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Our Teacher... A Legend.

Sept. 15, 2014

Can you imagine a musician who can play Chopin, Beethoven, Bach and Palestrina, from memory, on a simple piano? An organist who is as comfortable with a medieval pipe organ as with the latest Korg? A maestro who plays flamboyant jazz with the same passion he devotes to sublime classics? A composer whose music is sung in churches around the world and who has been invited by reputed international publishers, to create music for the former Roman Missal and the Funeral Rite among others? A Choir Director who never fails to surprise you with the brilliance of his arrangements? A liturgist and post graduate of the famed Anselmo, Rome? A humourist who can bring the house down, even when teaching a serious subject like Liturgy! Our teacher, our guru, our mentor is all of this and more. The Proclaimers, as his choir was called, were privileged to learn from the Master – Fr Aniceto Nazareth himself. 

The Proclaimers? Couldn’t we have a more musical name? When I joined the choir way back in 1987, I wanted to use my advertising skills to re-craft the name. Until I discovered that this was a choir with a mission – to proclaim Christ’s death-resurrection. In the initially 100-strong choir, I met singers from Borivli, Bandra, Jacob’s Circle, Marine Lines, Mira Road, Marol, Mulund & Vashi. If there was one thing that bound us all together, it was the knowledge that we were proclaiming the Paschal Mystery. That’s why we were never performers, mere instruments of the liturgy.  With them, my journey of discovery began - of liturgy, of music, of choirs and of this amazing teacher!

Unison singing for congregational participation? Or choral recitals? Post Vatican II, choirs were changing rapidly. The new mantra was people’s participation and choirs that sang old Latin masses were challenged to get the congregation to sing along. Did that mean we had to give up singing in harmony, I wondered? Not necessarily, explained Fr Aniceto, as he arranged music, to allow the 5th voice – the voice of the people in a simple, easy-to-sing melody. The Proclaimers gave over a 100 programs not only in Bombay but also in Belgaum, Hubli, Dharwar, Hyderabad, Secunderabad,  Baroda, Jhansi, Jabalpur, Pune, Lonavala, Agra & Simla. Everywhere, the melody line was the fifth voice and it didn’t matter that there were few singers in this group. We knew the people would sing with us. In truth, we weren’t at our best, without the congregations we sang with.

Choir practices were not just about music. It was an ethereal experience singing in a choir with so many beautiful voices. Every session began with fellowship over a cup of tea and mouth-watering snacks (which we’d never want to miss) followed by a half hour input on Liturgy. Initially, the only-in-it-for-the-music types like me, considered these 30 minutes a waste. Thirty years later, we realize how precious were those sessions on the liturgy – its laws and structure, its seasons and sacraments. Slowly but surely, we were formed and transformed, into not just singers but Proclaimers. Edlyn D’Souza, cantor at the Merciful Redeemer parish, Mississauga, Canada, recounts, “Fr Aniceto's ‘Crumbs from the Master's Table’ changed and enhanced my participation at the Eucharist. I now more clearly participated through my understanding of the Interior Attitudes: Praise, Memorialization, Covenant, Passover and their role in the Eucharist. I also learnt about Jesus' presence in Time. This gives meaning to my desire to meet Jesus by being present at His death and resurrection at every Mass.”

He taught simple people with no exposure to the classics. Most of our Choir members started out with only a love for music and little or no musical knowledge. Fr Aniceto moulded us into musically literate choir leaders, with a new taste and interest in the classics.  Maryanne D’Mello of Our Lady of Health, Sahar looks back, “He took me in his choir when I was down and out after my husband’s death. I had no musical background but Fr Aniceto made my life meaningful with his sessions in liturgical studies and music." 

Give God the best you can offer. Old outdated music which you wouldn’t even sing in the wedding hall should not be recycled and sung during Wedding masses. Through Fr Aniceto, we explored the treasures of the classics: the Gregorian chant, the fugue, canon… And soon with a little help, we found that, be it Mendelssohn or Mozart, we could Handel them all! In fact the Proclaimers took simple ordinary songs and did extraordinary things with them. Many like me were in the choir for 13 or more years and our taste for good music matured like vintage wine.

No Do’s and Don’ts - just a complete U-turn in our thinking. Our hymns were carefully chosen, not just for their tuneful melodies or prayerful harmonies but for the richness of their lyrics. The Word was all-important to us. Our music made it come alive. That’s why the psalm was the first hymn we practised, because of its place within the liturgy of the word. Acclamations were all-important. Sneha Mascarenhas who sings at St Albertus Magnus church Dusseldorf, Germany recalls, "During my years with the Proclaimers, Fr. Aniceto taught us not only simple liturgical hymns with beautiful harmonies but the meaning and importance of every part of the mass. It is through his teachings that I understood that we who sing and lead choirs are responsible, not just for how we sing but also for the kind of hymns we choose, to ensure that the hymns enhance the liturgy."

Singers became inspirational Choir Directors. The Proclaimers were a breeding ground for leaders who were now empowered with a new confidence and equipped with the skills, to take charge or give new direction to their own parish choirs. From him we learnt how to run our own choirs more efficiently. We learnt democracy: how to create space for diverse talents through occasional solos, duets, quartets; how to give more people a chance to conduct or play the keyboard; in essence we learnt how to build a more committed group. 

Hazel Toscano, Choir Director and Conductor of St. Pius X, Mulund, says, 'I owe all that I have learnt in liturgy and music to him, and have taken back to my parish a wealth of liturgical music. More important, I have instilled in my parish choir his teaching that a good liturgical choir should only lead, not dominate, thus enhancing the services by encouraging congregational participation.' Says Fr Donald Rodrigues, a Seminarian during our Proclaimer days and currently at Our Lady of Egypt, Kalina, “Whenever I hear a beautiful liturgical choir, I try to meet the person in charge. It’s generally a Proclaimer.”

How easy is it to compose a hymn? In St John’s, Thane during the Holy Week of April 1987, we got to see for ourselves his mind at work. A priest in our parish, (the late) Fr Roque Aroz had pointed out to Fr Aniceto (the preacher at our Triduum) that people’s participation was missing in the priest/deacon’s song to the Easter Candle. Right there in front of us, Fr Aniceto borrowed manuscript sheets and plotted out the music, even as we watched amazed.  “Stay true to Scripture.” “Don’t borrow melodies from second-rate pop songs,” he spoke as he wrote. That Easter night, the St John’s quadrangle ‘resounded with joy’ and ‘darkness vanished forever’ as choir and people participated in the Exsultet for the very first time! 

Watching him at work, many of us, with his encouragement, made our own forays into writing and musical composition. Maureen Pereira of Holy Cross Kurla shares, “He published my first attempt at a melody for Psalm 84 and encouraged me to write out myself, the music score of the Anthem I created for the Women’s Commission.”

Fr Aniceto was our friend, philosopher, counselor and even banker when the need arose. Ever approachable, despite his busy, almost punishing schedule, he offered a truly Christian solution to every problem, personal or pastoral. Charmaine Moraes of St Francis Xavier’s Vile Parle writes, “Had I any question on liturgy, I knew the answer was just a phone call away. I’m a part of his choir even now and his prolific mind produces new master-pieces every day.” Merlyn Fernandes of St Pius Mulund recounts, “‘A teacher affects eternity: one can never tell where his influence stops.’ Fr Aniceto has been that teacher who helped discover the real me. I am deeply indebted to him for having given me the confidence, the guidance and the opportunity to use my talents for God's kingdom.”

Marcia D’Cunha, former Secretary of the Archdiocesan Women’s Commission, was a singer with The Proclaimers for 13 years.

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