There is a reason sacred hymns are, well, sacred. Not only does their spiritual content speak powerfully to the faithful, but these songs are often ancient in age and steeped in ethnic identity.
Few cultures can rival the Italians as far as tradition and pride. And sacred music is an important piece of that tradition.
Dr. Marisa Gatti-Taylor, a native of San Marino, was educated in Detroit and worked as a soloist for many Italian-American churches in that city while pursuing her doctorate. She observed that classic hymns like "Ave Maria" were essential to the liturgical lifeblood of these churches.
"These songs always had everybody sobbing and just moved and feeling transported to the old times, and to their ancestors and to their faith," she said.
Inspired by the memory of those reactions, she and her husband Dr. Steven Millen Taylor have collaborated with Michael Kamenski, director of liturgy and music at St. Sebastian Church, on "Inni e Canti," an album featuring 15 rare Italian hymns.
The CD was recorded at St. Sebastian Church by the Festa Mass Choir.
The album has been in the works since 2009, and the two saw to it that a full English translation was done for each hymn, enabling non-Italian-speaking choirs to sing the arrangements. The Italian-to-English translation was executed by their daughter Olivia Gatti Taylor Kopitzke, an award-winning poet.
The songs have always been favorites of Gatti-Taylor's, and the track listing includes titles like "Dell'Aurora Tu Sorgi Piu Bella" (which was the recessional at Marisa and Steven's wedding) and "Ave Maria" in both Italian and Latin.
The production of this CD has been a labor of love for Marisa over the years, and on her frequent trips to Italy she has always attempted to find arrangements of these beloved hymns from childhood.
It was a difficult task, as the hymns fell out of vogue during the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council.
"In the late '70s and '80s these songs were not being sung very much because of the influence of Vatican II, and wanting to speak to the new generation, wanting to draw in the youth," she said. "So a lot of churches wouldn't even play the organ."
But even during that time, Italian congregations maintained a love for the music of their youth.
"In Italy if you were in church, any time someone would intone spontaneously from the audience – they do that there, they don't care if it's not in the program – often you could hear this old woman, just out of nowhere, beginning to sing the 'Ave,' and everyone would just fall in line with her," she recalled. "And the priest would just have to listen!"
Gatti-Taylor and her husband did eventually find an anthology containing many of the hymns they were searching for, but in abbreviated versions. Modern technology made the search easier, and they were surprised to find many of the songs on YouTube and other websites in recent years.
Her belief in the importance of reintroducing these hymns to the public was reinforced in 2008, when she was on the Festa (Italiana) Mass Committee and chose traditional Italian hymns for the service. The visiting Vatican prelate, Claudio Maria Celli, was won over by the selections.
"You could tell he was very moved to have heard these hymns," she said. "It was a witness of how ambivalent those who want to forget the tradition are because they think it's alienating the youth, and I think they're wrong."
In producing the album, it was impossible to locate arrangements for some of the songs. The task then fell to Kamenski to recreate the four-party harmonies from Marisa's memory.
"When he was working on the songs, many times he was working off just a one-note, melodic line that I had hummed for it, on which he built all these harmonies," she said. "He did a very significant job. It was really a huge labor."
Kamenski believed that Marisa was undertaking a "culturally significant" project. "He kept saying, don't give up," she said. "Because there were always, always new obstacles, new problems, and he kept saying, 'We're gonna do it.'"
The result is a compilation of songs that Marisa Gatti-Taylor said will appeal not only to churchgoers but to secular circles as well, and which speak to the tradition of the Italian people.
"A lot of people will know these songs and not necessarily go to church very frequently," she said. As a child, her mother would always encourage the musically-gifted Marisa to sing the "Ave Maria" on the altar for the congregation after Sunday Mass.
"People ended up waiting after Mass for me to do this, so I knew it was a real feeling for them, from the time I was a tyke," she said. "So this has always been an important part of who I am and what I do. In singing the 'Ave Maria' I have had adult men come and hug me and say, 'Thanks to your Ave Maria, I am going to resolve this argument that has caused me to not speak to my mother for 10 years.' It's been a potent experience – very powerful."
Their young granddaughter Josephine agrees. Described lovingly by her grandmother as "a holy terror" at Mass, upon hearing the CD the 3-year-old knelt down and folded her hands in prayer.
"I said, 'Josephine, what are you doing?' She said, 'Nonna, this music makes me want to be good!" laughed Gatti-Taylor. "And now she wants to learn the 'Ave Maria.' I'm telling you, miracles are happening!"
"Inni e Canti" can be ordered online from the official website. The cost is $20, including shipping and handling.
Colleen Jurkiewicz is a Milwaukee native with a degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and she loves having a job where she learns something new about the Cream City every day. Her previous incarnations have included stints as a waitress, a barista, a writing tutor, a medical transcriptionist, a freelance journalist, and now this lovely gig at the best online magazine in Milwaukee.