Even a brief excursion through the online pages of Corpus Christi Watershed’s website tells you one thing: The Catholic Church’s ancient forms of sacred music are not dead.
For everyone who laments bongo-drum-driven pop Christian guitar ballads at Sunday Mass, take heart: Corpus Christi Watershed is leading a revolution of young, fresh-faced and extraordinarily talented musicians and composers who are on fire with the love of traditional sacred music.
Since 2007, this Texas-based nonprofit organization has tirelessly promoted Gregorian chant and polyphony for use in the liturgy by offering thousands of scores, recordings and training videos online, 99% of which are free of charge to the user. The goal is simply “to assist artists in their service to the Church.”
These forms of music “are incredibly powerful and beautiful forms of music,” says Jeffrey Ostrowski, the passionate recently elected president of Corpus Christi Watershed. “Chant, although often very easy to sing, is a highly sophisticated, prayerful, intoxicatingly gorgeous art form that has survived for 1,400 years for a reason. Polyphony is a living miracle.”
The Second Vatican Council asserted in no uncertain terms that these forms must be given pride of place in the music of the liturgy, and yet this mandate has been almost completely ignored for decades in favor of nontraditional and what Ostrowski bluntly calls “inappropriate” musical forms.
“I am convinced that inappropriate music … has the power to destroy people’s faith in God,” he says. “Many of the silly songs sung at Masses these days are not even close to being in a sacred style.”
This loss of a sense of “sacred style” — in other words, music that “fits” the liturgy’s inherent sacred reality — has led to musical forms at Mass that do not differ much from the ordinary popular music heard on the radio or at sporting events.
Non-liturgical song does not help people remember the transcendent aspects of the Mass, the organization purports.
This is true not only of the music, but of the lyrics, as well.
“The majority of these songs employ bizarre texts that are not taken from the Catholic liturgy at all,” says Ostrowski, “and many are written by non-Catholics.”
Rather than curse the darkness, the people behind Corpus Christi chose to light a candle.
After officially acquiring nonprofit status from the state of Texas in 2006, the board of directors pulled together the brightest and most creative musical artists from across the nation who share the same desire to see the great music of the Catholic Church restored to its former glory.
Nor is this only a matter of re-establishing tradition. The forthcoming new translation of the Roman Missal has inspired modern composers to write completely new music for the various parts of the Mass, yet all in the ancient style, such as a lovely new Gloria in honor of St. Edmund Arrowsmith, which can be heard on the group’s website.
Not only does Corpus Christi Watershed provide free music scores, MP3s and practice videos (which have been downloaded several million times by Catholic musicians all over the world), but they work with and publish a range of top-notch Catholic artists, including graphic artist Jim Ridley, vocalist Matthew J. Curtis and composer Kevin Allen, whose three-part Motets Project is currently being featured on the group’s website.
They produce and sell numerous items as well, including their upcoming Vatican II Hymnal and the newly released Bishop Gracida Rosary CD, along with DVD releases such as Sacred, Beautiful & Universal, a film directed by Ostrowski which has aired on three international television networks.
Music, by its nature, must be heard in order to be appreciated. A case in point is Motecta Trium Vocum, a recent work by Kevin Allen, who has been called “the single most talented Catholic composer in the last 100 years.”
Linda Simms, a Watershed board member and the music director for St. Joseph’s in Shelton, Conn., describes Allen’s work as “achingly beautiful, transparent in texture; lovely both to sing and listen to,” and yet she also notes its broad appeal: “Our parish is not full of music aficionados, but those Motecta pierce the soul, and the congregation has responded to their beauty.”
The multilayered vocals by Matthew Curtis (a member of the Grammy-award-winning men’s vocal ensemble Chanticleer) “are extremely well done, and it’s very valuable to have them as teaching tools also,” she adds. “It’s an unusual gift to be able to sing all three parts equally well and in such balance.”
Watershed is excited to share this “old school” music with modern audiences.
“Catholic sacred music is a joyous treasure just waiting for everyone in the world to discover,” Ostrowski says. “It’s the equivalent of a paradise of never-ending glee for anyone who chooses to enter. One could spend a lifetime yet still never exhaust the riches of this music. Where does one begin? There’s an ocean to explore, and all you’ve got is a small row boat.”
It is that very ocean that Corpus Christi Watershed strives to bring to the attention of parish music directors everywhere. By offering so many resources online at no charge, the organization’s hope is to build bridges across the hesitation and reluctance that many music directors feel when considering the prospect of using chant and polyphony in the liturgies celebrated at their parishes.
“The music that the Church wants us to use at Mass is absolutely amazing and of immense depth. This is why I have dedicated my life to this music,” says Ostrowski. “Those who enter into this music as the Church asks us to will discover a whole new world — and a very emotional world.”
Dan Lord writes from Mobile, Alabama.
Upcoming feature: Part 2 on Watershed’s Cardinal Newman film.