Kevin Allen is a well-known composer. His works, sacred and secular, have been performed in churches and concert halls throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia. Based in Chicago, he is the founding director of the Collins Consort, American Composer’s Project, and Schola Immaculata. Mr. Allen is also the director of Schola Laudis at the Benedictine Monastery of the Holy Cross. He is Artist & Composer-in-Residence at St. Gregory's Hall. On Saturday, September 3, he will direct the music for a special Mass for the Feast of St. Gregory the Great. More info here.
What drew you to sacred music and to composing, and what kept you in this realm of work?
It started early at Holy Angels School [in Chicago]. I had a fantastic music teacher, Sister Lorraine Quella, who was of the School Sisters of St. Francis; they were based in Milwaukee but staffing the school in Bronzeville. She was my music teacher for my entire time there at Holy Angels.
By the time I was in third or fourth grade, I started going down to the music room during recess. During other free times when I could do other activities, I would opt to be in the music room. Through just studying with Sister Lorraine -- I was about 10 years old -- I thought I would try my hand at writing music. So I knew at that time that writing music was a very interesting thing for me.
By my teens, I knew that this would be my life's work, particularly when I discovered a book of papal documents, specifically on music. It was a motu proprio of Pope St. Pius X written in 1903 called Tra Le Sollecitudini, and that document stated all the things that are required in Catholic worship, as far as music goes and the types of music that should be in Catholic churches. Well, in grade school, we had a little bit of that – not a lot of it. But certainly after that, I didn't experience anything like that in any Mass I ever attended and I thought, "Well, what's this disconnect?"
So I decided at that moment - and I'm sure I was 16 years old - that this would be my life's work, that I would implement all of these directives for church music, for amateur choirs, for less experienced choirs, for small choirs, for large choirs, for advanced choirs.
Right now, not many people get to experience liturgical music in the liturgical setting; you yourself mentioned you never experienced the music described in the document in the Masses that you attended. So at St. Gregory’s Hall, how are you thinking of bridging that disconnect for people when it comes to music?
I see it as a two-pronged approach.One is exactly music for the liturgy, so on a very basic and practical level providing music in the tradition of the church for actual liturgies. The other side of it is St. Gregory's Hall. It's a center for Catholic culture, so connecting people with the non-liturgical part of Catholic life. That would be through literature, or in my case, through music.
The Catholic composers that were composing Masses were also composing chamber music in many cases, or if it's earlier, like Renaissance composers, composing madrigals or sung entertainments, or even sacred songs that now sometimes would be done in church, but were originally designed to be sung in the hall as part of entertainment.
I would like to try to integrate the liturgical life as well as the cultural life outside of church. We would do that through workshops, through lectures, through concerts and discussion.
Can you talk a little bit more about the role of music in liturgical life?
From the very inception, from the very beginning of the church's liturgy, it's music. Everything is sung except for the sermon, and for the longest time, sermons were optional, so really when you think about church worship, our Catholic worship, it is sung worship. From the readings, which were traditionally sung, to of course the ordinary of the Mass – the Mass parts that everyone says every Sunday at every Mass – and also the propers of the Mass, so those readings that go in between the Kyrie, the Gloria and the Sanctus. That's where we started.
What would you say the effect of those changes has been on worship, on how people pray, with that separation of music and liturgy?
There’s a saying that's old but still true: lex orandi, lex credendi ("the law of what is prayed [is] the law of what is believed") and that's absolutely true. Your prayer life does reflect your belief. As a result, our churches have been emptying the more watered-down our liturgy and prayer life becomes. The more dis-integrated we become from our prayer life and our worship, the more you get this situation.
It absolutely makes sense that the way we pray certainly informs the way we believe, and “by their fruits, you shall know them.” The fruit of this watered-down liturgy becomes empty churches, and wide disbelief. Unfortunately it all goes hand in hand. When it's good it's great, and when it's not, it's not so good.
You point out that most or all of the prayers of the Mass are traditionally sung by the celebrant. What is the role of the cantor, choir, and congregation when it comes to sacred music in the Mass?
Everyone who assists at Holy Mass has a particular role. Some roles are shared by all participants, but most are specific. The Congregation has vital active duties, chief among assuming the various postures of standing, kneeling, sitting and singing the responses with the choir, and sometimes joining the choir in singing the Ordinary of the Mass.
The Choir has the duty of singing the Proper of the Mass as well as the ordinary and the responses.
For the people who are more familiar with the Mass primarily being spoken, such as here in the United States, what are some of the things adding in sacred music can do for their prayer and their worship? What are some of the challenges they have when it is added?
It's not easy, of course. It's not an easy task relearning something that you really think you know. It takes the same openness to going more deeply, or going deeper into personal understanding of how we got to this place, coming to some sort of consensus or agreement that perhaps this was not the best evolution of things, it was not the best outcome of various changes or various ideals or various movements, and so coming at least a consensus of: What is Catholic worship? What are Catholic sensibilities?
Some of this could be said to be subjective. A lot of it actually isn't, but that comes up against the current trend in our culture. We can't separate ourselves from where we live, right? This is, first of all, a Protestant country, and now it's become more secularized, so even though there's that undertone of Puritanism, that's kind of underneath the surface. On top of that kind of Puritan culture, the secularization is lying on top of that.
We don't realize how much of that plays a part into how we do everything, from our schooling, from our social interactions, what we think of as entertainment.
I think for Catholics, it's good to be on the same page. That doesn't mean that some pages can't be blue or some pages can't be yellow, because that's the variety that's good, the different gifts of the Holy Spirit. But we should be reading from the same text. If we have that openness, if we can get everyone to be open to hearing that, I think that would be the first step to getting a sense of orthodoxy, in the literal sense of 'right worship.'
You talked about, in the context of the liturgy, being willing to go deeper. People still do have something of that understanding of art, as something meant to make you go deeper, but it's often vague on what you are diving more deeply into. “Going deeper” seems like that ties into what you're thinking about for Saint Gregory's Hall, in terms of connecting the work of liturgical composers with the music they wrote outside the liturgical setting.
It does, and it requires a bit of cooperation. You can pick any time period and look at the architecture, the art, the paintings, the sculpture and the music, and they just miraculously go together. It's because there's this sense of cooperation, of being on the same page. As I said before: reading from the same text, but having different expressions of that.
Then if you look at churches that are being built, let's say from the 1960s on, you see that as well. You see uninspired buildings that you wouldn't necessarily recognize as a church, except that there's - I don't know, a crucifix there and pews facing all the same way - sometimes you see that. The music often reflects that kind of bland or just uninspired approach.
I think that's a huge part of this. Cooperating. The preaching, what happens on the altar, and the music and all of those things are connected. I think that would make a lot more sense to people. It would enable them to go deeper, because they're hearing it, they're seeing it, they're hearing it musically, they're hearing it spoken. I think it has a subtle but very holistic effect on getting us to that good place, where we're all together.
One last question. St. Gregory the Great as a parish had a history of evangelizing through the arts, and it's always an interesting question, this relationship of art to the faith for people who are working in the arts who also have faith. Can you speak about the relationship between the work you have done as an artist and your faith, how has your faith shaped your art, but also how has your art informed your experience of your faith?
That's a complex question. Because if you ask me, “Has your art affected your faith, has your faith affected your art?” I would without a doubt say “Absolutely!” I can think of a lot of little things, but they just sound a bit incoherent. I'm a great lover of sacred art, I will travel all over the world looking at art of all kinds but I have a particular love for sacred art, and that inspires my music making.
For many young people who grew up in the church, there's that period where you become- in your late teens, early 20s, where you pretty much have figured out the whole world and figured out everything there is to know. It's the worst. I always say, "Please deliver me from musicians in their 20s." Because they know everything there is to know about music. And then you realize, once you get past that period: Oh my goodness, I know absolutely nothing. Oh my goodness, what an idiot I was! We've all gone through that, if you've gone past your twenties.
Fortunately because I was always working in church music, I never had a period where I was away from the church. So my work was always being in church, so I never had that opportunity of rebelling, in a way, because my livelihood was making church music. I'm really grateful for that, and I would have to say it's a grace, because I can't say it's on my own action or even my own intellect, or even my own piety. Some musicians say "Oh my goodness, you do all these Masses, it's always the same. Don't you get bored?" And I'm like "Absolutely not. Every single time, I want to make every Mass as amazing as possible.
Obviously as an artist, there's a sense of doing your best, but I know that I'm doing my best because it's worship of the Church, and it's worship of God. So I've benefited from trying to grow as an artist, because in that growth of an artist, that means I'm growing in my prayer life. If I become a better artist, I hope that I'm becoming a better worshiper, a better lover of God.
On Saturday, September 3, Kevin Allen will direct the music for a special Mass for the Feast of St. Gregory the Great.