Universa Laus 50th anniversary meeting, Gazzada, 2016

From Tuesday August 16 to Saturday August 20, Universa Laus, the international study group for liturgical music, met at the Villa Cagnola in Gazzada, near Varese, in northern Italy, for its annual international gathering. In addition this year was the 50th birthday of the founding of the association in 1966 in Lugano, a 45-minute coach ride over the border in Switzerland, and so the assembled company spent a day of the conference there, celebrating and remembering.

Participants came from Austria, Brazil, Italy, Germany, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the USA. They covered a wide spectrum of expertise, from high-powered academics to others who labour at the more pastoral aspects of ritual music. The opportunity to dialogue with people like this is one of the joys of the international meeting each year. I particularly enjoyed my conversations with Fr Jose Weber, a Brazilian priest who graduated from the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome a decade before the Council, and who spent 23 years as national director of music for the Brazilian Bishops’ Conference.

The previous two years, the main presentations had been in Italian, with an overarching theme of Liturgy, Music and Beauty, covering the topics of Aesthetics and Ritual ; Beauty as the Convergence between Art and Theology ; Ritual and Beauty: the “liturgical score” between Silence and Words, Creativity and Form ; and Between Sensitivity, Beauty and Action: Elements for a Discussion on the Aesthetics of Liturgical Music.

This year there were two main presentations in English. Michael Driscoll gave an excellent paper on The “Via Pulchritudinis” and Liturgical Aesthetics: Recent Papal Pronouncements, also drawing the attention of the assembled company to the work of Carolyn Pirtle, a former student and now a colleague of Michael at the University of Notre Dame. The other paper was by the present writer, on How Music in the Liturgy is Perceived and Received: an anthropological/semiological perspective, which introduced some analytical grids for discerning how the music we present to our assemblies actually comes across. The aim is to find out more precisely why assemblies react to liturgical music the way they do, both positively and negatively.

Additionally, in Lugano two further papers were presented, in the perspective of Universa Laus’s golden jubilee, Enrico Morresi, currently secretary general of the association, gave an excellent summary of the meetings preceding the foundation of the group (1962-66) entitled Universa Laus: in the Shadow of the Council. It is good to recall the members of the first Praesidium: Don Luigi Agustoni, the great Swiss Gregorian chant expert and composer (we sang some of his music at the Eucharist), Père Joseph Gelineau, who needs no introduction to Pray Tell readers, and Herr Erhard Quack, a German liturgical music composer and teacher, who was for many years Domkapellmeister at the Cathedral in Speyer and also editor of the journal Musik und Altar. The Universa Laus archives, including a large mass of papers, recordings and much else from Gelineau himself, have now been housed in the Diocesan Centre in Lugano. They still need to be properly catalogued but when this is done they will form a rich treasure-house for research by doctoral students and others. The second paper given in Lugano was from Professor Daniele Sabaino of the University of Pavia. His paper analysed the contribution of Universa Laus to the thinking of the musico-liturgical post-conciliar renewal by presenting a synthesis of the two UL Documents (1980 and 2003), though he did not discuss the actual genesis of either document.

We were welcomed by the Bishop of Lugano, who later presided at Eucharist. This was followed by a magnificent celebration luncheon, hosted by members of the Lugano Cathedral choir. Other liturgies during the week included brief times of prayer in various languages; a celebration of deceased members and in particular Don Felice Rainoldi, a distinguished musicologist (1935-2015) and priest of the diocese of Como; and Vespers in a neighbouring church with a glorious acoustic and frescoes to match.

Other “extraneous” activities included a tour of the Lugano Arts Centre and its theatre/concert hall, and a private visit to the amazing collection of ceramics and other art in the Villa Cagnola itself.

Next year’s meeting will be held in Brno, in the Czech Republic, further details to be announced in due course. Anyone interested in attending should contact the present writer at pastoral.liturgist@gmail.com


  1. How appropriate to have celebrated in Lugano with Bishop Valerio Lazzeri! His episcopal motto is “Non Impedias Musicam”–“don’t interrupt the singing,” whose wider context in Sirach 32 shows that the young bishop approaches his pastoral charge with an admirable attitude:

    If you are chosen to preside at a dinner, do not be puffed up,
    but with the guests be as one of them;
    Take care of them first and then sit down;
    see to their needs, and then take your place,
    To share in their joy
    and receive a wreath for a job well done.
    You who are older, it is your right to speak,
    but temper your knowledge and do not interrupt the singing.

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