Thursday, September 13, 2007

Mass with strings attached

"There was a very intelligent woman who was not a Christian. She began to listen to the great music of Bach, Handel and Mozart. She was fascinated and said one day: 'I must find the source of this beauty,' and the woman converted to Christianity, to the Catholic faith, because she had discovered that this beauty has a source, and the source is the presence of Christ in hearts, it is the revelation of Christ in this world."

I was reminded of those words recently spoken by the Holy Father this past Tuesday, when I had the great blessing to attend Washington's first-ever Gold Mass — a "Mass of the Holy Spirit for Professionals in Music and the Performing Arts" at the St. Stephen Martyr Catholic Church.

The church wisely did not advertise the providers of the Mass's music in advance (there is only one real Star of this show), but, now that it's over, the lineup is well worth mentioning. The Kennedy Center Quartet, whose namesake venue is in St. Stephen's parish, provided string accompaniment (among its members is acclaimed cellist David Teie). Alongside them was the church's own trumpeter, Phil Snedecor and its Schola Cantorum, whose lineup includes several excellent opera singers. Directing the music was St. Stephen's organist, Christopher Candela, a real treasure. His long and impressive résumé includes five years as an assisting organist at St. Matthew's Cathedral and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Auxiliary Bishop Martin Holley (right) was the main celebrant. The entire Mass was sung.

Here, from the booklet provided for worshippers, are the main musical selections that were heard (not counting plainsong chants):

Prelude music —
Mein glaubiges Herze, J.S. Bach
Fantasia in G Minor, J.S. Bach
String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Opus 110, Shostakovich

Opening hymn —
"Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven"

[The Confiteor was sung to a melody based on Russian chant, adapted by Candela. It was lovely and moving.]

Kyrie Choral Extensions (from Missa Aetera Christi Munera), Palestrina [sung by the Schola]

Gloria (from Coronation Mass, K 317), Mozart

Preparation of Altar and Gifts —
My Eyes for Beauty Pine, Herbert Howells [sung by Schola]

Hymn —
"Spirit Seeking Light and Beauty"

Agnus Dei (from Missa in Simplicitate), Jean Langlais

Communion motets [sung by Schola] —
Super flumina babylonis, Palestrina
Salmo 150, Ermani Aguiar

Final hymn —
"Holy God, We Praise Thy Name"

Recessional —
Suite in D Major for Trumpet and Strings, Purcell

If anyone present had tin ears (and I doubt it, judging by the quality of the voices in the pews), they still got to hear a great homily by Father John Albert Langlois, OP, director of formation at the Dominican House of Studies. He explored the question of whether it is possible for a composer to create inspired music without living a holy life. His answer was that musical talent is a gift from God — one that, like all divine gifts, can never be deserved. The only proper response is to return it to its Source.

That Source felt very present as the Schola sang and the players performed the glorious musical selections. Now, I wouldn't argue that such classic musical selections all deserve a place in the everyday liturgy. Many of them were written as concert selections, many are longer than the usual hymns, and it felt a bit strange to stand as some of them were played (like the gorgeous Mozart "Gloria"); the temptation was to sit down and let them wash over me. But there's no question that it truly felt like a "Mass of the Holy Spirit."

I wasn't the only one who felt it. As I entered the church, I was walking behind a health aide pushing a wheelchair in which sat a very old woman elegantly dressed in purple. I saw the old woman again at Mass's end, when we were singing, "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," as Bishop Holley recessed up the aisle, blessing the worshippers. She followed him up the aisle — pushing her empty wheelchair.

The woman's health aide followed her, a hand supporting her back. But the woman didn't seem to need the help. Seeing me gazing at her with an open-mouthed smile, she smiled in return and gave me a friendly wave. She looked so joyful — like a toddler whose parents' allowed her to have fun pushing her own empty baby carriage.

Outside the church, I told Monsignor Edward J. Filardi, St. Stephen's pastor, that it was the first time I'd ever seen someone enter a church in a wheelchair and leave pushing her wheelchair. He told me that the woman had just turned 100 years old. That would mean she was born a year after Shostakovich, whose music we had heard. I'd like to think that he, and the other late composers who gave their gifts back to God, were delighted that day to see how God's gifts, through their human labor, keep on giving.