Category Archives: Choral Vespers

Sound Does Matter

As we stand upon the threshold of a New Year, waves of joy and apprehension simultaneously flood my soul as I arrive, rested, back to work following a beautiful holiday vacation. Mind you, I don’t consider Christmas “done in” yet, nevertheless our new year of grace presents a time for fresh beginnings and in that vein I feel obligated to press for one particular New Year’s resolution from you and your music program—namely, switching from a predominantly fake system of amplification (that thing we call the microphone) to the beauty of natural resonance.

I confess an innate disgust for all things fake, but the microphone stands as a doubly dreaded foe due to my unfortunate lack of technical prowess. Perhaps it’s only my personal experience, but its use seems to fall into two camps in the Church. Ordinary Form parishes worship the microphone as the unum necessarium, the one thing necessary, to bring the Liturgy to life, while Extraordinary Form parishes tread upon the microphone as one attacks a venomous serpent. Thus I find the shear volume of the Ordinary Form parts my hair down the middle (but at least can hear the homily!) while the quiet of the Extraordinary Form graciously envelops me (even during the homily!). I realize this contemplative nature is due as much if not more to the very nature of the Extraordinary Form, but I wouldn’t mind a little updated amplification during the homily. It makes me feel unduly past my prime when my wife and I are forced to whisper back and forth throughout the 40 minute long sermon asking each other “what did he say?” Alas!

I will never forget about a decade ago entering the local church to pray and noticing that the pastor had a man from Bose Sound Systems on site testing new sound equipment. The priest read passages from Scripture as the technician experimented with various sounds levels and microphone positions, while the speakers, placed in the sanctuary facing the nave, produced such a loud cackle that I couldn’t even pull my thoughts together to pray. In a sense, I understood every word. As a matter of fact, I was beaten over the head by every one of them. Yet I had no space in which to contemplate the WORD because there was no silence, no quiet, no stillness. The pastor and I were friends, so he left the sanctuary to ask me what I thought. What ensued was a short conversation about the nature of the Sacred Liturgy and its twofold purpose of worship and sanctification. We spoke of the difference between the Catholic Mass and a Protestant worship service, the former by necessity sung as the Church’s eternal hymn of praise, while the latter is almost entirely spoken due to its over emphasis on the written word of God to the exclusion of the Word of God.

The sung Liturgy is much less attached to the microphone due to the repetitive nature of the Ordinary of the Mass and the natural resonance of the singing. Plus, the gift of silence offers one the priceless pearl of contemplation. Ask any mother what she would like after a day at home with the young ones and I guarantee you she won’t ask for more noise. Perhaps Christians share the same boat. They are simply tired of the noise.

I don’t know if my conversation with Father was the catalyst, but I noticed later that when the new sound system arrived, the speakers were mounted in numerous indirect locations to the congregation, replicating a pleasing and natural resonance. It was perfect!

On the other hand, most church musicians  follow the Rolling Stones amplification model of QUANTITY over quality. I watch in amusement as some church bands practically caress the microphones as they get tooled up (do I hear strains of Preciousssssss……) and later as they perform. Quite frankly it’s exhausting to listen to and practically douses any warm strains of congregational singing with the iciest of waters.

I felt somewhat vindicated recently when a good friend and far greater intellect (Dr. Kevin Vogt, Director of Music at St. Michael the Archangel in Leawood, KS) posted a New York Times article on Facebook entitled Dear Architects: Sound Matters—a wonderful read about acoustics and the forgotten ingredient in architecture–sound.

Vogt commented by way of a forward to the article that “while many people appreciate the beauty and reverence of our celebrations at St. Michael, many others feel it is lacking affective appeal. There are a lot of reasons why this might be, but those of us who experience and think about this every day believe that while our sound system is excellent, the scale of the room and the lack of early sound reflections make any unamplified sound very quiet and isolated…”

Chant and polyphony (and even congregational hymnody) developed before electrical amplification and I firmly believe that proper acoustics are essential to their success (I will spare you a long tangent about the overtone series). As Dr. Vogt recognizes, “As Catholics, we believe that Christ is truly present in the assembly of the baptized, when it prays and sing, and so the very sound of the Church praying and singing is ‘sacramental.'” The Church’s music loses much of its sacramental power when its natural voice is destroyed. Imagine the difference between chant sung in a carpeted bungalow as opposed to a Gothic cathedral (or even a humble country church from the 19th century for that matter).

Dear Architects: Sound Matters rightly makes the connection between sound (not just the amount, but the very quality of it) and the fittingness of a building (does it do what it is supposed to). For example, “an expensive, solid wood door sounds better than an inexpensive hollow one, partly because its heavy clunk reassures us that the door is a true barrier, corresponding to the task it serves.” In another place the author writes “If only subliminally, we also know, by contrast, when sound spoils architecture because it fails to correspond to funtion. The bygone Shea Stadium in Queens was joyless partly because the design of its low, wide semicircle dissipated the sound of a cheering crowd into Flushing Bay. Fenway Park in Boston is the reverse; it concentrates hometown joy.” Such a dichotomy is an apt description for many of our churches.

What good is it training choirs to praise God beautifully and to communicate the Gospel effectively if at the end of the day the congregation feels isolated by cold and emotionless music? I realize it is “right and just” to give God what He deserves whether people feel good about it or not, but in today’s climate the church musician is under fire from a thousand different voices shouting at him through more than microphones to be relevant. What musician would continue to offer such an invitation to serial martyrdom when no matter how well he does his job, the acoustical devil spits his work back in his face Sunday after Sunday. Maybe the first step is to slowly ween congregations from amplified sound (this Sunday perhaps), or if amplification is necessary, to convince one’s parish to invest in a high quality system that delivers necessary but understated amplification effectively. That would make a fantastic Resolution!

St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney

It has been some time since last I posted about one of the great cathedral choirs in the world, so what better time than the present to write about about St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir and its accompanying Cathedral College (choir school), the only Catholic cathedral choir school in the southern hemisphere. The choir, founded in 1818, constitutes the oldest musical group still in existence in Australia.

Thomas Wilson is the current Director of Music and probably more than anyone has brought the choir to an incredibly high and enviable position in the Church music world. Wilson is originally from New Zealand and at the age of 18 was made the director of music at Wellington’s Metropolitan Cathedral. He eventually made his way to London and to the Royal College of Music and ended up as the assistant organist at Westminster Cathedral before returning to the bottom side of the world.

He noted that “One of the things about growing up in New Zealand was being given opportunities that I might not have had elsewhere. I was allowed to learn by making mistakes. Then when I was given the chance to go overseas to London I very quickly realized where the level was. I remember being absolutely driven to be part of that, to swim in the same current as these incredible musicians I encountered in the Royal Academy and at Westminster Cathedral.”

Early in his tenure at St. Mary’s he began the tradition of singing Vespers daily (the choir already sang Holy Mass each day) and hired professional men as lay clerks. This commitment to professionalism is sorely lacking in too many of our great Catholic churches today (although there are a number of shining lights here and there) and it is refreshing to see it coming from unlikely places.

I would like to leave you with a couple of videos of the choir singing. First the boys, then the changed voices (the choral scholars) and finally the professional men and boys singing Allegri’s Miserere mei, Deus. Enjoy!

Family Life and the Sacred Liturgy

One of my favorite little tomes to pull of the shelf on a somewhat regular basis is Around the Year with the Trapp Family by Maria von Trapp. Whenever our family stands upon the threshold of a new liturgical season my wife and I look for ways to bring the Faith alive at home for our children (especially through music), which usually means connecting our home life to the liturgical life of the Church, and this easy-to-read book provides us with ideas-a-plenty. Last Sunday was no exception, especially after our oldest son noticed the statues and crucifixes in church draped in violet to mark the beginning of Passiontide.

For those of you who have never read this book, I encourage you to do so. Baroness von Trapp wrote the book in 1955 when the Liturgical Movement weighed heavily upon the minds and hearts of many in the Church, accompanied by a sincere desire to reawaken in men a love for and appreciation of the Church’s Sacred Liturgy and its power to bear spiritual fruit in the lives of Her faithful. Maria’s family hailed from a country where, and an era when, God and the Sacred Liturgy were still the center of personal, familial and even national life, where the saving work of Christ in the Sacraments spilled copiously into everyday life. The Baroness’s work is simply her attempt to share with the reader how her family lived its Catholic Faith, inspired by the Sacred Liturgy. While the customs she described might have been Austrian in nature, she rightly noted they were Catholic in origin, and therefore didn’t necessarily belong to one nation or peoples.

I mention this book for several reasons today. First, I have often written how important it is for the family to sing at home, and how the Church’s music helps to form the faith of one’s children. Here one can read about a concrete example of this within a particular family. Secondly, I mention the book because I am somewhat envious of a family that had its own chapel (my wife and I are working on that), wherein our Lord resided in the Blessed Sacrament (my wife and I doubt that will ever happen), as well as a priest living with them for 25 years!

I am particularly struck by the Baroness’ love for the Church’s Liturgy. She wrote,”We always consider this the greatest honor for us, the singing family, the greatest reward for all the trouble that goes along with life in public, that we can sing for all the Divine Offices in church” (speaking of the Liturgies in Holy Week). The small parish church in Stowe, VT, where the family eventually settled, was fortunate indeed to hear the family sing the Office of Tenebrae on Wednesday of Holy Week. According to the authoress, the family sang the psalms of the first nocturne of Matins to their respective tones, while the antiphons were sung to Gregorian chant, Palestrina, Lassus and Victoria. The psalms of the second and third nocturnes were sung recto tono, while the family’s chaplain, Msgr. Franz Wasner and two of the von Trapp sons sang all of the lessons. Then followed the Office of Lauds.

I can’t imagine my family playing such an intimate role in the awesome ceremonies of Holy Week, but I am sure it made an awesome impression on the von Trapps. Obviously this is out of the reach of most families, but what if your family were to begin singing the great Passion Chorale, O Sacred Head Surrounded, each evening at the end of supper? Perhaps your family could include the opening line of the Reproaches in your night prayers as part of an examination of conscience or recited David’s great penitential psalm, the Miserere meus. If your children are fortunate enough to hear these in your parish they will make the connection between the Sacred Liturgy and everyday life. When they are weighed down by sin or perhaps far from the Lord (God forbid), they can call to mind the mercy of God adn with David recite, Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy. And according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my iniquity. Wash me yet more from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin… To my hearing thou shalt give joy and gladness: and the bones that have been humbled shall rejoice.

Why do we need hymns at all, when we already have the Psalms?

The title of my current post comes from the first chapter of Anthony Esolen’s book on hymnody entitled Real Music (which can be purchased here). I was blessed to purchase the book as well as have a good conversation about it with the author himself last month and want to heartily recommend the, especially for the first chapter, which is devoted to the Psalter.

The Psalter, as Esolen notes, is the prayer book of the Church and the Psalms constitute the “foundational poems of Christian praise.” Not only are the Psalms truly beautiful in an aesthetic sense (which they undoubtedly are), but also because they speak to every moment of the Christian’s life on earth as well as the life to which he is called. They plumb the depths of joy, sorrow, praise, suffering, marriage, children, life, death, God and the fight between the family of God and it’s enemies. The Psalter was also the “hymnal” of Christ and Mary, the apostles and countless saints and sinners spanning the two millennia in the life of the Church. The only other hymnal that has come close to such longevity and vitality in the Roman Rite is the Graduale Romanum, another book of rare worth.

What I especially appreciate in his chapter on the Psalter is how Professor Esolen masterfully presents the reader with the beauty of the Hebrew Psalter and its idiosyncrasies, its structure and poetic styles, all without bogging the lay reader down with too many technical details of the Hebrew language. In a sense, he is able to bypass the trees and present the beauty of the forest. He also tackles the difficulty of not only translating the Psalter into English prose (he relies upon the beautiful King James version), but also the difficulty of creating metrical versions which live up to the majesty of the originals.

I do, however, want to caution the avid connoisseur of all things liturgical in the Roman Rite. This is not a work on the great hymns of the Divine Office or other liturgical chants that might be classified as hymns. Real Music deals with what one might classify as devotional hymns, which although not officially part of the Roman Liturgy, are nevertheless important to the flowering of true piety and love. Best of all, it comes with a CD containing a number of the hymns sung by the St. Cecilia Choir from St. John Cantius in Chicago. If you aren’t able to read music, just sing them with the CD until you know them by heart. I promise you, they will become a vibrant part of your spiritual life.

Music and the Imagination

Over the weekend I attended the second annual Prairie Troubadour symposium in Fr. Scott, KS, on the topic of The Restoration of the Imagination. The conference included a great line-up of speakers including Christopher Check, Dale Alquist and Anthony Esolen (among others) and finished with an evening of cigars and whiskey with the speakers and a host of great old friends (and now some new ones). As Belloc once wrote, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!” How delightfully true!

With the symposium fresh on my mind, I thought today I would take up the topic of the imagination again and its relation to sacred music, especially since most of our readers are engaged in the work of liturgical music, whether as a professional or as the true amateur.

In an article entitled The Importance of the Imagination, Laura Birquist notes that “[t]he old adage ‘You are what you eat’ could be changed truthfully to say, ‘You are what you see and hear’… If the soul has in it good, true, beautiful, noble, and heroic images, it will be disposed to become like those things. For as St. Thomas says, ‘The beautiful and the good are the same in subject because they are founded on the same thing, namely the form’ (Ia, q.5, a.4).”

Of course, the opposite could also be said. If the soul has in it evil, lies, ugly and base images, it will be disposed to become like those things, and therein lies the great problem of modern culture–we are inundated with people who find the good things repulsive, the true things nothing more than the demagogue’s opinion, the beautiful things mere tools for propaganda and noble and heroic ideals the notions of extremists. This could all be said equally of ugly music (I won’t call it ugly sacred music, for there is no such thing).

“Nay,” the church musician shouts. “Just give the congregation Gregorian chant and everyone will love it! They will recognize how beautiful it is.” Oh, if only that were true. When those in the congregation have weaned their imaginations at the breasts of pop culture and its cult of the material and sensual, they will have no inner receptivity to the beautiful and sublime treasury of sacred music, whether the ancient sound of chant or the modern sound of Part and Taverner. The question becomes how to form the imaginations of our young people in such a way as to attune their hearts to music that will ultimately lift them to heavenly realities. This process begins at home. The music a child hears and sings around the family hearth, surrounded by loved ones, will have a greater bearing on his receptivity to Palestrina and Messiaen than teaching him classes on sacred music (although this will be important later). In the same way, the music he sings in his Catholic school and in his school Masses will form his adult ideas about music and ultimately about God (be sure to read The Casualties of Bad Church Music). This is no unimportant topic.

If you want your children to know, love and serve God, it is up to you as parents to guide them along that path, and I would caution you to make good music an important part of the way. Do you yourself, especially you fathers, sing good music on a daily basis? Do you listen to good music? Make sure that true folk music forms the basis of what you sing and listen to. If your music comes primarily from the radio, just realize that such music is not “popular” or “folk” music in the classical sense. It does not come from the shared experiences of a people who have come together striving to live the good life, and therefore you will be shooting your efforts in the foot. There is plenty in the line of Anglo/Irish/Scotch/American folk music. If your ancestors come from other areas learn a few songs from that tradition. Include great hymns in the repertoire and consider ending your family night prayers by singing the proper Marian antiphon for the season. Your children will easily pick these up. Or, as one speaker at the symposium commented, teach your children how to dance and hold community dances. When you form your children in such a manner, exposing them to REAL music (nothing mass produced), they will naturally cross the bridge to an appreciate of the sublime beauty in the Church’s treasury of sacred music. Along the via pulchritudinis (the way of beauty) they will come to know Him Who is Beauty itself.

On August 2, Andrew Leung posted an article about Colin Mawby, the former Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral, London, and suggested I might be able to add to the discussion. Unfortunately, I have never actually been to Westminster Cathedral (God willing, that mistake will be corrected before I die), but I have had a couple of email conversations with Mr. Mawby about his time at Westminster and I would like to share part of one with you here. I am doing this for two reasons. The first is to highlight the fortitude of an incredible church musician and the second is to encourage that same virtue of fortitude in myself and all other musicians toiling in the field of sacred music. It is easy to become discouraged at the infinite challenges confronting us, but take heart, even the best of us has “been there and done that.”

“When I became Master of Music in 1961, Westminster Cathedral sang or recited the complete daily Roman Ofiice and had a daily Capitular High Mass. The choir also sang daily Vespers. There were many low Masses and when the changes of Vatican 2 were introduced the former went into English and the High Mass remained in Latin. The Archbishop, Cardinal Heenan, said to me that it would be unthinkable for the Cathedral not to have a daily Latin High Mass. This was highly controversial and many clergy opposed his view and wanted the Cathedral to be at the forefront of liturgical experimentation: “giving a lead” to the rest of the country. There was also divided opinion on “participation”. Some people were happy with external participation while others looked for internal participation I continually stressed that one could participate and worship the Creator through listening to great music.

“When the changes were introduced, many choirs, including Cathedral Choirs, were disbanded and many fine musicians were sacked and in many cases totally disillusioned. In the light of this I decided that the Cathedral should best give a lead by preserving the great heritage of Catholic music as demanded by the Council’s Liturgical Constitution. This attitude was roundly condemned by the reformers who did everything that they could to make the Cathedral liturgy a beacon of the new.

“There were many attempts made to disband the Cathedral Choir and there was one very serious threat to the continuation of the Choir School. The chorister’s parents were informed that it was to be disbanded. It was saved by the vision of Cardinal Heenan’s successor, Cardinal Hume. The professional men were even given three months notice on one occasion on financial grounds – the Cathedral couldn’t afford a professional choir. However, I was able to find sufficient money to keep it going and eventually Cardinal Hume ensured that the money was available to keep the professional men in place.

“It was Cardinal Heenan’s unswerving support that enabled me to preserve the music and the Cathedral traditions through 11 years of extreme difficulty- I never knew from one day to the next if the choir would still exist in 6 months time!

“Cardinal Hume, a Benedictine, understood the spiritual value of the Cathedral’s music and established it on a firm foundation.

“About ten years after I left, Bishop Victor Guazelli, an auxiliary in Westminster, said to me at the large reception after George Malcolm’s Memorial Requiem: “Colin, you were completely right, we were completely wrong. We owe you a great debt of gratitude for what you did”. This honest, magnanimous and public statement made my struggle totally worthwhile.

(From an email to the author on June 11, 2013.)

Choral Evensong From St. David’s Cathedral

Choral Evensong comes live today from St. David’s Cathedral in Cardiff, Wales (I see Howells is on the program, always a treat!) The choir is unique in the English cathedral tradition in that the treble line consists exclusively of young girls, although the cathedral does operate a boys choir, among others. On a side note, the legendary George Guest came from Wales (although he was a chorister at the cathedral in Bangor). I once asked a choir director who had met Dr. Guest why he thought Guest was such an incredible choirmaster. His reply was that the musicality of the Welsh language and Guest’s command of it came out in his music. I have no familiarity with the Welsh language, but having watched videos of Guest, I can attest to the musicality of his English. I do believe the manner in which a choirmaster speaks plays a role in shaping the the way his choir sings.

“Tribus miraculis”

For today’s piece of liturgical music, I would like to highlight Paul Burke’s Tribus miraculis (listen here on his homepage). I just learned of this work earlier in the week and I was surprised and moved. Firstly, I was moved with the beauty of the sacred liturgy, specifically with the Magnificat antiphon for second Vespers on the Solemnity of the Epiphany (Tribus miraculis). A translation of the text follows:

We observe this holy day, ornamented with three miracles: Today a star led the Magi to the manger;
Today wine was made from water at the wedding;
Today in the Jordan Christ desired to be baptized by John, so that He might save us, Alleluia.

I knew of the connection between Epiphany and other events in our Lord’s life, but to hear it so specifically stated within the liturgy was incredible.

Secondly, I was moved by the beauty of Burke’s setting. When thinking of these three events, something immediately came to mind. Each of these events is an incredible manifestation of our Lord’s Divinity, yet the first episodes are rather quiet affairs, not majestic in the way we would commonly associate with an earthly, much less an eternal king. Even Christ’s baptism does not include great fanfare and marching of armies. I am reminded that Elijah did not hear the voice of God in the mighty wind, the earthquake or in the fire, but in the gentle breeze. Burke’s work presents these beautiful words in a quieter and contemplative setting, allowing the listener to contemplate the voice of God, as opposed to being shocked by Its grandeur. God longs for our love, but He respects our freedom without resorting to force. We must learn to listen and respond to His love. Incredible!

Ely Cathedral Choir

Today I would like to focus on the choir and school at Ely Cathedral. The history of music at Ely is an interesting read and well worth it for any church musician. We often think of the Anglican choral tradition as always having been at its current standard, but that is far from the case. I often wondered why the tradition of cathedral music never crossed the pond from England to America. A large part of that is because many of our early settlers were Puritans. However, I think an equally important reason is that the cathedral music tradition in England really wasn’t worth emulating until the Anglican choral revival, which took place as part of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century. Musical conditions at Ely were considered to be among the worst until that revival. Today, however, Ely has an incredible music tradition, very much alive. The choir comprises some 22 boy choristers, educated at King’s Ely, and 6 plus lay clerks.

Another exciting aspect of the Cathedral Choir is the Cathedral Girl’s Choir, directed by Sarah MacDonald. The girls’s choir began in 2006 and is already at a very high standard. The girls in the choir are of high school age, which lends an emotional depth to the choir’s sound not as easily reached with boys. I have been fortunate to have been in contact with Mrs. MacDonald regarding choristers and sight-singing. She told me that one important aspect of sight-singing is actually the number of times a choir sings each week. She felt that a choir should be singing at least three times each week in order to truly exercise the choristers’ sight-singing abilities. I have never forgotten that.

Finally, I would like to mention the scholarships that each chorister receives at Ely. The boy choristers receive scholarships around 50% of their school fees. For churches that can afford this (or fund raise for it), this is a great incentive for recruiting and retaining choristers, especially when sports have almost entirely taken over the lives of American youth.