Category Archives: Choral Vespers

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.

Choral Evensong Live from St. Pancras Church, London

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!

Graduale Parvum

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.

St. Thomas Choir School, New York City

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.

Choral Evensong Live Today From Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

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 from Trinity College, Cambridge

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!