Stile Antico & Flying Buttresses; or The Importance of Being Beautiful

Last October on a rainy evening I found myself in an old stone church in Shadyside (a borough in Pittsburgh). On a typical Saturday night I’d be at home for “family night” or perhaps at one of the various venues where I search out the folk music I love so well…..yet this evening we were in a gothic church with soaring ceilings and flying buttresses (sorry, I just had to use that word :) ) galore! The reason being: Stile Antico. A choral group hailing from England with an average age of about 27, they are stunning audiences everywhere they (extensively) travel.

I didn’t set out to write a concert review for an event long-past, but today as I sat at my desk on a similarly rainy day, memories of that evening haunted me. From the first piece, my ears – my heart, even – were transfixed by the beauty of what they sang. Such music is impossible to describe, it must be heard to understand. So….. I’ll let their voices speak for themselves. Please, please watch the video of them singing William Byrd’s Agnus Dei – it’s a perfect Lenten meditation: “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.”

Their singing and the building which held it, made me think a lot about beauty in liturgy. Perhaps a subtle rebellion against being raised in a family that prized beautiful liturgy (our parish growing up had a professional schola from Yale University every Sunday, and a procession that would put a papal Mass to shame :), I have always hesitated to be “dogmatic” about such things. Nor do I intend to now. But I do know that that night I was  moved to a deeper faith because of that music.

Steenwijk_Interior_of_a_gothic_churchIt made me wish that everyone I know (as well as those I don’t!) could experience the piercing beauty of a glorious church filled to the rafters with many voices weaving their tapestry of sound throughout the space! If only more could hear that music in the context of a Mass – for the timelessness of it puts one in mind of heaven and opens our hearts to Beauty Itself. Like any good music, the polyphony sang that night endures through centuries, crosses generations – I was not the only young person there, but there were plenty of octogenarians as well – and reveals in our own hearts a stirring, a longing for something beyond our present world.

Perhaps we (especially within the Catholic Church) need to become more attuned to our rich musical history, and incorporate it into our lives, our liturgies, our hearts. Instead of dismissing the music of past centuries as incomprehensible to the world today, perhaps we should see it as fulfilling a need that people don’t even recognize they have! Not that renaissance polyphonic music is the catch-all answer to the deepest longing of every heart – nor will it resonate equally with everyone – yet I think there is something about it that does (and if it doesn’t should) touch a place deep inside of us that reminds us of and spurs us onto our eternal end.

One of our aims here at CUF is to help form the laity in truly Catholic culture. An essential part of this is art that – while very much glorying in this world – gives to man a window on the world beyond. It does not necessarily mean that it has a religious label slapped on it. But it does mean that it reveals some aspect of the truth in a unique way, and leads man a little closer to his Creator through the beauty of His creation.

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