Category Archives: Art and Culture

A rare birthday present for St. Joan of Arc

A statue depicts St. Joan of Arc. (Courtesy BSO)

Pope Benedict XVI minces no words when he describes the medieval judges who interrogated and sentenced St. Joan of Arc to death 580 years ago. The French clergymen were aligned with St. Joan’s political opponents, the pope said in a Jan. 26 general audience, and they “lacked charity and the humility to see God’s action in this young woman.”

“Joan’s judges were radically incapable of understanding her or of perceiving the beauty of her soul,” Pope Benedict XVI said. “They did not know that they were condemning a saint.”

As the world prepares to celebrate the 600th anniversary of St. Joan’s birth early next year, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will showcase a rarely performed oratorio that captures the drama of the French saint’s trial and execution.

“Jeanne d’Arc au Bucher” – “Joan of Arc at the Stake,” a groundbreaking work by Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, will be performed Nov 17-18 at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore before hitting the bright lights of New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Marin Alsop conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2010. (Photo courtesy BSO)

In an e-mail interview, BSO Music Director Marin Alsop told me the work defies categorization.

“It’s a dramatic oratorio with narrative creating a unique story and sound world,” the maestra said. “Joan is portrayed as a living, breathing human being who did not comprehend how she found herself in such an unbelievable predicament.”

Honegger’s work features folk tunes, plainchant, classical music and contemporary jazz. It includes many of the instruments of a modern orchestra, along with saxophones, pianos and the ondes martenot – a rarely used instrument best known for producing the eerie, glissando “woooooo” sounds of old-time science fiction and horror movies.

Caroline Dhavernas (Courtesy BSO)

“Joan of Arc at the Stake” is as much a work of theater as it is of music. Performed in French with English subtitles, it will feature vocalists from Concert Artists of Baltimore, the Peabody Hopkins Chorus, Morgan State University Choir and the Peabody Children’s Chorus. Canadian actress Caroline Dhavernas has the title role.

French poet-dramatist Paul Claudel wrote the libretto for “Joan of Arc at the Stake” in 1934 after having a vision of two hands tied together, raised and making the Sign of the Cross. Honegger completed the score on Christmas Eve, 1935 and the work premiered in Switzerland on May 12, 1938.

Claudel tells St. Joan’s story through flashbacks that follow the course of her life in reverse order. The climax occurs when the work returns to the present for St. Joan’s martyrdom.

Just as Honegger’s work defies easy description, so does the woman on which it is based.

“She has been adopted by people on the right and left of the political aisle,” Alsop said, “and as a model for both religious and non-religious belief systems. I am intrigued by her ability to transcend categorization.”

St. Joan is the patroness of France who heard voices from saints commanding her to drive the English and Burgundians from her homeland. The illiterate peasant girl led the French to victory in several military campaigns before being captured by the Burgundians and sold to the English. She was condemned as a witch and burned at the stake at age 19. Pope Callistus III reopened her trial in 1456 and she was found innocent of all charges. She was canonized in 1920.

“I admire Joan’s total commitment to her beliefs and willingness to stand up for what she believed,” said Alsop, noting that St. Joan continues to serve as a model for people from all walks of society.

“Joan is portrayed as a devout individual adamantly true to herself and completely devoted to God,” Alsop said. “She is free of guile, but not above being human with faults and strengths.”

St. Joan’s inquisitors may have been “incapable of understanding her or perceiving the beauty of her soul,” but the musicians who recounted her fate surely weren’t.

For more information about the concert, visit the BSO site.  For a sense of what “Joan of Arc at the Stake” sounds like, check out the 2009 video clip below from a performance by the Latvian State Academic Choir.


Baltimore sculptor honors Brooksie

A statue of Brooks Robinson is unveiled Oct. 22 outside Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. (CR/George P. Matysek Jr.)

Before the new statue of Baltimore’s beloved Brooks Robinson was unveiled last weekend beneath a blast of black, orange and white confetti outside Oriole Park, the bronze behemoth rested in a foundry in Pietrasanta, Italy. Standing right next to the likeness of the Hall of Fame third baseman was a replica of Michelangelo’s David.

Joseph Sheppard, the Baltimore sculptor who crafted the Robinson statue, remembered that a friend noticed the neighboring artwork and made a prescient observation:

“Florence has their David,” the friend said. “Now, Baltimore has their Brooks.”

Baltimore does indeed have its Brooks – a 1,500-pound, nine-foot homage to a man many consider to be the greatest third baseman of all time and one of Charm City’s most beloved adopted citizens.

Sheppard, the man who sculpted the statue of Blessed Pope John Paul II in Baltimore and who painted a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, called it an honor to be chosen to work on the figure. He examined nearly 100 photos of Robinson in action – choosing to depict Number Five standing at third base with ball in hand, ready to gun down a runner at first. The statue is aligned with the actual third base of Oriole Park, with Robinson facing first.

In recognition of Robinson’s 16 Gold Gloves, a glittering glove of that hue is fitted over the figure’s hand.

Sheppard told me that the baseball statue was “much more difficult” than the statue of Blessed John Paul II because it was so much bigger. By contrast, the papal figure is 850 pounds and stands seven feet tall.

On seeing the statue for the first time after its unveiling, an emotional Robinson declared it “beautiful” and called Sheppard “truly a genius.”

A convert to Catholicism who has supported the work of the Little Sisters of the Poor and other Baltimore charities, Robinson thanked a long string of supporters that included civic leaders, his wife and fans he described as “friends.”

“God has blessed me abundantly,” Robinson said.

And God has blessed us with Brooks.

Check out these photos and excerpts from Robinson’s speech:


Rocking out with Ray Herrmann and St. Alphonsus

Ray Herrmann waves at the end of an Aug. 14 concert in Baltimore. (CR Staff/George P. Matysek Jr.)

In this week’s Catholic Review, you’ll meet Ray Herrmann – a talented member of the rock group, ‘Chicago,’ and a devoted Catholic who is involved in quite a remarkable religious music project.

Over the last few years, Herrmann has produced three CDs of the musical works of St. Alphonsus Liguori. The great saint and founder of the Redemptorists was an accomplished composer, but his works have largely gone unnoticed and unheard since the 18th century.

Working with Redemptorists of the Denver Province, Herrmann put together a very moving collection of the saint’s music and prayers. The collection is focused on the rosary, the Seven Sorrows of Mary and the Way of the Cross. The most recent CD also features Liam Neeson reading some of St. Alphonsus’s prayers with the saint’s music serving as an underscore. (Read the CR story about the St. Alphonsus project here).

Here’s a sample of “To Jesus in His Passion,” one of St. Alphonsus’s compositions as arranged by Herrmann:

Herrmann is a multi-talented musician. I was fortunate to see him in concert and spend some time with him at an Aug. 14 Chicago performance at the Pier Six Concert Pavilion in Baltimore.

Check out this sax solo from that concert.  It’s certainly different from anything St. Alphonsus would have played!

It’s definitely worth buying Herrmann’s collection of St. Alphonsus’s works. It’s inspired music and long overdue for production. All proceeds from the sales of the CDs go toward helping the Redemptorists in their South American and African mission work.

Check out Herrmann’s producation company and purchasing information here. For more on the St. Alphonsus project, click here. Chicago’s website is here.

In the meantime, here are some more shots of Herrmann in action…

Ray Herrmann plays the flute during an Aug. 14 concert with 'Chicago' at the Pier Six Concert Pavilion in Baltimore. (CR Staff/George P. Matysek Jr.)

Ray Herrmann plays a solo. The musician began playing the piano at 6 and clarinet at 7. He learned flute and sax in high school, earning a master's degree in music from the University of North Texas. (CR Staff/George P. Matysek Jr.)

'Chicago' performs Aug. 14 in Baltimore. (CR Staff/George P. Matysek Jr.)


All together now: ‘I love my cross, I love my beads’

A song from the "Manual of Select Catholic Hymns and Devotions." (CR Staff/George P. Matysek Jr.)

They just don’t write hymns like the ones I recently stumbled across in an old Catholic songbook at the recently closed St. Michael Church, Fells Point.

Published in 1925, the yellowed and crumbling “Manual of Select Catholic Hymns and Devotions” had been tucked away on a dusty choir-loft shelf alongside stacks of old, unused sheet music. The hymnal’s binding had been broken long ago – a sign of frequent use in a parish that was once among the largest and most active in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Carefully leafing through the manual, I was amazed by lyrics that were profoundly, unabashedly Catholic. Although they could sometimes be a bit saccharine, they were undoubtedly meant to bolster devotional faith in an era when American Catholics still faced persecution and ridicule.

Hymn #183 – “I Am a Faithful Catholic” – was particularly striking.  With a notation advising that the hymn be played “with spirit,” the song was written in the first person. It required singers to promise that they personally would be “true to holy Church, and steadfast, until death – and steadfast until death.”

“I love His altar where I kneel,” the song proclaimed, “My Jesus to adore; I love my Mother, Mary dear, Oh! may I love them more.”

The saints got similar treatment: “I love the Saints of olden time, The places where they dwelt; I love to pray where Saints have prayed, And kneel where they have knelt.”

The final verse drove it all home with a simple, direct summary: “I love my cross, I love my beads. Each emblem of my faith; Let foolish men rail as they will, I’ll love them until death.”

Pretty amazing stuff, huh?

Hymn #184, “Long Live the Pope,” was just as bold.

“Beleaguered by the foes of earth,” the 1908 hymn asserted, “beset by hosts of hell; He guards the loyal flock of Christ, a watchful sentinel: And Yet, amid the din and strife, The clash of mace and sword, he bears alone the shepherd staff, This champion of the Lord.”

Again, the final verse has the clincher:

“Then raise the chant, with heart and voice, In church and school and home: ‘Long live the Shepherd of the Flock! Long live the Pope of Rome!” Almighty Father, bless his work, Protect him in his ways; Receive his prayers, fulfill his hopes, And grant him length of days.”

I don’t know if those songs were sung as frequently as Marian favorites like “On This Day, O Beautiful Mother,” or eucharistic hymns like “Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All,” but the fact that they made it into the manual’s third edition  when others were culled suggests that they may have had a attained a certain level of popularity.

In a preface to the hymnal, Redemptorist Father Francis Auth wrote that he hoped the manual would “assist our devout people to sing the praises of God, Our Blessed Mother and all the Saints with more love and devotion, and we trust, with more pleasure.”

The encouragement of “devout, soul-stirring” congregational singing was a priority, he said. To get there, “we must unite on something churchly, beautiful and stable.”

A lot has changed in liturgical music over the last century, but it sounds to me like Father Auth’s basic advice is just as sound today as it was in 1925.

"Long Live the Pope," published in a 1925 hymnal. (CR Staff/George P. Matysek Jr.)


VIDEO REPORT: Stephen Colbert’s Chaplain

Be sure to tune into Comedy Central tonight to watch  Jesuit Father James Martin make another of his hilarious appearances on the “Colbert Report.” Father Martin, culture editor of America Magazine, has become known as the “chaplain” to the Colbert Report. His appearances on the popular program are always a lot of fun. Tonight’s topic is God’s “approval ratings.”

During a Baltimore talk on faith and humor at the end of July, Father Martin took some questions from the audience.  As almost always happens, the first one was about what it’s like to appear with Stephen Colbert on national television. Father Martin described how he was first invited onto the program. He outlined how his appearances on the popular show might be considered a form of evangelization. He also noted that Mr. Colbert is “very Catholic” – to the point of even wearing a scapular.

Check out Father Martin on Stephen Colbert in the following clip.

For more from Father Martin’s talk, click here.


VIDEO REPORT: Parishioners say goodbye to St. Michael, Fells Point

It was a bittersweet day for parishioners of St. Michael in Fells Point July 31 as they gathered for their church’s final Masses. Because of the exorbitant cost of maintaining the parish buildings, the church is closing and the community is relocating to Sacred Heart of Jesus in Highlandtown – a daughter parish of St. Michael.

St. Michael is one of the most beautiful churches in the Archdiocese of Baltimore and will be sorely missed.  Read about the last Masses here. You can also check out the following video report.


Our Lady of the Butterflies

An image of the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child is made out of African butterfly wings. (CR Staff/George P. Matysek Jr.)

One of the great joys of my recent pilgrimage to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland was meeting Father Anastasio Roggero.

The Carmelite priest, who shepherds the Church of Our Lady Victorious in Prague, is a bundle of energy – constantly greeting people, spreading the Gospel and sharing the story of the famous Infant of Prague statue that’s so gloriously displayed inside his church. (Read about that here).

Carmelite Father Anastasio Roggero discusses the Infant of Prague with pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Baltimore. (CR/George P. Matysek Jr.)

It seems that Father Roggero’s enthusiasm for the Infant of Prague is matched by his passion for his religious community’s missionary work. Carmelites have ministered in the Central African Republic for 40 years, he said, and they currently work at several medical centers and schools.

Father Roggero showed me photographs of his brother priests helping impoverished and hungry people in Africa. Then, to my surprise, he gave me a one of the coolest images of the Blessed Virgin Mary I’ve ever seen.

An African artist crafted the unique portrait from butterfly wings!

(Don’t worry, there are millions of colorful butterflies that migrate over Central Africa.  When they die, the wings are collected by people in villages to be used in their artwork. The Carmelites give the images to donors who support their mission work).

I don’t know if there is a “Lady of the Butterflies,” but maybe there should be.


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