ChantWorks presents Fear Not. Host Linda Hoffman speaks with Christopher Hodkinson, Director of Music for Wyoming Catholic College.
Transcript: Fear Not interview. Linda Hoffman with Christopher Hodkinson of director of music, at Wyoming Catholic College, recorded November 19, 2021
Linda Hoffman: Following in the footsteps of Christ, the Catholic Church has often relied on the art and science of communication to convey its message to the generations. Heresy was fought NOT in the streets, but in the HEART through sacred liturgy and art.
And while it may be hard to choose one art form over all the others, the church does have a favorite. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater—even—than that of any other art.”
This musical tradition was especially formed through the long and deep tradition of chant. Once holding a place of primacy in the liturgy, chant fell into disuse in recent decades. But it’s making its way back. After all, truth holds constant in all times and all ages, but its power is especially known amidst a world of chaos.
Today we speak with someone who knows, first-hand, the power of sacred music, most especially chant. Christopher Hodkinson is Instructor of music and fine arts, as well as director of music, at Wyoming Catholic College. Christopher, it’s great to have you on the show.
Christopher Hodkinson: Thank you, Linda. It’s a pleasure to speak to you.
Linda Hoffman: Christopher, you’ve done it all including serving as director of Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge in the U.K. Give us a fast snap shot of your path from Cambridge to Wyoming.
Christopher Hodkinson: Well, yes, it might not be obvious how I can to be here. I was very privileged to get a very unique education in Gregorian chant and Sacred Music from my time in Cambridge. And, so, I found myself a few years ago with the beginnings of a career as I call, a musician, but with a very strong interest in academic teaching and research, and I was looking for some way in which I could combine the two. And, there were very few institutional contexts in Europe where that’s actually possible. Suddenly, very few where I could do that, while serving a perfect church and not being in another context.
So, it was a real delight for me when I had this opportunity to come to Wyoming, and to be able to teach in a Catholic college, and to divide my time between performance and teaching and research. So, yes.
Linda Hoffman: What are the similarities and differences between Cambridge and Wyoming students?
Christopher Hodkinson: Well, the differences, I think, are so numerous it’s hard to begin. I think what I see in common is a real intellectual curiosity. In both cases, I’ve been privileged to work with some people who are really interesting people to teach and who thirst for knowledge.
Here in Wyoming, the college’s program is quite unlike what would be the case at a university like Cambridge. My students in Cambridge were highly specialized, devoting their entire time to studying music. Whereas, here at Wyoming Catholic College, the students are all taking a generalist curriculum, and so the rest of their day is full of readings and philosophy and theology and great books, and so they—they have a very different situation. In a way it’s a greater challenge, of course, to teach some very specific technical things about the subject, but on the other hand, they come to it much better prepared to see the relevance of all these ideas to the rest of their lives and to our wide culture.
So, I’m not sure there is a right approach. I think whatever we do, we’re not ready for another challenge. But, actually, I think it works very well for them. And it prepares them, for really, whatever else is going to come into their lives, to approach that with a with well-formed faith, and that’s virtually in that faith and share with our culture.
Linda Hoffman: The cycle of Catholic liturgy runs parallel to that of Gregorian chant. At the same time, a psychological truism is that long-term retention is improved when texts are set to music and sung. (The Alphabet Song is a simple example.) Do you find that chant helps students engage more deeply in the sacred texts?
Christopher Hodkinson: Well, if you forgive me, I must say, I find that the question is not quite how I’d put it. I wouldn’t think of Gregorian chant as being a parallel cycle to the cycle of the liturgy. I guess I’m a music historian, so I want to get back to the first millennium to think of these ideas.
If we get back to, about the seventh, eighth, ninth centuries, this is a period in which the Roman liturgy becomes the standard liturgy across a great part of Western Europe. And so, this is not for any effort on the part of Rome, it’s rather the local churches want to become more Roman and they want to adopt all these ideas, and this practice.
And when one sees the documents that survived that speak of this, they speak about condoning and spreading the Cantos Romanos, the Roman chant. It’s quite—the situation they faced was that, for them, to learn, to a certain degree, the Roman liturgy was the same thing as learning to sing the Roman chant. The two inseparable concepts. And so, from my perspective the presence of a Roman chant is one of the defining marks of the presence of the Roman liturgy.
Any liturgy that purports to be Roman and has not got the chant in it is privated. It’s only partially itself. We can’t see the whole thing. So, I think that, I would say, the very first thing to say is that, the experience of the chant enables us to experience Roman liturgy.
Now, I’m not a psychologist, so I submit I’m not the right person to ask exactly what affect it has on our students. I think the situation in which we make music nowadays in in the church, as you know, it’s a very contest arena, there are many approaches to the whole question of how it should be done. And when I think of the specific value of Gregorian chant, I think that its value is that it works upon our souls in a very gentle way, in a very gradual way.
We’re right to think of the annual cycle, this is a kind of music that is there to help us to mature. And that generally happens very slowly, we don’t get an immediate sugar high from this music that would that would make us wildly excited and rush out and change everything we’re doing. It’s much more subtle than that.
And so, while, I myself, see certain students whose lives are transformed by it, who, especially—these are singers—who realize just how wonderful this music is to sing every day. I see that effect. But I think what I don’t see is the long-lasting effect on many of our students as their faith is gradually deepened, and as their lives are slowly formed by contemplation on the Word of God, which is, I think, one of the great things that chant offers to us so that their souls are of all moved to love the presence of God, are moved to adoration and their minds are simultaneously formed by God’s words. Which, of course, is going to prepare them for everything in their lives they going to come to—all the challenges they’re going to face, imbued thoroughly with the culture of the church. Which means that it’s possible to approach everything with the Catholic sense, which is so invaluable.
Linda Hoffman: You also teach art history. Our audience spans a spectrum of knowledge on such things, from simple to advanced. So, casting a net across the widest Catholic experience, help us understand the relationship of the liturgical calendar, artistic representation, and chant. And finally, how does it work together to the benefit of the soul?
Christopher Hodkinson: The church’s year presents to us the mysteries of the faith as an annual cycle, which we return to each year to contemplate anew. Of course, the faith is unified, it’s a whole. But the weaving human needs to concert each of its aspects, in turn, and the church guides us through that each year, and that’s what caused the cycle of Gregorian chant—gives us a regular annual cycle of music to accompany that, to guide through that.
Now, Sacred Art, I think, works in a slightly different way. And yet, if you visit a church that has a great artistic scheme the mind goes, for instance, to the Basilica Cathedral of Montréal in Sicily—these great churches present an artistic scheme, which guides us through the whole of salvation history. And so, we see now all at one time, all those same mysteries of the faith spread out before our eyes as a great panorama.
So, the means by which we approach the art, by which we experience art, are essentially different. So, I think, what Sacred Art does that is closely in parallel to the cycle of Gregorian chant, is that it presents us with a series of images for contemplation. Think, for instance—let me refer to one of the most paradigmatic images in the West artist tradition would be a painting of the Annunciation. I’d not refer to any particular painting of the Annunciation because, if fact, the last seventy are like this, but I’m imagining, perhaps, one of the great masters of the Renaissance of Europe, perhaps.
The scene that we might see shows us with the angel Gabriel approaching Mary and saying, the first word he says, “Ave,” “Hail.” And we see Mary as if she’s just been disturbed at her prayers. In fact, very often we can see, where just a moment ago, she was kneeling. We can see the open prayer book on the desk in front of her. And though we see that Mary—when she was just about to give her fiat, to say yes to the Lord—was at that moment in a state of deep prayer of contemplation of God’s Word.
And when we see great Sacred Art, and when we hear great Sacred Music, and I’d include chant in that, we, ourselves are invited also to be in a state of contemplation, a state of open receptivity to the Word of God. And it’s precisely by placing us as before God in that way, in prayerful contemplation, that we become ready to accept God’s will for us. So, this way the great music and great art of Western tradition are exactly what we need in our own scriptural lives to grow and mature and to answer God’s call.
Linda Hoffman: If you could give one piece of advice to a part-time music director in an Ordinary Form parish, what would it be?
Christopher Hodkinson: Well, it’s a very hard question because I everyone has different challenges, different circumstances, and so in one way it’s easy to speak in the ideal, it’s very hard to say what it is that an individual person needs to do first. What they need to worry about right now. So, I think what I would say, is possibly the most valuable thing, is to say that it’s easy as a parish music director to become distracted by all the choices we have to make.
Over time, with thinking about our musical resources, about the team of musicians that we are organizing, about the decisions that need to be made, about the Mass—this Sunday and next Sunday—and so on. Someone who looks at this from the outside might assume that the most important job of a music director is to choose four hymns for Sunday Mass. And my advice would be to say that that’s the wrong approach. That our role is not a role which involves making choices. Our role is to faithfully transmit the mind of the church in this matter, and to sing the church’s music. And see, for that reason there’s one book that every single church musician, in whatever situation. should know. Of course, I’m speaking to people, it seems from the Latin Rite, and that’s the book called the Romanum Graduale. I’ve got my copy of it here. A single, small book called the Latin Graduale Romanum.
And this book is the book that belongs to the musician and the church. So, the Missal is the book that is used by the priest, that tells him what his part is in the liturgy. The lectionary’s book, proper to the deacons, to the readers—and in the same way the Graduale’s book, which is proper to the singers—it tells them what the music of the Mass is. Now, if you read the general instruction of a Roman Missal, which gives a series of instructions and the way the liturgy is to be celebrated in the Ordinary Form, it gives a number of options for music at various points. And most often, that series of options begins with the very first option is the Graduale Romanum—the Roman Graduale.
And that option is placed first in the list because, in the mind of the church, it is the first opportunity for adoption, the primary preferable choice of all the other options. And so, I would encourage all parish musicians to get to know this book, get to know it intimately. To use it, if you can, use it directly. Sing exactly what is contained inside it. But, of course, in some circumstances, you or your singers or your congregation won’t be ready for that. And, so, then let it be your guide more indirectly.
Sing those same words to another setting of music that’s more accessible to you. Or sing those words in English translation. Nevertheless, that book is the fundamental guide. And, when you get to know it well, it may surprise you.
So, for instance, if you were to read through every chant provided for the Offertory in the Mass, you’d be surprised by how very few of them speak about what we might think the Offertory is about in a direct sense. They usually don’t mention offering bread and wine, for instance. But what they do do is offer a treasury of prayer, in many ways astute reflections that are much deeper.
I’ve found myself, after many years of singing the Roman Graduale chants, gaining new insights every week, every month, into particular chants, in terms of their relevance to the occasion, in the way in which that text speaks to what’s happening on this day. And it’s a continual surprise to me.
So, when you first encounter this book, you will find mysterious. And that will make it difficult and off-putting. But in fact, the very fact that it’s mysterious is the same reason why it’s worth a huge amount of your time. Because, like the great mysteries of the faith, you cannot comprehend the faith all at once, in all its depth, and all its mysteries.
You can only slowly unwrapp this mystery, and slowly penetrate the depths of it, and that’s what this book offers. It’s a book which is a sure guide to use today, but whose treasures are going to last a lifetime for you.
Linda Hoffman: I’ll make sure that we put a link below the video.
Christopher Hodkinson: Thanks.
Linda Hoffman: So, how can priests support and encourage those in sacred music?
Christopher Hodkinson: So, to those priests who are listening, I would say that you are tremendously important. I’m aware that many of the clergy feel powerless to change anything. But, let me offer you a layman’s perspective. From the point of view of the laity, without the cooperation and support of the priest, it’s impossible to do anything at all. We rely, absolutely, upon the contributions the clergy make, whether through their direct initiative, or through encouraging and enabling others to do things.
So, as a priest, it’s very likely that you don’t have extensive temporal knowledge in Sacred Music. Unless you are blessed to have formation like that before you went to seminary, it’s unlikely you received a specialist education later on. So, I’d offer a few pieces of advice—what I’ve learned from many years in this field.
I think that foremost you need to be ready to put a great deal of resources to support the worthy celebration of liturgy. And, so, you need to be ready to pay for talented singers and musicians to lead music in your parish.
Now, the first objection, of course, will be, well, I haven’t any money to do this. And I would say that when I look at parish budgets, I see a lot of money spent on things which are less important and see it’s about priorities. I see, for instance, that the cost of installing and maintaining a sound system is, often, many tens of thousands of dollars, if not more. The same with lighting systems and so on.
Well, if you care so much about your church as to put these things in, then you can equally well afford to pay for intelligent people to lead your music. And if I would encourage you not to spend money on your lighting, or on your sound system before you spend good money on your music. It is of the first priority. It’s—as the church teaches us—the highest of the arts in the liturgy, the most important.
And, clearly, the liturgy is more important than those things that surround it. And so, the music has to be very high on our list of priorities. And then I would say next, when you do engage someone, whether they’re paid or not to make music, I would reflect deeply what skills you expect them to have. It’s very often the case that parishes will employ an instrumentalist—someone who plays the piano or the organ first of all and assume that same person is also able to lead singing or to sing themselves.
I would say, by contrast, that the ability to play an instrument is low on the list of priorities. The first priority is, you need to engage some leader of music who knows the Roman Graduale, who knows it as well as possible, who can sing its chants, and who can convey to other people to do so. The human voice is the primary instrument in our worship. It’s primary because sung music joined to words—it is a kind of rational praise of God. It’s exactly that rationalis laus, as St. Paul says, that rational worship which Christ himself willed for the church.
So, the human voice comes first, and we have, I would say in America, and more generally, we have too few musicians who are trained to sing the church’s own music, and to teach others to sing it. And, so, any priest in any parish can make their contribution to building up this culture by insisting that, whoever leads their music has that skill before any other skill. And if more parishes would insist upon that, then the culture will change, such that anyone who’s providing education, who has people to lead music in the Catholic Church, will see teaching these skills as being of primary importance.
And it’s only when we’ve managed to transform culture, both in terms of the teaching and then in terms of expectation of priests and their parishes, that we’re going to be able to build up a culture in which authentic Catholic Sacred Music is, once again, at the center of the experience for the majority of Catholics in their own parishes where they worship.
Linda Hoffman: Changing the culture. We can do it.
Christopher Hodkinson: Well, I hope we can. It’s certainly not a quick and easy task. It’s always easier to tear down what you’ve got and start anew. But in fact, no, we need to do it brick by brick, as some people say. So, yes. And I think my perspective would be to say, well even if we can’t change the culture, to make our contribution to it is the stuff of which sanctity is made. And so, it’s worthwhile in itself.
Linda Hoffman: Agreed. Christopher, it has been a pleasure. Thank you for joining us and sharing your amazing insights.
Christopher Hodkinson: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure for me, too.
Linda Hoffman: One of the most misquoted expressions is that of St. Augustine. While many say, “to sing is to pray twice,” the actual quote is, “to sing well is to pray twice.”
Music warriors like Christopher know this to be true. They also know that imparting the knowledge of good music, Sacred Music, is one way heaven touches the heart.
Thank you for joining us. I hope you enjoyed our show. I’m Linda Hoffman. See you on our next exciting episode of Fear Not.
This has been a ChantWorks production. Please visit us online at chantworks.com
(music, credits roll)
A ChankWorks Production
Host: Linda Hoffman
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