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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous


by Rev. John T. Zuhlsdorf

"Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga come e, bisogna che tutto cambi. Mi sono spiegato?" (If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. Get it?) Quoted from The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

Ascending the few deep stairs from the Corso Vittorio Emanuele one passes through wooden doors that shut out the noise of the Roman traffic and enters the grand Church of San Andrea della Valle. Its vast nave and ceiling far overhead, many side altars used by generations of Teatini who hold the church, tease forth numberless associations: Act One of Tosca with its promise of blood and passion; the brutal baron singing in counterpoint with the Te Deum; the sheer magnificence of a true renaissance humanist such as is embodied in the figure of Pope Pius II, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini di Corsignano, entombed across the nave from his relative, Pius III; the cupola, second only in height and size in Rome to Saint Peter's, lifting one's eyes as if to the hope of paradise which it depicts. Passing through the right transept and into a little chapel near the sanctuary, one's eyes are struck by the sight of a real saint, dressed in the blazing porpora sacra of a prince of the Church, a cardinal. San Giuseppe Maria Tomasi, C.R., scion of the princes of Lampedusa, a noble family of Sicily, entered the Teatini in Palermo. He was brilliant in modern and classical languages, learning even Hebrew and Siriac He published books on scripture and theology. But he is particularly well known for his contribution to liturgy, and for that he has been called "prince of Roman liturgists" and a true forerunner of the Second Vatican Council. His Holiness, John Paul II, solemnly proclaimed him a saint on October 12, 1986, and his feast is celebrated on January 3. He died in Rome in 1713.

The connection? The author of the quote at the beginning of this reflection was also a Giuseppe Tomasi, Duke of Palma and Prince of Lampedusa. This one was born in 1896 in Palermo and died in Rome in 1957, 243 years after his sainted ancestor. Il Gattopardo or The Leopard was published after the death of its author and treats of the decline of the old ways and the adjustment to the new ways of the world during the turbulent years of Garibaldi and the fall of the House of Bourbon from the experience of his own imperiled and declining family.

In the book, the prince, the Leopard, "watched the ruin of his own class without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move towards saving it." He knew the effort would be futile and that the end was near. However, almost as if by accident the choices he makes somehow assure a continuation of his family, if only for awhile. The quote at the beginning of this essay is an ironic statement made by the Leopard's nephew Tancredi early in the book. It aptly summarizes the younger and newer approach to the onslaught of uncontrollable circumstances. Tancredi, a man of action in contrast to the prince's older style of patient aristocratic endurance, says: "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change."

Years ago I wrote in Sacred Music a two-part personal reflection from the perspective of a convert from the Lutheran confession about the impact of the Latin liturgy and its music on my life. They drew me with gentle and almost intoxicating tenderness into the arms of the Church, which I entered with great zeal and not a little naiveté. Some years later, and a great many bumps, bruises and lessons along the way, an update is due. I write now from a new perspective as well. My place of residence is now Rome and I am a deacon, soon to be ordained a priest.

But arriving at this point has not been easy, and the struggles have slowly shaped and formed me. I now have come to hold ideals and goals regarding music and the liturgy not previously expected, though it can be said that they are genuine outgrowths of those initial roots set down at the Church of Saint Agnes in Saint Paul, Minnesota. To understand this point, however, and what is meant by the odd quote at the top, starting near the beginning and then looking forward is almost unavoidable.

It was during my instruction and conversion that I had been encouraged to involve myself in all kinds of parish activities, the most important of which was singing in the polyphonic and Gregorian chant choirs. From Mozart and Haydn, the baroque architecture of the church, the vestments and changing seasons, it became clear how so many different elements participate in the creation of a whole, carrying astonishing impact on the receptive person who merely permits them to enter. But nothing approached the impact of Gregorian chant, learned from Paul LeVoir and the men of the schola cantorum. In short, with an entrance into the Church, not only a new faith was gained, but a new culture built through the centuries. Knit so closely together with the faith itself, by its very reception the heritage became my own as well. To paraphrase Newton, my discoveries were made while standing on the shoulders of giants.

Simultaneously with this experience of the Church through the liturgy, my pastor encouraged me to read and study everything that could be absorbed. Monsignor offered catechisms from different periods and styles, works by spiritual writers, historical fiction, the writings of Karol Woytyla as well as his teachings as pope, and the documents of the Second Vatican Council (not to mention an invitation to subscribe to Sacred Music). It was electrifying. At my reception into the Church I was armed with not only the aforementioned zeal and naiveté, but also a certain grasp of what the council had taught. I had at least read the documents.

But no sooner had I entered the door of God's house, taken off my coat and hat and started to settle into this new home, when to my horror it became apparent that the landlords and other tenants were not only demolishing the furnishings, they were calling in the wrecking ball.

This is hardly figurative. Before my very eyes, churches and seminary chapels were being mutilated and disfigured, vestments sent to the dumpster and books cast away. The sad face of a discouraged construction worker "reforming" an exquisite inlaid marble floor with a jack-hammer in what was to become a "worship space" will stay with me to my dying day.

But by the time I had come to see that vandalism, it had become obvious that the prevalent attitude toward music in the Church is today — along with Catholic art, education, practice, everything — founded on similar ideals. While trying to get the point of what they were striving to accomplish, this thought came to mind: Now they have to destroy the churches themselves...they are all that remain. It was then that a new ideal developed: Keep what we have and restore it to perfection, thus preserving our treasures, our heritage. If we want something altogether new, let us build new, with a new style. But let it be sacred and let it be art! Let it be worthy of the worship we offer to God. Too often the tunes we hear in churches now are capable of reminding us of nothing but the mundane, even cheap. How many times had I been forced during liturgy in a shattered chapel to sing the inspiring announcement that the gospel was about to be proclaimed using a melody that could have been transcribed from the Campbell soup jingle: "O the blessed gospel...mmm...mmm...good!" Given the melody, nothing else could possibly come to mind.

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Part 2: Stay the course...

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