Tag Archives: music

WHAT TO SEE: Faith can remain, even through nonsensical pain

I Still Believe
K.J. Apa, Britt Robertson, Nathan Dean Parsons, Gary Sinise, Shania Twain, Reuben Jack Dodd
117 min. • Rated: PG

Tragedy can test our faith. The question of why bad things happen to good people has haunted humanity from the start. When misfortune befalls people we perceive as evil, it’s easy to suppose it’s a matter of divine justice. But what about the virtuous and the innocent? Why do they sometimes suffer just as much, and why does God seem deaf to prayers on their behalf?

Jeremy Camp is an accomplished Christian performing artist whose journey to success traveled along the roads of tragedy. I Still Believe tells the story of how he found both stardom and love, but lost the latter. More importantly, it relates how faith brought Jeremy and his wife Melissa together, led them to the altar, and sustained them through pain and grief. Turning to God in prayer as Melissa battled an illness that knew no mercy, Jeremy found a healing unlike what he had hoped for or expected. Emerging from the long dark tunnel, he still believed, and lived to sing the praises of God.

This faith-based film is a tearjerker by design, and succeeds at that even though some of its conflicts seem insufficiently explored — the early rivalry for Melissa’s affections between Jeremy and another Christian singer who helped get him his first demo recording, the relationship between the young lovers and their respective families, and the too-sudden discovery of Melissa’s illness. But the acting is solid, and both Gary Sinise and Shania Twain give the film a bit of star power despite their relatively small roles.

A lesson of I Still Believe is that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45) and loves us through it all. It is not ours to understand this mystery of suffering, but to embrace it — and continue to love, trust, and believe in Him in return.

GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

 

Gorgeous music can beckon toward God

When I was a little girl about four, my parents and grandparents – after hours-long Sunday afternoon dinners with extended family – would gather us all to watch “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It was then that I first saw some amazing performers play brilliant piano and realized I wanted to learn it.

Christine Valentine-Owsik

One night, the guest pianist on the show was Liberace. This was prior to his glitzy flamboyant Vegas-style act; he was a young, handsome performer in a grey silk suit gliding across the floor toward the long concert grand. He briefly introduced the music, and my grandmother said, “You’ve just got to hear this man play.” He smiled as he began, the orchestra joining right in, and brought to life what was buried in the heart of a displaced Russian composer – lush, piano-driven full orchestral beauty so mystical and other-worldly. Like a mighty ocean, each spellbinding movement swelled and dipped, surged and slowed, led by resounding piano forte on an astounding voyage. I’ve loved the music and the great composer behind it ever since. It was Peter Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor, created in 1875.

To this day when I listen to it, I still think about the depth of soul Mr. Tchaikovsky must have had. His moving music and esteem didn’t compensate for his personal problems, depression, and suicidal tendencies. His compositions seem a raw reflection of heartbreak and disenchantment; grief over loss of traditional Russia as he knew it; yet somehow a keepsake of God’s promise and triumph sheltered secretly in his heart. His ethereal melodies and spectacular orchestrations cut to the bedrock of man’s awareness, bringing tears and joy at once – catapulting a listener right out of himself to something immeasurably higher.

The early lesson I learned, apart from being mesmerized by Liberace’s stunning talent and interpretation, is that gorgeous music can greatly elevate the heart and soul. I’d never heard music like that, and wanted to capture it.

Later my piano teacher – a displaced Catholic concert pianist from Hungary – taught me what was behind each composition he assigned of Bach, Mozart, Liszt, Handel, Schubert, Beethoven, and many others. Each composer had a story laced right into his music, and many were devout Catholics. Once I learned a bit about him, I had a much greater empathy for why a composer expressed himself as he did. It helped me play his music.

One afternoon, he played for me a piece by Franz Liszt, so I could hear how it should sound. It was the greatly emotive Consolations. Liszt, a mid-19th-century Hungarian composer, had wanted to become a priest, but his attempts were frustrated first by his parents, then his confessor. Thus he lived a life of writing some very wrenching music, but also of deep contemplation over a missed vocation. A sadness and abandonment to God seems embodied in Consolations.

On those pensive days when it seems like God is my sole confidante, I play that piece – just for Him.

CHRISTINE VALENTINE-OWSIK is Legatus magazine’s editor.

Reviving the ‘sleeping beauty’ of sacred song

Upon the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the hearts of the apostles were filled with wondrous joy on Easter Sunday. In a similar way, the hearts of many faithful today are elated at the return of sacred music into the life of the Church.

Plainchant, or singing in one melodic line (usually without instrumental accompaniment) has likely been with the Christian liturgy since the beginning of the Church. Different forms of plainchant developed in various regions (such as the Ambrosian variety in Milan, Italy, Gallican in present-day France and surrounding areas, and Sarum chant in Salisbury, England). Gregorian chant became the most popular by far, becoming the official liturgical music, not only for a region, but for the whole Roman rite.

Named after Pope Saint Gregory the Great, who reigned as pontiff from 590 to 604, Gregorian chant has a free, flowing rhythm. While there is an overall sound easily recognized as Gregorian, there are variations of this type of chant based on which part of the Mass or Divine Office is being sung. It does have a monophonic nature, but not one that is monotonous.

In the Middle Ages, independent chant lines began to be sung at the same time, resulting in an early form of polyphony called organum. This developed into Renaissance polyphony, which added beautifully “textured” ornamentation to the liturgy. Composers such as convert William Byrd in England, Orlande de Lassus in presentday Belgium, and Tomas Luis de Victoria in Spain helped to advance the cause of beauty in sacred song from 1400 to 1600.

No one is given more credit for this advancement than Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, an Italian whose polyphonic contributions were lauded by many not only inside the Church, but outside it as well, including by Johann Sebastian Bach. Palestrina was praised by Pope Saint Pius X in his 1903 motu proprio Tra Le Sollecitudini, writing that Renaissance (or “classical”) polyphony “agrees admirably with Gregorian Chant, the supreme model of all sacred music, and hence it has been found worthy of a place side by side with Gregorian Chant, in the more solemn functions of the Church…”

Music That Rises Again

Despite Pope Saint Pius X’s endorsement of music “worthy of the temple” that was reiterated by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, chant and polyphony were nowhere to be found in the average American parish in the latter half of the 20th century.

As the Church’s official music was being pushed out of parishes, it was gaining popularity in the culture at large. The ancient melodies were so moving to souls that they could not be completely repressed.

The Benedictine monks of Solesmes, France started recording chant all the way back in 1930 under the direction of Dom Joseph Gajard. In the early 1980s the monks of Solesmes began their association with Paraclete Press, which today is the sole North American distributor of their CDs, ranging from Christmas Masses to Easter Masses and many things (including the Divine Office) in between.

Paraclete Press also distributes the music of Gloriae Dei Cantores, an ecumenical choir formed in 1988 on the foundation of Gregorian chant. They have produced albums such as The Chants of Angels, which has sold over 23,000 copies and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, which has sold over 15,000. The numbers are even better for the monks of Solesmes, with their Vespers and Compline album selling over 40,000 copies.

While those stats are very respectable in the Catholic media world, they’re no match for the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain when it comes to commercial success. The monks released a CD in 1994 that was simply called Chant, and the results were astonishing. This collection of plainchant with a plain title became the most popular sacred music album ever, with over six million copies sold worldwide.

 Rebuilding Musical Foundations

Chant is obviously relevant today, which explains the existence of groups such as the Church Music Association of America, the Saint Gregory Institute of Sacred Music, and the Saint Michael Foundation for Polyphony and Chant— all of which promote sacred music according to the mind of the Church.

The oldest and largest of these groups is the Church Music Association of America (CMAA). Founded in 1964 in connection with Pope Saint Paul VI’s sacred music association, Consociatio Internationalis Musicae Sacrae, the CMAA facilitates the resurgence of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony through online resources, in-person events, and the publication of choir books and its quarterly journal, Sacred Music.

The managing editor of Sacred Music, Dr. Jennifer Donelson, also teaches young men studying for the priesthood about singing in the Church’s worship. As sacred music director of Saint Joseph Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York, she has the opportunity to take general liturgical goodwill and apply specific principles and instructions. Nicholas Lemme does the same at Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary in Denton, Nebraska, and Nicholas Will does it at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

Will is also the founder of the newest of the chant and polyphony groups, the Saint Gregory Institute of Sacred Music. Will started the Institute after encountering a plethora of musicians who were eager to perform sacred music but had no training in that area.

“Young people entering college are more interested in sacred music than in the past,” Will stated, “but there are also numerous musicians who have already obtained an undergraduate degree but do not find it feasible to enroll in graduate studies for sacred music. That’s where the Saint Gregory Institute comes into play.”

Will, who is in Rome for the 2019-2020 school year, oversaw the first “intensive” courses for the Saint Gregory Institute this summer in Pittsburgh and looks forward to when he will be back in the United States permanently so he can run semester-long courses—and resume his duties as coordinator of the sacred music program at Franciscan University of Steubenville. In the meantime, he is giving lessons via the Internet.

During the few years the Saint Michael Foundation has existed, its founder, Christopher Mueller, realized his organization was meant mostly to encourage non-musicians to promote sacred music. Mueller, who provided the music for a December 2008 Legatus Gala in New York City, sees laypeople not as idle listeners but actively receptive listener and congregational singers who can share the importance of sacred music with others.

“We have helped musicians to start chant programs and we have given concerts and handed out sheet music,” Mueller said, “but most of all we encourage the people in the pews to speak about this music to their pastors and to talk to other lay faithful about the importance of music in bringing reverence and beauty to the liturgy.”

This was a topic central to the pontificate of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who had a special appreciation for sacred music. The former Holy Father was quoted in the pre-papal Ratzinger Report as saying that “If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection?”

This radiance shone forth in the second-century martyr Saint Cecilia, whose feast day is November 22. Neither the threat of torture nor the torture itself prevented her from clinging to the promised resurrection of the dead in Christ. She also became the patroness of musicians, making her especially relevant today as sacred music comes back to life in the Church.

TRENT BEATTIE is a Legatus magazine contributing writer.