First a confession: I am a choir guy. At most schools (high school or college) there are band types, athletes, drama people, book fanatics, math/science geeks (and proud of it), etc., etc. Sometimes, these groups can overlap, such as the common book/band hybrid or the choir/drama type. I was a book/choir guy.
During my stay at Baylor University, I sang way over my head as a freshman in an audition and landed a slot in the Baylor Chorale, a classical ensemble led by the classical composer Robert H. Young, who, I am sad to say, recently passed away. I stayed in the choir all through my undergraduate years (journalism and history majors) and during my two years in graduate school (church-state studies) -- even though I was not a music major.
I missed three rehearsals in six years. I was a choir guy. That choir was my sanity.
Enough said. I'm still a choir guy and, frankly, I would be lying if I didn't say that this played a role in my pilgrimage to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The music of Dimitry Bortnyansky knocked me out as a 19-year-old and it still does. You see, beauty has theological content.
I bring all of this personal stuff up for a reason.
The Washington Post Style people recently ran a rather stunning story with the following headline: "Callista Gingrich Brings Attention to Basilica of the National Shrine Choir."
The story talks about Callista Gingrich as a candidate's wife, of course. It talks about the tensions of having a political celebrity in the ranks of a top-flight, professional choir in the District of Columbia. Yes, it talks about the mixed blessing of the Gingrich marriage and its history.
But, to my shock, the article devotes most of its ink to two serious subjects: (1) What it's like to have great chorale music in your blood, and (2) the role that beautiful music can play in a person's journey from one faith to another.
This is bizarre. I mean, find me another political story in which Palestrina, Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Arvo Part (click here, I dare you) play a crucial role.
Here's a crucial chunk of the story, pivoting on the point that Callista is a professional musician -- period. That leads back to this choir and this particular sanctuary:
Callista’s training pinpoints exactly what makes the choir at the shrine so distinct from other choirs at Catholic churches. It is unabashedly good, routinely cited as one of the best Catholic choirs in the nation.
Catholic choirs don’t always receive such acclaim.
Poor musical quality is a relatively new development in Catholicism, a religion that patronized the likes of Bach, Haydn and Scarlatti. Some blame modernization. When the Mass changed in the early 1960s, the music changed, too. Others blame funding cuts. In recent decades, sacred music, not required at Catholic Mass, has become less traditional, less serious, easily produced by guitars, bongo drums and eager volunteers who try really, really hard.
“Music is a priority here,” said Monsignor Walter R. Rossi, rector of the shrine. ... “This is a pilgrim church. A tourist church. And everyone who comes here wants to come here because they find the worship fulfilling.”
Believe it or not, there's more -- focusing on the role that choir director Peter Latona plays in the larger picture of worship in this shrine.
Latona prefers to curate the musical selection every week, selecting pieces that span styles and centuries. Palestrina. William Byrd. Thomas Tallis. Arvo Part. Even preferred composers must pass his strict litmus test for sacred music.
An organist and composer, Latona selects music with academic and formulaic precision. Even renowned composers, such as Mozart, often fail to meet Latona’s standards. “Mozart tends to bring you out of church,” he says reluctantly. “It reminds me of a classical music station too much. A piece has to have intrinsic beauty, but there are other factors. Is it the right text? The right key? How will it sound in this space?”
The Shrine has the only all-paid professional choir in the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. All members are paid the same amount, $80 for each Mass and rehearsal, and must re-audition every year.
Ultimately, even an artistic and theological subject this grand must be linked to politics, somehow, or it wouldn't be getting this much ink in the Post. Believe it or not, the bridge between music and the soul of one very controversial man is taken rather seriously.
There’s an elephant in the church, a question that those who know the Gingriches are reluctant to ask. Spouses sometimes lead their spouses to conversion. But can music? In popular culture, images of choirs belting out Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” are sometimes associated with good fortune and epiphany. But is there a link between conversion and sacred music?
That question makes some Catholics nervous. It oversimplifies everything. Choirs don’t convert people or presidential candidates.
“Music can help with conversion,” said Rossi, who served as Gingrich’s sponsor, alongside Callista, in 2009. “I’m not sure it’s the entry point or cause of. Conversion is a lifelong process. It’s rare that people have experiences like Saint Paul, who got knocked off his horse on his way to Damascus.”
“Did [Newt] hear the choir sing a piece of music and have a ‘Road to Emmaus’ moment? No. Obviously, lots of thought and life experience goes into that decision,” Latona said. “However, had he followed Callista to a Catholic church where the liturgy was poorly done and the music was abysmal, would he have converted? I don’t know. The chances of that happening are less.”
By all means, read it all.
In particular, I would be interested in knowing what our Catholic readers think of this story's treatment of the "Why Catholics Can't Sing" material. That's a huge subject and worthy of in-depth coverage, just on its own.
PHOTO: From the press office of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.