By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published May 19, 2005
From the Cappella Antiqua at Holy Spirit Church, to the Archdiocesan Festival Choir, to the Cathedral of Christ the King and other parishes, Catholics around the Atlanta Archdiocese are praising God and meditating on His glory using centuries-old, traditional sacred and classical music.
Albert Ahlstrom, Ph.D., music director at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta, is one of several music directors who has a sense of mission to help Catholics better appreciate the rich musical heritage of their church as the great patroness of the arts.
“Singing and listening to the music of the church that has been handed down to us over the centuries, we experience the spirituality and the numerous visions of God and His presence that have been known through the ages,” Ahlstrom said.
“Each age poses special problems and challenges and as much as we grow from experiencing Shakespeare and seeing great paintings, our lives as modern Catholics can grow from singing and hearing the great music that has answered these questions. Listening to the music of Palestrina and Victoria gives us an insight into the world of St. Teresa of Avila and St. Ignatius of Loyola. Chant shows us the mind of Aquinas and Augustine. And so the process continues into our time,” Ahlstrom said.
During Holy Week at Holy Spirit, the choir presented a rousing interpretation of Psalm 150 by 19th-century French composer Cesar Franck. The piece begins with a dark foreboding image of Easter morning, over which quiet and mysterious “Alleluias” begin softly and grow into the thunderous sound of the full organ and choir singing of Christ’s resurrection.
The choir also presented classic Holy Week pieces from the Renaissance (14th-16th century), including William Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus,” “Adoramus Te Christe” by Palestrina and “Popule Meus” by Victoria, pieces which, with their profound austerity and intensity, speak to the mysteries of the liturgical season.
At a memorial Mass held in April at the Cathedral of Christ the King for Pope John Paul II, the Cathedral choir softly chanted from the loft “Totus Tuus Sum, Maria” in honor of the Holy Father’s devotion to Mary, slowly lifting the congregation into a solemn spirit of prayer and reverence. The pure sounds from the pipe organ enveloped the worship space, and the choir began singing harmony based on Gregorian chant for the Introit to the requiem Mass by Maurice Duruflé. Congregants prayerfully listened to the familiar yet foreign words in Latin and followed an English translation in the program.
On April 23, in a concert at St. Andrew Church in Roswell, where a new pipe organ was recently dedicated, members of the Archdiocesan Festival Choir performed Mozart’s “Missa Brevis” in F major and a contemporary work, “Lux Aeterna,” by Morten Lauridsen, in memory of the Holy Father.
At a rehearsal in early April, as choir members worked to convey the essence of the setting and text, director Wayne Baughman, music director at St. Benedict Church, Duluth, advised them to let the music, not their voices, dominate.
“People say Mozart wrote for voice and he did write for all types of voices, but we owe it to the composer and the text not to let our vocalism get in the way. We’re supporting music and text,” he said.
Baughman loved the opportunity to present Mozart.
“He was a devout Catholic. He had a very clear understanding of the Mass and the text, and he was just superb at writing for voices,” he said.
The two sacred works, separated in time by over 200 years, are very different in their mood and style, but they share an immediacy of impact, said Kevin Culver, festival choir steering committee member and choirmaster at the Cathedral. The texts for “Lux Aeterna” are drawn from sacred Latin sources each containing references to light. The piece opens and closes with the beginning and ending of the ancient requiem Mass.
At the Cathedral of Christ the King, Hamilton Smith, director of music for 39 years, has been helping to foster a renewed interest over the past 10 to 15 years in traditional music at the parish.
Most often seen in his red choir robe standing before the congregation as cantor, he began his music ministry as the altar boy master of ceremonies. He has seen the archdiocese’s musical ebbs and flows, the high notes and the low.
He recalled the evolution and growth of the music program at Christ the King from the early days when his mother, Helen Riley Smith, founded it in 1938, along with helping to establish the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. A graduate of The Juilliard School, she was planning the music for the parish dedication, and as the cardinal from Philadelphia was coming and it was a major musical effort, she wanted to have only the best liturgy for the occasion.
“My mother, who had just agreed to take on the job, looked around and couldn’t find any Catholic musicians, so she hired all the best Protestant musicians in the city. They all came in and sang for the dedication of the Cathedral. It was a wonderful ecumenical effort,” Smith said.
He also considered a career in music, studying piano for 14 years, taking organ lessons from Emily Spivey and participating in an intensive summer conservatory at the Eastman School of Music, but instead he opted to get a master’s degree in business from the University of Pennsylvania.
After the Second Vatican Council opened the door to more congregational singing, to more use of instruments other than the organ, to other styles of music, and music in English, the music director who succeeded Mrs. Smith resigned, and the program began floundering. Ham Smith was tapped by the late Msgr. John McDonough to recreate the program and carry on the tradition of music that his mother so brightly inaugurated.
So as he began a 32-year career at Sun Trust Bank, he also began in 1966 volunteering as director of music at the Cathedral, awakening and inspiring Catholics with the rich musical heritage of traditional music, as well as with quality contemporary liturgical music. The program now includes a traditional choir, contemporary ensemble, children’s choirs, Life Teen band and Hispanic choir.
As the cathedral church, Smith believes it was essential to set a tone of musical excellence that resonates around the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Once a “high-bound traditionalist,” he eventually came around to embrace the positives changes of Vatican II and to see the need for both contemporary and traditional music but countering the trend for parishes to de-robe their choirs and replace them with “sing-along” untrained guitar groups “singing anything they wanted to.” He’s grateful to have always had the support of pastors, who are critical for setting a tone for the music ministry.
“I’m happy to oversee the program and guide its direction, and that’s what I’ve basically done for 38 years,” Smith said. “Every one of these pastors has supported and realized the importance that worship plays in the life of the Cathedral, and they’ve realized that being the Cathedral we should try to set the standard in terms of liturgy and music.”
Borrowing from the tradition of large Protestant churches with strong music programs, one of Smith’s first priorities—ironically as a volunteer—was to establish a music budget and hire and oversee professional musicians. The staff now includes two full-time and six part-time staff members and a core group of modestly paid choir musicians.
“It has not been in the Roman Catholic tradition to pay singers, but it elevates the learning curve substantially. The amateurs love having these people because (they’ve) got somebody strong in (their) section to learn from,” he said. “I’m kind of an anomaly being a volunteer because I had another career, but my job was to be sure that we got the people and paid them.”
Before the Second Vatican Council, the laity had not had many opportunities to sing during Mass. Many had “no sense of singing,” and music ministries were not as supported, he recalled.
“We had a community not used to singing, and all of a sudden here is this tectonic change overnight. Liturgy is now of the people, by the people and for the people. We are to sing, to really pray in song. Questions arose. I remember those days; they were very controversial. In a way some pastors said, ‘We don’t need any choirs anymore. We have all these people out here, and we’ll get them to sing,’” he recalled. “Those who embraced the contemporary style began without having much good music written for them. That has changed dramatically in the last 30 to 40 years. We weren’t prepared for it.”
It was a time of experimentation. Traditional music was largely cast aside for a while, and folk music became a hallmark of Vatican II.
Smith doesn’t believe it was ever the church’s intention to rid herself of historical music and thinks that some of the council documents were misinterpreted.
“There was so much beauty and sacredness underlying sacred music in the long history of our church with chant, the earliest form of music, the great polyphony of the 16th and 17th century—that’s choral music written in many parts (and) Palestrina is the perfect example of that—and lots of other good music that we had kind of shoved off the table for a while,” Smith said. “We had kind of said, ‘That’s our heritage, but we don’t want the church to be a museum.’”
But now parishes have come back to draw upon the wealth of both modern and historical resources. He believes the liturgy is now simpler and more meaningful and the choirs are better trained.
Smith believes that sacred music conveys and respects the meaning of the liturgical text. In selecting music, traditional music must not be too long or overbearing, so as to draw too much attention to the choir.
Contemporary music, which typically utilizes a variety of instruments such as flute, oboe and piano, and lends itself to more creativity and is more rhythmic, must not be too loud and should be appropriate. Music should be selected to express the spirit of the season and the Scripture readings.
He’s now come to think “we need a broad range of styles in order to appeal to the broadest range of our worshipping community depending on where they are in their experience.”
The Mass now has a good balance between the music for the choir and for the whole congregation.
“We’re there to enhance the worship experience of everybody in the church. You always walk a fine line,” Smith said. “The choir sings choral music typically in parts either unaccompanied or with the organ. The choir can express itself musically and have a real impact on the congregation. You can pray while listening, at the same time having the people of God participate fully.”
Smith enjoys being able to present music in the Cathedral with its high ceiling and marble floors that don’t absorb sound. “It’s very important for any kind of music, any style, to have a somewhat reverberant room so that the sound is energized by the walls and the ceiling so the people of God, the people singing, can hear one another … so that the music flows through the room.”
He has a special love for polyphony and chant. Polyphony “would be typically played at St. Peter’s in Rome and all the great churches in the 16th and 17th centuries because it just captures the spirit of the eucharistic sense. Someone called it musical incense.”
Smith noted that most traditional Catholic music texts before the Second Vatican Council were in Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire and of the church, and were taken from Scripture, prayers of church fathers or the liturgy itself.
Generally “we try to be true to the original text and sing in Latin,” but most scores today have English translations. He added that one of the most distinguished composers since Vatican II of traditional music is Richard Proulx, whose music is “the highest quality; it is accessible but unique.”
Holy Spirit Sings Chant, Classics Spanning Centuries
At Holy Spirit Church both the Cappella Antiqua and Sunday choir sing Gregorian chant as well as traditional works from the Baroque, Renaissance, Romantic and Modern periods. “Both the choirs and the congregation are finding this music to be very rewarding both spiritually and musically,” Ahlstrom said.
One of his favorites is the Catholic composer of the late Renaissance, William Byrd, who like many English composers has a sweetness because of a love of thirds (a gentle interval), “a great sense of pacing and drama, and a creative use of rhythmic interest” within the serene style of the period.
The director added that many of the best historical composers were grounded in the liturgical church music of Gregorian chant and that “for the longest time the biggest thing for a composer to write was a Mass—for Palestrina, Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky.”
Ahlstrom enjoys composing as well and most recently has written a setting of the text for the sequence of Pentecost, “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” that the choir sang for the parish’s Pentecost celebration. The piece has a very colorful organ part that follows the contours of the chant and has a section that quotes directly from the chant.
Young Alpharetta Parish Holds Sacred Concert Series
Rhett Barnwell, music director at St. Brigid Church, Alpharetta, has his choirs perform Gregorian chant as well as other historical church music.
“Pope John Paul spoke quite a lot about encouraging churches not to neglect the chant. It really is an important thing. Our acoustics are so good, and it helps us to do that,” said the director.
His parish has two adults choirs, a Life Teen band and three children’s choirs who also enjoy singing in Latin and chant.
Barnwell believes that as the Mass is a special activity, outside of mundane life, with unique rituals and actions, having traditional music that one doesn’t commonly hear in secular life particularly enhances the sense of its sacred nature.
“It takes you to this different space. It accentuates the fact that we’re doing something different we don’t do in our day-to-day activities, something very sacred and spiritual, and it helps to elevate the activities of the Mass itself, in being able to transcend the ordinary,” he said.
Being the “mystery and miracle that it is, it requires a very special music to enter into that mystery.”
Barnwell, who holds a master’s degree in French horn performance from St. Louis Conservatory and has studied Gregorian chant at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome, among other places, came to the parish two years ago and learned that the majority of the congregation had an interest in more traditional music. He has found that members of the parish, founded in 1998, have been very supportive of both traditional and contemporary music, and that with its Gothic architecture, stained glass, statues and choir loft in the back, the environment is conducive to presenting the great classics.
To enrich the musical and spiritual life of parishioners and to reach out to the larger community, he also initiated a sacred and performing arts concert series, which just concluded with a piano recital of Chopin with internationally renowned pianist and St. Brigid parishioner Piotr Folkert, which also included a narration on Chopin’s life by WABE radio broadcaster John Lemley.
They held their first community concert in 2004 to inaugurate their new pipe organ with choir members and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and will begin a new series focusing on music for the organ in September.
At the inaugural event “we had close to 1,000 people both from the parish and the community. It was just a huge success.”
Their organ has been a “wonderful addition” and “really is quite dramatic both from a song perspective and visually.”
He sees his own music ministry as an act of worship. “I feel this is a calling for me. My hope is when I’m directing or playing the organ I am leading people into worship.”
St. Andrew’s Teen Choir Loves Piece By Mozart
Linda Morgan, music director at St. Andrew Church in Roswell, spoke of the spirituality of the music in the choir room at St. Andrew.
“The old adage from St. Augustine, ‘the person who sings prays twice,’ that certainly is very true, and there are times when we are singing a particular piece and I’ll just get all choked up. The words, the music, will just hit you, the real meaning of the piece and you get all emotional.”
The congregation experienced that during Holy Week after the choir sang following a reading of the Passion narrative.
“It was just silent. The music was reaching out and helping to underlie the reading of the Passion.”
Morgan’s 60-member adult choir also enjoys doing a “healthy” mix of traditional pieces, some spirituals and contemporary ones, and some men sing chant each Sunday before Communion. They use piano, cello, harp, violin or brass accompaniment on special occasions.
She moved to Atlanta to sing in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus under the late Robert Shaw and still sings with the ASO. She’s taken on some of Shaw’s techniques like count singing where the choir rehearses counting while focusing on rhythm and pitch and then adds the words to better learn the piece.
“He was very spiritual in his approach to music, and a lot of times people would say, ‘I got more spiritual insight out of this rehearsal than I did out of my minister.’”
She added with a smile that they’ve had “quite a conversion rate” in the St. Andrew’s choir, starting with one of her pioneer choir members back in 1983—her husband—who was baptized by 1989.
Morgan—who holds a degree in music education from Ohio State University—like Smith never planned to work for the church. She had registered at St. Andrew’s when it was still meeting at a warehouse across the Chattahoochee. The pastor saw on her parish registration card that she was a music teacher and asked her in 1983 to play the organ.
Her philosophy is that the music must add to the Mass but never take away from it. “The music is not the star at the Mass, Christ is.”
The program also includes the high school choir, children’s choir, handbell choir and contemporary guitar group.
She noted that her high school group recently sang Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus” (“Hail True Body”) in Latin.
“They loved it … I gave them some little fluffy thing, and they got tired of it right away. They like the tougher stuff. I guess it’s the music education in me, trying to draw them more instead of feeding them at the basic level. You just keep trying to educate them and helping them grow musically,” she said. “A lot of them are in high school choruses … but they are not allowed to sing a lot of religious songs in school now, and they’re missing out on that and they love this classic religious music.”
For adults the Archdiocesan Festival Choir is a chance for singers to perform larger pieces that are more difficult and that require more singers than they have at their parishes, Morgan said.
The festival choir, which will sing at the Eucharistic Congress, is in its third season and includes about 80 voices from over 30 parishes in the archdiocese. Open auditions are completed in early September in anticipation of a major choral concert each spring. Last November, the choir offered a Mass in honor of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music.
“There is such a diverse body of musical liturgy in this archdiocese,” said Quentin Van Meter, a founding member of the festival choir and a parishioner of Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City.
“When we formed this choir, we had in mind serving the purpose of selecting music from the large repertoire of uniquely Catholic choral works of the last four centuries.”
The Cathedral’s Smith also sang the praises of the choir and noted how musicians can bring some of what they learn through the festival choir back to their parishes to enrich their programs.
“The archdiocesan choir can really do some of the best and it’s like great art; some of the music is very complicated, but when it’s done well, the listener doesn’t know it’s (complicated) but is simply invited and inspired by it.”
Smith is looking forward this June to the 12th annual Summer Organ Festival series held at the Cathedral and in Protestant churches, which is a good way to visit the other churches and enjoy performances by acclaimed organists. The Cathedral concert fittingly is in memory of his mother who developed not only the musical life of CTK but of the larger community and who would surely be pleased by the pastiche of songs of prayer and praise resounding across North Georgia.
“It’s been an exciting journey after Vatican II,” Smith said. “We were in a raft in the middle of choppy seas with everybody racing off in different directions. I think now the contemporary style has developed and the traditional music is coming back because we realize now it’s our heritage.”