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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Chant a Plainsong unto the Lord

by Joanna Bogle

This article, which appeared in the January 13, 2005 edition of the National Catholic Register, is reprinted with the kind permission of the author.

Musician Jeremy de Satgé's passion for Gregorian chant and other treasures of the Church's repertoire led him to co-found The Music Makers, a music-publishing and promotion company, in his native Great Britain.

London organ

Now he's looking to extend his reach across the Atlantic.

Trained as a boy chorister, he became a wine merchant but has recently made music his full-time occupation. Married, the father of three small children, de Satgé spoke with Register correspondent Joanna Bogle from his home in South London.

What is the mission of The Music Makers?

Our rather grand aim is to try to help improve the state of Catholic music, particularly at the parish level, and to produce good quality music for parish choirs. I have been keen to promote the use of plainsong [chant] and to help priests and deacons in their singing as well. This has led to several CDs being recorded and distributed. Our CD Plainsong for Parishes contains six plainsong settings of the Mass and I have been amazed at how this has sold. I learned the other day that it is now course material at Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio).

Tell us about your musical and religious backgrounds.

First and foremost I'm a singer, and I hace sung in numerous cathedral and church choirs for as long as I can remember — my father was a well-known Anglican theologian and ecumenist. We were conscious as children that our Anglicanism had come more by accident and inertia than anything. My family, of French origin, living in Britain, had simply lost its Catholicism at some point during the late 18th century when various ancestors had married into English Protestant money.

In my late teens the pull of the Roman Catholic Church was very strong. I spent some time living in France and, by the age of 18, I had decided that I must become a Catholic. This I did in September 1977, on the feast of Saint Jerome. I do not feel like a convert; it all seemed so natural to me.

What's happened since then?

I started singing in the choir of Clifton Catholic cathedral, and then a year or so later we moved to London and started attending Mass regularly at Brompton Oratory, where I immediately come to love the fine liturgical and musical tradition. The High Mass at the Oratory was my regular Sunday Mass venue for more than 15 years. Eventually the call of music became stronger and I gave up my job in the wine trade and went to study at Trinity College of Music. I had always written music and took harmony lessons as part of the course. When asked, I say that I am a singer by training and a composer by instinct.

You are now music director at a busy, ethnically diverse parish in South London.

Yes. I train and direct a choir made up of amateur singers from the parish, many of whom do not read music.

Why is it so difficult to get Catholics to sing at Mass?

After the Reformation, with the monasteries gone and Catholicism banned, England became bereft of Catholic music. The cathedrals continued the tradition but under an Anglican umbrella. It wasn't really until the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850 that there was really any chance of new English Catholic church music, but maintaining a half-decent professional choir places a heavy financial burden.

My interest lies in helping parishes develop and improve their music. This involves developing a choir, preferably made up of parishioners who wish to sing for the love of God, and of trying to get the congregation to stretch their vocal chords as well.

Did the Pope's 1999 Letter to Artists inspire your?

It's a very inspired piece if writing and I find it incredibly moving and even daunting. In our rather mundane, cynical and secular age, it is especially useful to have a reminder that all art crafted by Christians should be a constant reflection on the beauty of the whole of creation and, in particular, on the deliberateness of the Incarnation.

What are your current projects?

We have several CDs, all avilable in America. Let Us Proclaim the Mystery of Faith came out in 2002, in conjunction with Saint John's Seminary, Wonersh (the seminary for the diocese of Southwark, England). It's aimed as a tutorial for priests, deacons and seminarians to learn how to sing the Mass. [CNP Note: This is no longer available, and has been replaced by And With Your Spirit, which provides a similar, more expansive tutorial for singing the Mass in English using the 2010 translation of the Roman Missal.] Another CD, Orate fratres, is the same thing, but in Latin. [CNP Note: Two other CDs, have been produced since this article was written: Adoro te, a collection of Eucharistic chants and hymns, and Exsultet: Chants for Holy Week and Easter.] I've also written a musical nativity play called The First Christmas , which has been published in America by GIA Publications in Chicago, and [just released] is my Passion according to Saint John, which is for Good Friday's solemn liturgy.

Can you offer any special tips for parish choirs or music directors?

We can do no better than starting with what the Church has to offer: settings of the Mass with an ancient tradition work well for both choir and congregational singing. There are at least 13 plainsong settings of the Mass readily available. The most popular is Mass VIII or de Angelis, but others, such as Mass XI, Orbis factor, may be added.

In our parish, I give the congregation copies of the Mass setting on a card in modern musical motation. I have been delighted with how the congregation now joins in with singing the Mass settings, as they have become more familiar. It's worth looking at the Introit verse for each Sunday: it sets the theme or "flavor," and can be very effectively sung on a monotone or simple three-note chant, making a dignified entrance to the Mass and also giving pause to the faithful as they meditate and consider the words. [CNP Note: See CNP's Advent Introits, Mass Propers for Advent, Mass Propers for Christmastide, Lent Introits, Mass Propers for Lent, and Mass Propers for Eastertide.] It's particularly effective if it is sung first in Latin and then in English.

Why do you think music has always been so central in worship?

There's something about music that can stir all emotions. I'm no scientist, but I would like to suggest that music engages the different parts of the brain at the same time, and in a particular all-embracing way. This should, at its best, help raise our hearts and minds to Almighty God.

Joanna Bogle writes from London.

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