The name of C. Alexander Peloquin is synonymous with Roman Catholic liturgical music in America in the second half of the twentieth century. His compositions paralleled the major changes and movements of the Church, especially since the landmark reforms of Vatican II. In fact, he embraced those reforms and brought the Spirit of God alive for new generations of believers, while reflecting all periods and styles of music. As if to provide bookends for his career, he composed the first Mass sung in English, while his final major work, Corpus Christi Mass, was a homage to the roots of Gregorian Chant in early church music. He was always looking to break new ground, while continuing to honor the past.
A child prodigy, Alex, as he was known to colleagues and friends, studied piano for many years, and performed on his own weekly radio program in Worcester when he was only eleven years old. During World War II, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant in the Army while performing the music of Gershwin with the military orchestra for the GI's serving throughout Europe and North Africa. After the war, he considered becoming a priest, but felt strongly called to peruse a career in music, and wound up combining the best of both worlds by becoming a church organist and choir director in the Worcester area, and dedication his talent to the service of the Lord.
In 1950, he became Music Director of the Cathedral of Sts. Peter & Paul in Providence, Rhode Island, where he remained until his retirement in 1991. While there, he founded the Peloquin Chorale, whose members became definitive interpreters of the music of Peloquin over the years in concerts, liturgies and recordings. The Chorale enjoyed a long and successful association with the popular National Catholic Hour, and performed several times on NBC-TV.
In addition to his responsibilities in Providence, he was Composer-in-Residence at Boston College for nearly forty years, teaching several courses annually and conducting the University Chorale, which he formed by expanding the college's Glee Club ounce the school went co-ed. The University Chorale often joined the Peloquin Chorale in concerts and on tour in the United States and Europe, broadening the horizons of the 120-plus students each year.
A review of the highlights of Peloquin's major works is in many ways a review of the Church's history in the late twentieth century. An indication of the scope of his influence on liturgical music in the United States is the fact that, when the late Pope John Paul II visited America in 1979, at least one Peloquin piece was performed at every Mass on the Holy Father's itinerary, and Alex himself conducted a massive combined choir of 300 voices at the largest of these Masses in Chicago, before some 1.5 million people.
His compositions combined Church traditions with elements of chant, folk, rock, jazz and pop, with influences of Gershwin, Bernstein and Copland, lending energy and fascination for young and old alike. Created for choir and soloists, organ or piano and often orchestra, they offer a sound which is uniquely and identifiably "Peloquin". Woven through it all is his deep professional spirituality, which he imparted his own works and those of other composers for audiences and congregations. The resulting sound lent spiritual depth and dignity to liturgies, and a sense of grace and dynamic energy to concerts. These experiences all gave witness to Alex's emphatic view that "Church music should never be boring!"
Major works included the hugely popular Gloria of the Bells, (composed within a Mass for the Cathedral in Providence in honor of its major renovations following Vatican II), L'Hymne de l'Univers, text by Teilhard deChardin (composed for the closing ceremonies of Montreal Expo '67) and Lyric Liturgy, another groundbreaking Mass of the late '70s. Many of his compositions were in response to commissions from churches, universities and religious orders throughout the United States and Canada, and were based upon writings of a wide range of religious leaders and thinkers of all faiths including Pope John Paul II.
He was an ardent ecumenist throughout his life and career; a shining example of this is his Lord of Life liturgy, commissioned by Terence Cardinal Cooke in celebration of 1980 as the Year of the Family. It purposely featured Lutheran hymns, and Old Testament psalm reflection out Jewish roots, and texts by such diverse sources as Fred Kaan, Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. In addition to the ecumenical them, varied cultures and "sounds of the city" permeate the entire work, celebrating every person's membership in the family of God.
Alex won the respect of leaders of the church and the field of music throughout his career. Among his many admirers were Mother Teresa, for whom he composed two pieces, including Radiation Christ, based on her favorite prayer; and jazz artist Dave Brubeck, who personally selected Alex and his Peloquin Chorale to premier his first Mass, To Hope! A Mass for a New Decade, composed in 1980 in celebration of his conversion to Catholicism. Alex collaborated with Thomas Merton on Four Freedom Songs, premiered in 1968 in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by the Peloquin Chorale and the Ebenezer Baptist Choir, with the composer conducting on national television from Washington, DC.
Alex Strongly believed in imparting his knowledge and skills for performance and composition to a wide range of audiences. He was a tireless and non stop traveler, performing and conduction workshops all over the world, from the United States and Canada, across Europe and as far away as Japan, often under the auspices of the military. He conducted numerous Masses and performances in Rome and Vatican City, including Papal Audiences, often accompanied by the combined voices of both the Peloquin Chorale and Boston College University Chorales.
Despite these many and varied achievements, and the numerous accolades and distinctive honors which they brought him, the thing that mattered most to Alexander Peloquin was his roots as a pianist. Having performed throughout Europe during the war and as soloist with Leonard Bernstein and his orchestra at Tanglewood, he took this and his role as a church organist very seriously. A poignant illustration of this point was his reverie once regarding a funeral which he was called to play at the Cathedral in Providence, while he was at the height of his fame. He remembered clearly that the only people in attendance at that lonely occasion around the coffin in that enormous church were the priest and himself; that stranger apparently had no one to mourn him. Alex quietly remarked, "I played my best for him."
In the years since Alex Peloquin's death his legacy lives on. His major works continued to be faithfully and lovingly performed today, most notably by the Gregorian Concert Choir, under the direction of Rev. Anthony Mancini, Peloquin's personal choice to succeed him as Music Director at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter & Paul in Providence. Through concerts and recordings, the choir whose members include a core of singers from the former Peloquin Chorale, continues to introduce the music of C. Alexander Peloquin to a whole new generation, while ounce again lending the composer's own interpretation to his gift of music in praise of the Lord.
Biography Compiled by Elaine P. Dykstra