Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Lecture Today

Today, September 30th at 8 PM in the rotunda of the Christendom Library I will give a lecture/demonstration entitled "Gregorian Chant: the Splendor of Forms." Prepare to be edified.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Lecture Tommorrow and Thank You!

On Tuesday, September 30th at 8 PM in the rotunda of the Christendom Library I will give a lecture/demonstration entitled "Gregorian Chant: the Splendor of Forms." Yes, 'forms' (plural). That will be a big part of the lecture. This is cosponsored by the library and the Beato Fra Angelico Fine Arts Series. Hope you can come.


Also as part of the Fine Arts Series, there will be a fortepiano recital on Wednesday, Nov. 12 at 8 PM and a Woodwind Quintet Concert on Saturday Nov. 22 at 7 PM.

P.S. Well, I guess due to the internet nothing is secret. I was given a birthday party with cake by my Palestrina choristers after our rehearsal yesterday and taken out to dinner later in the day. Honestly, I think the last birthday "party" I had was when I was either 11 or 12 years old. I was deeply touched. I want to thank all the people who came and especially those involved in the planning, whom I assume were the "usual suspects" - and who had to do it at the last minute. I don't always show my gratitude very well in person, so I want to make it clear in writing how moved I was. It was a very nice gesture (or series of gestures) and it meant a lot to me.

Many of these people were former students of mine, some are now married, one is a professor, and one is famous enough to . . . well you will find out soon enough. I remember my first year at the college and how angry and frustrated I was at something that was ocurring (can't go into details). I almost literally packed up and left (July/August 2000). After some painful years things finally worked themselves out. Had I not signed my contract and left that Summer of 2000, I would not have met ANY of these wonderful people who are now an important part of my life.

Thank you, all of you, for your friendship!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Uzi - Super Schola Dog

Due to his creator having to work on his Gregorian Chant Presentation - which will be Tuesday, Sept. 30, 8 PM, in the Christendom Library Rotunda - Uzi will be on extended sabbatical. He will come back sometime in October.
P.S. Although another Uzi episode will probably appear next Friday, Oct. 3 with a VERY special guest. I am sure you ladies will enjoy this one! K.P.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Reminder of Upcoming Lecture

On Tuesday, September 30th at 8 PM in the rotunda of the Christendom Library I will give a lecture/demonstration entitled "Gregorian Chant: the Splendor of Forms." Yes, 'forms' (plural). That will be a big part of the lecture. This is cosponsored by the library and the Beato Fra Angelico Fine Arts Series. Hope you can come.


Also as part of the Fine Arts Series, there will be a fortepiano recital on Wednesday, Nov. 12 at 8 PM and a Woodwind Quintet Concert on Saturday Nov. 22 at 7 PM.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

With Hope In Their Eyes . . .

One of the hardest things about hearing choir auditions - and I heard 35 of them this Fall - is to see the hope in the eyes of some of these young people. The vast majority were incoming freshmen. Some of the gals are still very innocent and sweet (a few of the guys, too, for that matter) with a touch of naivete. They clearly have this hope in their eyes . . . but what comes out of their mouths! I had to turn away 20 of them. Not all of them were terrible, but I couldn't take more than 15 new choristers and so had to rank them. Ironically - and I have noticed this over the years - at least half of the ones who say they are taking 'voice lessons' are much worse than the ones who have never had a voice lesson. A few are good, and one or two who take voice lessons are extremely good, but about 50% who have taken a year or more of voice lessons are pretty bad. Are they taking voice lessons because they are bad and trying to get better (but not succeeding), or is it that (I fear) the voice lessons are making them worse?

I know I have to do my job, but being the one who has to kill the hope in such innocent faces just breaks my heart sometimes. However, they survive and so do I.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

More from Wulstan

"The brilliance of Cardinal College was short-lived; its sky darkened first in 1528, when tremors of reformism were felt. Many of its canons had been attracted from Cambridge [though Wolsey had failed to secure Cranmer, Walter Haddon and Mathew Parker (KP: an unmitigated blessing, actually)] and were of a humanistic and reformist persuasion. Illegal books were discovered at the college, and Taverner himself was involved in the incident. Though ending in tragedy for some of his colleagues, Taverner escaped the stake, being, as the Dean said 'unlearned, and not to be regarded.' (i.e. a talented but dumb musician not to be taken seriously enough to be guilty of an intellectual heresy.) . . . (With the downfall and death of the college's founder, Cardinal Wolsey,) the great college which he cherished was run down. Its vestments, plate, music and other articles were confiscated by the king. The quantity of vestments was probably enormous - Magdalen, for instance, boasted more than a hundred chasubles and a hundred and fifty copes. Taverner returned to Lincolnshire, fully expecting that the college would be destroyed. It narrowly escaped this fate however, being instead refounded by Henry VIII as Christ Church, the college chapel becoming the cathedral of the new diocese of Oxford."

(Wulstan, David, "Tudor Music," pg. 268)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Papal Quotation on Sacred Music

"An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.”

Pope Benedict XVI
I have a poster on my office door with this quotation of which I am quite proud. However, I have had second thoughts. It initially sounds quite good, but I am made uneasy by the term "updating." This may very well be a poor translation of the Italian word for "renewal," which I find better. The problem is that you don't "update" sacred music - you PRESERVE it in regular practice, and then you ADD to its treasury, its storehouse, via those regularly experienced models.

"Updating" makes it sound like the model itself needs to be altered - electrical wiring put in, a new coat of paint, extensive interior remodeling, etc. OR it makes it sound like the model itself need not be preserved in regular practice, only that the architechts of the new need to refer to some old blueprints for "inspiration" when building the new buildings.

I doubt that either of these is what Papa Bene actually meant.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Uzi and the Alto

As the flames upward licked, Uzi placed another copy of 'Gather Comprehensive' in the fireplace to guard against a cold evening when he came across this article in his latest copy of Instaurare: "Band of Roving Altos Menace Campus."

"What has become of my beloved alma mater?," he said aloud, "and what of the choir? "and . . . what of the altos?" "They didn't used to be like this! They were so shy and unobtrusive, so - "unsoprano-like." (Well, at least unlike the caricature of the soprano prima donna.) He fondly recalled the T-shirt some of them used to wear: "The Alto Section: We're Not So Bad After All, In Fact We're Pretty Swell, When You Think About It, If You Have The Time, But - No Big Hurry."

Self-esteem issues. Talented, true; and very faithful - but, self-esteem issues. Well, that's what happens when you are the "composer's after thought." The sopranos soaring, the basses bounding, the tenors triumphant, but the altos - "Oh, yeah, I forgot, I guess I'll have them double the root of the chord." But then Uzi saw a name - Sally Schwartz - and things began to click. It seems she was the ring leader of this gang of altos. Sally, or "Big Gal Sal," used to taunt Polly when she would walk by in her Sunday finest. "Hey pretty girl," she would spit out, "why don't you come down off of those stilts and fight like a man." Everyone knew what the tough act was ultimately about. Sally was jealous of all the attention Polly got from Texas Schola Dawg.

Not that Polly wanted it. As far as Polly was concerned, Sally could have Texas Schola Dawg, all of him - all the time. But Texas Schola Dawg never noticed Sally, nor did any of the other tenors or basses.

After all, she was only an alto.

Four years of not being asked to Spring Formal, or rarely asked to dance at all. From this long term neglect can come bitterness and resentment - neglect's two misbegotten children - and then, a certain hardening. Sally first, but then, many of the other altos followed suit.

Often they would hang around outside of St. Catherine's waiting for the more girly sopranos to come out. Tripping them or shooting verbal darts like, "I've seen you without makeup," or "Are your hips getting bigger?," they would reduce them to tears. Polly watched with maternal concern. Something had to be done, but what? The administration was barely aware of the problem, student life only offered "mediation," the choir director was a hopeless artiste caught up in his own little world.

She needed action. She needed Uzi - Super Schola Dog. The problem was that she needed his HELP, she didn't need HIM, but sometimes he got the two confused. "And" she wondered, "could he deal with fighting girl dogs?" Still, this was an emergency. She had to try something. Sally swallowed hard and then sent out her distress signal.

Uzi responded immediately and, circling over the Christendom campus, spotted the girl fight (or the cat fight among dogs?) - this time near St. Augustine's. Still not sure what he was going to do, he landed suddenly, and the sight of a short, stocky dog with a cape dropping from the sky was enough to scatter all of them - except Sally. She stared menacingly at him, and he at her. He decided he was going to teach her a lesson.

A voice lesson.

So taking her into the St. Augustine piano room, he sat down with her at the piano and took her through some warm-up excercises, messa di voce, onset and release. They tried head/chest voice excercises and scales. She could easily sing above the staff, the notes in the middle of the staff were quite strong, and - surprise, surprise - her lower passaggio was an "f."

They both looked at each other. She spoke first.

"So you mean I'm not actually an alto, . . . I'm . . . a . . . a . . ."

"A mezzo-soprano," completed Uzi.

As a tear slid down her cheek, Sally removed her backwards baseball cap. A mound of golden, blonde hair (which Uzi had never seen) cascaded down her neck and shoulders. She removed her glasses. A cloud parted and a beam of gentle sunlight shined through the window and kissed her now pleasant face. She was beautiful. "My dear sir," she addressed Uzi, "you have awakened in me a spark of tenderness, of feminine sentiment I have not felt in years. For the first time in a very long time I feel like . . ."

"a woman."
Cut to: Main Street, Front Royal, Virginia

A lonely musician/writer artiste walks on a deserted sidewalk and passes the gazebo. He is about to cross the road when suddenly, almost out of nowhere, four black Lincoln Town Cars screech to a stop in front of him. Federal agents in dark suits, sunglasses, and ear pieces bound out and surround him menacingly.

"What's this all about?"

The leader shows him a badge. They are with the Federal Agency for Anti-discrimination Against Altos, Resulting in Outrageous Unemployment Troubles, or FAAAAR OUT, established in 1967. What had been a hippie-dippie agency founded at the tail end of Johnson's "Great Society," had acquired black-ops technology and "attitude" during the Reagan administration. For some odd reason, they kept the name.

"We have been monitoring your blog stories for sometime now and have decided to intervene," said the leader of the group. "Your sneering references to altos were bad enough, but implying that an alto isn't actually a woman is going too far. You have crossed the line Mister - and there will be a price to pay."

Suddenly, ten Front Royal police cars arrive. Sirens blaring, lights flashing, they surround the federal agents. Thirty deputies get out and train their rifles on the federal agents. A quintessential Southern Sheriff ambles out of one of the cars while hiking his pants over his almost obligatory paunch.

"What we have hyere, is a failure to communicate," he directs at the federal agents. "Haven't ah told you federal boys before that this hyere is mah jurisdiction?" "Now, he may be a Ca-tho-lick, but he is one of mah boys. And if he is a-misbehavin', ah will take care of it. You hyear?"

"But, we're federal agents, we have jurisdiction everywhere!," one of them said defiantly.

The Sheriff smiled and said, "Ah believe the answer to that is in what mah Ca-tho-lick friends call the principle of sub-si-dee-AR-i-TEE," he pronounced slowly. All thirty Front Royal deputies simultaneously cocked their rifles, as if to make the point a little more forcefully than St. Thomas would have.

"Now, ah will kahndly ask you boys to get your $1,000 Brooks Brothers suits back into yo' cars, and head back east on US 66. If'n ah ever need your help, AH will ask for it!," he spat at them. Then he grinned, "Y'all DON'T come back now, ya hear?"

The federal agents skulk back into their cars and drive off as the deputies laugh.

Finally, the sheriff turns to me. "Nahw boy. Haven't we a-been through this enough? Have you forgotten the soprano strike of 2002? D'ya really want to go through this agin, but with the altos? I know that when that muse comes a-knocking its hard not to let her in, but, boy, you have to excercise some more of what your St. Thomas calls, "pru-DEN-ti-a." Especially when it comes to the womenfolk."

"ESPECIALLY when it comes to the womenfolk," he repeats solemnly.

Looking down at my shoes shamefacedly, I shake my head affirmatively. "Yes sir, of course, sir."

"But ah likes you boy," he says touching my shoulder, "so that is whahy ah am gonna let you off with anotha warnin'." Pausing, he looks at me and says, "Yo sure have some talent, though. Ah love them doggie stories! You keep a-writin' them there doggie stories!"

He playfully wags a finger at me and says, "but ah'll be a-watchin' you, boy," and then a big wink to make sure I know its not too serious, "ah'll be a-watchin' you!"

I wait until the Front Royal police all drive off and then stand, alone, on Main Street. Breathing in the night air, I think about how glad I am to be alive, and out of trouble, I say a brief prayer:

"Thank God for altos - oh, and sopranos, too!"

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Western Art Music

Here are five characteristics of Western Art Music:

1)COMPOSER-CONTROLLED: in most societies, the performer is the 'final filter' through which the music passes. In Western art music, although this is true 'de facto' - and there certainly are different schools of interpretation - nonetheless, 'de jure' the composer exerts an awful lot of control over the final product via extensive written "regulations." This brings us to the next characteristic:

2)ELABORATE NOTATIONAL SYSTEM: the most elaborate music notation system known to mankind. According to the Grove's musical dictionary, Western notation "is a complex multiple hybrid system with very low redundancy, partly technical and tablature-like, partly representational." While not perfect, it allows a single individual (the composer) to communicate in incredible detail exactly how he wants his piece to sound. I wish to stress the extent to which this is something new in human history.

3)AUGENMUSIK: the German for "music of the eye," this is a difficult concept for some people to understand. I will say that it wouldn't be possible if characteristics #1 and #2 weren't there. It is the organization present in a substantial minority of Western compositions which is primarily-to-exclusively evident to the eye (i.e. in the notation). This organization is barely audible-to-inaudible - which is what trips most people up. "Aren't you supposed to HEAR music?" Well, yes, but this says something about Western music - this hidden means of organization which is seen as a challenge to composers (#1) who build this into the elaborate notational system (#2). Some examples would be: Ockeghem's Missa Prolationem and Machaut's
Ma fin e mon commencment.

4)HARMONIC PROGRESSION: The notion that a melody will have an accompanying chord progression is something new in human history, too. It emerges from Western counterpoint, which rather uniquely decides to organize the vertical alignments of notes (punctus contra punctum - point counter point) into particular harmonies. The notion of a chord progression is less than 1000 years old.

5)RAPID STYLISTIC CHANGE: Western "classical" music has actually gone through many different periods. The so-called Classical period (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven) didn't last a full 100 years.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Umbrellas of Cherbourg

Another interesting movie is Jacques Demy's 1964 "Umbrellas of Cherbourg." I had no idea what the title was about when I first heard it. I thought it must be something symbolic. However, it just refers to the fact that one of the main characters lives and works in an umbrella shop in the port city of Cherbourg, France with her widowed mother.

I suppose it might tie into the fact that umbrellas were then already being made in many different and bright colors. Not only do the mother and daughter sell such umbrellas, but the movie uses as its color scheme for clothing, wall paper and other things all of these wildly bright pinks, blues, purples, yellows, greens, etc. It is a harmlessly strange, technicolor fantasy world - a kind of homage to an old Hollywood meets just pre-Hippie early to mid-sixties when bright colors were starting to come in. (This is in contrast to the movie that Demy made just before, "Lola," which starred the famous European actress Anouk Amee and is referred to in this movie. "Lola" was in stark black and white.) The color on the original copies had faded, but Demy had saved negatives (I think for the three different primary colors) and the movie in all of its bright colors was restored by the Koch Lorber laboratories sometime in the 90's.

Far more interesting to me is that every line of the movie is sung. It is a modern opera. Demy employed the then still fairly unknown Michel Legrand who went on to compose such famous emotive hits as "Windmills of Your Mind" and "What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life?" There are two famous hit songs out of this movie: "(If It Takes Forever) I Will Wait for You" and "See What Happens." Legrand shows that he is more than just a tunesmith as he composes the music "in between" the hit songs, what would be called the "recitative" in an opera. Actually, I find this music to be more interesting as Legrand gets into some more sophisticated jazz and Latin styles and handles them rather deftly. This music is not so over-the-top emotionally.

A very interesting thing is that, even though the music can be heard as divided into recitative and aria - as in a traditional opera - the text isn't written that way. Not only are there all sorts of trivial lines like "the engine doesn't knock anymore except when it is cold," and "do you want super or regular?" (something which you might expect in a recitative section) the aria (song) texts are like that as well. Moreover, the song texts aren't strophic with a repeated number of syllables per verse with rhyme. The composer has to sometimes cram all sorts of syllables into the melody the second time around to get things to fit. It works, basically, but in a very unconventional way. The English versions of these songs that we know are very loose translations which capture the basic mood but which are cast in a much more conventional poetic form.

Anyway, I won't say much about the plot except that, modern opera or not, like most operas it is an excuse for the music. The libretto is so-so and a very sentimental tear-jerker, the plot is very poorly developed in places. It is basically about two young people who think they are in love and do something very dumb to mess up their lives. They end up marrying other people anyway, so it was pointless - except now they have something between them, even though they have nothing more between them. (If you can figure that out!) The movie ends with a very bitter chance meeting between the two of them when the young man finally gets to see his illegitimate daughter.

Watch it for the pretty colors and music, and a young Catherine Deneuve playing Genevieve.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cockney Expressions

From my trip to London and English movies I have seen:

'ere (here) - used to begin almost every sentence.

'ello (hello) - obviously a greeting, but used more for surprise or in a slightly leering fashion.





geezer - just means "man," not "old man," as in North America.

clobber - raincoat

me - often substituted for 'my.'

proper - it means the same thing as in America, they just use it more often where we would use other words (correct, real, etc.)

playing a fiddle - stealing money or supplies systematically from an employer.

cloth ears - used for someone who isn't listening.

bleedin' - an overused intesifying adjective that is not used in polite society, but I am not sure if it is a swear word or just 'common' - or somewhat in between.

[plus a whole bunch of other expressions I can't repeat]

Monday, September 15, 2008

More on Different Types of Singing

In David Wulstan's Book, "Tudor Music," there is a chapter entitled "A High Clear Voice" dealing with the main two schools of voice production which I referred to in my post "Ah, Professional Rivalries." Wulstan speaks of the "cavernous and chinless gape seen on the operatic stage, associated with a consistently lowered tongue and retracted jaw (one might also add a lowered larynx)." He speaks of some pictures taken of the opera singer Enrico Caruso "taken in the act of singing each of the five cardinal vowels [as] peculiarly comical, ranging from an impression of a splenetic mafioso to that of a canvassing politician about to engage in statuatory baby-kissing. They unwittingly illustrate the 'uncomely gape of the mouth' disliked by Ornithoparcus and Finck. The Renaissance singer made the vowels with the tongue as in speech; the late nineteenth century, however, subverted natural methods by attempting to make the vowels with the mouth in order to keep the tongue low and static. It was Garcia (1840) who advocated the new technique which had come from the Parisian Opera a few years earlier and was called the voix sombree. The flattened tongue, withdrawn jaw and low position of the larynx, together with a consequent high breath pressure, fitted in with the Romantic ideal of eveness of loud tone. . . . this is in contrast with the classical low-pressure, which generated lower energy sounds having a high-frequency-emphasized harmonic content. The Romantic voice production was not espoused by all, for the old method of production survived with tenancity in certain places, and not only in English cathedral choirs. The agility displayed by Jenny Lind, for example, came from a higher and freer position of the larynx."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Uzi - Super Schola Dog

Uzi's supersonic ears perk up as he hears the faint sound of a guitar twanging in a Catholic church somewhere. Not an uncommon sound. In fact, it is about as common as styrofoam in a McDonald's wastebasket, but this time it is different. It is accompanied by the cry of distress of Sweet Polly Purebred. [Polly is the representative of all that is pure and noble, sweet and innocent, faithful and true about the Christendom College soprano section. (Not that there's anything wrong with the altos!)] She is in distress because - she is being forced to sit through a guitar Mass!

Immediately Uzi takes off, flying on his own power, and locking into the sound of Polly's cry he follows it like a laser beam to its source. He finds the miscreants (2 of them), strumming away, and proceeds to deliver several well placed jujitsu blows, afterwards breaking the guitars over their heads. But being the soul of charity that he is, his job being done, he picks them up, dusts them off, shakes their hands and then sends them each off with a copy of the "Parish Book of Chant" personally autographed by Jeffrey Tucker.

He then proceeds to sing the remaining propers and lead the congregation in a rousing rendition of Chant Mass X (Alme Pater). The monsignori and ministri beam.

"Why, thank you kind sir," gushes Polly. "How can I ever repay you?" Normally Uzi would accept no reward for doing his duty, but this time something strange happens. An eerie light shines on his countenance and a smirk plays at the corner of his lips while we hear our heroic hound say, "Well darlin', how about a big keeeees." (Oh, no! Do we detect the maleficent influence of that corny canine, that palavering parvenu, that obstreperous occidental, "Texas Schola Dawg"?)

"Well, I mean . . . but you see . . . umm . . . uh," stammers our heroine. Drops of sweat trickle down her back, as our plucky Polly tries to extricate herself from this one. You see, Uzi is still young and impressionable, basically a good lad, but obviously under the influence of her archnemesis, Texas Schola Dawg - as Polly sees all too clearly! Can she deflect him gently, while not devastating our young superhero whose powers are so vital to humanity?

Let's see just how resourceful our girl is.

"I suppose you've kissed all of the sopranos, just like Texas Schola Dawg?," Polly began. "Well, uh, he SAYS he has and I . . . uh . . . are you implying there's something wrong with the altos?" he countered. "Well, of course not, just follow me on this one," continued Polly. "If I were to kiss you, than I would be just like all of the other sopranos to you," - "and altos," he added - "and altos," she continued somewhat grudgingly, "and thus I wouldn't be special to you anymore. And that's very important to a girl," she said flipping her hair ever so slightly.

Uzi arched an inner eyebrow. "I guess I never thought of it that way."

Warming to her point, Polly continued, "so you see, the less physical contact we have, in fact, the less we see of each other, the more special I will be to you."

"Uh . . . OK . . .," he said slowly, like a Thomist trying to follow a Phenomenologist's argument. "I think I . . . uh . . . see your point . . ."

Not knowing when to stop, our Polly tried to continue with this train of thought - not quite realizing that, due to a strike by the United Brotherhood of Railroad Switchers and Tracklayers Union, Local #547, the track was to run out soon.

"You are like my knight in shining armor and I am one of those damsels for whom you joust and slay dragons." "You see, you devote yourself to me and do all these things for me, but, at most, you might occasionally catch a glimpse of me in a parapet of a castle. I get to wear all sorts of cool clothes and, frankly, I would be marrying someone else."

"Marrying someone else?" he queried.

"I mean, I would be . . . uh . . . burying . . . uh . . . someone's belts. Yeah, that's it!" she said, realizing she had gone too far.

"Burying someone's belts?"

"It's one of the corporal acts of mercy," she said, thinking fast. "You know, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bury the dead, bury their . . . (gulp) . . . belts . . ."


"Didn't you have that in Doctrine?"

"Uh, I don't remember. I must have been absent that day."

"Well, it was an old Medieval custom for ladies of the manor to perform this work of mercy." she explained. "It's making a come back. There's an article in the Remnant about it."

Polly felt pretty stupid, but Uzi seemed to accept this. He may be strong and able to fly around but when it comes to grey matter . . . let's just say that he was the first student from Christendom allowed to graduate with a double major in liturgical music and fashion design - with much of the core curriculum waived.

Uzi caught sight of his stunning blue cape and bright red booties and was pleasantly distracted. "Oh, I think I hear another distress call, I must be going."

"Oh, so soon?" said Polly. "Well, of course, duty calls." She watched him fly off.

What will become of Uzi? Will he continue on his course, straight and true? Will Texas Schola Dawg try to continue drawing him into the dark side? Will Polly learn when to stop her verbal fantasias? Will the altos ever get a story of their own? - because there's nothing wrong with them!

For answers to these and other questions. Tune into this station. Same time, next week for another episode of "Uzi - Super Schola Dog."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Charismatics, Cholerics, and Contemporary Liturgy

One of the many problems with the loss of a sense of ritual and the insertion of "spontaneity" (even the insertion of "options") into a liturgy is that it doesn't unite people - it divides them. I have always thought that Tevye's understanding of tradition (at least in the sense of "custom") was on the mark. "We do it this way, well . . . because this is the way we have always done it!" Not that there can't be bad customs that need to be changed, but, as Thomas said with law, it is perilous to change something unless there is a very good reason for the change - the good brought by the change has to outweigh the bad effects (many of which are not realized until the change is made.)

However, we live in a society which puts a premium on change and revels in individual choice. This may have its merits, but when it comes to a common ritual that an entire community needs to embrace this can be problematic.

We do not have this practical problem at my college, but I do encounter Catholics who will argue that there should be different liturgies to suit, not only different consituencies, but different personalities. "Well, I'm an outgoing person and need a more contemporary liturgy, etc." I get that with some charismatics (although frankly not all charismatics are cholerics, some are deeply wounded melancholics who have found an outlet for emotional release in charismatic doings.)

As Chesterton said, "tradition involves submitting to the great senate of the dead." A variation on Tevye, it is "we do it this way because our fathers and forefathers did it this way - they have us outvoted." And that is the sense of a community reaching through time and a common ritual that clearly expresses ALL of us - the Mystical Body of Christ reaching out through time and "space." (the Church through the generations AND the Church militant, suffering and triumphant.)

In other ages, choleric people with bad taste would have gone to a quick low Mass - or with better taste would have sung in the choir (because they are so outgoing) and then would have gone about their choleric doings. However, there would have been no sense that they were participating in anything other than the ritual of the Mass common to all (Roman Rite) Catholics.

Now they have their own symbol, and that is problematic.

Another thing Bugnini didn't consider.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Upcoming Lecture

On Tuesday, September 30th at 8 PM in the rotunda of the Christendom Library I will give a lecture/demonstration entitled "Gregorian Chant: the Splendor of Forms." Yes, 'forms' (plural). That will be a big part of the lecture. This is cosponsored by the library and the Beato Fra Angelico Fine Arts Series. Hope you can come.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Sad News

I found out that yesterday our previous athletic director, Mr. Tom Vanderwoude, died while saving his adult Downs Syndrome son from drowning. The son whom I had seen many times on campus, who seemed to be in his early twenties, had fallen into the family septic tank. He was rescued by the dad, but for some reason, Mr. Vanderwoude didn't make it.

I didn't know Mr. Vanderwoude very well, but he was always nice and friendly to me. I would have put him somewhere in his late 60's-early 70's. He had a personality somewhat like my father's. He had a big family. Another of his sons is a priest, and still another one, Chris, took over for him last year as athletic director for the college.

As I find out more I will relay it. Please pray for the repose of his soul and for the consolation of his family.
A little bit more information: http://www.christendom.edu/news/releases.shtml#vw

Another thing I did not blog about initially, because I wasn't sure of the outcome, was that my uncle Ray (my middle name's sake) for some reason had a spell when he was in the bath on Saturday night and couldn't get out. When he didn't show up at Sunday Mass people worried, but when his neighbors didn't see him around for several days, they got the fire department to break down the door. He was taken to the hospital with pneumonia, starvation/hydration, and, I think, some sort of cardiac irregularity. (He was in the tub semi-to-unconscious for three days.) He was quite delirious. He has made a rather remarkable recovery, and does not seem to have had a stroke or heart attack. In fact, they are not quite sure what the problem was. In fact he is so much better that he is complaining about various things at the hospital - always a good sign, and seems to be more his old self. He is not yet completely better as he has to have a feeding tube, but I am told that this is not a bad sign. It probably will be only temporary.

Please keep him in your prayers as well.

Monday, September 8, 2008


I have for some time been a fan of the original movie version of Alfie - the version with a young Michael Caine which was made in 1966. It was a play originally. There has been an updated version which was made a few years ago with the actor Jude Law. I have not seen it yet for a number of reasons.

This is a movie which is definitely NOT "high art," but it is a well crafted moral tale. Yes, a moral tale - always a dangerous thing to do. It is walking a tight rope to do something like this without it becoming "preachy," but I think the director Lewis Gilbert pulls it off well. There is also a decent jazz score by Sonny Rollins and then, at the very end of the movie, the famous Burt Bacharach song "What's it all about, Alfie?" sung by a then very young Cher (still of Sonny and Cher).

Much of the movie is carried, though, by Michael Caine who does a superb acting job. He plays a thirtyish cockney Lothario who is really quite bad. He uses and throws women away (including married women) like it's going out of style - and the women quite foolishly fall for him and pine the loss of him. They can't get enough of him. He is so darn charming, though (and I say this as a man). He's not quite what the British called a "teddy boy," but he's roughly of the same era and definitely a bit of a dandy.

However, it is basically the story of a very self-centered man who is mercifully given an opportunity to change through some very intense suffering.

Just to touch on a few highlights, he gets this young woman, Gilda, pregnant and she has the child, a boy. She names him "Malcolm." He actually keeps in touch with her and the child and he grows rather fond of the boy. There is another man, Humphrey, who is very much in love with her, but she will have little to do with him. He is a very plain looking man - not ugly - but very plain in his looks and personality. Nonetheless, he is very taken with her. She clearly is waiting around hoping that Alfie will marry her and fully take up his responsibilities as father of the child. This goes on for 3-5 years! (I can't quite tell exactly how old the boy is.) Ultimately she starts taking Humphrey more seriously and, when Alfie makes it clear he has no interest in marrying her, she agrees to marry Humphrey.

Finally, she made the right choice. If she wants real love, she's going to get it from Humphrey rather than Alfie.

Alfie goes away, but - though he has no problem moving on to other women (he already had done this romantically) - it really bugs him that he can no longer see his child. This is something new to him. A crack in his armor. He talks about this to his other "girlfriends," and to the audience. (A feature of the movie is that he will ignore theatrical convention and talk to the audience.) He says, "now you can replace a bird, but a child is each one unique." (He also will refer to a woman as "it," but not the child.)

Later, toward the end of the movie, he gets the wife of a friend pregnant. He procures an abortion for her which is performed in his apartment. (Apparently she is given an injection which kills the fetus and then she has to wait to give birth.) She tells him to leave after she is given the shot by this very creepy abortion doctor. Abortion was still illegal - at least after 3 months - in England at that time so that's why it had to be so clandestine (i.e. at his apartment). He goes out for a walk and sees Malcolm, his son, running out of a church. Then he sees Humphrey, now his legal father, come out and playfully scoop him up and take him back into the church. Alfie can't stand this and goes in to see what is going on. From the back of the church he sees that Humphrey and Gilda (now husband and wife) have had a baby and are having him baptized. Thus one child is being born into eternal life while another was being snuffed out. Alfie watches this new family leave the church (clearly with grandparents, relatives, friends, etc.) very happy while he skulks behind a pillar. He is very hurt by this. Another chink in his armor.

After this he goes back to his apartment to find the dead fetus - his son. In a very good piece of acting - and with the camera exclusively on his face - he picks up the dead child and tears fill his eyes. He runs out crying and goes for a walk with a male friend. Later he says to the friend, "I guess I killed him." (i.e. the boy) Alfie moves on to an older woman named Ruby with whom he had already started to have an affair. She is played by Shelly Winters. I suppose she is a forty-something very experienced, blowsy, cut-rate Mae West. He likes her because, as he says, "the young birds are always talking about love, but she never does. She knows what she wants and she's going to get it." Don't let this fool you as he also talks to the audience about how he is thinking of settling down with her. He is looking for some sort of stability in his life.

Ruby had given him a key to her apartment very foolishly, and he walks in on her unexpectedly when she is with a young rock guitarist. During the confrontation he asks her, "so what's he got that I don't have?" She says, "he's younger than you, Alfie. You get it?!" Another big crack in his armor. Alfie gets his comeuppance. He finally is used by an older, more experienced woman, the way he has been using women younger than himself.

The movie ends with his famous, "What's it all about?" monologue delivered near the Thames. (I tried to find the spot when I was in London this Summer, but didn't succeed.) Afterward he is approached by a little dog whom he had shooed away at the very beginning of the movie. He walks off with the dog - this once very popular ladies' man - now reduced to having this stray mutt as his only willing companion. It is a very cutesy ending but, well, I can put up with it.

So the movie ends with a man who - against his own will - is given the gift of an opening to grace. This opening was brought on by his own bad behavior. He was allowed to suffer the hammer blows of fate - the result of his own choices - and thus have an opening made in the thick shell of his ego. It is a profoundly religious movie without in any way being overtly so - kind of like a Flannery O'Connor short story. The movie ends with him yet to make a choice, not because it is "modernistically ambiguous," but because the movie is the story of a particular sort of fallen soul and how God tries to reach such people. That is the point. It is up to them to decide. Some say "yay," some say "nay." Free will.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Purpose of Clothing

As I start my tenth year at Christendom College, one of the things the stricter dress code has taught me is that the purpose of clothing, aside from covering nakedness, is charity - not feeling comfortable - but charity to others. Have you ever seen a middle-aged over weight man in shorts and a T-shirt? Ugh. Put that same man in something more formal (it doesn't have to be a three-piece suit) and it makes a big difference. I am not yet proposing anything specific that we should wear except to say, in general, that it should be 'nice,' pleasant to look at. We used to know that - and not too long ago. Now the emphasis is on 'comfort.' Well, the over weight guy probably feels very comfortable but he is very unpleasant for the rest of us to look at.

Now before anyone comes at me with how uncomfortable clothing used to be in the "bad old days," I will concede the point. Very formal attire can be very uncomfortable at times. (I had a female friend tell me how, quite unexpectedly, she recently had to walk a long distance in 4 inch heels. The result was a terrible open sore on her foot.) I am not insisting that women always have to wear heels or that men always have to wear ties. What I am speaking against is the sans-culotte look of the past 30 years or so, whereby it is considered normal for adults to walk around in public in T-shirts and jeans.

Sorry, I just think it's a bad idea. We owe each other something more. Something more beautiful. Something more adult - and the homeliest and plainest of people can look decent, presentable - even aesthetically pleasing - when they wear nice clothes. And let's face it, even the basic "covering of nakedness" part of clothing is not to prevent sins against chastity, for the bulk of humanity it is to prevent a sin against aesthetics.

At least that is what I hear the situation is like in nudist colonies.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Julia Austin Choral Conducting Recital

I will be singing in the choir for Julia Austin's master's choral conducting recital which will be this Friday (Sept. 5) at 8:00 PM in St. Vincent chapel on the campus of Catholic University of America in Washington DC. Among other things we will be performing J.S. Bach's LOBET DEN HERRN, Haydn's ABENDLIED ZU GOTT, Britten's HYMN OF THE VIRGIN, and Faure's REQUIEM. It is a good group of CUA music students and a few of us Front Royalians who knew Julia when she was music director in the local parish.

If anyone is in the area, you are more than welcome to come.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Anthony Smitha Dream Blog Parody

OK, here goes: So I (Kurt) am on my trip to London and the plane is landing at Heathrow, but there is something very dark and grainy about the feel of it - almost like a newsreel. It doesn't look like London 2008, but rather like Berlin 1938. All of the sudden I find myself at this massive Nazi rally, but find out that Hitler is feeling under the weather. They ask me if I will fill in for him, but I decline because my German is not that good. All of the sudden this guy starts pushing his way through the crowd saying, "I'll do it! I'll do it!" (in English!) It turns out to be Anthony. Surprisingly, they let him do it - although Himmler expresses some concern that Anthony will try to flirt with Eva Braun. Anthony walks up to the podium looking and dressed, well . . . exactly like Anthony, but then proceeds to give a rousing address in perfect German with all of Hitler's mannerism's down pat. The audience goes wild.

Sure enough, later in the evening, I see Anthony sidling up to Eva Braun on a bench. Tapping his cheek closest to her he says, "Gibst du mir ein Kuss?"

Then all of the sudden I am in Michael Collin's car and he is driving me home from Dulles Airport. When we get to where I live, the house is gone. There clearly was a big explosion and Draper is riding his tricycle around what is left of the foundation. When I ask Michael what happened he says, "didn't you know that Anthony was working counter intelligence for the US government? He infiltrated the Third Reich and uncovered a German spy ring in America. Your landlord was a German spy, so, of course, they had to blow his house up."

When I ask about the steps to my apartment that my landlord had started constructing Michael says, "Oh, well, they laid down this special tarp before they blew up the house so that the steps would be protected. That way, when he gets out of prison in 99 years, he won't have to start from scratch to finish your steps . . ."

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Ah, Professional Rivalries

I had a student audition who had a very good classically trained voice. Why she auditioned I don't know because after singing a stunningly good audition (and after I mentioned that she would have to tone down the vibrato and chest voice a bit for our choir) she said that her voice teacher back home said she shouldn't sing straight tone because that would "ruin her voice." I pointed out how it is good to be flexible, how I go back and forth between the two with no problem, and how Marilyn Horne started out singing Renaissance polyphony before she went on to become a famous opera singer - but to no avail. Her past two voice teachers said that this sort of singing would "mess up her voice," so, well, she would have to give it a year and think about it.

Fine. But, really, this is ridiculous. I know of such vocal teachers who want to lock students into a particular form of singing - the hard-toned, chest voice with the big vibrato. And then, this is all they can sing. And on the off chance that they have any sort of career in opera, let alone become famous, this is the only way they will be able to sing. So when they decide to be "diverse" and put out a "jazz album" or selection of "popular tunes" they end up sounding ridiculous with what has turned into an uncontrollable Brunhilda voice.

A straight jacket. (or iron corset?) Poor girl. She's caught in the middle of a professional rivalry between two camps: the "Early Music Straight Toners" and the "Operatic Chest Thumpers." Even though I do mostly "early music" for a living I fall more in the middle. It is a series of gradations. You need to develop chest voice AND head voice and learn how to mix them and move back and forth.

Anyway, I don't want this to happen to any of my voice students.

Monday, September 1, 2008

From a Talk to Incoming Freshmen

Let me start off with a story. Shortly after World War II, two trains pulled up at a station along the French/German border. The hostilities between the two countries had, of course, been intense, with much suffering, pain and death. Out of one train came Frenchmen, and out of the other, Germans. When they recognized each other, both groups stopped–no, they froze–staring at each other, in bitter, stone silence. You could cut the tension with a knife. Suddenly, someone intoned Credo III – and everyone joined in. The tension was relieved, hardened hearts were softened, and why?—because they were reminded that deep down, they were brothers, brothers in Christ. They were not just German or French, they were Catholics.

Now, would the same thing have happened had they merely recited the Creed? Maybe, but I don’t think so. The reason is that we live by symbols—artistic symbols, whether liturgical or non-liturgical, whether high art or popular art. Music, painting, literature, these things sum up who we are, what we believe, and what we think life is all about. This may seem strange that I am saying this at an institution of higher learning, a liberal arts college, where the focus is understandably on rational thought and intelligent discourse about ideas. These “left-brained” things are extremely important and that is why we study ideas and logic, however, it is in the “right-brain” that most people live their lives. The recitation of a creed and the doctrines involved, though extremely important, will generally not move someone to tears. But to sing a creed (or any other prayer), ah, that’s different—and that is why an artistic symbol (music in this case) is extremely important.

As St. Augustine said, it was through sacred music that “truth filtered into my heart and from my heart surged waves of devotion.”