends; sing it with friends; send YouTube links around. To those with an open heart, it is quite beautiful, and almost immediately one senses its “rightness” for the Holy Mass.
To actually incorporate polyphony and chant into Mass requires pastoral leadership, patience, and some catechesis. I think that people can be receptive to both polyphony and chant. We used both at the World Youth Day liturgies, with no complaints. There are several keys, and most obviously, things need to be sung well. Beautiful music poorly performed loses its beauty and instead becomes a distraction.
Sometimes an “immersion experience” works, such as in Kraków last summer, where there are lengthy Masses every day in a new setting. In this “special event” context, people expect something unusual. Such an immersion experience (changing the whole musical culture) may work at a parish level, too, provided that the pastor gives an ongoing catechesis on the role of music in liturgy, and even discusses in specific ways how the weekly musical selections fulfill that role.
Something else that was helpful in Kraków was to have a variety of music: unaccompanied chant and accompanied chant, unaccompanied polyphony and accompanied motets, anthems, et cetera. Such variety is not a mandate, and it may not always be possible, depending on the available musicians. But people respond to contrasts: too much of “that one new thing” may be off-putting, whereas a “sampler approach” gives people’s ears opportunities to listen afresh — or, as a friend of mine likes to say, one piece of music might be a “palate cleanser” that sets up the next piece of music.
Written translations are essential. We sang a lot of music in Latin at World Youth Day, but translations were provided in each day’s Mass booklet so people could easily follow along. It seemed to me that lots of pilgrims were engaged with the Mass booklets. Of course, this loops back to the first point: that if the music had been badly executed, no one would have cared what we were singing in the first place.
What can the average churchgoer do to improve the quality of music at their own parish?
Perhaps the best way would be to join the choir, and over time, as you get to know the director and the other singers, make occasional repertory suggestions — for example, for a brief Communion chant here or a short offertory motet there. You may be able to have some influence working “within the system,” if you’re patient and charitable. On the other hand, if the musical “powers that be” are totally hostile to your gentle suggestions, then you may need to go another route.
The most ambitious thing would be to start a new ensemble where you sing polyphony and chant together for the sheer love of beautiful liturgical music. You can then approach your pastor and ask whether there might be some special event, such as Eucharistic Adoration, weekday Mass for a particular saint, a holy day of obligation, Mass of first Communion or confirmation, or some other liturgy where there might not typically be music, and offer your ensemble to sing at it. This way you’re not competing with the music program already in place; you’re simply complementing it with the addition of a little musical diversity. If you think your pastor would be open to this idea, you might even talk to him before starting your ensemble, because he might have suggestions of parishioners who would also be interested, and he might have a feast or two in mind where he would love to have you sing.
If you’re not a singer, but you lament the lack of beauty in your parish music program, you should first and foremost pray for the pastor and the parish musicians, that their hearts be opened to desire musical beauty worthy of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. If you know singers in the choir, play some examples of beautiful polyphony or chant for them (YouTube is great for this), and ask if they’d ever be interested in doing similar music during Mass. You might even ask the pastor the same thing. Pastors seem to have a “complaint radar,” so if enough people ask for or complain about something, many a pastor will take note.
Remember always to be charitable, even if you don’t get a charitable response the first few times you mention something, and even if the present musical situation seems nearly intolerable. Scolding almost always fails, while kindness coupled with gentle advocacy is a much better recipe.
Christopher Mueller runs a foundation to promote the use of polyphony and chant, both in parish choirs and in family ensembles. Find out more at PolyphonyandChant.org. He is also an accomplished composer of liturgical music; hear his pieces at Benesonarium.com.