Sacred music is alive and well

Courtesy of Peter Kwasniewski
Choir singing

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, cantor, conductor and composer, talks to Aleteia about the future of church music

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with continually going back to the classics of the past; the [Second Vatican] Council says we should do that. But every generation should have something beautiful that it can add to the treasury, because every generation wants to make an offering to God. That’s why the Council says that Catholic composers, inspired by the past, should make their own contribution to the store of the arts. Another way to look at it is that modern works of art can (and should) have a certain modern feel to them, so that they seem to emerge from and speak to our age. For instance, contemporary composers make use of harmonies that are more adventurous, that go beyond the rules of earlier centuries—think of the music of Arvo Pärt, or Morten Lauridsen, or Frank La Rocca. It’s beautiful music but distinctively modern.

Isn’t there a danger, though, with modern music—that it can alienate listeners? Maybe by being too dissonant?

Yes, for sure, we have struggled with that problem, although the atonal revolution of the 20th century has mostly died out by now, and the “new tonality” has taken its place. Any church composer worth his salt understands that one has to have a certain “conservatism” when writing sacred music. Whatever is “modern” in the piece should not overshadow the whole character of it so that it seems only modern and cut off from the past. The past offers us perennially vibrant models. If you look at the great composers and sculptors and architects of the past, they did the same thing. None of them ever tried to start from scratch. They were always building off of the models that came before. That’s part of the humility of a great artist. It’s standing on the shoulders of giants. If you’re a composer, you try to learn from the great composers; you don’t ignore them and think you can do better than they have done. I find it extremely energizing, this constant dialogue between past and present, between masterpieces that set the bar high and our own efforts to enrich the repertoire.

What motivates you to write a particular piece of sacred music?

Often there is a particular liturgical need for a piece, perhaps a simpler setting because it will be quicker or easier to learn with amateur choristers—and when you’re singing week after week and don’t have a lot of rehearsal time, that’s very helpful.

Can you say something about the creative process?

Creativity is not something that’s on tap like beer. If you produce something like that, it will be pedestrian and uninspired, more like an exercise or a homework assignment. A piece of music that is going to touch people is something that’s a gift. And you just have to keep putting yourself in the way of that gift. I think it’s like the Christian life in general. You work as hard as you can to dispose yourself for God’s grace, but in the end you know that it’s going to be a gift from Him, and you can’t claim it or demand it. Practically speaking, I need a block of free time, a quiet house, a piano, a music notebook, and a good pencil with a good eraser. I like to scribble down ideas, motifs, chords. Often it will take a few years to finish a piece. The draft sits around for a while before I see the overall direction it needs, or the finishing touches. In a few happy cases, a strong idea turns into a complete piece in a day or two. But that’s pretty rare.

Is your music published and available for those who are interested?

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