World-renowned organist seeks to preserve classic Gregorian chant in Catholic liturgy
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Call him nutty. At age 85, Bruce Prince-Joseph is used to it.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Bruce Prince-Joseph coaxes classical music from the “old” organ at St. Therese Little Flower Parish.
His own father thought Prince-Joseph was thinking rather oddly when the then-teenager, with a fresh diploma from Kansas City’s Westport High School, quit a budding career at Mercantile Bank and Trust to pursue his dream of music in New York City.
At age 17, he was already sitting at St. Patrick Cathedral, appointed as chancel organist. Within a decade, he became lead organist, harpsichordist and pianist for Leonard Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic, a position he would hold for two decades and more than 100 recordings, including the 1965 Grammy-nominated album of Bach’s “Six Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord.”
Pulled from retirement to be the musical director for St. Therese Little Flower Parish’s Sunday Anglican Use Mass, Prince-Joseph is still dreaming big dreams.
He is seeking men with decent singing voices willing to help him preserve Gregorian Chant in Catholic liturgy according to the style of France’s Abbey of Solesmes, and right out of the abbey’s Liber Usalis, the 1896 book of chants that was proclaimed authoritative in 1903 by Pope Pius X.
“This is what we’ll be using,” Prince-Joseph said, as he produced his own, well-used copy of the 1,900-page Liber Usalis that he has owned since his days at St. Patrick Cathedral.
“We will do this in the Solesmes style, the French style, which is different from any other,” he said.
Prince-Joseph is seeking “20 to 40 men,” willing to learn the style, and to help him spread it to Catholic liturgies in churches throughout the diocese.
He said he can pull the choir into shape in about two or three months of once-a-week (less frequently, if necessary) 90-minute rehearsals.
“We are hoping to pick up pieces of what the church has discarded over the last 40 years,” Prince-Joseph said. “We are going for beauty.”
And what better base to launch the choral group, which he has already named “Exultate, Justi” — “Praise the Lord, You Righteous” — then at the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph’s dedicated Shrine of the Little Flower, St. Therese of Lisieux.
“I feel like that at St. Therese, we are back in France,” he said. “What a way to build up her shrine.”
And in case anyone holds the slightest doubt that Prince-Joseph doesn’t know what he is doing, he was trained for two solid weeks in the Liber Usalis by the Benedictine monks of Solesmes themselves.
Already a world-renowned organist, he made a deal with them while studying in France under a Fullbright fellowship.
“I told them that if they would teach me, I would perform a concert for them every day,” he said.
His resume even extends beyond that.
Prince-Joseph was the last pupil of the legendary Pietro Yon, honorary organist of the Vatican.
He studied at Yale University under Paul Hindemann, at the University of Southern California under Alice Ehlers, and with composer Igor Stravinsky.
He was official organist for the Roger Wagner Master Chorale, assistant to Norbert Dufourcq at the Conservatoire Nationale de Musique in Paris, and served on the faculty of Hunter College of City University of New York, where he is still listed as professor emeritus.
Prince-Joseph also performed locally in presentations of the Misericord, under the direction of his good friend, retired Father Ambrose Karels.
He said that Father Karels has provided him the names of the men who performed Misericord, and Prince-Joseph has written each of them personally, inviting them to join his new choral group.
And his ideas won’t stop if his dream of a men’s chorus, dedicated to Gregorian chant, is fulfilled.
“If we are going to treat these guys like Benedictine monks, there is nothing to prevent us from doing this with women and having them sing the parts of Benedictine nuns,” he said.
“But I don’t want to mix them,” he said. “To do that, you have to play in octaves, and there is nothing worse than playing in octaves. Most Americans also sing flat, and there is nothing worse than a flat octave.”
Right now, he said, he is limiting his search for good, male voices.
He also stressed that this would not be a “performance” choir, offering concerts. Instead, it will be a liturgical choir, leading the worship not only at Mass, but especially at Liturgy of the Hours’ services such as matins (morning prayer) and vespers (evening prayer).
By doing that, Prince-Joseph said the choral group will not only be preserving forms of music that have fallen by the wayside, but sacred liturgies as well.
Prince-Joseph stressed that he is not going to touch the music at the parish’s 9:15 Gospel-style Mass with the proverbial 10-foot pole. He likes it.
“They can continue signing the Gospel Mass as long as they want to,” he said.
But he is also not about to let classical music in liturgy perish without a fight.
“Classical music is dying in the United States because nobody takes it seriously any more,” he said.
“We are making beauty,” Prince-Joseph said.
Although he will welcome singers of all ages, he is especially interested in attracting retired men.
“When you retire, you want something in your soul to keep you excited,” he said. “Going after retired people might be a good idea, but then, going after younger people would be an educational thing.”
And even though he is 85, Prince-Joseph said he is more interested in his choral group performing precisely rather than quickly.
“I’m in no hurry,” he said.
“Here I am, the crazy, old guy getting involved again,” he said. “This is where I get my kicks, the miracle of it all.”
Prince-Joseph said he understands the reluctance of older men wondering if they are useful any more. In fact, he made Father Ernie Davis, pastor of St. Therese Little Flower, beg him for six months before he would accept the position as music director for the parish’s 11:15 Anglican Use Mass for former Episcopalians now in full unity with the Roman Catholic Church.
“I thought it was a big joke,” Prince-Joseph said. “I kept telling him, ‘No, you don’t want to mess around with an old guy like me.’ Then one day, I woke up and said, ‘Do you want to sit around feeling sorry for yourself?’ That’s why I am here. Because I am crazy.”
And when, not if, he pulls it off?
“What a way to die,” he said. “When I die, I want to know that it worked.” o
Men interested in joining Exultate, Justi, can leave a message for Prince-Joseph at St. Therese Little Flower Parish, (816) 444-5406.