With full heart and voice

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

Photo by Matt Cashore

Margot Fassler quickly dons a silly plush hat modeled on the familiar golden death mask of Tutankhamun. “Isn’t this fabulous?” she asks while hanging it on the back of her Malloy Hall office door, explaining that she bought one for her niece at the touring King Tut exhibit and liked it so much she got another for herself.

“Enough frivolity,” Fassler begins, mindful of time but as generous with it as any professor you’ve ever met. In the next five minutes she answers successive knocks from a doctoral student and an undergraduate. But the topic for the hour is Notre Dame’s maturing master’s degree program in sacred music. That’s what brought her here in 2009 from Yale, where for the previous 11 years she’d directed one of the premier houses of instruction for church musicians in the United States.

She sinks into a comfortable red chair where one can imagine her power napping in the middle of a busy day — or drafting a lecture on its writing-desk arm. Fassler is Notre Dame’s first Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy, a plainchant specialist regarded by colleagues as the leading authority in the medieval genre of the sequence, a kind of chant or hymn once commonly sung during Mass before the reading of the Gospel.

For more than 20 years she’s been a prolific engine of acclaimed articles and books on medieval music history, which makes it all the more striking when she describes her latest documentary film project, an examination of how one present day “community of song,” the Coptic Christians of Jersey City, have sustained their ancient and beautiful liturgical chant and are teaching it with impressive success to their children.

Fassler’s five films have immersed her into musical worlds as diverse as a community of Benedictine nuns in Bethlehem, Connecticut, and the choirs of a storied African-American Baptist church in nearby Bridgeport. Together they explore “the central importance of music for the formation of community,” she says, which brings her to this warning: “If you would like to have a strong and healthy community, you should pay attention to the quality of your music.” It’s not just the tunes or texts, she explains, but the way communities make music together.

So how healthy is, say, the Catholic Church?

“It’s not healthy. I would say the music of the Roman Catholic Church is essentially in a crisis.”

Out of breath

The scholar and devout Catholic is far from alone in her authoritative assessment, which is why six years ago the University approved the creation of its Master of Sacred Music (MSM) program. Its founder, Rev. Michael Driscoll, is a Notre Dame theology professor and liturgy adviser to the U.S. bishops who last year was elected to lead the Catholic Academy of Liturgy.

As a scholar and practitioner, Driscoll has dedicated himself to questions of what constitutes beautiful worship and how that relies upon good music. “When I travel around the country speaking about liturgy, the two complaints I hear consistently are regarding music and regarding preaching,” he says.

Music has always been a contentious subject in Christianity, going back at least to the debates among 9th-century Frankish monks over the propriety of the increasingly flowery adaptations their brethren were making to Roman chant as it traveled across the Alps into newly converted northern lands. The centuries saw later composers add voices to create the gorgeous polyphonic sounds of the Renaissance and the emergence of powerful vernacular hymns as Christendom splintered apart in the cross-cuts of Reformation and counter-Reformation. Fassler resists the nomination of any one era as the golden age of sacred music. What unites these great Christian traditions now, she says, is the danger they’re in of dying within her lifetime.

Just over 100 years ago Benedictine monks led the renewal of interest in chant, arguing that it would revive congregational participation and draw people closer to scripture, to the Mass and therefore to God. In 1963, the Second Vatican Council set some criteria for music in worship, calling for music that is “closely connected to the liturgical action” by adding delight to prayer, uniting minds or conferring solemnity upon the rites. It affirmed chant’s “pride of place” in services and endorsed the pipe organ for the way it “powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and higher things,” but in practice such pronouncements were nearly a dead letter. Musicians split themselves into camps favoring either the traditions or contemporary musical forms.

“The idea that the people should sing everything led to the idea that therefore the music has to be pop music,” explains music historian Peter Jeffery, Fassler’s husband and Notre Dame’s Michael P. Grace II Professor of Medieval Studies. “That led to the idea that you should have amateurs leading the music and, once the economic forces kick in, that music is something you shouldn’t have to pay for. So what you have in most parishes I have been to is music that is being led by unpaid, untrained people. Then we wonder why, 45 years after the Council, most parishes still don’t have vibrant congregational singing.”

A generation after Vatican II, the Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life found statistical support for learned opinions like Jeffery’s. More than a third of Catholics felt music at Mass — the singing, especially — needed improvement. The sociologists set a threshold for full congregational participation at two-thirds of the people in the pews for a given Mass. They found that standard met by only 30 percent of the congregations they observed.

Jeffery says the ascendant, pop-influenced “folk” Mass was generating excitement among pop music fans, but nothing among everyone else. He points out that Catholics born after the Council have no memory of the pre-Vatican II liturgy, and many don’t realize that the folk model once competed with other musical models. Not everyone is tired of the guitar, of course, but recognition of its inability to unite the faithful has coincided with a resurgent appetite for chant and other musical traditions in popular culture. Witness the 1994 re-release of Chant, an album recorded in 1973 by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos that reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200 chart, or the more recent phenomenon of flashmobs singing Händel’s Hallelujah Chorus in department stores.

But Fassler, Jeffery and Driscoll, the three co-directors of Notre Dame’s MSM program, agree that one consequence of the post-Vatican II polarization is that the old infrastructure for training qualified church musicians who can play the organ, conduct choirs, coach vocalists and help people pray together in song is gone. The point isn’t to banish guitars but to notice how rare is the parish school that teaches music as an academic discipline and integrates it with religious instruction. How pipe organs, once the choir-loft laboratories for promising young Catholic musicians, sit idle. How volunteers who come forward with good intentions too often lack good musicianship and theological formation.

Says Jeffery of today’s faithful and the future of Catholic sacred music, “It’s now for us to decide what we’re going to do.”

Reaching back to look ahead

Notre Dame is not about to become the new Solesmes, the Benedictine abbey in northwestern France where, in the late 19th century, monks took on that project of reviving what we know today as Gregorian chant. Their work took the material form of the Liber Usualis, a massive compilation of all known Mass chants and the cycles of psalms and canticles prayed by priests and religious orders throughout the night and day.

Jeffery’s father sang chant to his infant son, and his parents each had their own copy of the old tome. Once in the days before Vatican II, his father mentioned this to a priest. The man retorted, “Liber useless, you mean!”

Such slights aside, monks at Solesmes still make their recordings, and Jeffery, an internationally recognized authority on chant, will teach his first Notre Dame course on it this spring. But he also teaches courses in hymnology and psalmody and is quick to refute any impression that he would have everyone singing Latin chant. “My model is that the typical Catholic would learn to sing the psalms in his or her own vernacular,” he explains.

Jeffery came to Notre Dame from Princeton at the same time Fassler did from Yale, relieving the stresses of trying to conduct family life from either side of New York City. But the scholars agree that what ultimately lured them to Notre Dame was the prospect of tackling a much larger re-integration project: reviving the Church’s treasury of sacred music and incorporating it into an enlivened contemporary musical practice.

He recalls his first conversation with Mark Roche, then the I.A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, in which Roche asked what could pull him away from the Ivy League and the East Coast. Jeffery said he would come if it meant he could do something about the state of liturgical music in the Church. The bottom line for Fassler, too, was the Church. “So our coming here was not just a faculty hire but a commitment [on Notre Dame’s part] to develop an area where national and even international leadership is clearly achievable,” Jeffery says.

Professor Peter Holland, the college’s associate dean for the arts, says hiring the husband-wife team adds to already substantial resources in music and theology while creating Notre Dame’s first degree-granting program in the performing arts that is “absolutely, explicitly related to the Catholic nature of the University.

“We have never had people holding endowed chairs in the field of sacred music and to hire two at once makes a very big statement, nationally and internationally, about how central we see sacred music to the mission of Notre Dame,” says Holland, who himself holds an endowed chair in Shakespeare studies. “What Peter and Margot do is to raise the ambition of the MSM program to a totally different level. It’s going to involve new posts, new faculty lines, huge acquisitions for the library, international conferences and all manner of things.”

First up, Jeffery says, is a specialist in world music and world Christianity who can illuminate the level of conversations at Notre Dame and beyond about culture, worship and pastoral best practices in the Roman Catholic Church. Fassler says students must have exposure to this kind of field work “so they appreciate the diversity and richness of the Church worldwide, but also so that they can look at congregations with an anthropological lens and not just go in heavy-handed and think, well, you know, I’m going to have them all singing Palestrina in two months.”

Much was in place before Fassler and Jeffery arrived. Notre Dame’s potential to lead a sacred music revival may be nowhere better embodied than at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on Sunday mornings, when standing-room-only crowds regularly congregate for Masses at which music is led by one of two celebrated campus ensembles, the Liturgical Choir and the Folk Choir.

They saw many other assets, such as the Medieval Institute and the residence hall system and its dorm chapels. Liturgical studies is regarded as a leading strength in Notre Dame’s much-heralded Department of Theology. And Craig Cramer, professor of organ, was putting the Fritts Organ at the Reyes Organ and Choral Hall to its best use, training a full studio of top organ students each year. On a limited budget, Father Driscoll had already built a serious sacred music program with existing courses and faculty.

MSM students take 48 credit hours split evenly over two years between liturgy courses, lessons in their musical specialization — organ, voice or choral conducting — and a practicum that amounts to on-the-job training. They have opportunities to diversify, so organ students, for instance, may also train their voices and get podium time. The practicum teaches them how to work with volunteer choirs and how to read the needs of a congregation so its music enhances people’s relationships with God.

Students may be assigned to one of the campus choirs, an assistant rector post in a dorm, the Fisher-O’Hara-Grace graduate student chapel, or an off-campus assignment at a local church or school chaplaincy, options that are especially suited to Protestant and married students.

The goal is to take music majors and turn them into professional musicians with equally strong credentials in liturgy, that branch of theology concerned with the practices of common worship. For years, Driscoll has kept a file full of postings for job openings he’s found in diocesan newspapers and trade publications. He says market demand far outstrips the eight students Notre Dame is currently graduating each year into the qualified labor supply. Driscoll says every graduate has gone on to doctoral study or well-paid full-time work, save one who is taking a break to have a baby. Fassler calls this the beginning of “an army of foot soldiers for the Lord.”

Technology and the marketplace

Fassler and Jeffery also have big ideas for technology’s place in sacred music at Notre Dame. Fassler’s American sacred music course begins with Native American chant and introduces students to African-American traditions, the Amish, the Shakers, music from the California missions, the Pentecostal churches and American classical composers along the way. The group project is a film.

Last semester, students learned to shoot video and conduct interviews for Missal Alert, an exploration of the significant changes to the Roman missal that will take effect on the first Sunday of Advent this year. Fassler believes film can be a useful tool for church leaders who need to mediate conflicts in fractious congregations. She plans to post Missal Alert to a revamped version of the program’s website, sacredmusic.nd.edu, later this spring, along with Gregorian chant recordings, texts and commentaries and other musicology resources.

“This degree prepares us very well for being out in parishes,” says Molly Mattingly, a second-year student in the choral conducting track who lives in Farley Hall as an assistant rector and music minister. Managing the ebb and flow of student singers and musicians from one semester to the next is good practice for working with parish volunteers, she says, and her involvement in the Folk Choir has further expanded her repertoire. One of the most valuable skills she’s learned is how to sit back and observe a faith community before stepping forward to lead it. “I think that’s going to inform my practice as a church musician,” she says.

In March, she will split recital time with Brad Todorovich who, like Mattingly, arrived at Notre Dame in 2009 with a music degree and experience leading music at student Masses. While studying at Notre Dame Todorovich has strengthened the cantor program at Our Lady of the Lake in Edwardsburg, Michigan, and hopes it will form the basis for an adult choir at the parish. “This program is great because not only am I being trained for Church work, but I’ve grown immensely as a musician over the past year and a half,” he says.

“You can know how to play the piano and how to sing, you can understand what the music means theologically. But it’s playing the services, working with the cantors, seeing what works, observing the people, learning what they like, learning what helps them pray the best. It’s all about experience,” he adds.

Father Driscoll likes to tell the story of a celebrated Chicago pastor who transformed a moribund downtown parish into a thriving church with a simple vision of good music and good preaching. Little by little, Notre Dame is training a generation of sacred musicians who can help get the job done. Fassler says you can see the difference in the collection basket. “A good church musician pays for him or herself in five years,” she declares. “I mean, that should be written on the doors of our churches. People should think about that.”

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.