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A Professional Choir in 6 Years!

Two weeks ago I wrote about the Westminster Cathedral Choir School (and choir) and the Guildford Cathedral Choir, two choral foundations of incredibly high standards founded in very short amounts of time to chant the services in their respective cathedrals. But what of the cathedral music director who needs first to prove the viability of a cathedral choir school before he founds one? I would venture to say this is where most choir masters find themselves and thankfully we have the wonderful example of the Madeleine Choir School at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah. Mr. Gregory Glenn, the choir school’s founder and long time pastoral administrator, graciously accepted my request to spend 6 weeks at the school in the fall of 2012 in order to collect information about the school and choristers for my DMA document and it opened my eyes to what was musically possible with children. One question I continually asked myself during my time at the school (and ever since) was why no other cathedral had followed the Madeleine’s lead to found such an institution. It is such a gift to the Church!

Regarding the school’s history, Mr. Glenn related to me that he had had some desire to found an institution like the Madeleine Choir School, but it had always seemed more of a dream than a reality. Nevertheless, he visited all the Catholic schools within a 40 mile radius of the Cathedral and auditioned all students in grades four through eight. Roughly 70 choristers (half boys and half girls) accepted his invitation to join an after school choral program at the cathedral and rehearsals began in the Spring of 1990. The boys and girls practiced separately, each for 90 minutes every week, and only sang for Mass once per month. This went on for some time until the cathedral’s rector, Msgr. Francis Mannion, decided that Glenn should spend time at a real choir school if he hoped to start one in Salt Lake City. Glenn packed his bags and traveled to London for three months in residence at the Westminster Cathedral Choir School in the fall of 1992. Four years later the Madeleine Choir School opened her doors and has been growing ever since.

What We Can Learn
I think the first and greatest lesson we can learn is that Mr. Glenn had a love of and passion for the cathedral choir school model and had a vision for what such a thing could look like at the Madeleine Cathedral. He also worked with a rector who could share in his vision. Sometimes I talk with music directors and pastors who want the children in their music programs and schools to sing good sacred music, but they haven’t taken time to flesh out in their minds what such a program in their parishes would look like or how they might actually carry out such a plan. They are under the impression that all it takes is learning a couple of neat music hacks for their students to be able to tackle Palestrina Masses, and all for the price of only $10,000 a year for a part-time music director! But this simply isn’t realistic.

The second lesson we can learn is to persevere when the long route is necessary. Glenn began with a good number of students and a strong desire, but not much more. He and Msgr. Mannion didn’t know if Glenn could pull it off. He ran an after school choir program for six years before the school began. It was also A LOT of hard work and Glenn was honest in relating to me the problems he encountered along the way. In the beginning the choir, even with 35 students in each group, never strayed from unison singing. Moving on to part-singing was difficult and didn’t take place until he began a summer camp where choristers finally experienced daily rehearsals for the first time. Chorister parents found it difficult to understand the idea that the choir had an obligation to the cathedral to sing her daily services, even when that meant returning to the Cathedral on Christmas afternoon to chant Vespers, and all this after having sung Midnight Mass and Mass During the Day. When it came time to propose an actual school for the choir, he had to create model budgets and numbers to give to cathedral committees because such a thing had never been done. When the bishop finally gave permission to found a school, it was full the next day, but Glenn had no teachers. Teaching sight-singing has also been a challenge all the while keeping up with concerts and other obligations (thankfully he has the incomparable help of Mrs. Melanie Malinka, the school’s music director).

I write all of this because it shows how one man’s dogged determination brought a choir school into being. There were new challenges all the time, but Glenn kept finding solutions and eventually his plan took root and developed. As in the case of Sir Richard Terry having the friendship and backing of Cardinal Vaughn, Glenn had the support of Msgr. Mannion, the cathedral’s rector. This support was key, but once he had the necessary vision and support, the rest was a matter putting one foot in front of the other. The thing to remember, though, it that he did it, and you can too!

A Professional Choir in 6 Months

So it continues… the challenge I lay down to church musicians to found choir schools or choral foundations in their respective cathedrals and churches. To that end, I offer these brief histories of two choral foundations begun in the 20th century, namely Westminster Cathedral Choir School (Catholic; 1901) and the Guildford Cathedral Choir (Anglican; 1960-61). The incidents I relate in these histories come from a variety of sources, but I rely primarily on Andrew’s Westminster Retrospect (Westminster) and Carpenter’s The Beat is Irrelevant (Guildford).

My reason for offering these histories simultaneously is that both institutions were founded at the same time as their respective cathedrals and were considered as part of the fabric of each building. Cardinal Vaughn, the spiritual son of the great Cardinal Manning and builder of Westminster Cathedral, felt the choir to be as important to the solemn celebration of the Church’s sacred liturgy as the cathedral itself. His original agreement with Sir Richard Terry, Westminster’s first choirmaster, was that the choir would sing the daily High Mass, the little hours, Vespers and Compline (can one even imagine!). At Guildford the original plan had been for sung services only on the weekends, but Barry Rose, the choir’s first director, was adamant that there be daily choral services in the cathedral and his opinion held sway. In either case, it was unthinkable that the celebration of the liturgy could be separated from the best liturgical music. Of course, this view requires the creation of some sort of stable, first rate choral foundation, in order to make it a living reality.

The second reason I offer the histories of these two great cathedral choirs in the same post is that they had to be founded and their choristers trained to extremely high standards in relatively short periods of time. Terry had only six months to prepare his boys for Holy Mass on Ascension Day (1902), when the they, together with the men of the choir, offered Byrd’s Mass for 5 Voices in the  cathedral’s Chapter Hall. Rose had roughly the same amount of time before his choir’s first choral service in the new cathedral (1961), the televised enthronement of the new Anglican bishop of that see, followed by the cathedral’s consecration a month later.

Westminster Cathedral Choir School (originally a boarding school for choristers only) opened in 1901 with 11 choristers, then grew to include about 25 boys by the following June when daily choral services began in earnest. Terry was known for his unrelenting hard work, grueling standards and numerous rehearsals. During his tenure at Downside Abbey (before moving to Westminster) teachers complained that his rehearsals eclipsed all other school activities and one can only wonder what they were like when he began anew at Westminster. Rose didn’t have a dedicated choir school, but did form a partnership with the Lanesborough School, where he trained choristers four days a week in addition to rehearsals at the yet unfinished cathedral. I have sat in on rehearsals conducted by Rose and I can say they are truly thrilling and his quest for beauty in unrelenting. I can well imagine that neither he nor Terry ever settled for less than twice what the choristers thought was their best.

It must also be noted that Byrd’s Mass for 5 Voices not withstanding, both choir masters put the quality of performance before the difficulty of repertoire and always focused on the music of the liturgy before moving on to “filler” music. Rose would often spend most of a rehearsal before Choral Evensong on getting a few lines of one of the Psalms perfect, which necessitated scrapping the proposed anthem in favor of Tallis’ If Ye Love Me, supposedly sung more often in the early days of the choir than many singers cared to remember. Thankfully Mr. Rose recorded most of what his choir sang during his tenure at Guildford Cathedral (offered on YouTube by Archives of Sound). Terry noted in his 1907 book Catholic Church Music that it would be better to sing the psalms and antiphons at Mass and in the Office recto tono than to give them an unmusical rendering. I often wonder if some of the vitriol directed against the Church’s music is due to its less than stellar presentation.

Lessons to be Learned
The greatest lesson I feel we can learn from both of these is the connection between the sacred liturgy and liturgical music. The Second Vatican Council reminded us that the Church’s treasury of sacred music is Her greatest art because it doesn’t just adorn Her rites, but becomes part of them. If we want to renew the Church’s Sacred Liturgy, we must also renew its link with sacred music. It is a travesty of titanic proportions that the completely sung Sacred Liturgy is rarely offered in Cathedrals today, even for great feasts, much less on a daily basis. Our Cathedrals owe God nothing less than the solemnly sung Liturgy (which encompasses more than Mass!) on a daily basis. Please note that this is not a slight against Cathedral music directors. I know so many good ones who work tirelessly to make things as beautiful as they are allowed.

The second lesson we can learn is that the practice of making the Church’s music is only possible with constant rehearsal and dedication on a daily basis. It is wonderful that volunteer choirs exist at cathedrals and they most certainly add to the beauty of the Cathedral’s sacred worship, but they simply cannot bear the load of the Church’s daily liturgy. This is almost impossible without the aid of a choir school. Of course this begs the question of which kind of choir school should a cathedral have, but this can only be discerned by those at each cathedral. A cathedral in one of our great metropolitan areas almost necessitates a residential school of some kind simply because there often aren’t many children living in their geographical areas and grueling daily travel would be to much for children and parents. Most cathedrals in the United States could adequately work with a day school, while those in the more remote areas might have to content themselves with an after school choral foundation that sings on Sundays and major feasts only.

Because this article deals with cathedral choirs that were founded in a very short amount of time I want to address circumstances particular to their foundings. While I can’t speak from personal experience, I feel that this would be the most musically rewarding way to begin a cathedral choir school or choral foundation. In order to do this, a musician would need to have the complete trust and friendship of the bishop, rector and the cathedral’s master of ceremonies (or in the case of a larger parish, the pastor). The musician would need carte blanche to do whatever necessary (and within reason) to make such a foundation possible and would need to have every help from the cathedral and diocese as are regularly necessary to establish a new school, much less a residential one. If the cathedral or church already had a school, the music director would need the same cooperation from the principal, teacher and parents.

Another key ingredient to such an undertaking would the selection of the best choristers. In this kind of institution only the most ideal children could be accepted. Children, even those who had no previous training, would need to possess a beautiful singing voice, free of anything that might hamper the development of the choir’s tone, an incredible ear able to reproduce what it hears correctly the first time, a driving desire to be part of such a choir and the intellectual capabilities to deal with such intense learning on top of all his or her other school requirements. I once heard John Scott, while at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, mention that as of May in that particular year, he had only accepted four candidates on probation for the choir the next year. His standards were that high (and yes, there were a number of other boys who inquired and even auditioned). Those selected had to be able to learn to read music in a very short time, create a quality choral sound and develop a decent repertoire to handle the demands of daily choral services. One would also have to be as exacting with the men of the choir.

If you are a bishop or cathedral music director and are reading this blog, I venture to guess you already understand the intimate relationship between good sacred music and the Church Liturgy. If you do, please consider moving forward with such a venture as a cathedral choir school. There are wonderful people of great faith and incredible talent who are more than willing to help. We need to be bold!

Sense and Sensibility

In Jane Austen’s immortal novel Sense and Sensibility, we encounter the devoted, if extremely dissimilar, Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne. Elinor, the eldest, is the model of sense and self restraint, always ready to place what is right, as well as the good of others, before her own self concern; Marianne, on the other hand, is the model of sensibility, always ready to follow the mood and emotion of the moment, regardless of the needs and feelings of others. As in all of her works, the affairs of the heart of both Elinor and Marianne form the plot of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

As the story begins, the Miss Dashwood’s dying father evokes a promise from his only son (from a previous marriage) to financially provide for his step-mother and step-sisters (Elinor, Marianne and a younger sister) after the elder Mr. Dashwood’s demise. Despite every good intention to carry out his father’s wishes, the younger and fickle Mr. Dashwood is promptly discouraged from doing so, thus Elinor and Marianne are left with only the capital of their good names and family relations to make up for their unfortunate deficit of fortune and rank.

Elinor eventually falls in love with Mr. Edward Ferrars, whose family has higher prospects in mind for him than the impoverished daughter of a landed gentleman. Matters are further complicated because earlier in life, Edward secretly and foolishly promised his hand in marriage to another, Lucy by name, whose decent good looks and unending use of flattery are barely able to conceal her want of education and good breeding. She is the model of the social climber. Nevertheless, the honorable Edward refuses to break his promise of future marriage to Lucy, even though it means he will forever be separated from Elinor. For most of the novel both characters silently and secretly put right and honorable conduct before their own hopes and desires–no doubt a bitter cross to carry.

Marianne, on the other hand, falls in love with Mr. John Willoughby, a young man as different in temperament and conduct from Edward Ferrars as Marianne is from Elinor, yet whose exuberant love of life and eternal gaiety are as eminently suited to Marianne’s sensibilities as Edward is to Elinor’s sense. Such reliable facts and sure sign-posts as the emotions of the human heart prove to Marianne beyond a shadow of doubt that she and Willoughby are the perfect couple. It comes, then, as quite a shock when Willoughby gathers up his own sensibilities and leaves her (before the proverbial knot is tied) for a jealous women of lesser worth but greater fortune.

Marianne, upon learning of Willoughby’s treachery, indulges in every form of interior questioning and self pity—if her soul should soar in moments of jubilation, then it surely must sink in times of despair. She is wasting away when she learns of Elinor’s own cross and how her sister has born it in silence and serenity. She wonders how it is possible and Elinor replies that “…while the comfort of others was dear to me, I was glad to spare them from knowing how much I felt.”

Marianne wonders if her sister ever really loved Edward, if she can so easily let him go. Elinor replies “I understand you.—You do not suppose that I have ever felt much.—For four months, Marianne, I have had all this hanging on my mind, without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature; knowing that it would make you and my mother most unhappy whenever it were explained to you…— If you can think me capable of ever feeling—surely you may suppose that I have suffered NOW. The composure of mind with which I have brought myself at present to consider the matter, the consolation that I have been willing to admit, have been the effect of constant and painful exertion;—they did not spring up of themselves;—they did not occur to relieve my spirits at first.— No, Marianne.—THEN, if I had not been bound to silence, perhaps nothing could have kept me entirely—not even what I owed to my dearest friends—from openly shewing that I was VERY unhappy.”—

“Marianne was quite subdued.—

“Oh! Elinor,” she cried, “you have made me hate myself for ever.—How barbarous have I been to you!—you, who have been my only comfort, who have borne with me in all my misery, who have seemed to be only suffering for me!—Is this my gratitude?—Is this the only return I can make you?—Because your merit cries out upon myself, I have been trying to do it away.”

Of course Edward and Elinor eventually wed and Austen declares them to be “one of the happiest couples in the world” and that “Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favorite maxims.”

I heartily recommend the novel for the pure and simple pleasure of reading it. I also recommend it because of the lesson it teaches us regarding the folly of leading one’s life based on human sensibilities untethered from truth and reason. This lesson is true no less in the realm of sacred music than in the realm of lovers.

In a real way, Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony are the sense in liturgical music. Contrary to popular belief there is emotion in this music, but it is always in harmony with, and ultimately subjugated to, truth and reason. It gently awakens emotions that raise the mind and heart to God, rather than stirring them up purely for their own sakes.

On the other hand, Praise and Worship and other similar styles (there have been such styles of music since the beginning of the Church—this is NOT an old versus new issue)  form the sensibility aspect in liturgical music (although they really aren’t liturgical works). These styles place emotion and the self at the center of the Sacred Liturgy and Christian life and that simply can’t be. The Church’s public worship and our Christian life isn’t about ourselves, it is about the Other.

This is obviously a very simplistic analysis of an extremely complex issue and I haven’t yet even touched upon the untold number of works of sacred music in about as many different styles and national qualities, ranging from ancient to modern, that are imminently suited to the Sacred Liturgy, but that isn’t the point of this article. My point is to challenge those involved in the world of sacred music, especially where the youth are concerned, to first ask themselves what is musically most appropriate and only then to ask themselves what music do people like.

All too often I hear the battle cry that we must offer the dwindling number of young people in our churches music in accord with their sensibilities and emotions—music that they like, music they can “get into,” music that moves them and helps them to experience God… and yet the numbers keep falling. Like Marianne Dashwood, we are tasting the bitter fruits of disappointed love.

What if, on the contrary, we flip the paradigm and first offer what is musically most appropriate and then allow peoples’ sensibilities to be formed by it. Perhaps like Elinor Dashwood, we might have the sense and charity to look beyond ourselves, our own musical wants and whims and obediently follow a much surer path.

Another Successful Summer Music Camp

Last week the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum completed its second annual summer music camp. Forty-seven children in grades 3 through high school gathered through the week to experience the joy of music making with others their age and I would like to share with readers a few thoughts and insights gained from the experience.

  1. A choirmaster must always be recruiting and a summer camp is a great recruiting tool. At the end of each school year I give an informal audition to every child in the second grade, which I follow up with a call to parents inviting their children to the summer camp to “try the choir for a week” with no obligation to commit. This personal ask is essential for some parents and students.
  2. Undertake only what you are capable of handling. I have chosen to keep the summer camp on parish grounds with manageable camp hours. Other choirs take children away to youth camping grounds for an entire week. You must decide what you can effectively manage, although I would caution that smaller is better, especially in the beginning.
  3. Separate students into appropriate groups based on age and ability. I have a three hour long morning session for new and first year choristers and for any others who need extra reinforcement in the fundamentals, while more experienced choristers come in the afternoon for two hours. Younger singers are always excited to move into the more experienced group, although they often keep coming to the morning session as helpers. This year I had at least one older student helper for every 2 to 3 inexperienced students. Not only was this a great help to me and to the younger students, it also gave experienced singers the chance to learn by teaching younger children.
  4. Give students great music with an attainable goal. This year choristers gave a short concert for parents on the last day of the camp. I chose quality music I knew they would like and every piece was one the choristers would sing in the coming year. Although I didn’t tell the morning students, my goal for them was facility with solfege in the diatonic scale and an ability to clap simple rhythms composed of eighths, quarters, halves, dotted halves and whole notes.
  5. Make it an enjoyable experience. Three hours of uninterrupted choir rehearsals is a sure way to drive away possible choristers and make returning students think twice about repeating the experience. In order to make the choristers’ experience a positive one, the three hour long morning session was broken up into a number of smaller sessions with breaks in-between so that half of their time was spent learning and the other half outside playing games.  The afternoon session was less balanced, but nevertheless, students had plenty of time to run around outside or to re-connect with friends after the summer break.

If you should decide to host a summer camp I would strongly suggest you contact someone who has already done it. Find out what works instead of needlessly reinventing the wheel. Before my first camp I had a great conversation with David Hughes from St. Mary’s in Norwalk, CT. Mr. Hughes is a veteran chorister trainer and has run a summer camp for a number of years. Mary Anne Carr Wilson, who runs a summer chant camp for children, would be another great resource, or one might attend an RSCM course as a adult. Whichever route you decide to take, be sure to make the week a great experience for your choristers.

St. Rita Choral Academy

In the wake of my cri de coeur last week to American choir directors, asking them to push forward the musical and liturgical training of our children, it gives me great pleasure to highlight such a program opening this fall at St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Dallas, Texas. The parish’s new venture, the St. Rita Choral Academy, is the brainchild of Dr. Alfred Calabrese, one of Corpus Christi Watershed’s many great writers.

Calabrese, who holds a doctorate in choral conducting from Indiana University, took the reigns of the parish youth choir in 2014, which at that time had approximately 14 students in grades 4 through 8–a small number considering the church is the spiritual home to 3,500 families. By the end of last school year, the choir boasted an enrollment of 65 children, boys and girls, in kindergarten through the eighth grade.

As currently constituted, the choir consists of three groups, the first of which is the Cherub Choir. These children in kindergarten and first grade attend a 25 minute weekly session similar to kindermusik, where they move to music, play rhythm instruments and work on unison singing.

The second group, the Seraphim Choir, meet for an hour once per week and focus on unison repertoire, although they make the occasional foray into part-singing with wonderful little works like Praetorius’ Jubilate Deo. The Voice For Life workbooks from the Royal School of Church Music provide choristers with helpful instruction in music theory.

Beginning in the fifth grade, students graduate to the Jubilate Deo Choir. These children, all with unchanged voices, meet for an hour-and-a-half each week and focus  their efforts on more advanced repertoire in order to join the treble ranks of the church’s very fine adult choir. Two part treble repertoire as well as Adam Bartlett’s Simple English Propers are also familiar to the singers.

Each Advent the Cherub and Seraphim Choirs perform a simplified Lessons and Carols, while the Jubilate Deo and adult choirs sing the full version. Later in the month the Seraphim Choir is given the opportunity to sing alongside the Jubilate Deo and adult choirs for the Christmas Eve Mass. Dr. Calabrese was especially pleased last year when the the Jubilate Deo Choir lead the singing entirely on their own for Holy Mass on the Feast of Divine Mercy.

Enter the St. Rita Choral Academy.

Beginning in the fall, the St. Rita Choral Academy will expand the scope of Calabrese’s current work by offering students a chance to augment their training via weekly music history and theory classes and private or group piano and voice instruction, all focused on developing musicianship skills and deepening the child’s knowledge of the beauty of the Catholic Church’s sacred heritage. Calabrese is join by a talented faculty who will, no doubt, offer choristers a wide variety of musical experiences. 

It is my hope and prayer that more Catholic musicians take such bold steps, each of which will provide another brick toward the rebuilding of Christendom in a world more in need of it than every. Please keep Dr. Calabrese, his colleagues and their work in your prayers and be sure to watch for great things coming from the St. Rita Choral Academy in the coming years.

A Call to Educate Our Future Musicians

“My tastes are simple: I am easily satisfied with the best.” Winston Churchill

Many epithets can be applied to Winston Churchill, but mediocre isn’t one of them. When the going got rough, he got rougher. When the stakes were high, he upped the ante. When all seemed on the verge of collapse and surrender, he had already planned the victory. He never, never, never gave in.

Contrast this with Catholicism in the West, where the Church in Her human elements has not only surrendered to secularism, but seems eager to close the lid of Her own coffin. In the midst of such a fait accompli the cry of the church musician for better music is almost laughable. But… perhaps we need a better perspective.

We must remember that those who work for the Church’s destruction are not hacking away at Her trunk as they so often think, they are merely sit on what is already a dead branch in need of pruning. Quite comically, their spiritual, theological and historical eyes are so narrow and nearsighted that they can’t see they are pruning on the wrong side of where they sit. No doubt their rotten branch will crash with a resounding thud, with them on it, but only to the relief of the rest of the tree, which is already in new leaf.

The Sacred Liturgy, bruised and battered though she may be, is emerging from a long winter and the Face of Christ shines more brightly in it. Christ awaits the voice of His beloved to respond to His call once again and the Church needs the musician for this response.

If we expect church musicians worthy of the name to step forward, then we need to train them, which I am happy to say is taking place in more and more areas. We might not yet have reached critical mass, but the mass we have is critical and is growing. Now is the time to push forward rather than to despair.

Each summer I spend two separate weeks at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, working with high school students who are interested in vocal music and I always spend some of our time together exploring the sublime world of sacred music. Most of these students, without ever having studied the Church’s documents on liturgical music, have an innate sense that our sacred mysteries require sacred music… and they WANT IT!

Within the last few weeks we saw the hiring of James Kennerley at St. Paul’s, Harvard Square, while our very own Richard Clark posted on other wonderful things going on for children in the archdiocese of Boston. Kevin Allen was recently named the music director of St. John Cantius in Chicago, which boasts thriving choirs for children, and Charles Cole and the Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory are currently on tour through a number of western states. This is just a smattering of the good things going on in the realm of sacred music in our larger cities and metropolitan areas, but what about smaller towns and the midwest?

Right here in Kansas, the geographical center of the contiguous states, I know of several parishes in my own archdiocese (here, here and here) where chorister programs are growing and great musicians are developing liturgical training programs for children. These things might seem slight to others, but even the greatest of forest fires begins very small and so will the advent of better music.

If it is true, as Chesterton put it, that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” then let’s roll up our sleeves and get started. If you are a music director and haven’t begun some sort of music training for the children in your parish for fear of it going badly, I tell you that whatever you do couldn’t be any worse than what children have been made to endure these last 55 years. Just begin!

Remember that Churchill was more often wrong than he was right, but when he was right, he was really right. Don’t be afraid of failure as long as you are willing to learn from the mistakes you make in front of your present or future choristers. If you model Christian discipleship alongside good musical leadership you will move your choristers and your program forward, just remember to keep your focus on real sacred music. Your choristers tastes are simple: [they are] easily satisfied with the best!

In Defense of the Choir School

Last week it was announced that James Kennerley would take over as the new Director of Music for St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Harvard Square, placing him at the head of the parish’s famous choir of men and boys, founded by Theodore Marier in 1963.

St. Paul’s Choir School, where the boy choristers are educated, is one of only three Catholic choir schools in the United States and provides a truly unique approach to the fostering of Catholic sacred music, an approach we might call the apprenticeship method. Following his audition and acceptance, a boy enters the school in the 3rd grade and embarks on a six year journey of professional music making that culminates in the graduation of a chorister consummate in the choral arts (as well as extremely proficient at the keyboard) who has sung through vast portions of the greatest repertoire of the western world, and therefore knows it as a friend, and for whom the Graduale Romanum is more than a footnote in a college music appreciation course. Mr. Kennerley is no stranger to such a choral education, as he himself is a product of Chelmsford Cathedral Choral Foundation.

It goes without saying that Mr. Kennerley possessed more than the average amount of latent musical talent as a child, nevertheless, his gifts and talents were honed in the professional atmosphere of the English choral tradition, after which he moved on to Harrow School. I can’t say for sure, but wouldn’t be surprised if he took part in the chapel choir program at Harrow, which, according to the school’s website, regularly sings works “by Poulenc, Chilcott, Saleeb, Piccolo, Byrd, Gombert, Faure, Berkeley, Howells, Faure, Haydn, Dyson, Bach, Jackson, Walton, Britten, Duruflé, Poulenc, Adelman, Mozart, Handel and Purcell.” From Harrow School he matriculated to Cambridge University and spent his time there as the organ scholar for Jesus College before being named the organ scholar for St. Paul’s in London–all before the age of 25.

Contrast this with the general experience of a Catholic child in the United States. The unfortunate child spends eight to twelve years in Catholic education shouting banal ditties at an beleaguered congregation, all the while being conditioned to believe in a boringly nice god who saves said child from nothing, and is therefore not worth his time, much less effort. Even Catholic schools with good music programs tend to give the Church’s treasury of sacred music a wide berth because of the undying canard that Vatican II got rid of it.

It might be forgiven students if they can’t improvise like Mr. Kennerley on the Victimae Paschali laudes. It is unforgivable, however, that they have never heard the Victimae.

The same applies to the sublime melody of the Veni Creator.

If we in the United States ever hope to produce liturgical musicians of the calibre of James Kennerley then the choir school is an absolutely essential ingredient toward that goal. I’m not saying we don’t have native musicians of his calibre, but we certainly aren’t producing them in the quantity that the English cathedral choir system is capable of.

Every Catholic cathedral in the United States should be committed to such an ideal. Our cathedrals should either run choir schools or run to establish them. Every parish with a parochial school should focus its music program toward the same goal, albeit to a smaller degree. It is the only way to rebuilt (or perhaps build for the first time ever) a culture of genuine sacred music in these United States.

It is amazing what has been accomplished at St. Paul’s over the last 50 years and what could be accomplished in so many other places in a much shorter time span.

We wish Mr. Kennerley and the boys and men of St. Paul’s Choir all the best!

Fr. William Finn and the Catholic Choral Tradition in America

It is perhaps easy to dismiss the Catholic choral tradition in America as being an inferior art to its elder European counterpart. We certainly don’t have as great a quantity of English choir schools or French monasteries.  Nevertheless, we have had, and quite frankly still have, a number of fine choirs, conductors and organists that I would place on par and even above our European brethren. One such name that behooves mentions is that of Fr. William Joseph Finn of the Paulist Fathers.

Fr. Finn, a Bostonian native, founded the Paulist Choristers at Old St. Mary’s in Chicago, and later the Paulist Choristers at St. Paul the Apostle, NYC. His choirs were considered legendary in their time, and under his direction the Chicago choir won first prize in a Paris competition from among almost 100 choirs, for which Finn was awarded the Palms of the French Academy by the French government. His choirs often sang on radio and toured the country and western world at a time when this was almost unheard of.

Sometime after Fr. Finn left Chicago for New York, one of his former choristers and by then brother priests, Fr. O’Malley, took over the reigns of the Paulist Choristers at Old St. Mary’s and conducted them masterfully until 1967. Some have wondered if this formed the story line of the film The Bells of St. Mary’s.

Hearing loss forced Finn to give up the Paulist Choristers in the 1940s, but his influence continued through the numerous books he wrote on music through the years. Quite possibly his great work, The Art of the Choral Conductor is worth a doctoral education on the art of choral training, and the amount of ink he gives to the blending of individual lines and to blending of the choir as a whole is eye (and ear) opening. His later chapter on sight-singing is perhaps the most succinct explanation I have ever read on the process of teaching this art to choristers.

Then again, if you prefer something rather more light hearted, his autobiography, The Flats and Sharps of Five Decades, is a delightful read. My one disappointment after having digested it is that I found very few extant recordings of his choirs. In the book he took such pot shots at world famous ensembles, going so far as to accuse the Westminster Cathedral Choir of always singing flat, that his own choral institutions must have been, or at least should have been, almost other worldly.

Another early work is his Manual of Church Music, which he co-authored while still a seminarian. This book is every bit as foundational and even more in depth than Sir Richard Terry’s Church Music, but has largely been forgotten. It contains a wonderful apologia for the use of men and boys voices within the liturgy, linking it back to levitical priesthood. Of course, this would largely fall on deaf ears today, but one can sense the excitement at the time and the feeling that following Pius X’s motu proprio Church Music had at long last been pointed in the right direction and that days of glory were ahead. In many ways the early liturgical movement was a beautiful time in the life of the Church.

As a final gift, I thought I would leave the listener with a recording of the Paulist Choristers of Chicago performing the Gloria from R. R. Terry’s Mass of St. Gregory at Midnight Mass at Old St. Mary’s in 1964. The choir is under the direction of Fr. O’Malley, but since he was a disciple of Finn, perhaps it will offer us something similar to what one might have heard under the later’s baton.  Enjoy!

The Cantor and Congregational Singing

The sight of the liturgical cantor is a familiar one… some man or woman, usually planted in the sanctuary with raised hand, beckoning us to song. In all fairness to these much maligned people, the vast majority do offer their gifts back to God and others in a spirit of generosity. They simply wish to serve and I am eternally grateful for that. At the same time, I wonder if we haven’t lost sight of the cantor’s original purpose of fostering congregational singing. Is it possible that the cantor is actually at odds with the goal of congregational singing? I wonder.

Regarding the Cantor, we find in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal the following: (104) It is fitting that there be a cantor or a choir director to lead and sustain the people’s singing. When in fact there is no choir, it is up to the cantor to lead the different chants, with the people taking part. Thus, the role of cantor is succinctly summed up in two words, leading and sustaining, but does the cantor succeed in these two roles?

It goes without saying that someone or something must establish the pitch and rhythm of the congregation’s sung prayer, otherwise cacophony would ensue, and the cantor is certainly capable. It is also true that someone or something needs to sustain the congregation’s sung prayer. Again, the cantor is suitable. But is the cantor the best candidate? Here we need to remember that this honor belongs first and foremost to the choir, and cultivating excellent choirs we must. The choir represents all of Heaven (and earth) present at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and a single cantor fails, at least symbolically, to convey this reality. You might well agree, but what about in the absence of a choir? Even in those rare parishes where the highest ideals of liturgical prayer are sought after and practiced, it is unlikely that the choirmaster possesses the ability to convince his choir to sing for multiple Masses 52 Sundays of the year, not to mention Holy Days and ferial days. Not even Westminster Cathedral, the London Oratory or St. John Cantius are capable of producing such a rara avis. There must be an alternative to the choir, and so we are given the cantor.

A well trained cantor is undoubtedly able to communicate pitch and rhythm, at least to a small group of parishioners, and should be able to sustain their singing, but this becomes extremely difficult in all but the smallest churches without the aid of the microphone and here is where I believe the role of the cantor fails. The cantor as we know it within the Ordinary Form wouldn’t be possible without the aid of amplified sound and I am convinced that electronic amplification kills congregational singing. First, it creates the impression that the church is filled with singing, which is rarely the case (if you doubt me, try turning off your sound system in the middle of any hymn and LISTEN). More often than not, the cantor masks the fact that many have stopped singing. Second, which is probably the reason for the first, cantors regularly lead music unsuitable for congregational use, music that is pitched too high, requires too wide a range and demands what is rhythmically impossible (this is apart from questions regarding theological soundness and principles of beauty). Third, even when suitable music has been chosen, the nature of amplified sound overpowers even the greatest amount of congregational participation. No matter how gustily the congregation sings, the cantor can and usually will sing louder. Lastly, amplification rids us of the necessity to build acoustically live and resonant churches.

This last point reminds me of a certain stairwell in my college’s library that amplified even the smallest whisper into a force of nature. One day at lunch it came out around the table that all of us seated there (I believe I was the only music student at the table) loved to sing in that space when we found ourselves alone in it because the sound seemed to come alive. Resonant churches provide that same impetus to many faithful who otherwise feel exposed and vulnerable singing in dry spaces where their individual voices and mistakes are readily noticed, especially by themselves. A live acoustic is somewhat like grace, it takes the earnest, but often modest, vocal offering of the Christian and transforms it into something beautiful.

Resonant acoustics aside, this leaves us with two main questions. 1) Does the cantor fulfill its role in the Ordinary Form? and 2) If not, then who, or what, can? For the moment, I want suspend judgment on the first question and tackle the second.

If not, then who, or what? First, we need to remember that congregational singing pre-dates the Second Vatican Council and even the advent of amplified sound. Congregational singing in the Germanic and Slavic nations runs deep and certainly wasn’t predicated on the presence of the cantor.

The pipe organ is the only other living thing that could possibly fill the void left in the absence of a choir. No other instrument on earth can sing as high or low, as loud or soft, or with as much gentleness, passion or majesty as the Sacred Liturgy demands (and all without amplification). If we look at the history of the pipe organ, long before it ever accompanied the congregation it was used to establish pitch and sometimes tempo for the singers. A good organist today can easily end his introduction in such a way that the congregation knows it has come to an end and that the hymn or chant will begin NOW, on THIS pitch, at THIS tempo. As a matter of fact, I have done it many times. The organist should be able to adjust his registration, timbre, tempo and key to fit the congregation’s needs without the unnatural aide of the microphone. To lead and sustain via the organ, coupled with good, singable music, is to place the responsibility for congregational singing in the hands of the congregation. As with anything else in life, if you want someone to succeed, you have to first give him the tools and then step back and let him do it.

Now I can tackle the question of the cantor’s necessity. If the organ/organist is able to lead and sustain congregational singing in a purely natural way (without amplification), is the cantor no longer necessary? In a perfect world every parish would have an organist capable of leading from the organ and all the music used would be known and loved, but that simply isn’t the case. Nevertheless, there are ways we can place the responsibility for congregation singing back in the hands of the congregation while making concessions for a cantor when necessary.

  1. Move your cantor out of the sanctuary and into the organ loft if possible. Before anyone objects that in the older form of the Roman Rite the liturgical cantor would have been both vested AND in the choir/sanctuary, we must remember that the cantor as envisioned by the GIRM is very different from the traditional cantor in the Roman Rite. It is simply too easy for the modern cantor to become the star of the show as opposed to the servant of the liturgy and liturgical song.
  2. Ask your cantor to begin well-known music and then step away from the microphone.
  3. Ask your cantor to lead all new music, but only until the congregation is capable of sustaining it themselves. If the congregation isn’t able to do so after a reasonable amount of time, perhaps the music you’ve chosen is simply not suitable.
  4. Ask your cantor to sing the proper antiphons. Since these change weekly, it can be difficult for your congregation to learn all but the simplest settings of them.
  5. Do NOT, I repeat do NOT!!! ask a cantor to sing at the same time as the choir.
  6. Find smaller groups of musicians, perhaps two strong singers, to lead the music, without microphones, in the absence of your choir.

We need to be honest and ask if what we are doing supports or hinders our sung prayer. Such honesty can be brutal, but ultimately life giving.

Millennials and Authenticity

Following the recent Synod on the Youth and the comical spectacle of some prelates trying to be relevant to young people by hosting a disco for them in the Piazza della Minerva, I would like to take up the topic of millennials and authenticity once again, especially as it regards sacred music.

If there is one mantra I continually hear regarding this enigmatic group, it is that they desire authenticity–but here we need to define terms. What do we mean by authenticity? What do they mean by authenticity? I think it is necessary to look at the lives most millennials have lived to this point and ask what unreal situations have they faced and experienced and what does this teach us about the reality, or authenticity, that they desire.

First, we start at home. Here we see a generation raised primarily in broken homes, where mother is divided against father and father against mother. Many of their fathers were never present, leaving their mothers to raise the children. Even if their mothers were present, many chose to drop off their children, their family’s greatest commodity if I might put it that way, at the local day care to be raised by surrogate, or unreal parents. Millennials  have had no experience of authentic family.

Second, we look at friendships. Friendships for millennials exist primarily in the virtual worlds of Facebook, Twitter and the many other forms of social media that allow them to be completely engaged with everyone and no one, all at the same time. Over and over we hear of the tragedy of a young person with 500 Facebook friends committing suicide because he didn’t have one real friend. Millennials have had no experience of authentic friendship.

Lastly, we look at religious affiliation. Millennials are leaving the Catholic Church at an alarming rate (around 85%). The Church, or I should say those in the Church, have bent over backwards to be relevant in every way, shape and form to this generation. We have given them everything they wanted, even liberation from God. Millennials have had no experience of authentic holiness.

All of this has left the millennial generation floundering in doubt, disbelief and depression. Is it any wonder they desire authenticity? I firmly believe that deep in the recesses of their souls they want someone to tell them that despite the best propaganda available today, they are not their own gods and don’t need to try to be. Yes, they are sinful (any millennial who takes even a brief look at his life can see that) and need a Savior, and no they cannot save themselves. Instead, there is something, rather Someone, who can. Jesus Christ! More than that, He loves them with an eternal love that seeks to burn away their imperfections and purify them until they are able to love in the way that He loves. This is true authenticity and the only way to bring millennials out of the self-imposed prisons in which they find themselves. At the heart of this transformation lies the turning away from worship of self to worship of the One, True God, as He is and not in the image we wish to make Him.

In this way, the Sacred Liturgy, our worship of the One, True God, and the music wedded to it are of supreme importance. Is the music we sing authentic? Does it speak to the reality of God as He has revealed Himself? Does it authentically present the Christians “story” in all its fullness: creation, the fall, the Incarnation, the Pascal Mysteries, the Second Coming and the Parousia? Does the music’s rhythm and melody work toward the glory of God or toward our own self fulfillment?

In the Roman Rite, this means that chant, especially where it concerns the texts of the Liturgy itself, is of paramount importance, whether in Latin or the vernacular. In addition to plainsong, polyphony should also have a role, but beyond this, there really is a large variety of musics and styles that could be considered authentic for the Sacred Liturgy. Unfortunately, there is also MUCH music that is inauthentic. Pope St. Pius X, in Tra le sollecitudini, gives three criteria for such authenticity: the music must possess 1) sanctity and goodness of form, 2) true art and 3) universality.

A number of years ago the CMAA published a pamphlet entitled Twenty-Four Questions on Sacred Music, and the very first question takes up a defense of these three criteria. I think it fitting to end with its explanation of these three criteria. We should spend time contemplating the music we make and ask ourselves whether it corresponds to these criteria. Is the music we make truly authentic sacred music? It really will have an impact on the millennials we hope to evangelize.*

“On the centenary of its promulgation, John Paul II urged us to revisit and learn from St. Pius X’s letter motu proprio on Sacred Music, Tra le sollecitudini(1903). Pope Pius distinguished three characteristics: “sacred music should consequently possess […] sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality” (§2).

“Concerning sanctity, for music to be sacred means it is not the ordinary, not the every-day. It is set aside for the purpose of glorifying God and edifying and sanctifying the faithful. It must therefore exclude all that is not suitable for the temple — all that is ordinary, every-day or profane, not only in itself, but also in the manner in which it is performed. The sacred words of the Liturgy call for a sonic vesture that is equally sacred. Sacredness, then, is more than individual piety; it is an objective reality.

“Concerning goodness of form, the Latin speaks of bonitate formarum, “goodness of forms”: this refers to the tendency of sacred music to synthesize diverse ritual elements into a unity, to draw together a succession of liturgical actions into a coherent whole, and to serve a range of sacred expressions. Excellence of forms also serves to differentiate those elements, to distinguish the various functions of liturgical chants by revealing their unique character. Each chant of the various Gregorian genres presents a masterly adaptation of the text to its specific liturgical purpose. No wonder the Church has consistently proposed chant as the paradigm of sacred music.

“Sacred music must be true art, says Pope Pius, “otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.” Beauty is what holds truth and goodness to their task. To paraphrase Hans Urs von Balthasar, without beauty, the truth does not persuade, goodness does not compel (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, I: 19). Beauty, as expressed in the Church’s liturgy, synthesizes diverse elements into a unified whole: truth, goodness, and the human impulse to worship.

“Concerning universality, sacred music is supra-national, equally accessible to people of diverse cultures. The Church does admit local indigenous forms into her worship, but these must be subordinated to the general characteristics of the received tradition. By insisting on the continuous use of her musical treasures, especially chant, the Church ensures her members grow up hearing this sacred musical language and receive it naturally as a part of the liturgy.

*While I consider the Sacred Liturgy and Sacred Music to be of paramount importance in the evangelization of all peoples, I also want to acknowledge that these are not the only things necessary. Unfortunately, progressives often set up a false dichotomy between discipleship and the worthy celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, as if one naturally excludes the other, and they use this to downplay the importance of the Liturgy. I refuse to accept this straw man argument. It is both possible and necessary to have both—one cannot exist without the other.