Cathedral choirs aspire to help people pray, worship

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1-IM9wWpeIA?rel=0&w=640&h=360]

By MARNIE McALLISTER
Record Assistant Editor

If prayer lies at the heart of worship, music — at least for some — is the pulse that invigorates it.

Pope Pius XII wrote about sacred music in his 1955 encyclical, Musicae Sacrae, “It should make the liturgical prayers of the Christian community more alive and fervent so that everyone can praise and beseech the Triune God more powerfully, intently and more effectively.”

Around the Archdiocese of Louisville, from the smallest parishes to the largest, talented singers help individual Catholics to unite in the pews and participate fully, actively in the liturgy.

The choirs at the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Cathedral of the Assumption aspire to do this — in different ways.

The cathedral, like a few other parishes, is blessed with two choirs that specialize in different styles. The Cathedral Singers, led by Larry Love, make an effort to keep up with contemporary music. They are accompanied by piano and synthesizer plus one or two other instruments each week.

The Cathedral Choir, led by Dr. Philip Brisson, draws — as the U.S. bishops put it — on the church’s “treasury of sacred music” as well as on more modern pieces composed in a classical style.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops explain in the document, “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship,” choirs help to draw the congregation into the liturgy in a couple of ways.

They write, “The full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.” They caution choirs to choose music, for the most part, that the congregation can sing.

They also note that the choir may “enrich the celebration by adding musical elements beyond the capabilities of the congregation alone.”

“The choir may draw on the treasury of sacred music, singing compositions by composers of various musical styles, as well as music that expresses the faith of the various cultures that enrich the church,” they write.

Dr. Philip Brisson, the director of music for the Cathedral of the Assumption, and Larry Love, the director of contemporary music at the Cathedral take these directives to heart and view music as essential to the liturgy.

During a recent interview, Brisson described music as a “powerful mover of emotions.”

“Music can take us to places speech cannot,” he noted. “It can move us to a place that is more emotionally powerful. Images come to mind when we hear music. It moves the soul.”

Even “the body prays” when it’s singing, he noted, in the way that a person draws breath and physically exerts himself or herself to sing a prayer.

Brisson, who is classically trained in sacred music, directs the Cathedral Choir with this in mind. The choir’s 30 members — who auditioned for the group — rehearse for two hours on Wednesday evenings and sing for about an hour and a half on Sunday mornings at the 9:30 a.m. Mass and in warm-up beforehand. There is room for a few more voices, too, Brisson noted.

He directs and accompanies the choir from the cathedral organ. They chant in the Gregorian tradition and sing a variety of other liturgical music from centuries past — including selections from the renaissance and baroque periods, he said.

“I always want to choose music that is very well composed and I try to choose music that speaks to me in some way,” Brisson said.

He noted that it should also relate to the liturgical season.

The cathedral itself has a part to play in making the sung parts of the liturgy beautiful — “the acoustics are so wonderful,” Brisson said.

While Brisson and the Cathedral Choir offer their music from above — in the choir loft — the Cathedral Singers position themselves on the floor of the cathedral to the side of the altar closest to the lectern.

Larry Love, director of contemporary music at the cathedral and director of the Cathedral Singers, said during an interview, that music — whatever the style — “is integral to the liturgy, it’s not optional.”

“A lot has to go into that so that people can pray the prayer they are called to pray,” he said.

In addition, he noted, liturgical music has one purpose: to encourage people to take part in the liturgy. “Our whole motivation is to get people to sing — to get them to pray better.”

The contemporary choir learns about 20 new pieces a year, and it has about 25 members right now. It can expand to have about 30 singers. They rehearse weekly and provide music during the Sunday evening Mass at the cathedral, along with an ensemble of instruments.

While the music and the presentation of the two choirs are distinct, their aims are the same. And their members are devoted, said Love and Brisson.

“Dedication,” said Love in an email he sent after an interview on April 2. “These singers are foregoing their NCAA pre-parties to attend their final Easter rehearsal tonight.”

Brisson added, “When someone can’t be there, the choir suffers.”

George Harrison, a bass who sings in the Cathedral Choir under Brisson’s direction, sees the choir as a ministry.

“It’s a group of people who have gotten together because we love music,” he said. “It’s our way of being a part of the ministry.

“I probably feel closest to God when I’m singing. And when the choir is singing and when we’re all together, there’s this feeling that’s a little hard to describe. It can be really powerful.”

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