When COVID-19 shuttered schools and parish operations in the spring, one young parishioner used his time at home to compose liturgical music for the parish to sing when in-person Masses returned.
Nathan Holzhauer, 18, is a senior at New Berlin Eisenhower High School and a member of St. Mary Parish in Hales Corners. He is an accomplished pianist and has accompanied the school choir and Sunday choir, as well as Masses with no choir. Last spring Holzhauer wrote a Mass composition titled, “Mass of Illumination.”
According to Anne Van Deusen, director of liturgical music, Holzhauer, who was then 17, emailed her a “Holy, Holy” composition he wrote.
“I played through it and it was good,” she said. “Since I used to be a music editor and since we both love talking about music notation and music theory, we explored ways to make improvements and adjustments.”
Over the summer, Holzhauer completed the “We Proclaim” memorial acclamation, Doxology, Amen and Lamb of God. He wrote parts for piano, guitar, SATB for the choir, cantor versions and reprintable copies for orders of worship.
“He taught himself the music software he used to write the parts,” said Van Deusen. “He still intends on writing instrumental parts and finishing other pieces of the Mass, like the Gloria. Once the four initial parts were written, we got together and recorded a rehearsal track, which we sent to all of our cantors, pianists and guitarists. We asked for feedback so that we could look at things he might want to adjust before presenting it to our parishioners. It’s pretty incredible when you can challenge a teenager about something they created and then discover all the deliberate thought that went into their creation in the first place.”
Holzhauer’s interest in music began at an early age, and he began learning the piano in third grade. The following year, he learned to play the alto saxophone. In fifth grade, he started learning to play the euphonium. By sixth grade, he was playing music for the parish and, by eighth grade, was leading Masses.
“I have also gotten many opportunities in music at my high school, through marching band, which I am now one of the drum majors in, concert band, jazz band, AP music theory class, playing piano in the orchestra pit for musicals and accompanying and singing in choir,” he said.
The first piece Holzhauer wrote was in eighth grade at St. Mary Elementary School for extra credit in his music class.
“It was for piano and glockenspiel. Looking back, it was very simple, but it was cool in eighth grade,” he said. “The first big piece I wrote was a piano trio which won second place in the Piano Ensemble category for the WSMA Student Composition Project last year. I have also done compositions with some of my friends. For example, I helped write the words to a song that we wrote for our former band teacher, who decided to take a job closer to his home.”
When Holzhauer decided to write the new Mass composition, his first challenge was in bringing in something new, easily singable and upbeat to the parish.
“I didn’t want anything that was too hard for the assembly to pick up on, but I didn’t want it to feel slow or a drag to sing either,” he said. “Another challenge would be the numerous drafts and edits the music had to go through. It can get frustrating when you are hearing the same couple short songs over and over again for hours trying to edit them.”
Van Deusen is proud of Holzhauer’s accomplishments and impressed with his willingness to step up and help when needed. He also jumped on board to help her husband with his own recent composition.
“My husband wrote a Mass to use at his own parish last spring,” she said. “When COVID shut them down, he began working on the piano accompaniment to make it more complete. While he plays piano, it isn’t his first instrument; so that process was a bit of a struggle. So, he hired Nathan to help him out. Nathan wrote these parts in such a short time and, again, they are just so good. Like in his own Mass, they have energy, there is excitement in the part and, yet, they are very playable. What a great combination of things.”
Aside from helping with the parish liturgical music, Van Deusen said Holzhauer is always willing to assist where needed and has done so willingly since she first met him in 2017, when she began working at St. Mary.
“He was already helping out at weekend Masses, especially during the time when there wasn’t a music director,” she said. “He has been self-sufficient ever since I’ve known him: practicing with the cantors before Mass, playing a leading role throughout the service and working with other instrumentalists. He is genuinely excited to share his gifts, but also understands the role of a music minister, to enhance prayer, not to play like a solo pianist.”
Van Deusen added that Holzhauer helps with leading choir rehearsals and taught himself to play the organ to add the instrument during the Mass.
“He often comes extra, just to add sounds on the digital keyboard. Last summer, he gathered a group of friends, who were most still in high school, to lead music for the majority of a weekend. Nathan orchestrated the music for clarinet, flute and saxophone,” she said. “He and his group led everything, including the singing; I was just there to answer any questions they might have.”
One of the key reasons Van Deusen attributes to Holzhauer’s success is his supportive family, all who are members of the parish. His father, Dan, often accompanies the choir on his drum set whenever his son is playing.
“His mom, Julie, teaches in our school. His sister is just as gifted in sports,” said Van Deusen. “I give his name out regularly to help out, at my husband’s church, at Catholic Memorial High School, where my friend works, for choirs at other schools.”
Holzahauer is undecided about future career goals, and has applied to several colleges and his top choice is UW-Madison, but he is also looking at Minnesota and a few other schools.
“I am thinking of a double major in business and music composition, but that depends on where I end up going,” he said.