Internet Radio in the Service of Liturgy

Every year in our house we have a running battle to keep Christmas music in Christmastide, particularly as we are setting up our presepio on the first Sunday of the liturgical year. We bought some excellent Advent albums that we enjoy listening to, and it is always delightful to first break those out. Listening to the same albums over and over throughout the 4-week span, however, tends to become tiresome. The temptation eventually becomes—well, in our case nearly overwhelming—to just start the Christmas CDs early.

This year, I’ve finally channeled that frustration into making good on an old idea: setting up an Internet radio station that closely follows the traditional liturgical calendar and can provide satsifactory listening variety over long periods of time. Holy Nativity Radio was created on October 19th, and is now available worldwide via Radionomy.

The traditional Roman liturgy provides a extraordinarily rich template for 24/7 programming, particularly as it contains multiple overlapping calendars; most obviously, the Calendar of Sundays and the Calendar of Saints. But there are also month-long special devotions, like the Holy Souls throughout November. There are special daily devotions, such as Thursday for the Blessed Sacrament, Friday for Our Lord’s Passion, and Saturday for Our Lady. Even the various hours of the day are spoken for: not only in the cycle of the Divine Office from Matins to Compline, but also in common devotions like the Morning Offering and the Angelus.

I have zero experience in radio programming, so there was definitely a learning curve in translating these calendars into a working schedule. There are rules about how often a song or an artist can be played, and it quickly became clear that while it would not be difficult to put together a set for Christmastide, with its huge selection of quality music to choose from, seasons like this one at the end of Pentecost would take more careful thought. How could one find enough quality music to sustain a seasonally appropriate playlist?

The solution to this difficulty came from the liturgy itself: to have two sets of music, Ordinaries and Propers, that would each supply a percentage of the playlist for each hour.

The Ordinaries were comprised of ordinaries from the Mass, general hymns, and texts that would be appropriate for most any time of the year. Since the planning software allows you to specify certain days of the week and certain times of day for tracks, daily devotions and the Psalms can easily be accommodated in this Ordinaries category as well. The various Psalms I assigned to various hours based on the classical Roman Psalter as it was pre-Pius X, giving the listener a little taste of the monastic hours.

The Propers are chiefly seasonal, and include any Mass propers, hymns, and carols that are particular to that season or to the feasts within it. For seasons like Christmas the music is obvious. November draws from Mass propers in these Last Sundays which have consistent themes: the De Profundis reappears time and again, and of course the Dies Irae fits in nicely not only for the Holy Souls but also the apocalyptic themes right before Advent. The period after All Saints’ Day turned out to be a happy home for various Commons of Saints that otherwise might not be heard very much in isolation.

I also strove to include unusual pieces of sacred music from a wider cultural and linguistic bank than stations typically do. Alongside Latin texts and beloved carols and hymns from Victorian England I added medieval Middle English selections and sacred music in Native American languages such as Huron and Iroquois. National feast days offered wonderful springboard to showcase other traditions as well—Swedish hymns for St. Lucy, and Spanish and Nahuatl texts for Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Juan Diego. A few pieces from the Eastern Rites were also included, but these have to be selected with care—although their chant styles are beautiful in their own right, they aren’t always natural to untutored Western ears. Polyphony, at least, seems to work well across the board, whether it is in Old Church Slavonic, Syriac, Armenian, or Maori.

Although the station is a free service, Radionomy supports it with advertising revenue. Admittedly, commercials can interrupt what is otherwise an overall prayerful tone. But putting up with a few minutes of ads for an hour of quality sacred music seems an acceptable trade-off for the time being.

Another thing has to be stated, and that is that liturgical radio necessarily presupposes liturgical recordings to draw from. After Mass this past Sunday we sang Edward C. Currie’s “O Lord Reprieve the Lonely State” from the New St. Basil Hymnal—but I was not able to find a recording that I could include in a playlist. Likewise, some of my favorite hymns, like “Rex Summae Majestatis” and “Rejoice, O Mary, Heavenly Queen” are apparently commercially unavailable. For the complete Psalms I was only able to find an English-language Anglican recording—it would be wonderful to have a full set of Latin ones as well. Thus, there is a great need not only for professional recordings of these classic hymns but also for newly composed hymns that can cover new or neglected saints and feast days.

Overall, I hope with this experiment to provide a service for traditional Catholics to steep their busy workaday lives in the rhythms of the sacred liturgy. And a happy side-effect is that I’ve discovered beautiful artists, albums, and pieces that I had no idea even existed. It gives me great pleasure to not only know these better myself but also spread them to a wider audience and further the spread of sacred music within the Church and, God willing, in the culture at large.

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