Catholic composer speaks on hymns, liturgical changes

Dan Schutte, a nationally-renowned Catholic liturgical music composer, artist, and author, was at the Paulist Center in Boston on Nov. 6 and 7 for a concert and liturgical ministry workshop.

Schutte, who composed well-known hymns such as “Glory and Praise to Our God,” “You Are Near,” and “Here I Am, Lord,” grew up in Wisconsin and was a Jesuit for 20 years before leaving the order in 1986 to pursue his musical work. He moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1999, where he continues to compose for liturgies. He also gives concerts and workshops throughout the country. He serves as the Composer-in-Residence for the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit university.

Schutte spoke with The Pilot about his work and how the upcoming, more literal Mass translations will impact liturgical music.

Pilot: What is the role of music in the liturgy, and how does liturgical music enhance individual and communal prayer?

Dan Schutte: I think many people might conceive of music flow in the liturgy as sort of a decoration, as something that makes liturgy and communal worship more enjoyable. For me, at its core -- and many of the liturgical documents talk about this too -- music is there as a tool of one of the symbols we use to express our prayer. So, music is there to enhance people’s prayer. Most of us experience, in our lives, pieces of music that express something that maybe we don’t exactly have the correct words for, or the melody captures something so beautiful that it helps take us to that place where we can pray in a way that we may not be able to without the musical part. It is this wonderful symbolic tool we use at liturgy, a vehicle to bring us to that place where maybe we can pray in a way that otherwise we would not be able to do with just words.

Pilot: How will the new Mass translation enhance the Mass for the faithful?

Schutte: I think the new translation is going to be a real challenge for folks because the more literal translation makes it stiff and less poetic than the English translation we have been using for the last 40 years.

I think the real challenge is going to be for bishops and pastors to help people through that transition process, to understand why the translators made this change or that change so that people, when they begin to pray these, can understand why we’re using these words or this phrase, rather than what people have been used to. For composers, the new translation is being a real challenge because in the attempt of the translators to be very literal, the sentence structures and lines of music are so much less poetic and rhythmic than the translations that we have. There’s also the challenge for composers to set these new texts to music that will make the new translations easy for people, and also make them people’s prayer.

Pilot: How will the call for more literal translations impact the use of current liturgical music?

Schutte: My publisher, Oregon Catholic Press, is taking a twofold approach, which I think is probably wise. I suspect the other publishers will do somewhat the same. The twofold approach is first of all, to take the best of the Mass sayings that people are used to singing already and revise them with the new text, which of course is very challenging because people are used to singing these, many of them for years. Trying to make a new setting with new words natural to folks, and for it to feel as natural as the one that they have been singing, is the key. Publishers are also asking composers to write new settings. In a way, writing new settings is going to help people with the new translations. It will help them feel more natural to people as they sing the texts than if they were just going to speak them and say them out loud.

Pilot: Given the USCCB’s 2007 publication of “Sing to the Lord,” and the upcoming new Mass translations which emphasize a return to tradition, will the use of percussion instruments for worship be phased out in favor of the organ that has been used for centuries?

Schutte: “Sing to the Lord” is very clear that many different types of music, varieties of music, styles of music, and music from different ages and times in the Church’s history and tradition are all appropriate, and that includes contemporary styles of music. It also says very clearly that Gregorian chant has this place, they call it “pride of place.” I think what is happening is that the bishops of the United States have seen that with the renewal of the liturgy, and music being one part of that which has happened since the Second Vatican Council, they have noticed that many parish communities have given up Gregorian chant. My take on “Sing to the Lord” is simply that the bishops are saying don’t forget about this very important part of our Roman Catholic tradition. You walk into many parishes you never hear Gregorian chant. The bishops are saying that’s a tragedy if that happens. But they are also very clear to say that other styles of music, including contemporary styles of music, are also appropriate.

Pilot: Of all the songs you have written, which is your favorite, and why?

Schutte: People expect me to say “Here I Am, Lord”, and it’s not. It’s “You Are Near.” The reason for that is Psalm 139, on which it is based, is one of my all time favorite psalms. Psalm 139 has a couple of exquisitely beautiful images of God which are very important to my own spirituality. The one image is of a God who knows us through and through. There is something so consoling to me -- and I suspect to many people -- to imagine a God who knows everything about us and still loves us dearly. We are still His beloved ones, with all our goodness and with all our mess.

I’ve actually gotten more e-mails and letters from people over the years about how “You Are Near” has been their hope and their comfort during difficult times than any other of my music, more than “Here I Am, Lord”, “City of God”, or “Holy Darkness.”