Philadelphia’s Glorious Catholic Music History

December 2008
AN INCOMPLETE BICENTENNIAL

Philadelphia’s Glorious Catholic Music History

By Lucy E. Carroll

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia celebrated its bicentennial this year. The Catholic Standard and Times, the archdiocesan newspaper, published a special issue commemorating the two hundred years of archdiocesan history. This retrospective covered archdiocesan saints John Neumann and Katherine Drexel, and the founding of schools, parishes, and colleges. Pages and pages were given to the pride of the past two hundred years. Not one word was given to music.

Why keep our music history a secret? Philadelphia’s musical history is unique among the thirteen colonies. For decades, Philadelphia was at the forefront of Catholic liturgical music. Home to hymnal publishers, composers, musical societies, and at the center of American reform of liturgical music called for by Pope St. Pius X, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has much of which to be proud. Alas, the past glories put the present state of music into shadow. Contemporary, secular-style music is most prominent in this archdiocese. Not surprisingly, music is not given any pride of place in Philadelphia parishes: A survey of the archdiocesan directory, and a look at the parish Sunday bulletins, shows listings of priests, deacons, secretaries, grief counselors, business managers, parish nurses, and all manner of officers; nowhere does one find a music director or organist listed. Some of the music of the past two centuries will sound outdated. Yet throughout its
history — before the changes following the Second Vatican Council — Philadelphia’s sacred-music leaders were trained in classical music rather than the popular song style of their day. They brought to liturgical music an excellence (in the classical standards of their time) and a sense of the sacred. Can that be said today? So mired in musical mediocrity are today’s parishes that a hope of a renewal of truly sacred Catholic music like the Gregorian renewal begun by Philadelphia’s St. Gregory Guild of a century ago seems an impossible dream.

Once upon a time, Philadelphia was the only one of the thirteen colonies in which Catholics were permitted to worship openly. (Maryland was founded as a Catholic colony, but soon came under British rule and law. It became illegal to build a Catholic church in Maryland, so Catholics had to worship in private houses.) Under British rule, Catholicism was forbidden in Philadelphia, subject to imprisonment at the least. But William Penn’s charter granting religious freedom in his colony continued to be honored during colonial days. Pennsylvania built the first Catholic churches in the U.S., and its music gained renown even among non-Catholics. John Adams attended a Catholic service in Philadelphia in 1774 and wrote, “Went in the afternoon, to the Romish Chapel in Philadelphia…. The scenery and the music are so calculated to take in mankind that I wonder the Reformation ever succeeded…. The chanting is soft and sweet.” High praise indeed! What would he think of today’s mix of salsa, merengue, pop, and gospel? Would he think the Reformation’s success bore fruit?

July 4, 1779, saw a remarkable event (remarkable, one thinks, even by today’s secular standards): Official celebrations for the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence were held at Old St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Among the participants were George Washington, the French ambassador Conrad-Alexandre Gérard, Gérard’s chaplain, as well as several heads of state, members of Congress, and representatives of the French navy. The Gregorian chant setting of the Te Deum was sung. Can one even imagine a U.S. president today celebrating a national event in a Catholic Church, listening to Gregorian chant? Because of its Catholic populace, Philadelphia became home to the first U.S. Catholic hymnal. Published in 1787 by John Aitken (1745-1831), the compilation was titled Litanies and Vesper Hymns and Anthems as They are Sung in the Catholic Church Adapted to the Voice and Organ. The music was scored for treble and bass; a later edition included a third vocal part. A Holy Mass of the Blessed Trinity was included, but, as was sadly customary at the time, some text was omitted and replaced with instrumental sections. Plainchant themes appeared in the Mass and some hymns, but the music — again in the classical style of the time — was greatly ornamented. While Aitken was not Catholic, he worked closely with Catholic leaders in preparing the book. The German parishioners of Holy Trinity Catholic Church helped to underwrite the cost of publication. Soon thereafter, the second American Catholic hymnal appeared, by the first American Catholic publisher, also in Philadelphia. Matthew Carey (1769-1839) organized a Sunday School Society in Philadelphia beginning about 1790. Four years later, he published a Catholic catechism; later editions contained hymns.

The Philadelphia Musical Fund Society, begun in 1820, is the oldest extant music society in America. One of its founders, Benjamin Carr (1768-1831), became music director of St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, which opened its doors in 1801. Four years later, Carr published Masses, Vespers, Litanies: Composed, Selected, and Arranged for the Use of the Catholic Churches in the United States of America. It was dedicated to Baltimore Bishop John Carroll (the first American bishop) and included Carr’s original setting for the Mass and Te Deum. It was another landmark publication, and it introduced Adeste Fideles and O Sanctissima to American Catholics. Alas, his Mass settings also omitted some text phrases in the Gloria, a common practice at the time on both sides of the Atlantic. The first American Sodality was begun in Philadelphia in 1841 by the Rev. Felix Barbelin (1808-1869). The Sodality movement had been approved by Pope Gregory XIII in 1684. Fr. Barbelin had been pastor of Old St. Joseph’s Church for two decades. He founded St. Joseph’s Hospital and was named president of St. Joseph’s College in 1852. He prepared the first American Sodality Manual in 1841, which contained prayers and hymns. A plethora of Sodality hymnals appeared in he following years, such as Philadelphia’s Sodalist’s Manual in 1887. The Manual was prepared by E.F. McGonigle, and contained 120 hymns with music. So popular was this collection that it was reprinted in 1900, 1904, and 1905. Many of the Sodality hymns were of lesser musical quality, but they were intended for use in devotions and prayer meetings rather than the Mass, and for schools and amateur groups rather than church choirs. Catholic music grew in Philadelphia’s Catholic schools. As early as 1804 Philadelphia’s Old St. Mary’s Church established a singing school and a boy choir. The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur prepared The Wreath of Mary hymnal in 1884, and the Sunday School Hymn Book in 1887. While actually published by a Boston firm, the music was the work of Philadelphia nuns. Some of the hymns later found their way into the St. Basil Hymnal. Sisters of the Holy Child Jesus, also in Philadelphia, founded by Sr. Cornelia Connelly, prepared a hymnal in 1877 with over 100 English hymns and a few Latin motets, including the setting of O Salutaris Hostia by Anthony Werner, which is still used today. Philadelphia poetess Eleanor C. Donnelly (1838-1917) published two volumes of original hymns to the Sacred Heart, in 1882 and 1912. Sentimentally Victorian in flavor, they still contained strong devotional aspects. Two of her hymn texts were “Sacred Heart, in Accents Burning” and “Like a Strong and Raging Fire.” Philadelphia was also home to a German-American immigrant who made a tremendous impact on Catholic sacred music in the 19th century. Albert RoSewig (he capitalized the “S” in his surname to be assured it would be pronounced correctly, with three syllables, not two) came to America at the age of ten in 1856 and served in the city until his death in 1929. He was director of music at St. Charles Borromeo Church for some thirty-five years. His reputation as composer and conductor was so great and widespread that he was selected as the conductor for the Centennial Chorus at the U.S. Centennial Exposition of 1876. RoSewig wrote Masses, songs, hymns, and motets. In his day, “Little Brown Jug” and “Listen to the Mockingbird” were among Philadelphia’s favorite songs. He did not, however, write in that popular song style, but in the classical style of his day, which was florid and sentimental. RoSewig had his own publishing company, and around 1880 he published Concentus Sacri. Popular in its day, it was later criticized by Catholic music reformers. As was popular in his time, RoSewig wrote romanticized rather than modal harmony for Gregorian chants, and even harmonized the priest’s altar chants, something Pope St. Pius X later condemned. (Today it is still forbidden to accompany the priest’s altar chants in any way.) Despite this, Concentus Sacri was a most popular publication and provided Catholic choirs with the works of such composers as Adam Geibel, Giacomo Rossini, Mozart, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Gounod, and, of course, Albert RoSewig. While some of the music today may seem overly florid, it was in the best classical tradition of its day, and prompted the formation of large, musically capable Catholic choirs. While he wrote in what he considered appropriate sacred style, RoSewig lived to hear his music condemned by Nicola Montani and the members of the St. Gregory Guild. Pius X banned overly operatic styles, and RoSewig must have been shattered to see his compositions dismissed as inappropriate for the very sphere for which they were written. He completely withdrew from the public the last decade of his life.

And what of that reform? In 1903 Pius X issued Tra le Sollecitudini, his motu proprio that restored pure Gregorian chant, encouraged polyphony, reaffirmed the use of Latin, and restricted musical style and instrumental usage for the next sixty years. In Philadelphia, Nicola Montani led the national reform of Catholic liturgical music. Montani (1880-1949) was conductor, editor, composer, and publisher. He was founder of the St. Gregory Guild in Rittenhouse Square, spreading the message of Pius X’s reform, and furnishing publications for that reform. Born in New York, he spent 42 of his 67 years in Philadelphia. He studied at Rome’s St. Cecilia Conservatory in 1903, and in 1904 attended a school organized by the then-exiled monks of Solesmes on the Isle of Wight. From 1906 to 1923 he served at St. John the Evangelist Church in central Philadelphia. He also taught music at Hallahan High School, West Philadelphia Catholic Girls High School, and St. Mary’s Academy. He served as editor-in-chief of liturgical music for both G. Schirmer and Boston Music Company publishers. Imagine, a Catholic music composer and editor who studied chant and read the Vatican documents. Mirabile dictu! In 1914 Montani published the St. Gregory Hymnal and Catholic Choir Book, renewed in 1920 and 1947. He funded the cost of publication himself. In near-fanatic fervor, he also published a “White List” of recommended music, as well
as an infamous “Black List” in 1922, naming music that did not meet — in his estimation, anyway — the high standards of Tra le Sollecitudini. Pius X had written that any modern music in the liturgy had to have “sanctity and goodness of form…. Contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in theatres… and not be fashioned after the manner of profane pieces.” A century later, Pope John Paul II wrote his chirograph on sacred music, reminding Catholics that the 1903 work was still valid in essence: that the closer music was to Gregorian chant in form, the more suitable it was for the Mass, and vice versa. Alas, while Montani and his Society championed Pius X’s 1903 document, John Paul’s 2003 chirograph has been largely ignored. Montani may have gone a bit over the line in delineating “liturgical style”: He banned works by Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Rossini, von Weber, and his predecessor, RoSewig. He did, however, edit and adapt those works, pruning them of what he considered superfluous aspects (arpeggiated chords, rhythmic accompaniments, ornamentation, etc.). It was rather like the taste of watered-down beer.

Montani’s St. Gregory Hymnal received wide acceptance and influenced much of the country. Copies still appear for auction on eBay. A severely abridged version is available from GIA Publications, and the full hymnal itself is available in reprint. It can still be found in the choir lofts of a few Philadelphia churches, for it contained many accessible choral pieces in both Latin and English, arranged for two-part or four-part choirs. Montani’s harmonization of chant was heavy-handed, and later criticized, and must take a back seat to the work of Achille Bragers. Montani lives on, not only in old copies of his hymnal, but in a Guild publication titled The Correct Pronunciation of Latin According to the Roman Usage. This is still available from GIA Publications (buried deep, deep within the catalog). The manual had been recommended to all choir conductors, Catholic and otherwise, by no less a personage than the great Robert Shaw, dean of American choral directors. How ironic that this manual, designed for Catholic churches, is more often found today in the hands of secular concert choir directors.

Montani brought Philadelphia to the forefront in other ways. In 1915 his Palestrina Choir gave concerts of Renaissance polyphony in Philadelphia and New York, bringing this music to the ears of U.S. audiences. His choirs recorded this music for Victor Records, awakening an interest in polyphonic choral music in the rest of the country. He also organized the Choral Festival of Catholic Choirs and directed it for the U.S. Sesqui-Centennial Celebration in 1926. The St. Gregory Hymnal was put into Braille notation, the first hymnal of any kind to be prepared in Braille. For his work in Catholic liturgical music reform, Montani was named a Knight Commander of St. Sylvester by Pope Pius XI in 1926.

Other Philadelphians also excelled in music for the liturgy. Sr. Mary Immaculée (1885-1965) of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (in Immaculata, Pennsylvania) served as music director at Immaculata College for over twenty years. She was affiliated with the Society of St. Gregory and became noted as a composer of sacred works for women’s choirs as well as traditional four-part mixed choirs. She was influential in bringing good liturgical music to the area, particularly
in schools, and helped further the cause of women composers. Sr. Regina Dolores of the Sisters of St. Joseph (in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania) graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, received a Master of Arts in organ from Notre Dame, and a Ph.D. in music from the Detroit Conservatory. She also studied harp at Philadelphia’s still-famed Curtis Institute of Music. An outstanding performer, she was named Chair of the Music Department at Chestnut Hill College
from the year the school opened in 1924 until her retirement in 1970. She was renowned as a conductor, composer, harpist, and organist. She was an officer of the St. Cecilia Guild, and wrote for the St. Gregory Society. She was a member of
the Cardinal’s Commission on Liturgical Music (no longer extant) and was president of the Pennsylvania State Unit of the National Catholic Music Educators Association.

Today, the reforms called for by Pius X, the true intent of the Second Vatican Council (as opposed to the interpretive “spirit of Vatican II”), and the reminders of Pope John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger are recognized only in sporadic bits and spurts within the archdiocese. No longer a leader in liturgical music, this archdiocese, like so many others, has fallen into the inclusive, multicultural bandwagon of inappropriate, secular-style music. What would John Adams, Nicola Montani, Sister Immaculée, Benjamin Carr, even Albert RoSewig think of the mediocrity and banality of so much liturgical music today? Ah, perhaps that is why the history of Philadelphia’s leadership in Catholic sacred music has been kept under wraps. One hopes that this great archdiocese abandons the pop-and-salsa style and once again leads the people in renewal of music for the sacred liturgy — music that is sacred in nature, high in musical quality, suitable for the altar of sacrifice, and fitting for God’s house.

© 2008 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved. December 2008, Volume LXXV,
Number 11.
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Lucy E. Carroll, D.M.A., is organist and music director at the Carmelite Monastery in
Philadelphia, where the choir, nuns, and congregation sing Latin chant and
traditional music, and the choir sings old and new motets in Latin and English. She
is creator of the “Churchmouse Squeaks” cartoons that appear in Adoremus
Bulletin, and a frequent contributor of articles on sacred music and the liturgy. She
is currently editing the Monastery Hymnal. She is also adjunct associate professor
at Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, New Jersey. The
historical data in this article was originally prepared for her doctoral dissertation,
“Three Centuries of Song: Pennsylvania’s Choral Composers 1681-1981” (Combs
College of Music, Philadelphia, 1982). Some material was excerpted from her
article “Hymns, Hymnals, Composers, and Choir Schools: Philadelphia’s Historic
Contribution to Catholic Liturgical Music” (Adoremus Bulletin, June 2004).