By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Composer Dan Schutte sat on a stool strumming his guitar, singing hymns he’s composed while my husband Steve and I and about 200 other fans sang along. The experience seemed surreal. It was as if we’d opened the pages of our hymnals and the composer morphed into existence in front of us!
In a sense, Dan did that, through the collaborative efforts of the Sisters of St. Benedict of St. Mary Monastery in Rock Island, Ill., and St. Ambrose University Campus Ministry in Davenport. The university hosted the evening of music and reflection with Dan in Christ the King Chapel on campus April 8. Proceeds from the event will help establish the Benedictine Sisters’ Benet House Scholarship Fund to provide retreat opportunities for individuals and groups living on the margins.
Dan seamlessly moved from reflection to song, the reflections serving as a prelude to the hymns he sang while playing the guitar or the piano. We sang like members of a choir, as familiar with the pieces as if they were a second skin: “Here I am, Lord,” “Sing a New Song,” “You are Near,” “Table of Plenty” and “City of God” among the hymns. Now I know the liturgical inspiration behind the music, which enhances my appreciation for the compositions.
“Sometimes music becomes a wonderful key to open up hearts,” Dan observed during a workshop the following morning. “Music gets to that place in our hearts that other things don’t.” He’d noticed people in the audience the night before, some singing with their eyes closed and smiles on their faces and others with tears running down their faces. My eyes were wide open, but I don’t think a smile left my face. Someone I talked with during the intermission, anticipating one of the songs we’d sing, knew she’d have tears running down her face.
Dan, a founder of the musical St. Louis Jesuits, has been composing music for decades. He referenced copyright dates on his songs. “Beyond the Moon and Stars” for instance, was published in 1970. He joked that like Beethoven, he began composing as a child. Some people seeing his name as composer beneath a hymn assume he’s dead, he noted with a smile.
“I thought you were dead,” Steve confessed to Dan after the conference. Steve’s primary motive in talking with Dan, though, was to express appreciation for a fresh perspective on “Here I am, Lord.” The composer asked our “choir” to allow him to sing the Lord’s part for the first verse while we sang the refrain: “Here I am, Lord.” Singing that way gave Steve a heightened sense of responding to the Lord.
“I thought it was exhilarating,” Steve told me afterwards, “to see the music on the page and see him singing it.”
“Here I am, Lord,” speaks to me of one of my favorite Scripture passages, when the child Samuel hears the Lord calling his name. I feel something of that eager child within me, wanting to be there for my Lord. But another of the songs I love is “Beyond the Moon and Stars,” especially the line “The sparrow finds her home beneath your wing. …” The melody and words give me a great sense of comfort.
I attended Dan’s workshop, too, where he gave the story behind the creation of his Mass setting “The Mass of Christ the Savior.” It has become the standard for many parishes in the country. Dan’s love of the Eucharist and his appreciation for the mandate of the Second Vatican Council infused his Mass setting. One of the hallmarks is a musical motif that helps to unify this piece of music. He composed this Mass setting to engage the full, conscious, active participation of the faithful in the Mass. And that’s how I responded as I sang the Mass of Christ the Savior in the choir at Mass last weekend.
(Barb Arland-Fye, Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.)