In today's world, can one have a vocation to compose liturgical music? Can one be so imbued with the spirit of the liturgy that he is attracted by the Holy Spirit to compose music that is designed specifically for liturgical use--form following function?
Kevin Allen is such a composer. His music has a transcendent beauty that becomes the sacred liturgy. He approaches his craft with prayer, and with a reverence for both Catholic tradition and musical tradition. His musical style is informed by such paragons of Catholic musical tradition as Gregorian chant, Lassus, Byrd, Victoria, and Palestrina--yet his own music is composed in a modern, accessible idiom.
I was first introduced to Kevin Allen and his music at the 2007 CMAA Sacred Music Colloquium, when I had the privilege to sing through a generous selection of his music. I was struck by its beauty, and even more by its liturgical orientation. This choral music was not a mere embellishment to the Mass, but an integral part of the liturgy. It was another way to sing the Mass, not just to sing at Mass.
At the 2008 Colloquium, Kevin Allen gave a talk, "The New Polyphonic Age," on being a composer of liturgical music. During his talk, he demonstrated the liturgical orientation of his music. Colloquium participants got to sing through and take home copies of his music, including two settings of the Alleluia--Alleluia Laetatus sum and Alleluia Excita Domine.
On 26 June 2009, during the colloquium, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Allen. Here is a major portion of that interview.
ST: You became a Catholic when you started Catholic grade school?
KA: I did. The school was under the direction of the School Sisters of Saint Francis, and they were unbelievably wonderful to me. I feel very privileged to have been under them. And I'm still in contact with those same sisters. Even today we talk on the phone and they come to liturgies where I'm conducting, or go out to dinner just to go out to dinner.
ST: And this was in Chicago? You've always lived here?
KA: Yes, I'm Chicago born and bred. Sister Lorraine was really important for me, not because she gave me direction, but because she allowed me to explore ... and I didn't realize this until my adult life, when I thanked her for all these things that she had done for me, and she said to me, 'Well, Kevin, I didn't really...." First there was the trumpet; I was a good trumpet player by the time I was thirteen or fourteen. She said to me: "Kevin, I gave you a book; you went into a room, the cloakroom of the music room, and you basically taught yourself." I hadn't remembered that. And we had a small wind ensemble that I conducted at that time.
ST: In what grade was this?
KA: Probably fourth grade, so the idea of music being a large part of my life was already well in place. And I was already starting to write some things, a Kyrie being one of my first performed works ... as a grade school student.
ST: What grade were you in then?
KA: I would say fifth or sixth grade. Sister, being so wonderful, just let me do whatever I wanted.
ST: In school at that time--because this would have been right after the council--did you learn any Gregorian chant in school?
KA: We learned the Ave Maria; that was really about it, as far as chant. I guess we knew the Litany, but it was in English.
ST: It's still chant.
KA: Right ... yes ... for sure ... but not really; it was a very secular choir. We sang at Mass and we sang songs at Mass. I remember, for sure, "Immaculate Mary" and things like that, and Grosser Gott--traditional hymns--along with those newer things that were invigorating so many of us.
ST: Were you invigorated with them?
KA: No, not really. I was a kid and I sang along because ... well, I had to.
ST: Did you find that the other children liked that music, or were they hostile or antagonistic to it?
KA: I don't think they were antagonistic to it; I think it was just what was presented, and in my experience with children, they just accept it as normal. I imagine if it were all chant, it would have been accepted just as easily. It was interesting; I know we sang the Gloria from the Lord Nelson Mass for my grade school graduation, and I remember things like that, and I can't remember specific pieces, but sometimes we sang Cherubini's Veni, Jesu, amor mi; I remember singing that as a child. We'd do things like that, and Sister, in hushed tones, would say, "Well, I know we're not supposed to do this, but...." We didn't know, and there was no explanation of what that meant.
ST: So then, you went on to Catholic high school?
KA: No, Lutheran high school.
ST: I'll bet you had lots of music there.
KA: Lots; there was a very strong music program.
ST: And then, didn't you go to a Lutheran college?
KA: Yes, I did.
ST: And you majored in music?
KA: Yes ... but there was a wonderful professor who really took me aside and we worked together for six years, because actually I didn't finish at Concordia. He took me aside and we met every week for a minimum of three hours every Saturday for, let's say, five or six years. I studied vocal pedagogy, composition, conducting, general musicianship, music history--everything. He was not very pro-Catholic, but he knew that's where my heart was. And that often came up because he knew I was interested in church music, and he was interested in church music.
ST: He was Lutheran?
KA: Exactly. So there was that fighting, but I think I pleased him in some ways. He made me promise never to forget what he had done for me, and I haven't.
ST: What a wonderful mentor!
KA: Oh! Unbelievable, those six years! His wife was so wonderful. She would make lunch and we'd take a break. We'd work in his living room, where …