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Chinese maestro learns his art in Rome

Revival of hymn-singing is music to the ears

Chinese maestro learns his art in Rome
Sheet music of a medieval Gregorian chant transcribed by hand reporter, Hong Kong

October 27, 2011

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While singing is at the very heart of Catholicism, China's political turmoil has meant that, for decades, sacred music was hard to find and rarely heard on the mainland. But it has started to enjoy renewed interest recently, especially as China now has a full-time student at Rome's Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music (PIMS); the first since Church activities were revived in China three decades ago. Father John Baptist Zhao entered the century-old Institute in September 2010, majoring in composition. He also takes courses in piano, organ, choral conducting, Gregorian chant, liturgy and Latin. As at many other music schools around the world, students specializing in composition here are few and far between. “It's very complex in content and much more difficult than other subjects,” says the priest. "My department has also compressed its curriculum from nine to five years and this makes it even more challenging in terms of time." Now in his late 20s, Fr Zhao was born in a Catholic family. His mother, who loved singing and was a keen member of her parish choir, taught him many hymns. After entering the minor seminary, he learnt to play organ and served as resident organist until his final graduation. It was at the seminary where he also learned Gregorian chant, which brought him a deep appreciation of its graceful yet simple melodies. His diocese has a noble heritage in traditional scared music, thanks to the many priests who made heroic efforts to keep the genre alive throughout the difficult decades. Father Joseph Ly Zhenbang (1923-1984), a famous liturgical music expert, came from the same diocese. Many of his compositions are still being played today. “That's why the diocese decided to send me here, in the hope of passing on the torch,” says Fr Zhao. Commenting on music developments in China, Fr Zhao says he is happy to see that more and more dioceses are recognizing the importance of sacred music. "Beijing, Tianjin and Qingdao dioceses have all installed pipe organs in their churches in recent years," he points out. “Purchasing such an expensive instrument, which is also a symbol of the Church, shows their determination to develop sacred music.” He is also heartened to see that, in the provinces of Hebei, Shanxi and Shaanxi, almost all parishes have brass bands; during long holidays, churches in Shanghai and Hebei organize music training courses; and an ever growing number of parishes now have their own, newly formed choirs. However, there is one trend in church music that worries Fr Zhao: he feels that when it comes to choosing music for Mass, many laypeople and clergy are turning away from the traditional options in favor of music with modern, dynamic rhythms. Many of these, he notes, are Protestant songs. “We can use Protestant songs appropriately in Bible sharing and family prayers, in accordance with the Catholic liturgical spirit," he says. "But it's better to  use as few as possible for Mass. A song should be selected not only because of its melody; its lyrics must also be compatible with the liturgy." Given his enthusiasm and passion for sacred music, it's hardly surprising that Fr Zhao is full of ideas for its propagation in China. A high quality national hymn book, compulsory music courses in seminaries and formalized training programs for professional choristers and conductors are just some of his suggestions. "I would also like to see the Church holding open concerts every year to exalt and promote classic hymns. This would also achieve the purpose of evangelization," he says. But above all, he hopes many more students from mainland China will apply to study at the Pontifical Institute. “One or a few persons are far from enough to develop sacred music in China," he says. "We must arouse a love for Church music in more people, so we can all work together.” Related reports: Rocking the way to heaven Choirs sing in praise of summer music school Tianjin records first pipe organ DVD
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