RIP Columba Kelly, OSB

Fr. Columba Kelly OSB, Benedictine monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey and well-known composer and teacher of Gregorian chant, has passed away.

Fr. Columba completed his doctorate at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music Rome in 1963, just as Roman liturgy was moving from Latin into the vernacular languages. He studied with Eugene Cardine OSB of Solesmes abbey, who is known as the father of semiological interpretation of chant which is based on natural text rhythms as witnessed in the earliest notated medieval manuscripts.

At Saint Meinrad Fr. Columba served as monastery choirmaster and taught at the Seminary and School of Theology. He also taught summer courses at St. Joseph College’s in Rensselear, Indiana. He led numerous workshops on chant throughout the United States, at the Abbey of Solesmes in France, for Benedictine communities in Australia, and for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

Fr. Columba directed Saint Meinrad’s chant schola in CDS of Latin and English chants for Advent/Christmas, Christmas, and Lent/Easter CD.

His settings of the Responsorial Psalms and Refrains for Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter seasons were published by G.I.A. Publications, and his chant style setting with SAB chorus of the St. John Passion for Good Friday was published by Oregon Catholic Press. He translated and wrote two books on chant, published by Edwin Mellen Press.

Fr. Columba labored mightily in the development of English chant based on the natural rhythms and stresses of the English language. In this he was convinced that he was following the best scholarship on the nature of Latin chant. The semiological interpretation of Latin chant pioneered by Cardine is sometimes known as the “New Solesmes” approach. But in fact even the highly influential “Old Solesmes” approach, which theoretically was based on the absolute equality of the eighth-note value, was never applied consistently and rigidly at Solesmes itself. As Fr. Columba enjoyed recounting with a twinkle in his eye, he was told at Solesmes that all notes are equal… but some are more equal than others!

Requiescat in pace. May Fr. Columba rest in peace.

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  1. Columba Kelly was a remarkable man, and it was a wonderful coincidence that he should have died on the feast of St Columba! He was marked for life by Vatican II, and had a fund of stories about his time in Rome during that era.

    He was a great enthusiast who made chant accessible for many who might otherwise not have appreciated it, while his pastorally sensitive and flexible approach was in marked contrast to that of some of his more rigorous purist colleagues in the field.

    In my opinion, his two major gifts to the Church were, firstly, the way in which he was willing to adapt the Latin chant to the demands of English. In this regard he was remarkably similar to the Benedictine nuns of Stanbrook Abbey in their heyday. The English text and its natural accents and stresses took precedence over the music, as Anthony Ruff has pointed out. Taking the spirit of the chant and its contours, rather than a slavish adherence to every single neum, meant that his adaptations, while close to the originals, were not so close that the text was put in an uncomfortable straitjacket. His adaptations therefore had a life that some more stilted versions by others have lacked.

    Secondly, he was as far as I am aware the only major composer to have had the brilliant idea of not only providing chant adaptations of the Missal antiphons, complete with appropriate psalms, but additionally providing much-abbreviated, simpler versions of them for assembly use. Realizing that the sheer length of many of the antiphons would make them impractical for most assemblies, in this, once again, he showed great pastoral sensitivity and musical skill.

    It was a privilege to have known him, and he will surely be missed by all of us. May he rest in peace and rise in glory!

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