As night fell on the feast of All Souls, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Requiem in D Minor” filled the soaring expanses of St. Francis de Sales Oratory in south St. Louis.
The choir’s performance of the Requiem, accompanied by a 40-piece orchestra led by Adrian Walker, wasn’t just an opportunity to master difficult music: It was the chance to bring the sacred composition back into the context of the Mass, said oratory director of sacred music James Marck.
“We’re living in a time where, for most people, their experience of an orchestral Mass is nine times out of 10 going to have come from either a CD recording or a live performance at either a collegiate or nonprofit ensemble setting,” Marck said. Bringing the music back into the liturgy is “as much a benefit for the people who attend as the people who participate in the ensemble. They will experience this Mass as it was originally intended to be experienced. And almost everyone who comes will agree — it’s nothing at all like a concert experience. It’s far superior.”
The All Souls High Mass was the conclusion of the weeklong Christ the King music festival, an annual event that has brought sacred music enthusiasts together at the oratory each fall since 2021. Singers from around the Midwest joined St. Louisans to spend a week rehearsing complex pieces, learning about sacred music and participating in community-building activities including a Grand Ball, potluck meal, kids carnival and basketball tournament.
St. Francis de Sales Oratory offers the Tridentine Latin Mass according to the 1962 Roman Missal and is administered by canons of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. While Gregorian chant and polyphonic music are heard every Sunday at High Mass, the larger choir at the festival is also able to take on orchestral masterpieces, Marck said.
The festival participants comprised three different choirs: the festival choir, which sang with the orchestra; the Gregorian choir, which learned and performed Gregorian chant and its accompanying notation system and interpretive skills; and the children’s choir, made up of youth who are part of the oratory’s year-round preparatory choir program.
This year’s musical selections went out by mail over the summer, so by the time singers arrived for the festival on Oct. 26, they’d been working on the music for months. Marck estimates that about a third of the singers were fully trained classical musicians, another third were familiar with and regularly sing Gregorian chant or polyphony, and the final third were novices who may not have had the opportunity to sing in a choir like this before.
“This ends up being, even for those who are trained, a once-a-year opportunity for them,” Marck said.
Ignacio de Erausquin has been part of the oratory’s choir for about five years and has participated in the festival since its inception in 2021.
“The community here is great, and a lot of people here are friends,” he said. “But the music itself is a way to give back. We’re given talents, so using them for the liturgy and the community is obviously a big part of what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Angela Pekny, another St. Francis de Sales choir member, enjoyed the chance to sing with and learn from a much larger group during the festival. “It’s great to see how other people sing differently,” she said. “It can be very humbling.”
Pekny especially enjoyed spending more time learning Gregorian chant, a musical style developed by Pope St. Gregory I and characterized by its simple melodies, because its meditative nature helps her enter deeper into prayer while singing, she said.
Abbé Raymond Schmidt, the director of sacred music at the Shrine of Christ the King in Chicago, specializes in Gregorian chant and has helped lead the festival for the past two years. He travels around the country to parishes administered by the Institute of Christ the King with the goal of maintaining a cohesive sacred music practice throughout.
“Other sacred music genres are the children of Gregorian chant,” he said. By studying the parent, musicians can learn how to apply a “Gregorian lens” to everything they sing, viewing the music first and foremost as prayer, he added.
Margaret McGuire joined the choir at St. Francis de Sales Oratory soon after moving to St. Louis from Spokane, Washington about two years ago. She fell in love with “the beauty of the music,” she said. “We already have this very beautiful church with beautiful architecture, and then this very beautiful Mass that is the extraordinary form. And then you layer this music on top of it — you just can’t stay away.”
When they sing Gregorian chant, “so much of the chant are the words directly from Scriptures, and you’re just kind of lingering, very lovingly, on certain phrases of Scripture and just allowing it to really sink into your heart,” McGuire said.
“(Chant) is not a standard 1, 2, 3; it’s not a metronome. It’s: focus a little here, and then we can move over this,” she continued, sweeping her hand over imaginary music bars to demonstrate. “It’s so intertwined to the words itself that it really is its own form of prayer. And that’s why it’s always been so important to the history of the Church.”
The orchestral pieces are more technically challenging, McGuire said, which is its own reminder to offer the hours of practice to the Lord. Closing her binder after another two-hour rehearsal, “I’m working really hard for you, God, I hope you like it!” she said with a laugh.
After the festival’s conclusion, Marck, the music director, hopes that participants can apply the lessons they learned not just in music but in the rest of their lives.
While beautiful liturgy is a charism of the Institute of Christ the King, Marck said, “It also aspires to present the liturgy to the faithful as a model of how the whole of society should be — the best of everything you have shall be given to God, not just between the four walls of the church.”
>> Christ the King Music Festival
An initiative of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, the Christ the King music festival is held each fall at St. Francis de Sales Oratory in south St. Louis. To learn more, visit christthekingmusicfestival.com.
St. Francis de Sales Oratory also has a year-round choir and preparatory children’s choir and hosts regular workshops, camps and sacred music concerts. To learn more about the oratory and events, visit institute-christ-king.org/stlouis-home.