By Edward Pentin
ROME, JULY 14, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Ray Herrmann is currently on tour, entertaining thousands of fans across Europe as the lead saxophonist and flautist for Chicago, one of the world’s longest running rock bands.
A highly gifted Grammy award-winning musician and one of the world’s finest session players in the industry, he has also performed with many of America’s leading rock musicians over the past 20 years, such as Bob Dylan, Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder.
Yet Herrmann’s most prized musical achievement isn’t so much accompanying these famous names in front of vast crowds, but rather a set of high quality CDs he and his wife Theresa have produced, together with the Redemptorists, comprising the music of St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori.
The three CD albums consist of “Praying the Rosary with St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori,” “Praying the Seven Sorrows of Mary,” and “Praying the Way of the Cross,” which features the prayers of the 18th-century saint and the voice of the Hollywood actor Liam Neeson.
“It’s been a mission of love for my wife and me,” the devout Catholic Herrmann tells me while in Rome on the Italian leg of Chicago’s European tour.
He was approached to make the CDs by the Redemptorists in Denver, who were looking for a musician of the highest caliber to produce, arrange, orchestrate and perform sheet music written by their founder. They came across Herrmann through Little Lamb Music, a record label he and his wife had founded to serve children and their families through high quality Catholic music (its origins date back to the Herrmanns’ search for distinctly Catholic lullaby music for their newborn baby Maria. Not finding any, Ray and Theresa decided to produce their own and created a label to market it).
The St. Alphonsus CDs would be special: the first in the United States to feature the entire body of the Italian saint’s music, much of which had been discovered in the congregation’s archive. So in 2007, Herrmann set to work, aiming to produce the best quality CDs possible.
To do this, he drew on some of the world’s finest musicians and vocalists, including members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. “I did all the arrangements, all the orchestrations, so it was quite educational for me, too” he explains. “As I was going through his music and reading the lyrics, I was also learning from this great doctor of the Church.”
St. Alphonsus Liguori is perhaps not one of the Church’s best-known saints, yet his legacy to the Church is enormous. A trained lawyer, he is one of the 33 doctors of the Church and was a prolific talent: a painter, architect, poet, sculptor and author of 111 books. But he was also a skilled musician and the only saint to have written such a large body of music.
Herrmann marvels at the beauty of St. Alphonsus’s works, which he describes as “Vivaldi-esque,” yet “much deeper” and more meaningful. “When I listen to it and play it, it takes me to a different place as opposed to Vivaldi and the Four Seasons, though that’s beautiful in its own right,” he says. Yet to add to the richness of St. Alphonsus’s music, Herrmann and his wife, together with the Redemptorists, aimed to give it “action” to really engage the listener by helping them to pray and meditate.
The first project, therefore, was to make the rosary CD featuring St. Alphonsus’s music and meditations. Ray and Theresa teamed up with priests to painstakingly go through and translate the texts, bringing the Italian (St. Alphonsus preferred to use Italian rather than Latin so the man on the street could sing it and embrace it) to an English audience. The overall aim, says Herrmann, was to make it a “prayer aide” for, say, commuters in Los Angeles. “We wanted to make it so that you sort of had St. Alphonsus right there next to you, helping you with your meditations,” he says.
The second project, “Praying the Seven Sorrows of Mary” also carries prayers and meditations with the actual voices of cloistered Redemptorist nuns and priests at the Congregation’s headquarters in St. Louis. It contains the voice of Father Pablo Straub, well known to EWTN viewers, who delivers what Herrmann describes as a “wonderful homily” on sorrow and what it means in our life. He also reads some of St. Alphonsus’s writings on miracles. “That’s my favorite part, it’s just so powerful how Our Lady intercedes for us, and all of these miracles are documented and proven to be true,” says Herrmann. “It gives me goose bumps just thinking about them.”
The final project, completed just last year, comprises what St. Alphonsus is perhaps best known for: his Stations of the Cross. Again, it draws on his meditations and features the voice of Liam Neeson. The Hollywood actor, who gave his time for free, “was super professional and wanted to do a great job,” says Herrmann. “It went beyond expectations — he did the narrative for the 14 stations, and then we had Father Byron [Miller] leading the prayers.”
The CDs can be ordered separately or together via Amazon or at www.littlelambmusic.com, and all the proceeds go toward supporting priests on the Redemptorist missions, working with the poorest of the poor in Nigeria and Brazil.
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Keeping the faith
Meeting Ray Herrmann, a humble man of deep faith, elicits an obvious question: how does he live out his faith in what is notoriously a hedonistic and irreligious environment?
“Some days are more difficult than others, I must be honest,” he replies. “But I think that through the Church and the sacraments, it’s easy really when you think about it. All the tools are there — you just have to sort of follow the Church’s teachings.”
He says he doesn’t wear his faith on his sleeve, but people know he’s Catholic and it doesn’t seem to bother them. “Some of the lyrics I probably wouldn’t have written myself,” he laughs, “but I’m providing for my family, and providing entertainment. By providing entertainment there’s a responsibility there and as a Catholic I try, when I get the chance, to be as forthright as I can be about my faith and what it means to me.” He also says he’s not always alone in the faith and is sometimes surprised to see, while on tour, a crew member sitting in the same church.
Asked if any of the great artists he has played with live a life of faith, he noted Bob Dylan and in particular the rock guitarist Carlos Santana. They have “a huge spirituality” he says, but they’re not Catholic. “I talk to them about it and I can appreciate [their faith], especially Santana’s. I haven’t worked a ton with him, but we did some gigs. He’s a very spiritual guy and he tries to take music to a spiritual place.”
As for himself, Herrmann says that before a concert, he always prays that he will “play to the glory of God.” “That’s what I pray for, that people find joy in my music,” he says. “I might be doing some Christina Aguilera session, but I hope I bring that. I talked with Santana about that, that you sort of try to bring that to every musical experience, whatever it is.”
But he adds that when it comes to joy and fulfillment, there’s no comparison to working on the St. Aphonsus CDs.
“People ask me what’s the most favorite thing you’ve done, and it’s by far doing that,” he says. “I’ve played in front of 700,000 screaming fans under the Eiffel Tower with Johnny Hallyday [a megastar singer in France], but it means nothing really, because if I could give someone the rosary CD or the Way of the Cross and have them come back and say: ‘I really enjoyed that and found it meaningful,’ that’s better than playing in front of 700,000.”
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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: [email protected].