Open any Catholic hymnal from the past 40 years or so and flip to the index in the back, and you're likely to see the name Richard Proulx, followed by line after line of citations. Proulx (prouounced “Prue” as in “see what Proulx can do for you”) was one of the most prolific composers, conductors and arrangers of the post-Vatican II period (not, we admit, what we would consider the Golden Age of Catholic hymnody), and amongst the Haugens and Haases and Joncases of the time, Proulx was a cut above. (This obituary at the New Liturgical Movement demonstrates the respect with which he was held.)
St. Olaf Catholic Church in downtown Minneapolis. Trapp had hosted Proulx in a composers workshop at St. Olaf in 2002, during which Proulx premiered a commissioned piece for orchestra and organ in honor of the church’s newly installed Lively-Fulcher organ.
Proulx had deep roots in the Twin Cities: born in St. Paul, he studied at the MacPhail School of Music and the University of Minnesota, worked with the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale, and spent 15 years as music director at the Church of the Holy Childhood in St. Paul (one of the finest music programs of any parish in the Twin Cities) before moving on to Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. His archive of compositions resides in the library at St. John’s University at Collegeville, Minnesota, and it is indeed fortunate that unlike so many composers of the past, Proulx had a hand in being able to create those archives.
Proulx wrote secular music as well as sacred, including two operas, but it was his sacred music which formed the basis for his reputation. He wrote Masses (A Community Mass and Mass for the City are probably his two best-known pieces), and arranged countless hymns and carols. In fact, it is through his work as an arranger that most might be most familiar with him. “Richard understood the role of the singing assembly in Catholic liturgy and fused it with choral beauty and instrumental enhancement in his compositions,” Trapp told me. “He had great respect for the treasury of Roman Catholic Church music, and treated it as art.”
This was evident in a 1992 interview in which Proulx discussed the state of contemporary church music. In it, he acknowledged that “quasi-pop church music is a fact of life and many of us wish it were not quite so,” He went on to add that “I'm sorry to say I think we live in an age when the world-wide church is not so much in a prophetic role, as it might once have been, but rather is reflecting society and responding to popular culture. So some of those trends are inescapable in our time. Where that will lead I'm not sure but I hear many people expressing some regret about that at the same time that they're looking for contemporary literature which can still be appealing to both singers and to congregations and yet has some substance to it: music with some durability and long-range value rather than music that provides only instant gratification and is gone in a flash.”
It was perhaps that regret which Proulx attempted to address through his Cathedral Singers musical group, which he founded in 1991 and with which he released several CDs of traditional Catholic music. In those CDs, as well as through his compositions, Proulx showed that a parish didn’t need a huge ensemble of singers to create a beautiful sound.
For all the works which Richard Proulx composed over the decades, it does not appear that a Requiem Mass, the monumental commendation of the soul to God in hopes of mercy, was one of them. Therefore, for us at least, words will have to do. “He will be missed greatly by the musical world,” Trapp said in conclusion, and that’s not a bad epitaph for anyone. ◙