BBC Choral Evensong comes live today from Lichfield Cathedral’s Choir of Men and Boys. I noticed on their website that the choir has a rather full men’s section on a regular basis, comprising 9 lay vicars and three choral scholars for a grand total of 4 countertenors, 4 tenors and 4 basses. I am curious to see what kind of sound they make.
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!
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.
This week the reader is in for a treat. Choral Evensong comes live from St. Pancras Church during the London Festival of Contemporary Church Music. I doubt that every single person will be a fan of each of these works, but I have a feeling there will be at least some incredible music. For example, I am looking forward to listening to the Responses composed by Paul Burke. In preparing this post, I visited the composer’s website and listened to a recording of his Tribus Miraculis and couldn’t listen enough. There was a depth and mystery to the piece that so much of our church music, especially what is used in mainstream US Catholic parishes, lacks.
The Anglican church in England, as well as those Catholic English cathedrals that maintain high choral traditions, understand that the treasury of sacred music is LIVING. Too many Catholic musicians I have met in the United States don’t understand that. For the Catholic who attends a “normal” (how I wish I didn’t have to use that term) parish, there is no connection to the music that has fed his brothers and sisters for centuries, the treasury of sacred music is dead. On the flip side, those who attend the Extraordinary Form often experience music from the treasury of sacred music, but that too is a dead experience because those musicians refuse to acknowledge that the treasury is still expanding. Compare Palestrina’s Tu es Petrus, Rachmaninoff’s Bogoroditse devo and Lauridsen’s O nata lux. Each one of these pieces comes from different composers, times, countries and musical traditions, but each is imbued with a deep spirit of awe, reverence, mystery, spiritual depth, etc. May we take the best from our past and truly imbue today with that same spirit so that we can rebuild the Church for our children tomorrow!
If you direct a children’s choir and would like to introduce them into the beautiful repertoire of chant, you simply must download a copy of the Graduale Parvum, or “Little Gradual.” This is the work of Fr. Guy Nicholls, a priest of the Birmingham Oratory. Perhaps over the next couple of weeks we can go through some of this music. It is simply an outstanding piece of work and a great aid in the restoration of authentic sacred music into our liturgies, especially those with children.
The very first choir school I ever visited was St. Thomas (Anglican) on 5th Avenue in New York City, where I attended their annual Choir Master Conference. David Hill, who once directed the music at Westminster Cathedral, led the workshop. As we arrived, we were invited into the choir stalls to observe Mr. Hill lead a full rehearsal of the men and boys prior to Choral Evensong. The warm-up was beautiful (I could have listened to a concert of just that), but what came next struck me speechless. The first piece the choir sang was an Anglican psalm setting and it moved me to the very depths of my being (I am NOT an emotional person!). I had never heard a choir sing so beautifully, while at the same time communicate the text at such a profound level (one can hear them almost daily via their live broadcasts). Such is the power of music.
I enjoyed reading Richard Clark’s recent post wherein he writes that beautiful music within the sacred liturgy is not merely a “frill,” but an integral part of the liturgy. Speaking personally, beautiful sacred music moves me more than the most eloquent of homilies. I have a feeling this is true for many others. Perhaps if we invested in better music in our parishes (along side personal holiness in general) the Good New would be spread more effectively. Another reason for establishing a choir school.
BBC’s Choral Evensong comes live today from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, sung by the chapel choir under the direction of DR. Geoffrey Webber. Click here to listen to a few of their posted recordings. What an incredibly beautiful choral sound, just what a mixed choir should sound like! I can’t wait to listen to this broadcast.
Choral Evensong comes via an archived recording from the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1992. I encourage all directors of sacred music programs to visit the choir’s website to hear recordings of an incredible choir and to see how this choir takes sacred music into the public sphere through its many incredible recordings and commissioning of new music. Truly amazing, and a challenge to all!
The BBC broadcast of Choral Evensong comes live during the Octave of Easter from Temple Church, London. If my memory serves me rightly, St. Thomas More worshiped here during his time as a London barrister (before the English Reformation). Temple Church also played a role in the Anglican Choral revival in the 19th century, since which time it has been well known for its music program.
Choral Evensong comes live today from St. Edmundsbury Cathedral. Many of the choirs we have heard during Choral Evensong are comprised of choristers from the cathedral school alongside professional lay gentlemen who sing the lower parts. St. Edmundsbury Cathedral is different because it has no cathedral school, so the choristers come from many schools around the area, while the lay clerks are volunteers, which goes to show that one can achieve great sacred music on a volunteer basis.