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William Mahrt, president of the Church Music Association of America, is an expert on Gregorian chant and polyphony.
BY Roseanne Therese Sullivan
The St. Ann Choir of Palo Alto, Calif., was new when William
Mahrt joined in 1963. At the time he was a graduate student at nearby Stanford
Today Mahrt is a Stanford music professor, director of the
St. Ann Choir — and president of the Church Music Association of America
(online at musicasacra.com).
The expert on Gregorian chant and polyphony spoke with
Register correspondent Roseanne Therese Sullivan.
Not many people are
familiar with the Catholic Music Association of America. Would you tell us a
little about it?
The CMAA was formed by an amalgamation of the Society of St.
Caecilia (founded in 1874) and the Catholic Choir Masters Guide (founded in
1913) shortly after the Second Vatican Council. So we are quite a longstanding
organization. The association’s purpose has always been the cultivation and
improvement of music for the liturgy. Its focus is Gregorian chant and the
classical polyphony of tradition in the context of the liturgy.
The Council’s first document was Sacrosanctum Concilium, the
Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which specified that Gregorian chant should
be given pride of place in the Roman rite.
One doesn’t see a lot of evidence of Gregorian chant having
pride of place in this country. So one of our campaigns is to increase the use
of Gregorian chant for regular services.
Another point that comes from the Council is that polyphonic
music has a special role, a privileged place in the use of the Church.
The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the 1967 document
Musicam Sacram (Instruction on Music in the Liturgy) also had this to say: “The
use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. The treasure
of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered. The pipe organ is the
canonical church instrument. It is to be held in high esteem because it lifts
up man’s mind to God and to higher things.”
Does the CMAA want to
make chant and polyphony exclusively used?
We want chant and polyphony to have the priority that was
mandated by the Council, not necessarily to be exclusively used.
What is the
association accomplishing toward this end?
We publish the journal Sacred Music, which has been under my
editorship for about a year and a half. Sacred Music is a continuation of the
journal Caecilia, which was started by the Society of St. Caecilia in 1874. We
rather proudly claim that Sacred Music is the oldest continuously published
journal of music in North America.
The journal addresses issues of both the tradition and the
gradual incorporation of better music into contemporary liturgical practice.
We have a sacred-music colloquium every summer and that
colloquium is growing by leaps and bounds. In 2006 we had something like 80
people. This past June we had 140 — and we turned away a hundred. We anticipate
larger numbers next year.
We are moving the colloquium next year from The Catholic
University of America in Washington, D.C., to Loyola University in Chicago,
where the facilities will accommodate the larger number of people we expect.
Priests, choir singers, congregation members, choir
directors and organists are coming to this colloquium seeking ways in which
they can improve the quality and the sacred character of the music they are
doing in their churches today.
We also present workshops. For example, last month we held a
seminar for clergy at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago on how to sing their
parts of the Mass. The seminar included training in singing both the new and
old forms of the Roman Rite.
You seem sanguine
about the future of traditional music even though there’s a lot of work to do
to “bring it back.”
With Pope Benedict’s liturgical initiatives, there is an
increased awareness of the importance and the beauty of the Latin Church music
and of the need for the music to enhance the sacred character of the liturgy.
We hope that the increased interest in the traditional
Church music, and in the sacredness of music in the liturgy, will grow. And we
hope that we can assist everyone who needs it to find the appropriate ways of
improving their liturgies.
Roseanne Therese Sullivan
writes from San Jose, California.
She also maintains a weblog at