An Interview with Richard Proulx
Music in Worship is Selah's occasional newsletter for church musicians, with interviews and helpful articles for choir directors, organists, and leaders of congregational song.

What are your responsibilities at Holy Name Cathedral?
The title of my position is organist and music director, and while I do the bulk of the choral rehearsals with our four choirs and do a lot of playing, I have turned over most of the playing to assistants. My job could more accurately be described as paper pusher. The administrative and management duties of such a position seem to become more awesome all the time so that unfortunately I spend less and less time on music and more and more time on management details. My composition within the scope of the cathedral position is rarely for pleasure, rather mostly for need: the setting of a particular text or a psalm refrain or a hymn descant or an organ introduction and so forth. Very practical, necessary things that come up.

How big is the staff in the music department?
Our department is five people, three full-time and two part-time. We have about 1,000 services a year with music of some kind involving at least a cantor and an organist, and perhaps 200 services with a choir in the course of a year. We also have about 150 weddings and eighty funerals a year. Some of those are cathedral parish services, and some are cathedral diocesan services. So the cathedral as well as the music department wears a number of hats.

How many choirs do you have?
Four at this point. We have a seventeen-voice professional choir called the Cathedral Chamber Singers. We have a sixty-voice auditioned volunteer choir called the Gallery Singers. We have a rather new group called the Women's Schola that sings for the Saturday Eucharist (we always have many more women than men apply for auditions, and this is a way of giving them something to do rather than sitting on a waiting list for two years or so). And we also have a contemporary choir which sings more informally. And really there's a fifth group called Schola Sine Nomine, a plainchant choir of men for vespers during Advent and Lent. At the end of each season they self-destruct until the next season of vespers.

What organs do you have at the cathedral?
Both organs in the cathedral are new since I came to this position in 1980. In the chancel there is a nineteen stop Casavant tracker which served us very well. It did everything during the years when we had no gallery organ, and was installed in 1981. We finally had to replace the 1877 Johnson which had been rebuilt many times and bore very few original characteristics. So we commissioned a new organ from Flentrop, the largest they ever built-seventy-one stops and 117 ranks-and that was installed in 1989.

And you're still using the Casavant?
Every day actually, for daily services, and often on Sundays we use both organs in dialogue in the French system, alternating hymn verses as well as in psalms. The cathedral is one of the few places in this country where its possible to use that unique French musical language of organs in dialogue.

You recently returned from a sabbatical. What were you up to?
The sabbatical was triggered by invitations from the Royal School of Church Music in both Australia and New Zealand to teach their summer schools, which occur in January and February. That was a very happy prospect because those are not the most desirable months to be in this part of the northern hemisphere. It was also a chance to travel in Australia and New Zealand, something I've long wanted to do. So the teaching assignments there in Bendigo, Australia, and Christchurch, New Zealand, formed the centerpiece of the first part of the sabbatical.

The two schools at which I taught were highly successful, largely because the people were so receptive and friendly to a Yankee (about which I'd had some apprehensions). The people were particularly interested in American music and in the exchanges of ideas between an American musician and themselves. After the schools and as much travel as I could cram into two months, I returned to the States and hid out anonymously in Chicago for a month, which was a productive experience. And I was able to deal with some publishing assignments in this country, including those for Selah.

The last part of the sabbatical was triggered by an invitation to do a workshop and to write a piece of music for Trinity Church in Geneva, Switzerland. I went to Switzerland and lived in Geneva for a month, and I did the workshop and wrote the new anthem for the choir there, which is under the direction of Bruce Neswick, an old friend. I had the opportunity to engage in some aspects of musical life in Geneva and also to do a bit of travel. Then I had the pleasure of spending a month in Holland where I had spent many happy times during the building of our Flentrop organ. I was able to observe church services throughout the Netherlands and to renew some acquaintances. I also attended many, many concerts in Holland, confirming again my faith about the health of musical life in Holland. The next part of the sabbatical was spent in England. I was given the privilege of spending several weeks in the choir library of Westminster Cathedral in London, to look at some of the manuscripts and materials left by Sir Richard Terry, and again to attend church services throughout London, and elsewhere in England.

Returning to this country, I finished the sabbatical by doing a workshop for the Roman Catholic and Anglican dioceses of Houston, Texas. The sabbatical finale was the Montreat conference in North Carolina which was a wonderful and enriching experience. So July one, armed with a lot of rest and a lot of new information and a lot of new friends, I returned to the cathedral.

That sounds great!
At what age did you begin composing?

Very early, at age eight when I was studying piano, and the first music I wrote was, of course, for piano. By age ten I'd already become an opera fan so I was composing rather hideous operas at that age, a couple of which still exist. A few years ago when a party was held for me in St. Paul I was appalled when some friends stood up and did a performance of some music that I couldn't believe anybody would have bothered to have rehearsed and sung, and it turned out to be one of those early efforts which the friends had surreptitiously gotten from my mother's attic.

I was fortunate to be part of a very progressive elementary school music system where we had music twice a day: Gregorian solfége in the morning and modern solfége in the afternoon. By the sixth or seventh grade I was playing for some school services. I was simply appointed because I was available and seemed to be able to play many of the right notes. The school was very kind, and already by the seventh grade or so had sent me to a composition teacher in addition to piano lessons. So the composition began early, although those were certainly primitive efforts. No child prodigy claims here!

Over the years as my interest in church music grew, I gradually became more and more interested in vocal and organ music as opposed to piano music. One exciting event of those piano study years: I had composed a piano concerto for solo piano, (that's a rather unusual idea, I must say), and at a gathering of young musicians at Symphony Hall in Minneapolis, the conductor Antal Dorati took me aside and was kind enough to play through my ridiculous piece of music. He was very kind and helpful and played through it, cover to cover, much to the amazement of us all, especially myself.

You studied in Minneapolis?
I studied in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota and at McPhale College, which these days are combined into one institution.

And your degree was in composition?
No, actually in organ performance.

What composers do you admire and are an influence in your composition?
Well, certainly there was a great influence of Hindemith, partly as a result of having been dragged through his method books, but more and more I find much to admire in his music-in the less is more philosophy of music making. I think that happens to composers as they get older: they begin to rely on things which can be implied successfully rather than made obvious all the time. The textures become thinner. I think one learns about the psychology of certain harmonic progressions and contrapuntal devices. That's part of who Hindemith was. Also, of course, I was intrigued by Aaron Copland and with the French composers, Vierne and Durufle, and more recently, Avo Pärt.

What kind of music do you listen to for yourself?
I suppose the ear-cleaning music I enjoy the most is jazz.

Oh really?
Yes, and fortunately in Chicago, there's ample opportunity to experience that. I also still find Bach to be a real cleansing influence, and it's interesting because there's a great parallel between the linear textures of Bach and jazz. I have always found that to be a helpful comparison even to the point of Bach jazzed up. That's a rather sixties idea, but I still enjoy that technique.

What do you see happening in church music from travelling around the country and talking to church musicians?
There can be little doubt that we're in the age of small choirs, and people express great need for music composed for SAB and also for two-part mixed voices. I've done a number of two-part anthems over the years, and I find that people are really quite excited about those possibilities. With a small choir they don't have to work so hard to have four parts going at any given moment but rather there are contrapuntal lines which-if well written-create some contrapuntal interest and time can be spent on beautiful vocal production rather than learning only notes. When a choir is at perhaps twelve to twenty people, I think it becomes more and more necessary to explore literature of that sort.

At the same time, quasi-pop church music is a fact of life and many of us wish it were not quite so. I'm sorry to say I think we live in an age when the world-wide church is not so much in a prophetic role, as it might once have been, but rather is reflecting society and responding to popular culture. So some of those trends are inescapable in our time. Where that will lead I'm not sure but I hear many people expressing some regret about that at the same time that they're looking for contemporary literature which can still be appealing to both singers and to congregations and yet has some substance to it: music with some durability and long-range value rather than music that provides only instant gratification and is gone in a flash.

There are many wonderful composers in this country who are producing first-rate music for the wide church. For someone who is on the production end of things at the local church, the challenge is always to sort through the hundreds and thousands of new publications each year to find pieces which suit his or her circumstances exactly and will be worth the trouble to work on over a number of weeks and will still make a responsible statement of integrity and faith in the worship service.

Well that certainly is a challenge and something I hope that Selah and the works of yours that we publish will provide.
By the way, the Fedak piece "When God's time had ripened" received a wonderful review in the Church Music Quarterly. In fact, we're going to do it for Christmas.

Great!
I think it's a wonderful piece. Now see, that's an example of something that has just a little bit of pop feeling about it-that's almost too strong a way to say it. But he's elevated the whole style, transformed it. Obviously Rutter does that sometimes and certainly Larry King and David Hurd have done that, to take an almost Broadway Sondheim style and elevate it to a whole new art form. I find that to be a very attractive value, and in that piece he's done it very well. It's extraordinary. I think you'll sell a lot of that piece.

I hope so. Thanks for taking your time, Richard.
Well it's been great talking to you.

Richard Proulx (pronounced "pru") (1937-2010) was an extraordinary composer and church musician. He was Director of Music and Organist at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago, Illinois, and later worked independantly as a composer, clinician, and conductor of the Cathedral Singers. This interview with Richard Proulx was held on October 23, 1992 [when Proulx was still Director of Music at Holy Name].



 

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