How The St. Ann Choir Kept Chant and Polyphony Alive for 50 Years
by Roseanne Therese Sullivan
The St. Ann Choir is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The timing of its beginning seems to have been providential. The Choir began singing the music for the traditional cycle of the Church year at Sunday Masses in the Fall of 1963, before radical changes to Roman Catholic liturgy and music occurred after the Second Vatican Council.
Lovers of the traditional music of the Roman Catholic liturgy may want to stop a moment and marvel about the Choir’s unique achievement: Fifty years of continual performance of Latin Gregorian chant and polyphony at weekly liturgies in diocesan churches—even after this kind of music went out of favor and was virtually banned for most of those years.
By its perseverance, the St. Ann Choir has made a unique contribution to the preservation of what the Vatican II Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy called “a treasure of inestimable value.” The weekly inclusion of this music as part of the liturgy—where it belongs–has allowed Catholics to experience the traditional music of the Church as a living form instead of as a mere academic discipline.
“It is rare to hear chant in Catholic churches, and it is rarely taught in Catholic institutions. Catholics who are familiar with the chant and polyphonic repertoire are more likely to have gained this familiarity from listening to recordings than to have experienced this music as “an integral part of the solemn liturgy”. (Adoremus Online: March 2001)
Just In the Nick of Time: “We Started One Year Before the Language Started to Change”
The choir is directed by Stanford Professor William Peter Mahrt. Professor Mahrt also leads the Stanford Early Music Singers, is president of the Church Music Association of America and editor of the CMAA journal Sacred Music. Mahrt joined the choir as a Stanford graduate student shortly after it began under the leadership of the late William Pohl, and became its director when Pohl took an academic job in another state.
“The main achievement of our choir is to have maintained the traditional music of the Roman Catholic Church. We began singing Gregorian chant and classical polyphony and included organ music in liturgies before the council, and our program is pretty much the same as it was when we started,” says Professor Mahrt, St. Ann Choir Director. “Our choir started one year before the language changed [from Latin to the vernacular]—if we had tried to start one year later, we might not have been able to do it.”
“The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.”
— Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium §112
The Complex and Fascinating History of St. Ann’s Chapel
The St. Ann choir first began singing at Masses at St. Ann Chapel, which has a complex and fascinating history of its own. At the time the choir started in 1963, St. Ann chapel was 12 years old. It had been built by Ambassador, Congresswoman, and playwright, Clare Boothe Luce, wife of the publishing giant Henry Luce, and donated for use by Stanford University’s Newman Club, the Catholic student center. The chapel was dedicated to St. Ann as a memorial to Luce’s daughter, Ann Brokaw, who had died in an accident months before she was to graduate from Stanford in 1944.
Luce intended the chapel to be a small gem to illustrate that modernism and sacred art are compatible, and she commissioned artists to decorate the chapel with expressionistic (and experimental) painted instead of stained glass, painted stations of the Cross, a cubist-inspired mosaic of the Blessed Virgin, and a steel mesh flat canopy over the altar decorated with mosaics and Cubist-inspired angels. A very large impressionistic green bronze of St. Ann with the Virgin Mary is over the entrance to the flat red, brick front of the modern chapel.
The Newman Club at Stanford University used St. Ann Chapel for worship for almost 50 years. After Newman Center activities were transferred to the Stanford Memorial Church on campus, the Diocese of San Jose sold the chapel, which was decommissioned as a Catholic church and came into the possession of the Anglican Province of Christ the King.
In 1998, the choir began singing at Masses on Sundays and major feast days at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, another historic Palo Alto church, which was built in an architectural style called Carpenter Gothic, a popular style in the 1900s when wood and skilled carpenters were plentiful.
Today, at St. Ann chapel where the choir first began in 1963, paint is peeling from the painted windows and the colors have faded. The modernist style of architecture and art has lost much of its appeal over the decades, but the choir has been able to maintain its own nostalgic attachment. Some members gather each Sunday to sing Vespers at the chapel, by the kind invitation of the Anglican Archbishop Robert Morse.
Perhaps the most telling commentary of all comes from René Girard, Stanford Professor Emeritus, and one of only 40 members, or ‘immortals,’ of the Académie Française, who had this to say about Professor Mahrt’s achievement: “When I first attended, I assumed that the Catholic Church and the University actively supported this unique contribution to the spiritual and cultural life of the community. The truth is that ever since 1963, Professor Mahrt has been very much on his own in this enormously time-, talent- and energy-consuming enterprise.” (“Noteworthy: On Wings of Song” by Cynthia Haven, Stanford Magazine, March/April 2003.)
“I recently read a biography of Renaissance composer William Byrd by a former St. Ann choir member, now Duke University Musicology Professor, Kerry McCarthy, in which she vividly describes the destruction of traditional Catholic liturgy and music that was in progress when Byrd was born in England in 1540. That was the year King Henry VIII completed the dissolution of the monasteries. The monastic libraries were sacked, and the manuscripts were used for scrap.
“Frankly, I can’t help but see a similarity in the widespread disdain by many since the Second Vatican Council for the Church’s traditional doctrines and for the beautiful Gregorian chant and polyphonic music that had evolved as an intrinsic part of the Mass and the Divine Office over the centuries.”
— Roseanne Therese Sullivan
Photos by Robert March and Roseanne T. Sullivan. Chant illuminations by Susan Altstatt.