Seven ideas for a sacred music renaissance

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Domers like their traditions, which means that music Professor Peter Jeffery should feel right at home at Notre Dame. Jeffery is an authority on Gregorian chant whose faculty bio on the ND Music Department’s website notes that he is a Benedictine oblate, one who chooses to live in the spirit of the monastic Rule of St. Benedict.

With a nod to the late Dominican theologian Yves Congar, Jeffery understands tradition as “the place where diverse forces are reconciled.” It can be a lonely view to hold when Catholics debate some old, sore subjects — like whether women may participate in the washing of the feet during the Mass on Holy Thursday. When, about 20 years ago, some bishops expressly forbade it on the grounds of tradition, Jeffery wrote a book demonstrating that the Latin text to which they had appealed dated only to the 1950s. “And there were traditions for washing with women. Just nobody knew that,” he says.

A more recent book, Translating Tradition, examines another touchy subject: the new English translation of the Roman liturgy that debuts later this year in Advent. “What you basically have in the Church today is liberals who favor scripture and conservatives who favor the magisterium,” the Church’s teaching authority, he explains. “Nobody’s speaking for tradition.”

Jeffery and his wife, theology Professor Margot Fassler, do — especially when it comes to sacred music, which helps explain why they came to Notre Dame in 2009. They hope to see a musical revival throughout the culture, but particularly in houses of worship, and they think Notre Dame is well-suited to lead it. “Giving children skills that they need to be makers of music in the Church and in communities is to me absolutely crucial for the intellectual and spiritual health of people,” Fassler says. “I don’t take it lightly. I don’t think music is a frill or add-on. I think it’s the basic bread and butter of life.”

Next week, Jeffery, Fassler and theology Professor Michael Driscoll, the third co-director of ND’s Master of Sacred Music program, will convene a panel of scholars to help them shape the future of what Father Driscoll has built on a shoestring over the past five years.

So, how to seed a musical renaissance that embraces the best of the tradition from the Middle Ages to the present day? In interviews last autumn, the husband-wife team shared a few ideas — some already happening and some still on their wish list.

Continue to develop a program at Notre Dame in which musicians are well-trained, especially in organ, choral conducting and voice.

Demonstrate that expert, well-trained musical leadership is worth having and paying for. Driscoll notes that professional organizations like the American Guild of Organists and National Association of Pastoral Musicians have laid significant groundwork for the spread of this idea.

Encourage music that fosters a better grasp of lay people’s role in the liturgy. Jeffery complains that too much contemporary music calls simply for an emotional response, “whereas traditionally . . . the great hymnists were great theologians and the texts had a teaching function in terms of expressing correct doctrine.”

Teach children a core repertory as a formal part of religious education. “It should be based on the Psalms in the vernacular, in the people’s language,” Jeffery says. “That would be a return to what the practice actually was in the late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, where people who learned to read learned from the Psalms.”

Form a model children’s choir at a South Bend parish that supports this idea by recording music and encouraging kids to sing while they’re being formed to receive the sacraments.

Raise the level of conversations about culture among theologians and liturgists. “Enculturation is the biggest issue in contemporary liturgy,” Jeffery says — no surprise when one thinks of the Church’s global reach. Notre Dame is already looking for an ethnomusicologist with expertise in world music and world Christianity who can help the MSM program lead in this area. Fassler says students will likely find work in parishes where people come from all over the world — even the priests. “I myself am from a Western European background,” she says. “Of course I like William Byrd — that’s my culture. But we have to realize we have a culture. And so do they.”

Tap into Notre Dame’s international programs. “We would love to have an exchange program where we would bring church musicians from Africa and from Latin America and from Europe and everywhere here, and send our students there,” Fassler says. “If we could get that going, and add a third year onto our MSM, that would be simply amazing.”