History of Music at Boys Town

Author: Msgr. Francis Schmitt

SACRED MUSIC Volume 117, Number 1, Spring 1990


(This paper was delivered at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, March 24, 1990, as part of the ceremonies for the presentation of the Boys Town music collection to the university.)

Should you think the above assigned topic an easy one for me to essay, you would be quite wrong. The nature of the subject, I fear, suggests a cross between an apologia and an obituary, both of which tend to be self-serving. Indeed, presenting this paper before so many earstwhile colleagues is accountably akin to a clip from Thornton Wilders's "Our Town." For many of you, however, it may seem strange that any child-care institution should be suspected of having a history of music or a music library of any significance (still, there was the orphanage which Gregory the Great established at the Lateran for the education of future members of the choir, and the orphans of Vivaldi's Pieta in Venice): a notion reflected by Thomas Day in a 1978 "Commonweal" review. "In the late 1960's," he wrote, "a distinguished German musicologist and a no less prominent member of a pontifical institute of music made a grand tour of the United States. Near the end of their trip they reported to a friend that they were appalled by most of the liturgical music they heard, whether it was folk or what was passed off as traditional. They did admit, however, that they were deeply impressed by the music they heard in, of all places, Boys Town, Nebraska."

That music was a strong and perhaps unusual part of the Boys Town fabric cannot be said to have been an accident. It was apart of what some people have called the Flanagan dream. Father Flanagan was neither musician, athlete, craftsman nor scholar, but he desperately wanted, and had an eye for, excellence in all fields. In the very beginning, 1917, he acquired the voluntary services of Omaha's first-class, black musician, one Dan Desdunes, to teach a little band. By the time Desdunes died, in 1929, his band would sport photos with John Phillip Sousa, Paul Whiteman, Calvin Coolidge and God-known-who. He also wrote a piece which is perhaps the original item in the Boys Town music library. It was a song called "Dividends of Smiles," and it was a part of a 1927 drive to pay off the mortgage on the Home. "Buy bonds of happiness," it ran, and it may well be that smiles were the only dividends those bonds ever paid.

The band eventually sparked a whole series of road shows which included singing, elocution and all sorts of juvenile theatre. These have sometimes been labelled money-collecting ventures, but that is a dubious judgment. The most ambitious of them, an instrumental and choral extravaganza that went out on the Oprheum circuit in the mid-thirties, went broke and had to be baled off the road. They were certainly valuable PR however, and that PR was already well-placed by the time MGM came along with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. I have always suspected that unnumbered little old ladies who hadn't seen a movie since "Birth of a Nation," went to see "Boys Town," because for more years than they cared to recount, they had been depositing quarters and nickels and dimes in the green metal "Homeless Boy" coin boxes that could be found on friendly counters all over the country.

But neither PR, nor finance, nor any fool notion of therapeutic underlay Flanagan's vision of the place music might have in his Home. It is true that he liked to show his boys off, and he could be cranky if they didn't show well, but that was secondary to the substance of what they had to show. He wanted for them every fine thing other boys had and more. He wanted to enrich them, and "rich" was the adjective he customarily used to describe what he judged to be good music. When a degree of the excellence he envisioned was achieved, he would say: "Hah--and they told me it couldn't be done!" I have an interesting letter which he wrote to Walter Brown of the Columbia Concerts organization around the time of the choir's first national tour in 1946. "When I was a little boy in Ireland," he wrote, "at the college (Sligo) there were some of the older boys who were studying for the Church...who would make fun of other boys who would go to choir, which was given vocal training by a very famous voice teacher who came to the college several times a week." All that showed, he said, was that they were suffering from an inferiority complex, and he would not tolerate anything like that at Boys Town. (A school-mate at the same Sligo college was John McCormick, whom he often visited backstage years later, cautioning him, among other things, about his drinking.) The population of Boys Town was never so large that one might not be at once a state boxing champion and a bass, a quarterback and a tenor, an Olympic miler and an ex- soprano.

If, apart from the Dan Desdunes period, the early history of music at Boys Town is one of fits and starts, that was the fault not of interest of vision or will, but of growing pains that seemed endemic to the larger task of corralling sufficient forces to contain an idea which kept surpassing itself. Although teachers came and went, the idea of music as part of the Home was never lost sight of. As far back as anyone could remember, a boy might avail himself of piano lessons from Winifred Flanagan, a sister-in- law, and one of only a couple associates of the Omaha A.G.O. I would guess that had funds been at hand, a music hall, with its accompanying educational facilities, would have been as much a part of the Flanagan plan in 1928 as it was in 1948.

By 1948, however, there were many programs in place, and others starting, to utilize such a facility. It is sometimes said that I started the Boys Town Choir. (For that matter, it is often said that Flanagan started it-- they have seen that fetching picture of him faking a song with his boys.) I did not. I inherited a group which, though its number was declining, formed a willing and pliable foundation to build upon. There is a play-by-play statistical account of music at Boys Town in a doctoral thesis prepared by Mildred MacDonald and accepted by the University of Colorado, and we may leave detail to it. I will only relate that over a long period the department served a large segment of the population. A variety of courses, available throughout a three semester arrangement, encompassed two bands, string instruction at individual and quartette levels, piano students enough to occupy two teachers, obligatory public school music at the primary level, forays into what was then call "music appreciation," music history and Gregorian chant, and concert, repertory and chancel choirs.

The latter, comprising some 200 boys, came near as we reasonably could to the choir school idea. Because of scheduling difficulties, church and performance obligations, all of which sometimes tended to be raided by others' priorities, Flanagan had early on allowed that I asuume responsibility for the home supervision as well as the instruction of my wards. The Home was anyway growing so that it needed to be broken into manageable divisions. There were at first four and then eight in all. Each had its share of glory, its winning politicians, all-state athletes and intra-mural champs. It should be said here that Monsignor Nicholas Wegner, who succeeded Father Flanagan in 1948, was quite as supportive of all this as was his predecessor. A ready host to prestigious musical events, he might also be about the only adult in attendance at a beginniner's piano recital.

The collection of sacred music is understandably bound up with the fortunes of the choir. I remember its beginnings more clearly than I do the years of gradual acquisition. We had, I believe, only a batch of spanking new copies of the "St. Gregory Hymnal," which Winifred Flanagan, the sister-in-law, had recently installed, and small number of copies of the "Liber Usualis," which I had begged and borrowed from classmates, who, I was pretty sure, would never use them again, when the Joslyn Art Museum invited us to do a vesper service marking its tenth anniversary. It was to be our first public appearance and I had ordered a quantity of items from C. C. Birchard, Boston. When the order didn't arrive, the secretary to the Home's penurious purchasing agent volunteered: "Father, you'll never get that stuff, unless Birchard gives it to you." I took the matter to Flanagan, and that was the end of any music budget problems, and, in a sense, the beginning of this library.

For the library grew, to begin with, with our needs. And our needs grew with our own musical growth. I had to grow too--I even had to grow into the depth of the first Christmas present Flanagan gave me, December 1941, when I had only known him six months. It was a first edition of Gustave Reese's monumental "Music in the Middle Ages." How on earth he hit upon it, I have no idea. Our first needs were, in the nature of things, liturgical ones, and it would be awhile before we grew from the "St. Gregory Hymnal" and my own background in late 19th and early 20th century Caecilian fare and ersatz male-voice settings of Palestrina to a sure foundation in Gregorian chant, authentic polyphonly and the exciting new contemporay church music that was then just over the horizon.

Our concert tours, with which we were engaged each fall (starting in 1946 and for some thirty years thereafter) would also figure in the library picture. There is no call to bother you with the vagaries of all that travel which took us pretty much to the ends of the continent, to Havana and Tokyo. It was not something that we had particularly set out to do-- national hearings having been restricted to seasonal network radio--but one cold January day, Columbia Concerts sought us and signed us up. Though we were occasionally viewed as a travelling social experiment (the "New Yorker" declared that we exhibited the best team-work of the season) we were mostly accepted, for weal or woe, as a bona fide musical group. I remember with particular warmth Glenn Dillard Gunn writing in the "Washington Times-Herald" of our Faure "Requiem:" "The interpretation given this masterpiece must be listed with the significant events of the season." (Ours were the first blacks to grace Constitution Hall. I was told that Columbia's intelligence was that the DAR was not about to fight Flanagan.) And years later, Seth Bingham in the old "American Organist:" "Something exquisitely fresh and clear was heard in Town Hall. It came from the finely balanced ensemble nationally known as the Boys Town Choir."

I have vivid memories of our first appearance in Pittsburgh, at the Syria Mosque. There was hotel strike in town and we were offered lodging right here at Duquesne. I wish I knew the name of the priest who helped us bed the kids down, or where precisely the sleeping arrangement was. I assume it was somewhere near the chapel for our chores done, he looked at me and said; "You look like you need a drink." He found a bottle but no glasses, so we had our night-cap to vigil light. The next night, after the concert, I was accosted by a priest who asked peremptorily why we had not sung an encore--I guess I was still not feeling well--for the audience had expected one. It was none other than Father Carlo Rossini. He confided that he had really come to enjoy making fun of our endeavor, but that we really had deserved to sing an encore, and he had already lost a lot of friends, and maybe we should get acquainted.

Not that there were no down slips. The one I took least exception to did not appear in print, but came in a series of letters from a redoubtable Westchester matron:

First, you use your boys entirely too much. Change your program to about three songs together, then two groups separately, then a few together and so on.

Second, you make a complete boob out of your accompanist. He just sits there and goes da-do and then you go on with the boys to sing. Work out your program so that he plays the entire song or if you just need a da-do then use a pitch pipe.

Fifth, the little dance was atrocious, and their hats were not even clean...Your ending was great but how about "Holy God We Praise Thy Name" either before or after, whichever is correct.

Tenth, why not give about twenty records as door prizes--although I have never heard a record so I don't know if they are good or not...In speaking with a friend she said the whole concert was over my head and I said, "Why should it?"

The third thing that contributed greatly to the growth of the library, and to ours, were church music workshops. This is my friend Dr. Bichsel's territory, but I must allude to it insofar as it touches upon the library. This too was not something we had set out to do. As it happened, the year 1953 marked the 50th anniversary of Pius Xth's "motu proprio" on church music, and Clifford Bennet and his Gregorian Institute were unleashing fifty workshops on mostly unsuspecting bishops and abbots. By that time, officialdom agreed, we were in a position to run one of our own. It was a project that continued for seventeen or eighteen years and eventually grew into an ecumenical adventure. Searches for exemplary material quite naturally enhanced our collection.

So the library was nothing that we set out to do either. Truthfully put, it just grew up like Topsy, or little Eva, or whoever it was who grew up. At bottom were the exigencies of vast repertoire--repertoire for study as much as performance. Publicity which accrued both to the choir and the workshops occasioned increasing contributions from publishers with whom we did business, as did the editorial offices of "Caecilia," which for ten of those years were located in our department. I must add that budgeting for music purchases presented no problem, because there wasn't any budget. I think Father Wegner didn't trust budgets. It was a day before multi-layered bureaucracy and while he respected his colleagues judgment, he was also still in a position to call a halt if things appeared to be getting out of hand. Better an arrangement like that, he thought, than people padding budgets so as to blow the surplus on frills (I recall running into him as I came out of the De Santis music store one time when we were in Rome together, and telling him that they had a complete edition of Palestrina in there. "Why don't you go buy it?" he said.) Father Flanagan harbored a similar feeling about contracts. He considered a request for one a personal affront to his integrity. I only ever knew of two that were consummated. Finally, there were many gifts, and some bequests, starting with valuable chant materials left us by Father Joseph Pierron, who had studied with Peter Wagner at Fribourg at the turn of the century. I would be remiss if I did not mention Dr. Eugene Selhort of Eastman and the old Cincinnati College of Music, Ben Grasso, once of Associated Music Publishers, Louise Cuyler, musicologist, and Walter Buszin, sometime professor of liturgics at Concordia Seminary and editor of "Reponse."

My topic requires of me a judgment on the "significance of the Boys Town collection of sacred music." I have meant to demonstrate that such a judgment hinges on the significance of the programs out of which it grew: the choir and the workshops. The latter attested to a rather broad interest in quality music in the decades preceding Vatican II--interest, it turns out, which did not run all that deep. It also attests to a sizable array of significant contemporary sacred composition of the same period, now all but vanished from the scene. The choir, I hold, attested to the possibility of a fine-honed musical and liturgical catechesis, to the possibility of youngsters--they are men now--standing over against the giddy guardians of the cheap. Everywhere, these days, it is suggested that it can't be done, and I can hear Flanagan saying: "Hah, that's what they said." Father Finley Williams used to say--in particular reference to the Roman Church, I think- -that you can't legislate taste. Still the Church has an obligation to establish canons within whose parameters taste can be created.

I have not been sure, these past twenty years, whether those parameters are in place. Cardinal Ratzinger rightly finds it astonishing that someone as eminent as Karl Rahner can deduce from conciliar documents the practical banishment of what, for the better part of two millennia, we have thought of as sacred music. But one can be equally astonished at those who deduce from the same documents only, or nearly only, the enshrinement of the music and the language of the past. As a quondam consultant to the Vatican's post-conciliar commission on the sacred liturgy, I have been aware of the tensions that are not always solved in final drafts. Nor have commentators on the subject generally served up a balanced view. Too often it is one side railing against the other, unaware that both may be wrong. There is not much question which side dominates the argument, but I think that the Boys Town experience suggests that while Father Rahner and his kind may well speak for themselves, they have no right to speak for the butcher, the baker, and all those children for whom the treasures of the Church might prove to be as indigenous as kitsch is for them.

The programs which produced the collection might have been a party to one further development--again, not something we set out to do, but something circumstances positioned us for. An adjunct of the final (1969)[1] workshop was the founding of the Church Music Association of America. This was accomplished by the merging of the St. Gregory Society of America and the American Society of St. Cecilia, and the joining of their respective journals, "The Catholic Choirmaster" and "Caecilia" into "Sacred Music." A lot of leg work and good will had gone into the effort, and the hope was that the new organization might prove to be a national vehicle for implementing conciliar reform. Indeed, Cardinal John Deardon had asked Father John Selner of the St. Gregory Society and myself to submit a slate of competent musicians which he might form into an advisory board for that purpose. Whether the CMA might have forestalled the unanchored efforts all about us can only be conjectured, for despite an auspicious start and forward looking initial convention prepared by Ted Marier in Boston,[2] it was then and there summarily torpedoed--not be itchy scavengers of the left, but by entrepreneurs of the right who seemed to me to be more interested in embalming tradition than in building on it. The CMA is deader than Marley's ghost.

In the end, the quality of our music will depend not so much on what the council said or did not say about it, but on our definition of liturgy. It is one thing to draw erroneous conclusions from the constitution on the liturgy, and quite another to draw no conclusion from it all, but to insist on something called amorphously "the spirit of Vatican II." Something which often has no relation to Vatican II or any other, but which is unabashed post-concil, and sometimes post-Church. If the idea is to wallow in personal enjoyment of communal piety, if a cozy Sunday morning encounter, set off with titillation "Polka Mass" to be followed by roast duck and dumplings is allowed to pass muster as liturgy, one or the other. Just as there is no use talking about ecumenicism if basic Christological positions are bartered away.

"I would be an odd deception," writes Hans Urs von Balthasar, "if members of the community, assembled to praise and honor God, were to have any other purpose than perfect adoration and self-surrender: for instance their edification or some other undertaking in which they themselves, along side their Lord, who should be receiving their homage, become thematic." Whatever we use as a vehicle does that perfect adoration and self- surrender, it must be worthy, capable of carrying the worshipper beyond aesthetics to the glory of God, beyond the beautiful to what he calls divinely glorious. "Cult," said the oft-maligned Ratzinger, in a lecture on priestly formation, "has to do with culture--the connection here is obvious. Culture loses its soul without cult, cult without culture mistakes its true worth."

My judgment about the significance of the collection and the rest? I think it is significant simply because it was. There are those who have said that I lived in a dream world, but it was a fetching dream. And the thing about it was that it was alive. I keep thinking of Gilbert Chesterton's "Napolean of Notting Hill." Notting Hill was the London neighborshood of Chesterton's boyhood, and in the novel he fantasizes about re-capturing that treasured plot. The effort fails, and at the very end a voice speaks out of the darkness: "Notting Hill has fallen. Notting Hill has died. But that is not the tremendous issue; Notting Hill has lived."

I rejoice today that for Duquesnes University our collection is.



1 The Church Music Association of America was founded at Boys Town, Nebraska, on August 29, 1964. For an account of that event see "Sacred Music," Vol. 109, No. 2 (Summer 1982), p. 11-12. (Ed.)

2 The first convention of CMA was held in connection with the Fifth International Church Music Congress, organized by the Consociatio Internationalis Musicae Sacrae, in Chicago-Milwaukee, August 21-28, 1965. The second national convention of CMA was in Detroit, Michigan, April 16- 19, 1968. The Boston meeting to which Monsignor Schmitt refers was the third national convention, held April 1-3, 1970. Robert I. Blanchard organized the meeting. For a detailed account of these and other events of the conciliar reforms, see "A Chronicle of the Reform, Parts I-VII." "Sacred Music," Vol. 109, No. 1,2,3,4; Vol. 110, No. 1,2,3. (Ed.)