NORCIA, ITALY — Recently in Norcia, Italy, during the summer theology program offered by the Albert the Great Center for Scholastic Studies, I was able to catch one of the tutors, Peter Kwasniewski, for an in-person interview. Dr. Kwasniewski is a Professor of Theology at Wyoming Catholic College and also a cantor, conductor, and composer of sacred music.
Dr. Kwasniewski, can you tell me something about your background in church music?
I’ve been composing music for about 25 years, mostly sacred choral music but also instrumental works and a few secular works. My first serious lessons in composition and conducting took place with a wonderful teacher, Roy Horton, now deceased, who was organist at Delbarton School in Morristown, New Jersey. I fell madly in love with music and threw myself at it more than at any other subject up until that point. When I arrived at Thomas Aquinas College, I had the good fortune to be asked by the main choir director, who lived quite a distance from the college, to be the assistant choir director. I started leading choir practices and even leading the choir at Mass on Sundays. It was a kind of total immersion experience, like being thrown into the deep end of the pool without knowing how to swim very well. But the four years in college of working intensively with the choir really fired my imagination.
Can you be more specific about what it was that fired your imagination?
What was appealing to me was Gregorian chant and classical polyphony. In college I was in the schola for four years and sang the proper chants of the Mass, Sunday after Sunday. We also sang polyphonic Mass ordinaries and motets. That was my first serious acquaintance with sacred music: singing Palestrina, Victoria, Byrd, the great Renaissance composers. I suppose you could say I had really good models to work with and I tried to imitate them in my own compositions, although they were clumsy at first. With trial and error, through study and hard work, I finally got to a point some time after I graduated where I was writing music choirs wanted to sing and I felt confident in putting it forward.
Someone could raise the objection: why don’t we just sing chant and Palestrina? The composers of this music, whether anonymous or named, are clearly geniuses and we can’t equal their work, so why bother?