An Interview with Paul Jernberg, Composer of the Mass of Saint Philip Neri
Jul 31, 2023
The 2024 Source & Summit Missal includes new Mass Settings from Peter Latona, Paul Jernberg, Dave and Lauren Moore, and Horst Buchholz. I had a conversation with each composer to learn more about their inspiration and to have an inside look at their music from their point of view.
The first interview is with Paul Jernberg, composer of the Mass of Saint Philip Neri and the founding director of the Magnificat Institute of Sacred Music.
This is Part One in a four-part series on the new Mass Settings in the 2024 Source & Summit Missal.
Adam Bartlett: What was your inspiration for composing the Mass of St. Philip Neri?
Paul Jernberg: When the new English translation of the Roman Missal was published in 2011, I sensed a great need for worthy new settings of the Mass that would correspond to the heightened integrity and beauty of the translation. This was a moment of tremendous opportunity, not only for the edification of the faithful but also for evangelization! This sense of urgency became a fervent prayer which eventually led to the inspiration for me to “dare” to embark upon the composition of such a setting. In regard to St. Philip Neri, he had already been a source of inspiration in my work as educator, choir director, and composer for several years. Especially in teaching and conducting the sacred choral music of Palestrina and other Renaissance composers, I marveled at the holy and deeply joyful influence of St. Philip (and his Oratory movement) which seemed to permeate many of their works. My hope has been that in some small way, this music might also reflect the “fire of joy” of St. Philip, and inspire others to the kind of depth of faith, integrity, and spirituality which he so beautifully exemplified.
AB: How has the Mass Setting been received since you composed it over ten years ago?
PJ: It has been generally received with much enthusiasm, from parishes throughout the US and Canada, as well as in the UK and New Zealand. Among the many kind comments we have received, I have been particularly touched by certain consistent themes:
its integration of deep roots in our Catholic sacred music tradition with a capacity to resonate with “ordinary” people in the pews today.
its capacity to aid worshippers to enter more deeply and prayerfully into the reality of Christ’s Presence in the Liturgy.
its capacity to help unify people from very different backgrounds in liturgical worship.
the simplicity and “singability” of its melodies, without the sacrifice of musical integrity and beauty.
AB: The Mass of St. Philip Neri has a distinct character and style that may be somewhat unfamiliar to the average US Catholic parishioner. What do you think it offers to the liturgical life of parishes that may have been lacking in recent decades?
In the realm of parish liturgical music, we can see today a strong polarization even among devout and faithful Catholics, between those who are drawn to more traditional forms of sacred music (Gregorian chant, Renaissance polyphony, etc.) and those who have preferred more contemporary forms which they feel are more conducive to their full participation in the Mass. My hope is that this Mass setting (along with my other liturgical compositions) can provide a bridge and source of unity among these two groups: not by cleverly combining different styles, but by offering new inspirations which—while in organic continuity with our tradition—have a fresh capacity to resonate with holiness, beauty, and universality in the hearts and minds of people of good will today.
AB: Why did you decide to publish this Mass Setting in the Source & Summit Missal?
PJ: I was delighted to be approached by Source & Summit in this regard, as I have long admired the work of Adam Bartlett at the service of the Catholic Liturgy and its music. I have also been very impressed by the way in which Source & Summit has provided such extensive sacred music resources for parishes, in a way that seems to be characterized by excellent organization and accessibility.
AB: Tell me about the rhythm and expression that you envision for this Mass Setting. It is set in a more conventional metered notation in the Source & Summit Missal than in your other arrangements—should it be sung in a strictly metrical way?
PJ: The rhythm and expression of this music can be best understood as an integration of two perennial traditions: that of Gregorian chant in the West, and that of Byzantine (particularly Slavic) harmonized chant in the East. In both of these traditions, the rhythm of the music is subordinated to the natural rhythm of the text, in a “marriage” which respects both textual and musical elements. Thus, as a general rule the natural groupings of notes are in phrases rather than in metered measures (reflected in the frequent avoidance of bar lines in my scores, although this isn't meant to be an absolute rule; I also support the alternative approach of the S&S hymnal for the sake of accessibility.)
The dimensions of dynamics and tempo are also essential to the proper understanding and “performance” of the Mass of St. Philip Neri (as well as my other liturgical compositions.) As in Gregorian chant, each phrase needs to be sung with graceful melodic ebb and flow / crescendo and decrescendo, not as a stylistic add-on but as a normal musical expression which flows from the heart (and technically speaking, from the diaphragm.) Such dynamics must never be theatrical, but nevertheless should express something of the sober fervor of the “fire of love” which has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
My approach to tempo is also rooted in Gregorian chant, but with a strong additional influence from the Byzantine Catholic / Eastern Orthodox harmonized chant traditions. While tempos need to have a certain regularity, this regularity should be more like the beating of the heart than the inexorable exactitude of a machine. They must also be allowed to speed up or slow down, corresponding to the flow of the text and the contours of the musical phrases. There should be attention to passages that require lots of energy and a corresponding allegro, those which call for more allargando or stretching, and those in which resolution and repose are expressed through ritardando of varying degrees. In all of the above, the goal is not to create something complex and esoteric, but on the contrary, to allow the text and music to be expressed as “humanly” and as naturally as possible!
As these aspects of dynamics and tempo can sometimes be very difficult to notate with precision and thoroughness, choir directors (and singers) might find it helpful to view and listen to some of our YouTube (or SoundCloud) recordings. A good starting point for these could be two of our sung Masses, aVotive Mass of the Holy Spirit (“The Fire of Your Love”—with many parts from the Mass of St. Philip Neri) and aMass for Persecuted Christians (“Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”)
AB: How does your work with the Magnificat Institute of Sacred Music impact the musical and liturgical lives of parishes?
PJ: The work of our Institute has three main areas of concentration, in providing: 1.) many new musical settings for the Ordinary and Propers of the Mass, for choral and congregational singing, 2.) Liturgies, recordings and films which feature these and other sacred choral works, as a source of edification, help, and inspiration to clergy, church musicians, and laypeople, and 3.) educational opportunities, including workshops (live and video), parish consultations, blogs, an upcoming book, and other resources posted on our websites (see magnificatinstitute.org for the latter, and pauljernberg.com for the first two points.)
It has been a deep joy to be in touch with many parishes who have benefited from these offerings. One of the most encouraging themes among these contacts has been a renewed sense of hope: not mere optimism, but the sense that it is actually possible, and within their reach, to pursue and achieve renewed integrity, depth, and beauty in their liturgical music. In this we are glad not to be alone, but rather to make our little contribution to a movement which transcends any one individual or organization. It is wonderful to often hear similar comments regarding the work of Source and Summit, and other praiseworthy organizations dedicated to an authentic renewal of sacred music in our time!
AB: Are there additional support resources available for the Mass of St. Philip Neri? If so, where can people find them?
PJ: Beyond the CD recordings, available for purchase in digital format and hard copies at pauljernberg.com/cds, we also have a full set of practice tracks and videos which are available, free of charge, at pauljernberg.com/practice-tracks.
Paul Jernberg Bio
Born in Chicago in 1953, Paul’s early professional formation included music and piano performance studies at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago and Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. A graduate of DePaul University in Chicago, his early career as a piano soloist and accompanist began in the Midwest and continued in Sweden, where he lived and worked from 1983 to 1993. While in Europe, his musical work expanded to include composition and choral directing. During this time he also participated in the liturgical life of a Franciscan Friary near Gothenburg, through which he was introduced to the treasures of Gregorian chant and Eastern Orthodox sacred music.
Since returning to the U.S. in 1993, Paul has been a parish music director, composer, and educator: in Chicago’s inner city, in Peoria, Illinois, and in central Massachusetts. In 2017 he became the founding director of the Magnificat Institute of Sacred Music, a non-profit organization dedicated to the renewal of Catholic sacred music. His compositions and recordings have received acclaim throughout North America and Europe, inspiring a 2019 documentary, The Song of the Longing Heart, produced by French filmmaker Francois Lespes (viewable on YouTube here).
Having moved with his family to Lander, Wyoming in June 2022, Paul now combines his work as director of the Magnificat Institute with his role as Composer-in-Residence and Music Director at Wyoming Catholic College.