Old-Time Religion

Faculty Early Music Group brings Gregorian sound to
Lenten liturgies

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

St. Mary's Chapel resembles a miniature medieval cathedral when the Boston College Faculty Early Music Group performs, as centuries-old cadences mingle with clouds of incense, accompanied by prayers of the gathered faithful.

For some 25 years, the group of administrators, faculty and staff have brought their repertoire of Gregorian chants and more modern hymns to St. Mary's and other campus venues. Members say the ancient music, much of it sung in Latin, enhances the beauty of the Catholic liturgy.

Faculty Early Music Group members include, from left: Language Laboratory Director Cynthia Nicholson Bravo, Assoc. Prof. Christopher Baum (Economics), Prof. David Belsley (Economics), part-time faculty member Timothy Zimmerman (Music), Assistant Director of Budget Planning Tracy Ryan, and Assoc. Prof. Michael Connolly (Slavic and Eastern Languages). (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
"There is a specific longing in the soul that these chants answer," said Assoc. Prof. Michael Connolly (Slavic and Eastern Languages), one of the group's founders. "Chant gives people more time for reflection, and in cases of particularly beautiful harmony, enhances the glory of the words. It provides a reflection of the beauty of God."

"I think it contributes to a certain 'hush' in worship that allows me to focus more clearly on the parts of the Mass and on why we come together to worship," said another member, Language Laboratory Director Cynthia Nicholson Bravo.

This Sunday, March 1, the Faculty Early Music Group will begin a series of special sung Masses at St. Mary's for the celebration of Lent. The March 1 Mass will be celebrated by St. Mary's Chapel Prefect James O'Brien, SJ. Joining with Connolly and Bravo in providing music for the series are Assoc. Prof. Christopher Baum (Economics), and Assistant Director of Budget Planning Tracy Ryan. They are accompanied by part-time faculty member Timothy Zimmerman (Music), organist at St. Ignatius Church, who sometimes plays the harpsichord.

Other celebrants for the Lenten Masses will be: Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law on March 8; University President William P. Leahy, SJ, on March 15; Canisius Professor of Theology Michael Buckley, SJ, on March 22; Assoc. Prof. Arthur Madigan, SJ (Philosophy), on March 29, and Assoc. Prof. T. Frank Kennedy, SJ (Music), on April 5. All Masses begin at 4 p.m.

This will be the sixth year the group has provided music for Sunday afternoon Masses during Lent, as well as during Advent. The Masses are highlighted by their renditions of Gregorian chants, sacred verse set to ethereal melodies which were first assembled in canonical form under Pope Gregory the Great in the sixth century and sung through the ages by Catholic monks and other religious. They also perform hymns from the Baroque era and the 19th century, Connolly said, but few written any later than the 1800s.

If much of the music predates the 16th-century Council of Trent, however, the Masses themselves incorporate the modern liturgy. "The music does follow the forms of the post-Vatican II Mass," said Connolly, who occasionally provides accompaniment on a period stringed instrument, the viola de gamba. "We don't view it as a museum piece, but as something living."

Connolly said the 4 p.m. time for the Masses is meant to evoke the 19th century British Cardinal John Henry Newman, who, prior to his conversion to Catholicism, was famed for the eloquent sermons he gave as an Anglican priest at 4 p.m. services in St. Mary's Church in Oxford. That tradition of eloquence has been carried on at St. Mary's Chapel, he said, through the strong speaking skills of the celebrants.

"The preaching has been very effective," said Connolly. "Words, music, incense - all the senses come into play."

Besides Connolly, the group's other original member is Prof. David Belsley (Economics), a recorder player who often accompanies the group. The membership of the quartet for the Lenten and Advent liturgies has remained fairly constant over the past six years.

In its lifetime, the Faculty Early Music Group has performed at various events around campus, from Christmas Eve Masses at Connolly House to a 1993 memorial service for Prof. Heinz Bluhm, founder of the Germanic Studies Department. Connolly recalled one concert some 15 years ago, when the quartet performed a medieval Mass in Latin at a conference of medieval scholars, one of whom later gave them a particularly enthusiastic endorsement.

"The man said, 'I've been teaching this music for 25 years,'" said Connolly, 'and this is the first time I've ever heard it done the way it's supposed to be done.'"

Connolly said the singers practice about an hour or two a week. "Most of them have grown up with the music," he said. "They know it well. It comes to them instinctively."

Members say St. Mary's stands out as a venue for their performances because it is perfectly tailored to a group of their size.

"The acoustics are such that four voices can fill it," said Connolly. "The chapel itself inspired the idea of the early music group. Here was a place with tremendous acoustics just waiting to be used for that type of music."

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