A sister’s love for music

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Sister Rosemary's life-long passion for music is one that she wants to share with others. Photo by Paulina Martin.

When Sister Rosemary Esseff first heard the Cowan Bells in Braniff Tower, she thought of writing a musical variation in three parts to go along with the names of the bells: St. Columba, St. Agatha, St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Andrew. Yes, the Cowan Bells have names.

For Sister Rosemary, musical creativity is an everyday occurrence. At the age of five she started practicing music for an hour a day.

She hated it for years. One day in high school her music teacher, also a concert pianist, asked her to be his audience as a preparation for a concert.

“When he played, it was magic,” Sister Rosemary said. “I had never seen hands move like that on the piano, or heard music sound like that on the piano. I just began to weep.”

“That was absolutely amazing,” the 13-year-old Rosemary said. “There is no way I could have done that.”

“You could have done that,” her teacher responded. “You’ve got something. You could have played like that.”

From that moment forward, music became an important part of Sister Rosemary’s life.

In high school she performed and composed in choirs, ensembles and plays. Shakespeare plays required original music. This included orchestrating the original work’s multiple instruments.

After graduating from Catholic University of America with a degree in music, Sister Rosemary entered the religious life. At the time, she believed she was giving up music. Soon, however, she became the music director at the motherhouse.

She went back to school to get a master’s in music after teaching for a few years. Recently, she returned from spending seven years in Rome, where she began her doctorate in sacred music. While she was in Rome, she received composition training similar to that of Bach, Mozart and the great classical composers.

While receiving this training, she started working on her doctorate on Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci, director emeritus of the Sistine Chapel Choir. Sister Rosemary was able to meet the Italian composer before he died in 2013. Although he was a prolific composer, much of Bartolucci’s music has not been performed.

As part of her work, Sister Rosemary analyzes the original scales and themes in his music. In order to do this, she must first identify the possible mistakes. This requires a great familiarity with his style and awareness of where he is purposefully breaking musical rules.

Bartolucci’s music dramatizes polyphonic Gregorian chant. His style is the inspiration for the second part of her dissertation, the composition of her own opera. This opera on the life of St. Cecilia uses original English and Latin poetry written by one of the sisters in her community.

Plugging in her speakers, Sister Rosemary played the segment called “The Passion of St Cecilia.” This portion includes a dialogue between St. Cecilia, Christ, the Devil, her executioner and a choir of angels.

For Sister Rosemary, Bartolucci has been her inspiration.

“He spent his life trying to replenish the dearth in sacred music in the Church in the 20th century,” Sister Rosemary said. “We need to continue that and carry on this great tradition that is centuries old. After Vatican II some sacred music fell by the wayside, but now it is time to go forward and keep creating sacred music.”

She sees her work with music as a part of her vocation.

“We need composers, young fresh creative minds, to start writing beautiful sacred music,” Sister Rosemary said. “I would love to show people how to do that.”

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