An Interview with Christian Catsanos

by Gordon Nary



Gordon: Where did you study Music and what course did you enjoy most, and why was it so enjoyable?


Christian: While I first started learning piano at the age of four, it was as a twelve-year-old, seventh-grade student at Redfield College, singing in the chapel choir for Mass each Friday morning, that I developed a desire to learn organ and study sacred music in more depth.


On the last day of the third academic quarter of that year (September 29, 2006), the student who had been organist for the Friday chapel choir graduated ready to sit his final exams, and on that day, at the age of almost thirteen, I was appointed his successor. I commenced formal organ lessons six months later and transferred to study under Peter Kneeshaw AM in 2010.


Following my graduation from Redfield College in 2011, I commenced a Bachelor of Music in classical organ performance at the Australian Institute of Music in 2012; I remained under the tutelage of Peter Kneeshaw AM as the college had no organ teacher.


I graduated from this degree in 2017 (although having finished the performance subjects well ahead of the theoretical ones I performed my graduating recital on December 11, 2013 on the organ of Saint Mary’s Catholic Cathedral in Sydney), and subsequently attained an Associate of Trinity College London in organ on November 27, 2019, performed on the organ of Saint Mary’s Catholic Cathedral in Sydney.


As of February 2022, I remain under the tutelage of Peter Kneeshaw AM and hope to sit for a Licentiate of Trinity College London in late 2022 or 2023. I particularly enjoyed the environment at the Australian Institute of Music to the degree that most of the students in the classical department were approaching their musical studies from a very different direction from the sacred music approach which had motivated my studies. I also particularly enjoyed playing the organ at the recitals which the college gave at Sydney's St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral; I also performed in one of St Andrew's Cathedral's own Rising Stars lunchtime recitals on July 3, 2014.


Gordon: Who is your favorite composer and what is your favorite musical composition?


Christian: While I feel an affinity with many styles of music, I feel that I have drawn most of my inspiration from the German and English baroque traditions, and I would regard Johann Sebastian Bach and Georg Friedrich Händel to be my favorite composers.


Being of German descent on my mother's side, I feel a strong attraction to the German Lutheran chorale traditions, especially those for Christmas, although I have never practiced as a Lutheran or played the organ for a Lutheran liturgy.


In terms of my own development in liturgical music, I have been greatly formed by the Australian hymnodist Dr Richard Connolly (b. 1927), not only by being inspired by his hymns, but also through his active guidance in forming me to be a better hymnodist.


I particularly like, though, playing as processionals at large Masses, Ralph Vaughan William’s setting of the Old Hundredth Hymn Tune (which I’ve played on several occasions); and I enjoyed, at Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral (Catholic Diocese of Broken Bay) for the Easter Sunday morning Mass celebrated by Bishop Anthony Randazzo of Broken Bay on April 4, 2021, playing James Baden-Powell’s festival setting of Hail, festal day for the processional, and my own festival setting of At the Lamb’s high feast we sing during communion.


Gordon: At which church are you playing the organ?


Christian: I currently serve as organist and choir director for the Cathedral Youth Choir in the Diocese of Broken Bay north of Sydney (Australia), for Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Cathedral within Hornsby Cathedral Parish.


I also serve as an organist in Our Lady Queen of Peace Church Normanhurst, which is the secondary church of Hornsby Cathedral Parish; as well as for Saint Agatha's Catholic Church Pennant Hills, which is also within the Diocese of Broken Bay. I have previously served as organist in other churches within the Diocese of Broken Bay and the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney; my first parochial position began on April 17, 2007 in the then parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in Killara (Diocese of Broken Bay), thanks to the gracious endorsement of the prodigious composer Sylvia Romer and her husband Ted, who are both senior members of the choir of that parish.


I also serve as an organist for funerals, and less regularly weddings, the most common singers whom I accompany here being Leisha Stevens, Mary-Anne Meyer and Celine Daaboul. I have also coordinated services which have been Holy Week Hymn Services or Passiontide Carols Services, at Redfield College, Saint Agatha’s Catholic Church Pennant Hills, Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Cathedral, and Saint Benedict’s Catholic Church in Broadway (a church of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney), which have sought to bring the model of the Christmas carols service to the seasons surrounding the Lord’s Pasch. I also occasionally play the organ at Masses at Saint Dominic’s Catholic Church in Flemington (a church of the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney), as well as some of those Masses at Saint Benedict’s Catholic Church in Broadway which are affiliated with the University of Notre Dame Australia.


Gordon: Who chooses the hymns and which hymns were recently played?


Christian: Depending on the parish and the Mass, the hymns are either chosen by myself or by singers with whom I worked. On the morning of January 9, 2022, I played a Mass at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Cathedral, with the singers being the two surviving daughters of the parish's elderly and highly esteemed organist Gladys Collingridge LTCL, who died in 1998 aged 95. The Collingridge sisters selected, as the hymns for this Mass to celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord: "On Jordan's bank the Baptist's cry"; "O breathe on me, O breath of God"; "Come to the water" (a contemporary Australian hymn composed by Father Frank Andersen MSC); "I heard the voice of Jesus say"; and, as a recessional hymn to recognize the feast as the final day of the Christmas season, "Joy to the world".


Gordon: When did you start composing and what is your favorite personal composition?


Christian: I became a hymnodist on December 23, 2004, at the age of eleven years. To the best of my knowledge, after Ewart Knight, who became a hymnodist at the age of seven in 1905, I am the next-youngest hymnodist whose age upon becoming a hymnodist can be verified.


While I find it difficult to determine any one of my sacred compositions to be my favorite, I feel a strong affinity with many of the arrangements I have done of older hymns and, especially, traditional Christmas and Easter carols. I also have strong affection for the two volumes of the book "New Catholic Hymns", along with an expected third volume to come, for which I have authored the words, and my colleague Tate Pumfrey (born 1998 in Ontario, Canada) has composed the music, for the twenty-four hymns in each volume; for the several hymn texts since 2015 which I have authored and for which the American composer and Progressive Episcopalian bishop the Right Reverend Thurlow Weed (b. 1966) has composed music; and for the Christmas carol "Ave Maria / The cold winds are blowing" for which I authored the words in 2020 and commissioned the British composer Philip le Bas (b. 1958) to compose the music in 2021. I also feel fondly for the hymns I have composed for Lætare Sunday in Lent, and for the Nativity of John the Baptist (Johnmas) on June 24; both are feasts which prior to my contributions had severe deficiencies in hymns specific to the feasts.


Gordon: What is your current position and what are your primary responsibilities?


Christian: In my position as organist and choir director of the Cathedral Youth Choir, I select the hymns, prepare the running sheet and slides, convene the choir, and play the organ on the day of the Mass. In my position at St Agatha's Church Pennant Hills, I work with the singer (Leisha Stevens on some occasions and Marea Witt on others) to select the hymns, and I prepare the slides and running sheets and then come on the day to play the organ.


At Queen of Peace Church in Normanhurst, my singer is Celine Daaboul; but I perform the same duties as at St Agatha's Church in Pennant Hills. On the occasions at Our Lady of the Rosary Cathedral when I work with the Collingridge sisters, I prepare the slides and running sheet for the hymns they have selected, and then play the organ on the day. I also work with a choir at St Agatha's Pennant Hills for Christmas midnight Mass and the Easter Vigil each year, at which I play the organ for rehearsals in the preceding weeks, prepare the slides and running sheets, and play the organ on the day. In most cases, the family of the deceased selects the music when I play for funerals; and the bride and groom select the music when I play for weddings.


Gordon: Thank you for a great interview.


Christian: Thank you for having me! Please feel free to check out my website at https://www.christianhymnodist.com/