|Nashville native Chris Mueller, left, directs his family, children Michael Gabriel, Christina, and Raphael, and wife Costanza, singing in the traditional “polyphony” style. Mueller will lead English language Masses at World Youth Day while spreading the gospel of polyphony.
Chris Mueller grew up in the Diocese of Nashville, and, along with his family, attended St. Henry Church. Today he lives and works in New York and will soon travel to Krakow, Poland, for World Youth Day 2016, where he will conduct the singing and music for daily Masses.
Mueller, his wife Constanza, and their three children Christina, Michael Gabriel, and Raphael – otherwise known as the Mueller Family Schola – will also present a choral concert in downtown Krakow.
Despite a life-long devotion to composing and performing music, Mueller’s driving force is advocating for a return to more traditional church music, specifically chant and polyphony. Polyphony is a style of musical composition that uses two or more simultaneous but relatively independent melodic lines – according to Merriam-Webster – which evolved from Gregorian chant in the latter part of the Middle Ages.
“It’s the authentic music of the Church,” said Mueller. “This is the music that befits the Mass, is appropriate, solemn and beautiful. Our hope is that people will want to incorporate this music into their own parishes.”
Rehearsal as homeschooling
The Mueller Family Schola began singing together in 2011. These polyphony ambassadors have consistently garnered acclaim and enthusiastic fans, performing at special events and Masses throughout Connecticut and in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
They sing together every single day, no matter the season, honing older songs and learning new ones. The children are homeschooled, and music rehearsals are considered part of the curriculum. For one, the Schola does much of their singing in Latin, so the children are learning how to pronounce Latin texts, review translations, and decide where particular pieces fit in the Mass and in the ecclesiastical year.
They’re also learning how to negotiate interpersonal and group dynamics. “It’s kind of like a sports team or any other group activity,” said Mueller. You find out how you mesh the best, and where your strengths can help somebody else’s weaknesses, or where somebody else’s strengths can help your weaknesses.”
Spreading the word
Mueller would like to see his Family Schola become a model for others. He has established two projects to help promote this mission.
The Christopher Mueller Foundation for Polyphony and Chant conducts parish workshops, supports families and other groups to start choirs or scholas and encourages high school and college students to study sacred music. The Foundation is also developing “starter kits” comprised of a few pieces of seasonal Gregorian chants and polyphony that could be easily tackled by novices, along with tips about conducting or family and group dynamics.
The second undertaking, the Mustard Seed initiative, is a social media effort aimed at youth that have not necessarily heard polyphony or chant, or had an opportunity to sing it. Mueller is planning to offer and host youth-driven video conferences on the subject, plus a “meet up” during WYD.
“Generally speaking, we know that cultural things are driven by youth,” said Mueller. “So we’re trying to leverage that in the Catholic Church. If we can get young people approaching their choir directors or their pastors, or just talking to their friends and saying, ‘You know, we should do this! This sounds like something that’s holy and serious and reverent and important. It sounds like worship.’”
World Youth Day 2016 will take place July 25 – 31. It’s an exciting and busy mix of catechetical sessions in various dioceses; afternoon and evening shows, concerts, prayer and reconciliation opportunities; and a welcome, evening vigil and closing Sunday Mass with the Holy Father, Pope Francis.
Mueller will conduct the music for all the English-speaking Masses. He’ll be leading a choir of 30 college students, recent college graduates, Sisters of Life, Dominican friars, and his own children, along with eight instrumental accompanists. These masses will be held in the TAURON Arena in Krakow, and are expected to draw at least 17,000 pilgrims each day.
Wednesday, July 27, the Mueller Family Schola will perform at Our Lady of the Snows. This concert is open to anyone, and has been publicized with flyers and posters in English and Polish, with the goal of attracting members of the church’s congregation and those who live in the neighborhood, along with World Youth Day pilgrims.
These special events are a lovely recognition for a man who has come a long way from his hometown Nashville roots.
Mueller has written more than 200 sacred choral works, including his “Missa pro editione tertia,” which has been used by parishes around the world. He served as organist and choirmaster for the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist in Stamford, Connecticut, from 2012 to 2015, and spent 12 years as director of music for the Church of Notre Dame and the Columbia University Catholic Campus Ministry. He is a graduate of the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music.
Whether conducting, singing, composing or playing piano, Mueller’s strong faith bolsters his passion to return to more traditional musical forms.
“This music of polyphony and chant, even to someone that isn’t Catholic, sounds like church,” Mueller said. “When this music has that strong an identification, then it seems to me like we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by not using that thing that sounds the most like what we’re trying to do: worship God in the Masses.
“I don’t want people to come out of Mass and say, ‘Wow, that was a great piece of music you wrote!’” continued Mueller. “I want them to come out of Mass having had an intensified experience of whatever texts we happen to be praying through the music.”