August 1 marks the 20th anniversary of Dr. Peter Latona’s appointment as Director of Music at the Basilica. Recognized as a conductor, composer, organist, improviser, and teacher, he is dedicated to providing the highest standard in sacred music within the context of the liturgy. This month, we asked him to reflect upon his experience at America’s Catholic Church, guiding the hearts and voices of the faithful in praise and honor to Our Lord.
20 years! That’s an impressive accomplishment. As you look back on your experience, what are some things you are grateful for?
It’s hard to imagine that it’s been twenty years – that certainly sounds like a long time. I can tell you, however, that it doesn’t feel like a long time, so I guess that’s a good thing. Above all else, I am profoundly grateful for (and certainly most humbled by) the opportunity to serve the people of God by contributing to our all-important worship of God. One might say that as Christians we must be both “Martha” and “Mary.” Liturgy provides us the opportunity to “choose the better part.” The fact that the relationship between music and the Liturgy are so uniquely married has a profound effect on how we worship, and so the opportunity to shape how we worship is both a challenge and a grace. I am grateful for both.
What are some things you have learned?
The past 20 years as director (and 24 years since I began at the Shrine) has allowed me the opportunity to think quite a bit about sacred music in the Liturgical life of the Church. That’s a long time to think, learn, and grow, so I apologize in advance if this sounds a bit imperious or “preachy.” Human “creation” must always participate in God’s “creation.” We must always leave room for the Holy Spirit and allow God to work through us. The Liturgy should never serve ideological agendas. Our experience of Music and the Liturgy is certainly influenced by contingencies of time and culture but is by no means limited by them. We must always bring every ounce of our artistic skills to our music making to create beauty so that we might better seek the face of God and enter into heavenly places. Our ability to experience the beauty, truth, and goodness that lies therein is not limited by our social conditions. For sacred Liturgical music to be beautiful, however, it doesn’t need to be complicated or conform to one particular style, but must be offered (composed and performed) with skill and sincerity, and must be at service to the Liturgy, grounded in our theology and instructed by our tradition. I’ve also learned that this is not easy!
What is your favorite memory from your time at the Basilica?
That’s a difficult question for me. I suppose looking back on the Papal visits of both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are obviously the first occasions that come to mind – how could they not! Both occasions were profoundly moving – from the whirlwind of logistical preparations to the excitement of the gathering crowds and the first sight of the Holy Father approaching the Basilica – it was all overwhelming. There have been many other – what we might call – “high profile” Masses – each moving, memorable and meaningful to me in their own way. But I also remember those moments of music making when something magical happened – and that could be at a daily Mass in the crypt or a typical Sunday in the Upper Church. I distinctly remember conducting the motet “O quam gloriosa” by Victoria on the Solemnity of All Saints and feeling as if I was elevated three feet off the ground when the choir got to the good bit about halfway through the piece. There was this collective musical moment when they sang it in a way they had not previously done. I definitely had goosebumps and I think my hands were shaking as well. A beauty revealed itself when the artistic souls of the musicians joined together synergistically – it was beautiful, it was divine, it was a foretaste of heaven.
What has been your favorite thing about serving as Music Director for the largest church in North America?
Easy answer: working with the wonderful staff here at the Basilica. I am profoundly fortunate to have such talented and dedicated colleagues: clergy, senior staff, associates in the music office, singers, sacristans, and volunteers. Everyone works together as a dedicated team to make this such a special place of prayer and pilgrimage. I particularly love working with my fellow musicians. There is something indescribable about joining with a team of musicians (choir, organists, cantors) to achieve a singular aesthetic vision. It is a grace to focus our collective energies on reverently offering sacred music to God – to create a sense of His beauty and mystery in the liturgy.
Want to learn more about Dr. Latona? Check out this four-part interview series about his experience, sacred music, music as a vocation, and more!
Learn More about Sacred Music at the Basilica
The musicians of the Basilica strive to be agents of spiritual transformation by creating music that is artistic, genuine, authentic, purposeful, and evangelizing. Learn more about Sacred Music at the Basilica.