Remembering the Pius X School of Liturgical Music by nurlelarasin


									    Remembering the Pius X School of Liturgical Music

    Picture a large, beautiful chapel filled with a congregation of
musicians and music students. Imagine that congregation singing Gregorian
chant from the Liber Usualis and singing hymns and motets in four-part
harmony. Visualize liturgy with extraordinary attention to the beauty of
detail. These are my memories of the two annual semesters I spent at Pius
X, a bit of heaven on earth. I was a junior, then a senior, in high
school, and I was privileged to be attending college-level courses at the
Pius X School of Liturgical Music. I was admitted because I was already
playing organ at Mass and working with choirs. Life was good.

    The Religious of the Sacred Heart, a French order founded by Saint
Madeleine Sophie Barat, operated the Manhattanville College of the Sacred
Heart in Purchase, New York. In summers, the entire campus was turned
over to music, and it became the Pius X School of Liturgical Music.
Priests, seminarians, nuns, organists, and choir directors came from all
over the United States — and some from beyond our borders — to attend
this most prestigious school.

    Classes were offered in Gregorian chant (various levels), chironomy
(the conducting of chant), theory, harmony, liturgical singing (from the
Liber Usualis), organ, voice, polyphony, music literature, and even music
education. We all sang in choir. One could take courses, or matriculate
into a full degree program. Most folks simply took the needed courses for
church work.

    Stepping on to that campus in summer was like walking into a living
encyclopedia of traditional religious garb. Nuns still wore full habits.
White, black, grey and brown robes were topped with scapulars or
capelets. Headpieces included wimples, coifs, bonnets and caps: pointed,
rounded, squared, pleated, frilled. Veils were short, long, sheer, or
full. Rosaries clatter at sides. Priests wore collars. Brothers wore
hooded robes. We laity looked like poor country cousins. No one wore

    A number of years before I arrived there, composer Richard Rodgers
visited the school to hear accurate Catholic music as he prepared to
compose the music for his new Broadway show, The Sound of Music.

    He listened to the nuns chanting the Office, and circled in on the
second Gregorian psalm tone. He used this for the nuns’ chorus in the
show. He also composed music in four parts for the nuns’ chorus at the
opening of the musical, based on what he heard. (Sadly omitted in many
productions). Some of the nuns who attended Pius X while I was a student
there told of meeting Mr. Rodgers and singing for him.

    Hearing the Religious of the Sacred Heart chant the Office at Pius X
was celestial food indeed. Singing sacred music in a large choir —
everything from Palestrina to Fauré to Moussorgsky and lots in between —
was exhilarating. I remember standing in the corridor of the practice
room area, hearing all manner of organ, piano, and voice music emanating
from the little rooms, and thinking that it just couldn’t get much better
than this.

    We learned chant under the aegis of the Solesmes Benedictines, who
sometimes visited the school. We used Solesmes choirmaster Dom Joseph
Gajard’s book. We sang the solfege syllable “te” (lowered seventh tone of
the mode) as “ter” in the French manner.

    I found myself writing term papers, something I had just learned to
do in high school. I was an avid bookworm, and even assisted some of the
sisters who were classmates because I kept such accurate class notes. I
remember sitting under a tree and practicing my sight reading. I remember
the serious recitals, and the fun ones as well.

    Sister Mary John’s father, a vaudevillian, came to play the musical
saw. Mother Jenkins sang spirituals so beautifully it brought tears to
many eyes. I remember drawing and posting cartoons on the dorm bulletin
board about funny events on campus. (No mice in those days.)

    The campus library had a musty smell. There were so many volumes in
French that I brought my dictionary and struggled through some of them.
There were volumes upon volumes on chant, and on designing, building, and
playing pipe organs. I absorbed as many as I could.

    One day, while a group of us were reviewing class notes, a young
Maryknoll sister came over to share sad news. She had tears in her eyes.
She had just received word that she was being assigned to Mexico.

    She was happy about the missionary work, but devastated that, in
those days, Mexico’s secularization laws forbade the wearing of religious
habits. She had just received the habit, she said, and it was the sign of
her consecration to God and to her apostolate. She wanted to wear it.

    I often wonder how the sisters could have so easily divested
themselves of the habit just a few years later, given that one sister’s
attachment. But it was the late 1960s, and the Church had turned upside

    I attended Pius X in the heady summers of 1963 and 1964. The Council
was closing; we had been receiving information about the meetings. We
were told that Latin remained the official language, but vernacular could
be used with permission. We began to be trained in setting chant into

    We were told that choirs would be more important than ever, that the
very best composers were going to be writing the very best music for the
liturgy. We sang works by skillful modern composers such as Russell
Woollen. Father Lucien Deiss came to hold workshops and have us sing
through his new compositions. We were told that we organists were more
needed than ever. It was heady stuff.

    And it was true, of course, as far as it went. Within a few years,
however, all of that was ignored. In the parishes, out went the pipe
organs and in came the guitars and tambourines. Out went the beautiful
sacred music; in came the popsy-folksy tunes.

    It was devastating. But for those two summers, I bathed in the best
that our church had to offer. I learned polyphony. I wrote music. I
conducted. I sang. I played the organ. I attended concerts. I learned
from everyone.

    My second year there, there was a beginning undertone of dissent and
questioning. Rumors flew: the Council would abolish religious habits, the
Council would allow priests to marry, and so on. It was an undercurrent,
and it disturbed those who read the actual documents coming from the
Council which, of course, said no such things. I understand the
undercurrent grew stronger the next few years.

    Despite my tender years, I was treated well by everyone there. I
spoke with nuns, priests, seminarians, organists, directors — and began
to soak up their wisdom, experiences, and ideas. I knew that this was
what I wanted to do all my life.

    Alas, I was not able to do that until many years later. I found
myself doing the sacred polyphonic works only in secular concert venues.
What a loss, what a shame.

    Today at the monastery, we do chants and traditional music. Our
congregation, aided by the choir behind them and the nuns in front of
them, sing chant Masses. Our choir may be small, but it is brave in
approaching the difficult polyphony and other sacred choral works I
present to them. In our first year together, when I first presented a
work by Antonio Lotti, they called me “delusional”. Last year they
conquered a difficult work by Tomás Luis de Victoria.

    I often think of the days at Pius X and wonder what state our
Catholic church music would be in today if we had all followed the letter
rather than “the spirit” of Vatican II; if we had truly used the best and
most elevated compositions rather than the bubble-gum variety; if we had
emphasized choirs and organ as the Council Fathers intended.

    The school is long gone, and I am one of few survivors. Even
Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart is now a secular school and
the “of the Sacred Heart” is missing from its name. I wonder what
happened to the gorgeous campus chapel.

    It was always my dream to head up a school like that. Instead, I
found myself as music coordinator over nine public schools, and teaching
high school, college, and graduate school. Quite a different world.

    The training at Pius X was wonderful because everything was rooted in
chant. It is impossible to prepare music for the sacred Eucharistic
liturgy without a thorough grounding in chant, for all appropriate
liturgical musical styles spring from it.

    It is my sincere hope that such a school as Pius X arises again, at
the national level. In the meantime, diocesan schools must be
established, but they must be run by dinosaurs who, like me, were
properly trained in the Benedictine school of chant, in the historic,
diverse and sacred choral literature of the church, and in the true
purpose of music in the liturgy, bringing souls to God by lifting them
out of the mundane and into the sacred.

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