I was raised in the Catholic Church, educated at Jesuit schools and was an altar boy for several years from the age of eight, or so. I was taught enough of the Latin Mass to be able to assist the priest and recite the proper responses during the mass (we also had four years of Latin in high school). But then things changed in the mid-60s and the mass began to be said in the vernacular. I could appreciate, even at my young age, how much was lost (Gregorian chant exchanged for Peter, Paul and Mary influenced folk music).
The primary purpose of a church (or synagogue or mosque) is to create a sacred environment, a holy space, where we will be inspired to open our hearts to the Infinite. The Latin Mass helped to accomplish this because the ancient rite, in a language no one spoke any longer, removed us from our routine day-to-day week – exactly what the word “holy” is meant to imply, i.e. distinct from the secular.
So, it was heartening to have seen over the years how persistent some Catholics have been in seeking out churches, here and there, that would offer the Tridentine Latin Mass. This process was boosted in 2007 when Pope Benedict officially welcomed the celebration of the mass in the Latin liturgy, causing more and more churches to offer a mass in Latin.
The music of the Latin Mass was traditionally plainsong and then polyphonic settings of the Ordinary, culminating in the 16th century with composers such as Palestrina and Victoria. And while it is no longer hard to find a church to offer the Latin Mass, it is rare indeed to find a church that will include sacred polyphonic settings along with the appropriate chant and Propers.
Such a church is the St. Gregory Society of New Haven.
The Saint Gregory Society of New Haven is a non-profit lay association founded in 1985 to promote the local celebration of the Traditional Latin Liturgy according to the Tridentine Missal in response to the Papal indult of October 3, 1984, Quattuor abhinc annos, which granted the use of the liturgical books in force in 1962.
The Saint Gregory Society exists primarily to advocate the preservation of the immemorial rite of the Mass, to work for its celebration on a regular and unrestricted basis, and to disseminate information about and cultivate interest in the classical Roman liturgy and its central importance for Catholic faith and culture.
The Society supports a professional Schola Cantorum a choral ensemble dedicated to the performance of Gregorian plainchant and sacred polyphony in the sung Latin Mass.
The Schola is an adult mixed choir of 23 amateur singers who have been singing Renaissance polyphony regularly for 20 years. They have recorded eight discs, each a complete Mass of a major feast day, including a polyphonic setting of the Ordinary by Palestrina, Lassus, Victoria, or Josquin des Prez. This setting is a paraphrase of a chant antiphon sung at the entrance of a bishop, a work unaccountably neglected until now. A couple of motets are usually added, as here, at the offertory and communion. (J. F. Weber, Fanfare Magazine, Issue 31:4, Mar/Apr 2008)
I recently purchased two of the recordings, Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which includes music for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The CD was recorded and is presented in thanksgiving for the pontificate of our Holy Father Benedict XVI and the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum which went into effect on the Feast of the Holy Cross, 2007. The Mass setting is Palestrina’s ravishing and seldom-recorded Missa Sacerdos et Pontifex, with two motets — Nos autem gloriari and O sacrum convivium — by the same composer, and the Gregorian Mass propers of the Feast of the Holy Cross. Recorded September 2007.
Palestrina: Missa Sacerdos et Pontifex – “Alleluia: Ducle Lignum”
And, Solemn Mass of Christmas Day, a recording of the Third Mass of Christmas, the Mass of Christmas Day. The Schola Cantorum performs Palestrina’s glorious, inwardly glowing, six-voice parody Mass, Missa O magnum mysterium, and the beloved Gregorian chant Mass proper “Puer natus est nobis.” This recording reflects the true meaning of the great feast of the Nativity in refreshing contrast to the usual Yuletide musical fare.
Described by Michael Davies in The Remnant (15/xi/94) as “a superb, no, I must say sublime, recording…”
Jerome Weber (Fanfare, xii/1995) writes of this recording: “…follows last year’s magnificent Palestrina Mass and chant of Pentecost with an even more important (because previously unrecorded) Palestrina Missa O magnum mysterium and complete chants of the Third Mass of Christmas, a remarkable achievement.”
Palestrina: Missa O magnum mysterium – “Introit – Kyrie Eleison”
These recordings offer the sublime polyphony of Palestrina’s masses in the context for which they were composed, and performed extremely well.
Other recordings can be found at the website of the Society, here.