Category Archives: Choral Vespers

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!

St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney Australia

I recently experienced the thrill of the hunt when I stumbled upon the Facebook page of St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney, Australia, last Lent. To be fair to myself, I had known about and listened to recordings of this fine choir numerous times over the past and had always considered them to be an exceptional group of singers, but it was a a Facebook recording of the choir singing Bruckner’s Christus factus est as the Gradual on Good Friday that struck deeply into my soul.

I’ve heard and sung the piece on many occasions, but never at that precise moment, the proper moment, in the Good Friday Liturgy. Put there, immediately before the reading of the Passion, it beautifully encapsulated the emptying out of Christ on the Cross, yet because of this contained the seeds of glory that would be Christ’s Name, that Name above all other names. I must admit I watched the video a number of times and never tired of it. I even shared it with some of my choristers. It also led to a deeper search of the choir’s website where I discovered another gem–the choir’s podcast, Staved Off.

If you are interested in the great English Cathedral music tradition (I know, the choir is not from England, but I doubt if most listeners could tell that) and want to know more about its inner workings, please consider listening in. There are about a dozen podcasts in all and topics include things such as music for the holy seasons throughout the year and other events such as weddings, information about the choir’s 200 year history, choral festivals, Gregorian chant, English and Latin hymnody and much more. You will hear great recordings of great music sung by the choir and links are provided to numerous other related items. Thomas Wilson, the director of music, is one of the hosts, so you get the information straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak (no disrespect meant to Mr. Wilson). I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

 

Further Thoughts on the Westminster Cathedral Choir

Two weeks ago I shared with readers a letter I sent to the Head Master of the Westminster Cathedral Choir School (London) regarding the school’s recent decision to alter the boarding arrangements of its choristers. I felt (and continue to feel) that such an incredible religious and cultural institution as the Westminster Cathedral Choir must be preserved and promoted at all costs.

The Westminster Cathedral Choir was built, so to speak, by Cardinal Vaughan and Sir Richard Terry, the choir’s first director, in 1901 alongside the actual cathedral, owing to the Cardinal’s belief (and the Church’s) that nothing should be spared in the worship of almighty God and that all the arts, but especially music, should be employed toward that end. If a grand cathedral for London was to be built, then there must be a program of sacred music worthy of the Ancient Rites that would celebrated in it. Sir Richard, a convert to Catholicism and the undoubted leader of the revival of English Renaissance music, fulfilled the cardinal’s desires and made his dream a reality.

In the wider western world, Pope St. Pius X would shorty release his Motu Proprio Tra le solecitudini, calling for the restoration of Gregorian chant as the Church’s music par excellence and for the primacy of Renaissance polyphony above other choral music. At the same time, the early music scene was alive and well in England and much of the early music that Terry unearthed eventually found its was into the cathedral music lists. It was thanks to Terry that we now have the Byrd Masses for 3, 4 and 5 voices and many other gems of the English Renaissance. To this day, the influence of Pope St. Pius X and Sir Richard Terry are evident in the cathedral music lists, where Gregorian chant and polyphony, especially works from the English pen, form the bedrock of the cathedral’s music program.

Equally impressive as Sir Richard Terry are many of the men who took up the baton after him, names such as George Malcom, Colin Mawby, Stephen Cleobury, David Hill, James O’Donnell and now Martin Baker.

A number of years ago I had the privilege of hearing the choir live in concert and even the greatest of expectations I had were blown away. If I had had any misgivings about the $25 ticket I purchased (a large amount in graduate school), they were quickly done away with. I vividly remember being moved that evening by the simple chanting of the Veni Creator in alternatim with Durufle’s variations on the same melody. On my way out, I bought a CD of the choir singing Christmas Vespers and listened to it so much in the ensuing years that many of the tracts no longer played.

There are so many things I would like to share about the Westminster Cathedral Choir, but perhaps I will end with this. Each summer I spend two weeks at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, teaching high school students in the college’s immersion programs. One of my favorite things to do is to share with these young people how music is able to convey Truth, Goodness and Beauty in a way that the spoken word never could. Listening to Sir James MacMillan’s setting of the famous passage from Matthew 16, Thou art Peter… (Tu es Petrus), we flesh out a greater understanding of the  Petrine ministry in the life of the Church in general and in the life of English Catholics in particular.

In this video we watch as Pope Benedict XVI enters Westminster Cathedral during his pastoral visit to England in 2010, the first visit from a reigning pontiff since the number of practicing Catholics surpassed the number of practicing Anglicans in 2007. The very term “pope,” from the Greek word for “father,” reminds us that our Holy Father is just that, a father, and that a father’s first duty is to provide for, to serve and to protect his children, even fighting for them when necessary. When we realize that Catholicism in England only recently emerged from four centuries of persecution and even now is under new forms of assault from modern culture, MacMillan’s setting, which conjures up images of a great battle, seems especially poignant. One might easily imagine it as a musical backdrop to the epic battles in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Pope Benedict, in this moment, prepares to enter into battle on behalf of his English children, but one is struck by the frailty of the man and realizes that this battle will not be of a physical nature, but of a spiritual one. By the grace of the Sacraments, particularly the Holy Mass, the devil will once again be put to flight. The music acknowledges this truth as it serenely comes to an end and the choir intones the Introit. Pope Benedict, papa, enters into the Holy of Holies, and in persona Christi is victorious over sin and death.

I am reminded of the care with which the Pieta was transported from the Vatican to New York City for the World’s Fair in 1964 and I hope and pray that the Westminster Cathedral Choir will be treated with as much veneration and respect.

A Refresher on Chorister Training

It has been some time since last I wrote about chorister training, and now that the school year is fully underway, I thought it might be helpful to offer a refresher on the logistics of training our young people in the art of liturgical music.

I think the largest hurdle most choir directors face is actually working with children (if that is not one’s cup of tea). As always, there are both joys and drawback working with children as opposed to teenagers or even adults. Children bring an enthusiasm to choir rehearsal that is rarely topped and they have no preconceived bias toward learning to sight-sing. While your adult sopranos will begin to squirm as soon as you warm them up above a G or A below high C, that won’t be the case with children. On the other hand, if you have a great group of adults, they will move through music at an incredible rate of speed, which is the cause of deep satisfaction in the director AND the singers. Adults generally spare you discipline problems that spill out of children and there is the joy of adult interaction. Regardless, there are three areas that are especially helpful to be competent in when working with children.

First is the creation of routine. Routine helps children to grow. A proper routine can also steer children away from discipline problems. Every choir needs to have a healthy routine so the children know from the moment they walk through the door what is expected of them. I would highly recommend the book The First Days of School by Wong and Wong. It deals primarily with the classroom setting, but the routine of a choir is no different. If you set a certain tone in the first few rehearsals, you and your choristers will be off to a great start.

Second is the teaching of children. Knowing how different boys and girls are and how these differences help them learn differently is crucially important. Also important is knowing the difference between the way children and adults learn. Even within children, there are different learning styles depending upon the age and maturity of a child. If you are running a choral program from children in kindergarten through high school, I would suggest you acquaint yourself with the 3 main learning styles in the classical model: the grammar, logic and rhetorical stages. This is especially helpful when teaching younger children. As for working with junior high and high school children I would suggest reading Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov. All too often choir directors rely on a couple of key singers to support the entire choir as opposed to building everyone up into an effective choral unit. How do you help underachievers to work at the level of your best choristers? How do you help every child understand that he/she is absolutely crucial to the choir and that they need to work as if they, too, know that? Teach Like a Champion gives so many helps toward this goal that I can’t recommend it highly enough. I would warn you though, you must practice many of these concepts in front of a mirror before you use them in the class room.

Third, you will have to have a basic understanding of psychology. The same group of singers will one day make you think you have the best choir in the world and the next day make you wonder if they have ever sung two notes together. They will have a terrible pre-concert rehearsal and then dazzle you in the concert itself. On the flip side, they will also rehearse so well before Mass that you can’t understand why they sound awful 15 minutes later when Mass begins. Do you ride out the terrible music or is there a way to turn around a bad situation in the middle of it? Sports psychology is especially helpful here and there are so many of these books that you could probably choose one whose author and specific subject matter appeals to you personally and be fine.

Once you find yourself settling down to the actual teaching, the obvious question is how? For the traditional English way adapted to the Catholic setting (especially for the ancient form of the Mass) your first read should be Sir Richard Terry’s Catholic Church Music. His early time at Westminster Cathedral coincided with a flowering of liturgical and musical life within both the Catholic and Anglican spheres and many major English choir directors were writing books to explain to smaller parish choirs how the cathedrals did it. You can find many of these free and online at Google Books, but again, just start with Terry. You will find that while the cathedral music scene in England (Catholic or Anglican) has changed through the decades in regard to music choice, you will nevertheless find that the method is still rather the same. At the same time, I would say that the method has been broadened and deep by the addition of singing coaches and mandatory piano lessons (if not other lessons) for choristers. Every student you are able to coax into piano lessons will be nothing but a step forward for your choir. I can almost always tell the difference between choristers with similar abilities when one plays the piano and the other doesn’t.

If you find joy in creating a music curriculum for your students (and you should always try to deepen their musical knowledge), then all you need to do is decide what skills and to what level children need to learn them and then create a plan to systematically teach them. If this is not your forte, you might want to look at some of the current choral music training programs. Perhaps the Ward Method, Kodaly Method or Voices for Life (from the Royal School of Church Music) are right for you. I also highly recommend anything written by John Bertalot. I will caution that it takes an enormous amount of time to teach sight-singing, so many choral directors skip it. Please don’t. You are cheating your students and depriving them of a skill set that will provide one of life’s great experiences, being able to both create and perform music to a high level.

You will of course need repertoire for your choirs, and repertoire that is appropriate to where your choristers are musically. I have said it before and will say it many times again, I would rather hear children sing a hymn in unison or a piece of plainchant to a high degree that to hear them butcher even the simplest of 4 part motets. If you struggle finding repertoire don’t hesitate to ask online at places like the CMAA Forum. Look through the Corpus Christi Watershed website or Cantica Nova. Visit music lists of cathedrals or churches with a children’s choir at the same level as yours. I would even suggest simply teaching your choristers the liturgical music currently in use at your parish, but to a high degree. They will already have heard much of it, but your parishioners will notice it being sung well by a choir as opposed to being belted at various levels of competency through a microphone by one of your cantors. Do not be afraid to start with SIMPLE, as long as the text and music are of a high quality.

Lastly, try to get as much parental involvement as you can. You will need it to handle large groups of children and you will also widen your sphere of influence in the parish. If even a few influential parents in your parish think that you provide a program of high quality for their children, they will tell others and make your life (and recruiting) much easier. In the end, you will create life long friendship that will bring great joy to your good days and comfort to those difficult ones.

Leeds Cathedral and the Schools Singing Program

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)

Today I would like to highlight the wonderful choral music program from the Diocese of Leeds, England, and the work they do on a weekly basis with more than 3,500 youth from around the diocese. According to Thomas Leech, the director of the schools singing program for the diocese, “this is the largest church music program in the country. It’s a diocesan program rather than a cathedral-centred approach. Although the cathedral choirs are of an extremely high standard, it’s always been important to us that the school-based work is most important—that then reaches out to the elite choirs, rather than the other way around.” (Music Teacher Magazine, September 2018, pg. 65) And reaching out they do, leading choirs in 53 schools, plus 6 professional boys’ choirs, six professional girls’ choirs, five mixed choirs, two youth choirs, and three university choirs. Needless to say, it takes a large staff to keep such an undertaking afloat: 6 full-time and 1 part-time musicians, a development administrator, 2 organ scholars, 1 choral conducting scholar, and 12 choral scholars.

One particular item of note is that the boys and girls are more often separated into different choirs than not, and the boys’ choirs have usually been founded before the girls’ choirs. This is very important if we ever hope to see boys and men singing in our church choirs in great numbers again. Unfortunately, militant feminism has driven males from many aspects of church life, but none probably more so than music.

I should also mention that many of these students come from impoverished areas, and if statistics in Leeds are similar to other urban areas in the western world, the majority probably come from broken homes as well. The schools singing program might well be one of the most stable forces in the lives of many of these children, which provides an incredible entry point for evangelization, and from what I have read, Mr. Leech and the diocese work to capitalize on this opportunity.

I have often felt that in addition to great choir schools at our cathedrals, the Church needs grass roots programs like this throughout our parishes. It is within the parish that most Catholics receive their sacraments and live the life of Faith. This model seems to be extremely well suited to providing high quality sacred programs within the reach of all young people, whether from rural or urban areas. I would personally love to hear from archdiocesan directors of music in these US of A and find out how feasible this might be. It seems that if it were to be successfully implemented even once in a few strategic geographical locations other dioceses would be willing to try it.

As a parting gift, I leave you with the following video of the massed cathedral choirs singing Ding! Dong! Merrily on High.

 

A Problem with the Universal Prayer of the Church

“The Catholic liturgy is the supreme example of an objectively established rule of spiritual life. It has been able to develop… in every direction, and in accordance with all places, times, and types of human culture. Therefore it will be the best teacher of the via ordinaria–the regulation of the religious life in common, with, at the same time, a view to actual needs and requirements.” (R. Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy)

The great problem with the Universal Prayer of the Roman Catholic Church today is that for all practical purposes (speaking subjectively) it has ceased to be the Universal Prayer of the Roman Catholic Church. Those things that allowed the Mystical Body of Christ to worship as one family, transcending both the limitations of time and space, have been shoved aside if not outright discarded. It amazes me that within living memory the average Catholic could travel anywhere in the world in which the Latin Rite was celebrated, trusty hand missal in tow, and pray the Mass, even in foreign lands. The homily might have been in a different language or the Mass might have had a certain European, American, African or Asian feel, depending upon where one found oneself on Sunday morning, but the differences were rather minor–but no more.

Contrast this with the experience of typical Catholics today, who go to Mass in their  own state or country and wonder if they still inhabited the same planet, much less attend the same Mass. Anymore, the Holy Sacrifice has taken on the fluidity of one’s gender. What, you don’t like it? Just change it and make it whatever you want it to be! Admittedly, the experimentation is NOT what it was in the 70s, nevertheless, the mentality exists that the Sacred Liturgy can be adapted and personalized in an almost unlimited number of ways.

Our liturgical problem is really symptomatic of a much deeper problem, the loss of Faith in Christ and in His Church (really the two problems are deeply connected). Thankfully I meet more and more young people who are seriously embracing Faith in Christ and the Church. As they do so, they are discovering the great cultural riches of the Church, whether in Her Liturgy or prayer life, the lives of Her saints or in Her moral life. This group of people is by no means a majority, but it is a strong and vibrant minority. I also see holy priests coming from among them, and Deo gratias for that.

Young people today aren’t yearning for the ancient expressions of the Church’s liturgical life merely due to a distorted view of a supposedly golden former age, but because their very souls  and their humanity need these things to pray in the first place. Young people are mired in individualism and simply handing out more of it in the form of giving them “what they want” is not going to bring them to Christ. Rather, the answer lies in uniting them to the universal, to what is True, Beautiful and Good–to God; uniting them to the Church Militant, the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant. The Sacred Liturgy used to have the power to do this (again, subjectively speaking).

What follows is a very simplistic list, in no particular order, of some of the externals in the Church’s liturgical life that had the power to draw the believer out of his own little kingdom and into the universal family of the Church. Would that return sooner rather than later.

  1. The beauty of a common, sacral language. Whether you like to admit it or not, the Latin Rite was formed by the Latin Language, which provided a basis for communication for Catholics across the globe, and the loss of that language and the communication it allowed has proved a travesty. The fact that the majority of fathers at the Second Vatican Council could communicate with each other reasonably well, not withstanding such diverse backgrounds, was a minor miracle. Latin Rite Catholics could take part in the Mass or Divine Office wherever they found themselves and Latin provided the sacred vehicle for that prayer, removed from the vulgarities of everyday speech. Interestingly, the Latin, via beautiful translations, supported and shaped sacral speech in the vernacular. Now each Catholic is marooned on his own linguistical island, islands which tend to be culturally impoverished and bereft of any beauty. I chuckle when I pray the Gloria using inclusive language (peace to his people on earth) but then switch to “sexist” language in the Creed (and became man). Then there are the Responsorial Psalm antiphon translations, which don’t match the translations of the psalms themselves because each one was translated from different different versions of the scriptures. And these problems pale in comparison to the general tone of the English texts–common, common, common. One would think the translators despised beauty and poetry altogether, although what we currently have is infinitely superior to what we had 10 years ago.
  2. The priest visibly standing in the Sacred Liturgy in persona Christi. Quite frankly, it shouldn’t matter if the celebrant is “Faaaather Bowwwb.” or HE, the Cardinal Archbishop of such and such… They and their personalities shouldn’t matter–it is Christ Who matters. Why have we allowed the regrettable “tradition” of naming all of the participants in a particular “liturgy?” “…Our celebrant for this liturgy is Faaaaather Bowwwwb; our lectors are Mary Smith and Jane Thomas; our servers are Jane Smith, Lucy Jones and Samantha Jones; our Eucharistic Ministers are Helen Quick, Nancy Slow, Marcia High and Janet Low; our musicians are terrible, oh I mean Mary Right and Kenny Wrong; our ushers are ……….” (All joking aside, I have experienced this in real life.) On and on and on. I don’t know any of them, and quite frankly it wouldn’t matter if I did. It isn’t about the priest, the “ministers” or me–not in that sense. It is about God. The habit of naming everyone physically taking part in Mass belies the assumption that the priest is an MC whose job it is to stir up good vibes among those “assembled” instead of another Christ, offering Himself to the Father through the Holy Spirit. I can’t imagine Christ having worried about stirring up good vibes in the apostles at the Last Supper. Christ, as head of the Mystical Body of Christ, focused on the Father, which provides an excellent segue into plea for worshipping ad orientem. There is no reason for me to keep beating the horse here, but I firmly believe that the simple act of facing east would probably do more than anything in the Novus Ordo to reverse the travesty of Mass being about the priest and people rather than about God.
  3. A classical (and shared) view of what constitutes Christian architecture, art and music. In times past one could visit the city of Cincinnati or Tokyo, it wouldn’t matter, and make an educated guess at which buildings were Catholic Churches (or at least churches) and which ones weren’t. Christians shared a common symbolic language in their architecture and art. The same could be said for music, but in the rush to be relevant (to society, but not, ironically, to God) we have jettisoned much of what is beautiful in Catholicism and replaced it with what is fashionable.
  4. A rich life of piety and Christian Community. In former times, families came together daily to make the Morning Offering and to pray the Rosary, parishes hosted processions, novenas and May crownings, people sang hymns in their homes and young people formed dance bands and played for their friends on Saturday nights at the local barn or community hall. That is all gone now and we shove everything, even the Sacraments, from Weddings and Confirmations to Baptisms and Anointings, into the Mass. On the flip side, the Church has tried to make all devotions outside of Mass conform to the Liturgy of the Word, complete with readings and petitions. No wonder many cultural Catholics think the Mass is all that’s left, so they shove evening thing into it, from the band they formed to the pop music they like to the Sacraments and many other more or less important life events. The richness of the Divine Office (the other part of the Sacred Liturgy) and Benediction, which found a home in so many normal parishes prior to the 1960s have been forgotten. All this means that the Universal Prayer of the Church, Her Sacred Liturgy, must be adapted to every situation, whim or need of a particular church and its members. No wonder so many people leave Mass early. If you aren’t from such and such parish or if the menagerie of speakers who stroll into the sanctuary at the end of Mass to talk about this or that don’t touch on what’s important to you, why stay to the end for an extra 10 minutes of irrelevant community announcements.

I would like to end where I began, with Gaurdini. He writes “The primary and exclusive aim of the liturgy is not the expression of the individual’s reverence and worship for God. It is not even concerned with the awakening, formation, and sanctification of the individual soul as such. Nor does the onus of liturgical action and prayer rest with the individual. It does not even rest with the collective groups, composed of numerous individuals, who periodically achieve a limited and intermittent unity in their capacity as the congregation of a church. The liturgical entity consists rather of the united Body of the faithful as such–the Church–a body which infinitely outnumbers the mere congregation.

I don’t hope or even desire that every Mass be exactly the same, but I should be able to experience the reality of the Mystical Body of Christ instead of banging my individualism up against someone else’s. This is something I hope we can all pray for.

Choosing Choral Repertoire

I find that one of the most difficult aspects of my position is choosing choral repertoire for the Sacred Liturgy. How does one remain faithful to the Church’s mandates for liturgical music and choose music the choir enjoys singing and the congregation (not to mention the pastor) enjoys listening to (or should that even be a concern?). What about my own preferences or the abilities of the choristers?

Every choir director probably knows of one or two pieces his choir loves to sing and does well, but his choir likely sings more than twice a year. Is it alright for him to program the same piece several Sundays in a row?

In order to answer these questions, it is good to remember the two classical “ends” of the Mass: 1) the Glory of God and 2) the sanctification of the faithful. We need to follow what the Church has discerned to be true liturgical music, what is worthy of the temple, but also be mindful of the laity who are spiritually nourished or starved to an extent by the music they hear.

Obviously, Gregorian chant should play a healthy role in every parish’s liturgical life, although by no means the only music one should hear. Of course, the Extraordinary Form parish will naturally be used to copious amounts of chant while the Ordinary Form parish might need copious amounts of coaxing. If your parish is new to chant, I would suggest learning a number of the superbly accessible Gregorian hymns in English, such as Godhead here in hiding (Adorote devote) or Hear Us, Almighty Lord (Attende, Domine).

The first place one should go in choosing choral literature is to the texts of the sacred liturgy themselves, especially the Propers. I personally look at those before I look at the readings since the Offertory or Communion motet is an extension of sorts of each respective antiphon.

One great resource for literature is Dennis Schrock’s Choral Repertoire.  I have learned so much simply by reading this book. It lists composers and works according time period, nationality, nature of the work (sacred, secular, Mass, motet, madrigal, etc.) and popularity (based on the frequency of performance). I have learned about a great amount of modern music this way. I also enjoy reading the choral lists posted by most of the great Cathedrals and choral foundations, both in the US and on foreign soil and I don’t hesitate to ask other choir directors for their suggestions. On occasion I have even commissioned works from our parochial school music teacher (what are friends for).

I will assume that our readers already know they need to choose liturgically, musically and theologically sound music for use in the Mass or Divine Office. Some other things to keep in mind are:

  1. Choose repertoire for the choral forces at your disposal. Don’t tackle that 8 part war horse when you only have 12 people in your choir (I am guilty of this). I would much rather hear the simple done well (even if your choir has to sing hymns as motets) than the complex done badly, or even mediocrely. (Mediocrity is often what kills chant!)
  2. Choose music that your choir sounds good singing or the acoustics of your church support. My choir has sung Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium on several occasions but the dryer acoustics of our parish church don’t do it justice. Messiaen’s music really needs the acoustics of a French cathedral to pull it off successfully.
  3. Don’t be afraid of modern music (or, don’t be afraid of older styles). Church musicians need to continually expand the treasury of Sacred Music and I firmly believe that we will never exhaust the music possibilities of the texts of the Sacred Liturgy.
  4. Work to expand and deepen your choir’s and your congregation’s musical abilities. At the same time, don’t kill them with relentless good taste. There is nothing wrong with throwing an appropriate bone on occasion.
  5. Sing music that not only glorifies God, but also brings your congregation to a greater love of God (His Truth, Mercy, Charity, Goodness, Beauty). The two are not exclusive.

Good luck!

Teaching Gregorian Chant to Boys with Changed Voices

I have heard it said that teaching chant to the masses for the Masses is quite an easy thing to accomplish, especially for children. Possibly, but if your goal is to teach youth the glories contained in the Graduale Romanum, I suggest you buckle your seat-belt and say your prayers. Nevertheless, such a worthy goal should be attempted so I thought I would share my choristers’ path to singing the Communion antiphon.

Seven or eight years ago I introduced a set of simplified vernacular propers (specifically the Communion antiphon) to my adult choir and to the parish. I can’t say I was overly taken by them, but they were better than most (I was not familiar with Fr. Weber’s settings at the time) and allowed me to travel the well promoted path of singing chant in English first. To my consternation, the choir didn’t like the either (why should they if I didn’t) and found them rather boring. Even our pastor at the time couldn’t stand them and told me so. I took the hint, but as a last ditch effort I proposed the choir sing the actual Communio chant from the Graduale Romanum. He acquiesced and we sang. I expected a healthy dose of negative feedback, but never received any (to be honest, there wasn’t any positive feedback either). Everything about the chant proved a challenge: the language, the music notation, even the sound of the modes. It took a couple of months before the small group of men could tackle one entire antiphon with any sense of confidence within a reasonable amount of rehearsal time. The second year through, was a revelation. The singers found the modes well established in their ears and the notation familiar to their eyes, and if the men could do it, then why not the boys.

At first I taught all of the boys with changed voices, but that was a mistake. It wasn’t worth the ill will caused by dragging unwilling participants across the Gregorian finish line. Instead I taught those who wished to learn in a separate, faster paced rehearsal. The boys encountered the same learning curves the adult men had previously, but their facility in solfege speed up the learning process, which I share with you now:

  1. (Melody) I asked the boys to sing through the chant first in solfege, without concern for rhythm, and reviewed tricky spots along the way (currently, the boys are capable of this after two times through the antiphon in solfege).
  2. (Rhythm) Then I lead them through the chant on a neutral syllable, such as nee or nah (the n only rearticulated at the beginning of an actual syllable in the Latin text). I focused on the chant’s rhythm and phrasing before adding the text.
  3. (Words) Next I focused on the text, both its literal meaning and liturgical meaning, and how to pronounce it. They knew certain words and phrases such as Deus and dixit or Cantate Domino canticum novum from other songs we had sung and were aware of numerous cognates. Between that and their knowledge of the texts in English they could usually make a decent guess at translating the antiphon before we spoke the text in a musical cadence.
  4. Finally, we put the various parts togethers and sang through the Communio twice before moving on. After two practices the boys could sing an antiphon to a high degree of accuracy, even if musicality came later.

Next year they will tackle the Introits, though I expect less of a learning curve. Regardless, I will let you know how it goes.

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!