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We Remember a Wonderful Prophet: Lucien Diess (1921-2007)  
Mary G. Fox  

As the director of the Notre Dame Folk Choir, Steven Warner continues to see the effect that the music of Lucien Deiss, CSSp, has on young people. During a rehearsal, Warner found that all the students knew Deiss's antiphon "Keep in Mind" and that one was studying his writings. The cross-reference of the liturgical music composition and the sought-after theological treatises summed up Deiss's contributions perfectly, Warner said.

Unaware that Deiss had died two days prior to the rehearsal, Warner explained the liturgical composer's legacy to his students. "I made a comment that here was a piece from 40 years ago, written at the dawning of the implementation of the documents from the Second Vatican Council, and yet, like a wonderful wine, it still had a beautiful taste for the soul and a richness for the spiritual palette."

Deiss, composer of "Priestly People," "All the Earth," and more than 400 other liturgical songs and hymns, died in France on October 9 in the teaching hospital of Bicetre, France. On October 13, the Mass of Resurrection was celebrated at the grande Seminary Chapel in Chevilly, France. Deiss was 86 years old.

To honor him, Deiss's music will be played at the 7 p.m. Evening Prayer November 26 at the Duquesne University Chapel, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Duquesne University is the only university run by the Spiritans, the order of which Deiss was a member.

Working with Deiss at workshops, Warner came to know the man as a "humble and thoughtful liturgical genius." Warner said, "We are left with the musical insights of this extraordinary man of God. And we are left with his zeal for and love of a fully active, participatory assembly. There is a reason we still sing his songs, composed in the '60s, when barely anything else has survived from that transitional time. His was the foundational vision that endured."

The liturgical composer was a scholar who helped people understand the word of God through songs and hymns. A press release the Spiritans issued October 16 quoted Deiss's account of how he fell into composing music. "I used to do ministry in the little church of Bon Pasteur, close to the seminary. I wanted the people of the parish to sing a lot more, so I formed a choir for Gregorian chant. But it didn't work ... which turned out to be a blessing for me. I realized that the people knew almost nothing of the Bible, so I decided to try using music to help them memorize the more important texts."

Sometimes even those who knew that Deiss taught scripture and liturgy for nine years, were surprised when he spoke on scripture. Recalling a meeting in Rome, Duquesne University professor of biblical studies Sean P. Kealy, CSSp, said, "Our community invited him to speak on one occasion expecting that he would talk on music. But he came and gave a rather profound lecture on Form Criticism. He really loved the scripture, and his genius was to blend simple biblical texts with simple joyful melodies which anyone could join in with."

Laetitia Blane, retired director of liturgical music at Boston College, called Deiss "a prophet of his era."

"In the 60s," she said, "his music gave voice to our prayer." She added, "We remember a wonderful prophet."

Blane, who was a soloist for Deiss at National Pastoral Musicians meetings, is a co-founder of the NPM Cantor and Choir Director Institutes. She said that she and others relied on the guidance Deiss offered in Spirit and Song of the New Liturgy. There, he outlined the priorities for singing at liturgies. "We used his outline to help people understand how we use song in liturgy—the ministerial function of when to sing, when it is a priority. His outline was the most comprehensive way to understand Music and Catholic Worship and the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy."

"I think his music will stand the test of time," said Stephen Steinbeiser, liturgist at the Duquesne chapel. Steinbeiser, who collaborated with Deiss at workshops and concerts at Duquesne, described him "as a gentle, humble fellow." Deiss, Steinbeiser said, considered his work part of his service, never accepting a stipend.

He explained, "Lucien really was a scripture scholar. He understood it. He taught it. He loved it really. He had the unique ability to take these wonderful translations of text and wed them to a wonderful melody. As he looked at it, it was his offering to God."

Steinbeiser said that Deiss was particularly delighted when the scriptural meaning of his music was grasped. "He would just have this light in his eye when he saw that someone understood his message. He helped teach the deeper meaning of scripture and how the word of God can lead us to a relationship with God. Joy really is an infallible sign of the Spirit. He just delighted when he saw communities brought to prayer."

From Deiss, Father Jan Michael Joncas learned "the importance of studying the biblical and liturgical texts if I was to set them with any degree of intelligence and artistry." When a teenage Joncas proudly showed Deiss a composition, Deiss patiently explained its failings.

Joncas said, "After that meeting, I absolutely devoured every Deiss composition I could get my hands on, wearing out my copy of the volumes of Biblical Hymns and Songs. I was certainly influenced by his pattern of having fairly extensive refrains assigned to congregational singing with more complex verses taken by soloists and/or choir members, and I wrote my share of 'Deiss-styled' hymns before coming under other influences."

Through the years, Deiss continued to amaze Joncas. "I was impressed with how open he was to quite diverse musical realizations of biblical and liturgical texts as long as they both highlighted the message to be proclaimed and authentically represented the culture encountering these texts."

While preparing to teach a course on twentieth and twenty-first century liturgical music, Joncas was "delighted to find that Deiss had been the choirmaster for Jean Langlais's Missa Salve Regina, first sung at Notre Dame in Paris at Christmas Midnight Mass in 1954. I had meant to send him a note for being a true 'pontifex' (bridgebuilder) between developments in pastoral liturgy in the pre-Vatican II era and the explosion of compositional creativity in the post-Vatican II era."

The Rev. Virgil C. Funk, president emeritus of NPM, described the composer and scholar as a person who lived authentically. Responding to an e-mail he wrote, "Keep in mind that Jesus Christ has died for us" ... Fr. Lucien Deiss not only believed those words, but lived them.... 'If you live with the Lord, you shall die with the Lord.' And so he has."

Mary G. Fox
is Coordinating Editor of Rite. Rite is published by Liturgy Training Publications.
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