Holy Redeemer Schola Director Larry Stich: Gregorian Chant Illuminates the Words of the Liturgy

Lawrence Stich

Lawrence Stich, the director of the Holy Redeemer Schola Cantorum, kindly granted me an email interview–a first for my blog, and I hope to do some more interviews. The Schola sings Greogrian chant about twice a month for our 7am Sunday Traditional Latin Mass, including this Sunday, Nov 25th. They welcome new members, and no prior choir experience is required. Leave a comment or use the “Contact” link at the top of the page if you would like me to put you in touch with Larry. Increasing hunger for truly beautiful, truly Catholic music is reflected in this recent rave review of Larry’s music for a Solemn High Wedding Mass at St Stanislaus in Milwaukee.

Chant isn’t just for the old Mass. Larry is also now preparing a choir at St Patrick parish in Cottage Grove, for the Novus Ordo Mass. West of Madison, Fr Rick Heilman’s parish St Mary of Pine Bluff has wonderful chant in Latin and in English under the skilled direction of Aristotle Esguerra.

Larry, thank you for letting me interview you. Can you first tell something about yourself and your long history as a church musician?

Liz, I’ll begin a bit earlier—I was an altar boy when the Extraordinary Form was still in regular use. As to the music part, after several years of piano instruction I was privileged to study organ under Sr. Mary Theophane (Hytrek) OSF at Alverno College, and began as an organist at about that time. That was in the early 1960’s. When the next parish over needed a choir-accompanist/organist, I took the position (they paid for my services!) After a few years, I was asked to become the choir director, too. Most of that work was done in the “New Rite”—today’s Ordinary Form– although we continued to use Latin music about 10-20% of the time. After 20 years there, the Pastor retired. I was married and we lived on the opposite side of Milwaukee from that parish, so I took a similar position with a Parish closer to our home. In that assignment, I had a wonderful organist/accompanist—a Ph.D. nuclear engineer, by the way—who was the first person to petition for an Indult “Old Rite” Mass in Milwaukee. When that petition was granted by Abp. Weakland, I was asked to become the choir director for the Old Rite Mass. That was actually my first experience with Chan propers.

After 10 years in that position, I retired to a slot as a choir-singer at St. Anthony’s under the direction of Lee Erickson, who was also the Director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Chorus. But the Old Rite people called; my successor at the Old Rite Mass, Fr. R. Skeris, Ph.D., was going to retire, so I joined the choir there and after a year resumed my position as director of that choir. A few years later, Archbishop Dolan invited an Order of priests to take control of the E.F. parish. The new pastor and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on a number of musical matters, and the Madison E.F. group was looking for a music director, so here I am. Altogether, I’ve spent around 50 years as a church musician.

But that’s not quite complete. For 25 of those years I was also a member of the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus, which performed an average of 6 times/season with the Symphony. There I was fortunate to learn choral directing techniques from Margaret Hawkins and Lee Erickson, and we sang the greatest choral and choral/symphonic works in the Western tradition, including several Masses. The Chorus members learned music interpretation from a lot of great conductors, including Lukas Foss, Ken Schermerhorn, Zdenek Macal, Robert Shaw, and Andreas Delfs, who, like Shaw, is also an ex-church musician and one of the finest interpreters of Brahms in the world today. Sandwiched in there were a number of choral seminars under the direction of Roger Wagner and Paul Salamunovich, (both of whom were Knights-Commander of St. Gregory), Chant seminars with Ted Marier (also a KCSG), and several hours of lectures given by Fr. R. Skeris, Ph.D., on Sacred Music. Frankly, I was very fortunate to obtain that education.

When I was in your Schola Cantorum for the older form of the Mass at Holy Redeemer Church, I grew to overwhelmingly love and prefer the Gregorian Chant and understand why Vatican II and other sources identify it as the most fitting and beautiful music for the Roman Rite, meant to have “pride of place” in the liturgy. What is Gregorian chant, and what is its relationship to the Mass?

The beginning of the Wiki definition is pretty good: “Gregorian chant is the central tradition of Western plainchant, a form of monophonic liturgical music within Western Christianity that accompanied the celebration of Mass and other ritual services. It is named after Pope Gregory I, Bishop of Rome from 590 to 604, who is traditionally credited for having ordered the simplification and cataloging of music assigned to specific celebrations in the church calendar…” (After that, Wiki offers some interesting opinions.) Another useful definition comes to us from The Stanford Report’s article about Prof. Wm. Mahrt, Ph.D: “The origins of Gregorian chant are enigmatic. It appears to have its roots in fourth- century Jerusalem. The link with Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) is the byproduct of early spin, based on what is probably an erroneous assumption that he composed and collected early chant.

“The otherworldly effect of the music is hard to describe, but Mahrt, an associate professor of music at Stanford, recently gave it a try: ‘It is what we call monophonic—that is to say, it’s a melody that’s unaccompanied,’ he said. ‘A free rhythm has an ability to evoke eternal things, more than passages tied down to regular time. It’s a sprung rhythm that has a freedom to it—like Hopkins’ poetry.’”

The body of Chant we now sing was partially composed before 800 AD; most of it was organized and formalized by Pope St. Gregory the Great. Another portion of Chant, including many of the Proper chants, was composed in the Carolingian era. In any case, it IS the music proper to the Mass; it is the musical expression of the texts of the Mass and of the Liturgy of the Hours. It is not ‘music which is sung at Mass’; it is the Mass’ texts, sung. That sets it apart from hymns. The Ordinary parts (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei) are relatively simple; they were sung by the Faithful, not just the choir. The Proper chants (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia or Tract, Offertory, and Communion) are more complex; they are usually sung only by the choir and/or a soloist.

In Chant, the text is primary. Cdl. Ratzinger, now HH Benedict XVI, deliberately used “word” rather than “text” because the word is also The Word. Thus, Chant rhythm springs from the text, not from an imposed 2, 3, 4, or 6-beat measure. The music ‘illustrates’ or ‘illuminates’ the text—which sets it apart from much (but not all) other Western music. That is a feature, not a bug, because when one hears Chant, it is immediately clear that one is in a different place—a place not dominated by beat or an imposed rhythm. That’s the reason that when Hollywood movies feature a ‘church’ scene, Chant is usually the background music. However, because Chant is, after all, music, one will occasionally hear dancing, or mourning, or rejoicing, in the melodies. That is appropriate because it illuminates the meaning of the text.

Could you possibly sum up briefly what the average Catholic in the pews who attends the newer, post Vatican II form of the Mass, should know about liturgical music? Can chant help us to pray the Mass and worship God “better” than, for instance, hymns?

Pope Pius X summed it up best in 1903: “Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.

“2. Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.

“It must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.

“It must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.

“But it must, at the same time, be universal in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.”

That definition has been explicitly or implicitly referenced in every Roman document on the topic ever since. We see this, too, in the 2nd Vatican Council’s document on the liturgy: “Holy Scripture, indeed, has bestowed praise upon sacred song [42], and the same may be said of the fathers of the Church and of the Roman pontiffs who in recent times, led by St. Pius X, have explained more precisely the ministerial function supplied by sacred music in the service of the Lord.

“Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites. But the Church approves of all forms of true art having the needed qualities, and admits them into divine worship.”

There IS a distinction between “sacred music” and hymns (as we commonly use the term.) Hymns are not necessarily “sacred music” because hymns do not always have the texts of the Mass itself as their text. Hymns—in their place—are useful. But they are not a substitute for the texts and music specifically prescribed for the Mass. Therefore, the ‘four-hymn-sandwich’ so common over the last 40 years is simply poor liturgical practice. It is an impoverishment. And I confess that I was a practitioner of that school for most of my early years as a church musician. Mea culpa, hey.

Now in the practical order, no music can ‘make one worship better’. The music should enable ‘better’, just as the shape, order, and decoration of a church building should enable worship, just as the priest’s manner of celebrating the Mass should. But music cannot ‘impose its will’, so to speak.

In the Holy Redeemer choir loft at a Tuesday evening practice.

In the Holy Redeemer choir loft at a Tuesday evening practice.

Gregorian chant has become unfamiliar in parishes, and most people’s tastes are formed to contemporary music. What kinds of formation of the lay faithful, and perhaps of seminarians and clergy, is needed to make Chant again welcome in the average parish, and what would you say to pastors, educators and church musicians about why that would be a worthwhile goal?

This is a difficult question to answer. It goes to the question of ‘beauty’ (a necessary component of ‘true art’ mentioned by Pius X and the 2nd Vatican council). It seems that the West is slowly abandoning its core Judaeo-Christian culture, whether in graphic, musical, or literary arts. But it is not helpful to cry “O Tempora!! O Mores!!” and stand aside, watching. It is not impossible to educate the Faithful on the topic of beauty. But first, we must understand what “beauty” really is, which is why Bp. Morlino’s emphasis on the topic is so wonderful to see.

Cardinal Burke recently addressed the topic of beauty: “In the Catholic tradition, beauty is a metaphysical and ultimately theological notion. The search of beauty has nothing to do with mere aesthetic sensibility or a flight from reason, because, from the divine perspective, beauty, together with truth and goodness, is a manifestation of being. God, the origin and sustainer of all being is truth, beauty and goodness itself. In the language of metaphysics, truth, beauty and goodness are the “transcendentals.” In other words, to the degree that any reality participates in being and ultimately in the being of God, that reality is true, beautiful and good.”

The Cardinal then quotes HH Benedict XVI: “This relationship between creed and worship is evidenced in a particular way by the rich theological and liturgical category of beauty. Like the rest of Christian Revelation, the liturgy is inherently linked to beauty: it is veritatis splendor. The liturgy is a radiant expression of the paschal mystery, in which Christ draws us to himself and calls us to communion. As Saint Bonaventure would say, in Jesus we contemplate beauty and splendor at their source. This is no mere aestheticism, but the concrete way in which the truth of God’s love in Christ encounters us, attracts us and delights us, enabling us to emerge from ourselves and drawing us towards our true vocation, which is love. God allows himself to be glimpsed first in creation, in the beauty and harmony of the cosmos (cf. Wis13:5; Rom 1:19-20… In the New Testament this epiphany of beauty reaches definitive fulfillment in God’s revelation in Jesus Christ: Christ is the full manifestation of the glory of God. In the glorification of the Son, the Father’s glory shines forth and is communicated (cf. Jn 1:14; 8:54; 12:28; 17:1).”

So what? Cardinal Burke: First of all, sacred music must avoid any form of aestheticism, that is, a notion of music which excludes service of the glory of God and the salvation of souls.

Secondly, “pastoral pragmatism, which is only looking for success, is also incompatible with the mission of Church music.”[40] (Here, Benedict was referring to ‘rock’ music-for-the-kids.)

(Cardinal Burke’s entire lecture can be found here: http://catholicaction.org/2011/03/beauty-in-the-sacred-liturgy-according-to-the-teaching-of-pope-benedict-xvi/)

To your point: education in the principles of beauty according to Catholic thought are the first thing which must happen, and such education should be continuous and—these days—largely counter-cultural. And even though sacred music is different from, say, Bach’s Cello Suites, or Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos, an understanding of the beauty of those works enables understanding of beauty in the Catholic tradition.

You also asked about ‘understanding Latin.’ Ironically, the vernacular Mass which has been in use for around 50 years leaves no one with the excuse that “they don’t understand the words,” at least for the Ordinary parts: they’ve been saying or singing the translation for all that time. Surely, they haven’t forgotten it.

In addition to your Gregorian choir at Holy Redeemer for the old Mass, you have begun preparing a choir for the Novus Ordo Mass at Fr John Sasse’s parish, St Patrick’s in Cottage Grove. What is being done there, and how does that parish stand to benefit?

Fr. Sasse is very interested in building an excellent—not just ‘average’—parish choir at St. Patrick’s which will be exemplary in its use of sacred music, (English and Latin), in support of the congregation’s sung participation. That choir will also sing Gregorian Chant on a number of occasions. Moreover, with the blessing of the parish council, we will begin using the Vatican II Hymnal this Advent. That hymnal will facilitate utilization of the Propers and de-emphasis on the ‘four-hymn-sandwich.’ The parish will move away from ‘singing AT the Mass’ and into ‘singing THE Mass’ over the next few years—which is precisely what the Second Vatican Council asked. ‘Doing liturgy’ as the Church asks us to is a benefit to the faithful.

Active participation in the action of the Mass is primarily interior, and doesn’t simply boil down to singing. However most people would agree congregational singing is good and encouraged by the Church. Singing the “proper” texts of the Mass itself as found in liturgical books, such as the introit, offertory, and communion antiphons, takes practice by the choir and the people in the pews can’t easily join in, regardless of whether the propers are Latin or English. This is one of the most commonly cited objections to their use, and in favor of substituting English hymns. Is that valid? And can congregations participate in singing the “ordinary” or unchanging parts of the Mass if they are in Latin?

Well, it’s a valid objection if the church’s choir or cantor(s) cannot sing those propers. We must remember that the choir (or cantor) actually has an office, and that office is to sing stuff that the congregation cannot sing. It’s up to the pastor of the parish to retain musicians capable of that work. As to ‘participation,’ you answered the question correctly: it is primarily interior, and that ‘interiority’ can and should include active listening. It’s what the congregation already does at the  readings and (hopefully) the homily. Finally, there’s no good reason that the congregation cannot sing Latin. Many folks sing songs from the ‘old country’—in German, Polish, and Spanish—all the time, and often haven’t a clue what the text means.

To what extent or in what way is variety and openness to newly composed music important in parish musical life? Who gets to decide what are the limits to legitimate variety, if any, and what new music is worthy of the Mass?

Newly-composed sacred music (remember the distinction here) must fit within the requirements outlined by Pius X (above.) Generally speaking, Dioceses maintain “music commissions” which should include well-formed church musicians. They should be capable of making judgments. And yes, the Church encourages such work, but not necessarily in elymosinary ways.

Is the “reform of the reform” of liturgical music the most pressing need facing the Church today?

In the hierarchy of needs, the abortion question, gay “marriage”, and the HHS mandate are probably superior, at least in the practical order. So a lot of time and effort will be expended there. But implementing the Church’s demands in sacred music—because of its integral relationship with the Mass itself—cannot be ignored.

Finally, Bishop Morlino’s theme for the Year of Faith is “Evangelization through Beauty.” Does Gregorian Chant actually help evangelize, and for instance does it have ecumenical value? How does Gregorian Chant do good for the world?

There are lots of stories of people who, having heard Chant, became attracted to the Church and later joined it. Paul Claudel is one example. (There are probably a few who left the Church after hearing Chant badly done, too.) Human beings by their nature are attracted to beauty and Chant is beautiful (properly done.) Of course it does good for the world!

Larry Stich wields his battle-worn Liber Usualis as he leads the schola in practicing Mass propers

Larry Stich wields his battle-worn Liber Usualis as he leads the schola in practicing Mass propers

An attempted recording of the Holy Redeemer Schola Cantorum singing “Alma Redemptoris Mater”:

5 Responses to Holy Redeemer Schola Director Larry Stich: Gregorian Chant Illuminates the Words of the Liturgy

  1. For your interest, these words about Mr Stich: http://www.theeye-witness.blogspot.com/2012/10/lawrence-stich-and-lee-erickson-art-of.html

  2. Sorry! Didn’t see that you already referenced that article! (I’ll buy some reading glasses).

    • That’s all right, anyway your comment can draw attention to that link!

  3. Hi Elizabeth! Father John and I at St. Patrick want to feature this post on our parish website. It’s a great interview! Thank you! I didn’t see your email as I quickly scanned, but I’m sure you’ll get this message through a comment. Please let us know if that is OK with you!
    Meredith Meinholz (DRE)


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