Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What is Professor Mahrt like? Answers to a Reporter from SF Chronicle

A photographer and a writer from San Francisco Chronicle showed up at the St. Ann choir rehearsal and Mass last Sunday (Feast of Christ the King). The writer asked me a few questions outside the church, and she gave me her card and said she would call me. I sent her the following email on Tuesday.

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Tuesday, November 27, 2007 3:24 PM
To: Sturrock, Carrie
Subject: What is Professor Mahrt like? Some thoughts in answer to your question

What is Professor Mahrt like? I have been thinking about this since you asked me Sunday after Mass.

I mentioned his focus and his dedication, that he shows up to lead rehearsal every Thursday night (when he isn’t at conferences or other music events) just as he has pretty much for 40 plus years straight through. Believe it or not, there is some question about whether he even gets paid for the vast amount of work he does directing the choir. I’ve seen a printed quotation in some article or other from someone who knows him who lauded Bill’s uncompensated time- and talent- draining work.

Prof. Mahrt is a predictable sight to be seen at dusk on most Thursday nights, loping across the Stanford campus towards the Braun music building rehearsal room. He is tall (6’1’), white haired, spare. His nose is a bit beak like, and he is ever so slightly stooped. So from a distance his silhouette is a bit reminiscent of Ichabod Crane. But unlike Ichabod, Bill Mahrt carries a large portfolio of chant pages for the next Sunday and a music stand under one arm, and in the other hand he holds a metal briefcase with the polyphonic motets for the week, some hymns, and any Mass settings the choir might be practicing for upcoming feasts.

He almost always wears a buttoned-up shirt, a tie and a jacket.

His conservative polyester apparel is in striking contrast to the mufti worn by the choir. The members’ California spirit of do your own thing is evidenced in the variety of clothes they wear when they sing. Singers straggle into Sunday rehearsal an hour ahead of Mass wearing anything from blue jeans to sweat suits, Birkenstocks to jogging shoes, with a sprinkling of Indian dresses that could have been and quite likely often have been hanging in closets since the 1960s. You know, the colorful rayon kind with the little mirrors . . .. You see lots of shawls. A few of the men sport long grey ponytails. That’s not to say that you won’t see a few suits and men’s oxford shoes, Sunday dresses and stylish high heels on some of the singers. But it cannot be denied that it is a motley group.

Bill’s occasional suggestion that we might consistently use choir robes (instead of only for Vespers) brings rebellious cries from several of the most outspoken choir members, and the idea gets tabled again.

One interesting fact is that a large minority of the choir is not Catholic, and many participate only because they love the music.

Bill Mahrt’s single most appealing attribute for me is his gift for hospitality. At the first rehearsal I attended, he brought refreshments in honor of the birthday of Susan Weisberg, because, as he said, she always remembers people’s birthdays. He poured very good wine from his extensive wine collection into real wine glasses that he carried in cartons with little cardboard dividers. And he walked around the room like an attentive waiter offering a plate of strawberries . . .. I was impressed.

The first Sunday Lauds I attended was one of the last times that the choir was able to sing Lauds in its original home, St. Ann Chapel, which was formerly the Stanford University Newman Center. After a traditional Anglican congregation had bought the chapel from the Catholic diocese, they let the St. Ann choir continue its singing of both Lauds and Vespers there for quite some time. But last year they started having their own Lauds, and there was no room there any more on Sunday mornings.

When I started to get into my car after Lauds that first morning, Bill called to me across the street, rather perfunctorily, but pleasantly enough, “There’s coffee.” So I stayed. He took out of the trunk of his beat up Honda another carton, this time with china mugs, plus two thermos pots of coffee, milk and sugar, and biscotti. One choir member brought a homemade cake. I happened to have a freshly baked bag of corn muffins in the car so I put that out on the brick bench under the tree with the rest of the repast. We stood around drinking coffee and talking until it was time to pack everything up and go to Mass rehearsal. I was impressed again.

Repast, now that’s a Bill Mahrt word. He also uses collation when he talks about the spread that some dedicated volunteers put out for the choir after the noon Mass every week.

Not being able to find any place else to hold Lauds, Bill now opens his home every Sunday morning to the three or four of us who still attend. And serves us coffee afterwards on his good china.

Vespers are better attended, but always with more singers in the choir than there are hearers in the congregation (maybe 6 or 7 to 2 to 4). As you may have heard, Susan and John Altstatt host a dinner for the choir every Sunday night after Vespers at their funky home in the Los Altos hills. They push together long folding tables and serve very good meals from restaurant-sized pots and pans to whoever shows up. Bill always brings three bottles of his excellent wine to the dinner.

And when the Altstatts are on one of their frequent camping trips in their big AirStream trailer out in the desert, indisposed, or otherwise unavailable, Bill hosts the dinner at his home.

He is the only man I have ever met who has three sets of dinnerware. One set is Spode china. He puts out cloth napkins and real silverware. And he composes unforgettable meals in his tiny kitchen. One Sunday night one of the choir members confessed she had been dreaming all week about the red pepper sauce Bill had prepared the week before. I still am mentally licking my lips about a meal of shrimp rolled in sole served with tiny baby patty pan squash (all sauced to perfection) and Bill’s perennial risotto that Bill prepared after Vespers a few weeks ago.

If you are interested, I’ll send you the recipe for the red pepper sauce. J

One long time choir member told me about a wonderfully handsome graduate student from South America who had once been in the choir, and she said, “All the girls who weren’t in love with him were in love with Bill.” The handsome South American got married and went home, and sadly died young. But in spite of all the choir members who have purportedly loved Bill over the years, Bill never has been married or engaged. One more recent choir member charmingly said about him when I was wondering about Bill’s marital state that “he is a monkdom of one.”

He turned 68 on March 9. He had a heart attack last year, and now watches his diet religiously. And he is one of the vast numbers of men of a certain age living with prostate cancer. I heard him telling a former choir member who showed up for rehearsal a few weeks ago that (in spite of his having the prostate removed) the cancer has metastasized, but the doctors don’t know where to. “They’ll start chemo at some point,” he said, after the blood marker reaches a certain point. And he quoted his father to her, who had prostate cancer too and died in his 90s. With a rueful laugh, he told her, as his father often said, “We’ve all got to go some time.”

We hope that for Bill that “some time” is some time in the far future.

Susan Altstatt said to me last week that it is good that Bill and the music he has so valiantly preserved are getting noticed at this late date. It must be gratifying to him. I agreed and blurted the thought that sprang to my mind, that fame if it arrives at all often comes only after the person is dead.


Susan Altstatt said she wanted to tell you that Bill is right off the farm. He often mentions that he was raised on a farm near Spokane. He mentioned once that in high school, he was a trombone player, and he attended Gonzaga University in Spokane on a band scholarship. His interest in things musical evolved. According to Susan, Bill learned Dominican chant while he was at Gonzaga. He came to Stanford originally to work on a doctorate on Mozart in piano performance but when he met mathematics professor William Pohl, the choir’s founder, and started singing Gregorian chant in 1963 when the choir started, he said he realized that was what he wanted to do. He sat down, he said once, and sang through all the ordinary chants for all the Masses. And he has been doing that ever since.

BTW, I have a history he wrote around 1989 if you would find it helpful.

Give me a call if you want to talk more.

I am very happy you are doing this article. It was a pleasure to meet you!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Chant Survivor William Mahrt: Anno quadragesimo quarto

This interview was published in an edited form in "Gregorian Champ," National Catholic Register Nov. 18 -24.

Above: Prof. Mahrt led the women's chant schola at the June 2007 Sacred Music Colloquium

In 1963, William Mahrt was a Stanford graduate student when he joined a new choir just starting at St. Ann Chapel in Palo Alto, California. Today, Mahrt is a professor of music at Stanford and director of the St. Ann Choir. Two years ago, Prof. Mahrt became president of the Church Music Association of America.

Back forty-four years ago, the St. Ann Choir’s founder, the late William Pohl, started a program of Gregorian chant and polyphonic music that the choir has continued to this very day—even while the kind of music the choir sings has been out of favor in much of the Catholic Church for most of the ensuing years.

The election of traditional Church music lover Benedict XVI to the papacy is bringing a thrill of hope to people like Mahrt, the CMAA, and others who persevered in performing this kind of music. These days, the pendulum of Church music appears to be swinging back towards greater inclusion of the traditional forms. Where that pendulum will come to rest is a matter of intense speculation by interested parties on both sides of this issue.

Some definitions: Gregorian chant developed as an intrinsic part of the liturgy of the Catholic Church, and it is unique among all the types of music that can be used in the liturgy because it has always been used only for worship. Some refer to Gregorian chant as “sung prayer.” Purely melodic, it is sung by one or several singers. It does not use harmony, counterpoint, or any accompaniment. Polyphony is unaccompanied multi-voiced music that developed from chant. Gregorian refers to Pope St. Gregory I, the Great (540 - 604), who may have played an important (sometimes disputed) role in the arrangement of the chants. In 1903, Pope St. Pius X proclaimed that Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony were the official music of the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgy.

Quite by coincidence, I interviewed Professor Mahrt about the CMAA on Sept. 3—on the feast of Pope St. Gregory the Great in the revised Roman calendar and also the feast of Pope St. Pius X in the traditional calendar.

Q: What is the CMAA?

The Church Music Association was formed by an amalgamation of the Society of St. Caecilia (founded in 1874) and the Catholic Choir Masters Guide (founded in 1913) shortly after the Vatican II council. So we are quite a longstanding organization.

The purpose of the Church Music Association has always been the cultivation and improvement of music for the liturgy. Its focus is Gregorian chant and the classical polyphony of tradition in the context of the liturgy.

Q: What would you say to people who believe that Vatican II documents mandated that Latin, Gregorian chant, and polyphony, and the organ were no longer to be used?

At the 2nd Vatican Council, the first document was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which specified that Gregorian chant should be given pride of place in the Roman rite. One doesn’t see a lot of evidence of Gregorian chant having pride of place in this country.

So, one of our campaigns is to increase the use of Gregorian chant for the regular services.

Another point that comes from the council is that polyphonic music has a special role, a privileged place in the use of the Church.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the 1967 document “Instruction on Music in the Liturgy,” “Musicam Sacram,” also had this to say:
• The use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.
• The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered.
• The pipe organ is the canonical church instrument. It is to be held in high esteem because it lifts up man's mind to God and to higher things.

Q: Does the CMAA want to make chant and polyphony exclusively used?

We want chant and polyphony to have the priority that was mandated by the 2nd Vatican council, not necessarily to be exclusively used.

Q: What is the CMAA accomplishing?

We publish the journal Sacred Music that has been under my editorship for about a year and a half. Sacred Music is a continuation of the journal Caecilia that was started by the Society of St. Caecilia in 1874, so we rather proudly claim that Sacred Music is the oldest continuously published journal of music in North America.

The journal addresses issues of both the tradition and the gradual incorporation of better music into contemporary liturgical practice.

We have a Sacred Music colloquium every summer and that colloquium is growing by leaps and bounds. In 2006 we had something like eighty people. This past June [2007] we had one hundred and forty, and we turned away a hundred. And we anticipate larger numbers next year.

We are moving the colloquium next year from Catholic University of America in Washington, DC to Loyola University in Chicago, where the facilities will accommodate the larger number of people we expect.

Priests, choir singers, congregation members, choir directors, and organists are coming to this colloquium seeking ways in which they can improve the quality and the sacred character of the music they are doing in their churches today.

We also present workshops. For example, this Fall we are holding a seminar for clergy on October 17-19 at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago on how to sing their parts of the Mass. The seminar will include training in singing both the new and old forms of the Roman Rite.

Q: What future aims does the CMAA have?

With Pope Benedict’s initiatives about the liturgy, there is an increased awareness of the importance and the beauty of the Latin church music and of the need for the music to enhance the sacred character of the liturgy.

We hope that the increased interest in the traditional Church music and in the sacredness of music of the liturgy will grow. And we hope that we can assist everyone who needs it to find the appropriate ways of improving their liturgies.

[It’s probably fitting to let Pope Benedict XVI have the last word:
I am convinced that the crisis in the Church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy . . .. This is why we need a new Liturgical Movement, which will call to life the real heritage of the Second Vatican Council. Milestones: Memoirs 1927-1977 (SF, CA: Ignatius), p. 149.]

For more information on the CMAA, its colloquium, and its other resources, see the CMAA website

For a collection of quotes by Pope Benedict XVI on sacred music and the liturgy, see: Benedict on Music.

To join in the discussion about the new Liturgical Movement, see The New Liturgical Movement blog.

Roseanne Therese Sullivan is a San Jose writer, photographer, and artist, a secular Discalced Carmelite, and a singer in The St. Ann Choir. You can reach her at the Catholic Pundit Wannabe blog .

Below: CMAA officers and colloquium presenters at breakfast. L - R: William Stoops, Treasurer; Arlene Oost-Zinner, Director of Programs; Professor Susan Treacy, Head of the Music Department, Ave Maria University; Scott Turkington, Chant Conductor, Stamford Schola Gregoriana; Jeffrey Tucker, Sacred Music Managing Editor; Prof William Mahrt, President and Editor of Sacred Music; Rev. Robert Skeris, President Emeritus,Director of the Centre forWard Method Studiesat Catholic University; Horst Buchholz, CMAA Vice President, Director of Sacred Music and Principal Organist at Denver's Cathedral Basilica; Rosemary D. Reninger, chant composer and choir leader, Herndon, VA.