Category Archives: George Guest

In Search of the Deeper Meaning

Lay a garland on her hearse…Upon her buried body lie lightly, thou gentle earth.

Pearsall’s setting of these mournful lyrics came to a gentle close, but no one spoke… no one could speak. Never before had I experienced a work so beautifully sung and the experience will remain with me as long as my mind endures. Everyone that day knew he had taken part in something incredible, something otherworldly that might never be repeated. Such was and is the power of music.

I have heard it said that magic shows up at every concert but usually goes home disappointed and George Guest, the legendary conductor of the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, noted that those otherworldly moments in music were rare indeed. Nevertheless, in striving for those moments I believe we raise our choirs to an unbelievably high standard and create music  worthy for the temple (if ever we could do such a thing), music that possesses the power to move minds and hearts. Of course this begs the question, How does one do that?

Fr. William Finn, whom I wrote about last week, noted that most conductors who came to him for advice usually wanted nothing more than a few tricks they could take home to their choirs. They rarely desired to learn those things necessary to breathe life into the music. Yes, choirs need to sing on key, to come in together and to cut off together. They should blend their vowels and produce their consonants rhythmically, but a choir might do all of this and still never reach the outer bounds of beauty’s realm. In short, such a choir would utterly fail to communicate. It isn’t enough to merely understand the words, one must needs enter into the words and ultimately into THE WORD. Quite frankly, this is a herculean task that requires a lifetime of education. For those of you who have read David Clayton’s The Way of Beauty (which I highly recommend), you will understand when I say that it also requires the gift of grace. Regardless, I do believe it possible to point the budding musician into the Way of Beauty.

First of all, it must be said that the mechanics of beautiful music must be present. The right notes matter, as do a host of other things. Beyond the mechanics, however, especially if I were pressed to give one piece of advice, I would point to the text. The text is paramount. Unfortunately, though, we inhabit a very un-poetic world unable to cope with anything deeper than the merely technical in language, which has crippled our ability to understand and finally to communicate.

I would like to delve more into this topic next week, but I will leave the reader with this very simple example. Below is a video of the Regensburger Domspatzen singing two verses of Adeste fideles, the first verse in Latin and the second in German. Listen specifically to the way in which the words and phrases are shaped as well as the way in which the rhythm moves the text. Is there a deeper understanding we gain of the carol’s meaning through the way in which this choir sings it? How does the way in which it is sung convey that deeper meaning? This is where the true are of the choir master begins.

Strive for Excellence

The casual Reader might perhaps mistake me as a died-in-the-wool anglophile in the realm of sacred music, especially since I hold the English Choir School in such high regard, but let us face facts-the English cathedral system of forming church musicians works. I was reminded of this yesterday as I listened to an old BBC interview of Sir George Thalben-Ball describing how he landed the his position of 60 years as the organist and choirmaster at the Temple Church (named because of its original link to the Knights Templar) in London.

While studying at the Royal College of Music, Thalben-Ball was called upon to fill-in for the afternoon service. He arrived at the Temple Church to find an orchestral score of Bach’s Mass in B Minor at the organ with a note that 10 movements would be sung that afternoon and that Thalben-Ball would need to transpose them all down a “semitone” because the organ was tuned almost half a step sharp. Thalben-Ball chuckled in the interview saying he must have decently well, since no one accosted him after the service, although he admitted to playing (transposed down a half-step) from the choral score instead of the orchestral score.

If any parish were to call and ask me to fill in that afternoon for a Sunday concert featuring 10 movements of the B Minor Mass and as an aside mention that I would need to transpose the entire thing down a half-step, I would quickly dismiss the call as a prank or feign illness. I simply wouldn’t be able to do it. Had I been a choir boy and sung the Mass first as a chorister and then later as a choral scholar and had been playing and accompanying choirs to a high degree since I was in junior high I might have a chance, but that wasn’t the case. In that sense, I feel like a complete joke telling people that I am a competent church musician, much less one with a DMA. When it comes down to it, what do I really know?! Let’s face it, the English cathedrals know what they are doing and even on their worst days hit a mark of excellence that is simply beyond the reach of all but our best cathedral choirs in the US.

Let us imagine for a moment a different situation. What if each of the 193 Catholic cathedrals (Roman Rite) in the United States were to model the English Cathedrals with a choir of men and boys and a separate choir of men and girls (and remember that most of them also have an excellent mixed choir to boot), where the boys and girls constantly rehearsed and sang the greatest music to the highest standards, especially the music native to the Roman Rite (Gregorian chant), took voice and piano lessons and sang daily for Mass and Vespers for the 5 to 6 years they were in the choir. In high school the girls would continue doing the same, while the boys would settle into their new roles as tenors and basses while singing the same music, only as a tenor or bass. A child who showed talent would begin studying the organ and playing and accompanying for services. When he went off to the university, each organist would receive a scholarship for playing for services for his separate college within the university, under the direction of a phenomenal choirmaster. After graduation, he would then be hired by a cathedral as an assistant organist and begin training the new singers as well (and he could, since he had been through the system himself and would be overseen by the director of music). He wouldn’t have to get a Masters Degree or a Doctorate in either organ or choral directing because he would have been singing in a professional choir and accompanying the same choir long before he even thought about shaving! It is nothing but the old apprentice system at work. Now imagine that happened at all 193 Catholic Cathedrals as well as our Catholic colleges, too. That is roughly 25 boy choristers and 25 girl choristers at each institution in one year. At the cathedrals alone that would be almost 10,000 children annually at least learning what good sacred music should sound like and having his/her moral imagination formed at the same time. Obviously only a small majority of those would go on to work in the field of sacred music, but even if it were 1%, that would mean 100 future professional church musicians, organists and singers, would be in formation each year (we aren’t even counting Catholic colleges). The other 99% percent would probably be open to financially supporting such a system because of the benefits they had received. So far the Cathedral of the Madeleine and St. Paul’s, Harvard Square are the only two who have joined the cause.

I challenge every church musician today to begin forming our future musicians. It will change the face of church music in the US and will transform the lives and Faith of uncountable numbers of faithful. As Fr. Z says, just take the training wheels off and ride the damn bike!

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.

The Choirmaster

The Choirmaster stood at the pearly gates
His face was worn and old,
He stood before the man of fate
For admission to the fold.
“What have you done,” Saint Peter said
“To gain admission here?”
“I’ve been a Choirmaster, sir,” he said,
“For many and many a year.”
The pearly gates flew open wide
Saint Peter touched the bell.
“Come in,” he said, “and choose your harp
You’ve had your share of hell.”

Anonymous (20th century, quoted from A Guest at Cambridge, 1998)

Durufle’s Quatre Motets, Op. 10,

Here is a recording of Durufle’s Quatre Motets, Op. 10, sung by the Choir of St. John’s, Cambridge, under the direction of Dr. George Guest.  I thought I would share these after my post yesterday along with a couple of comments.  Firstly, Guest steered the sound of St. John’s in the direction of a more continental sound (healthy and expressive use of vibrato) which you can hear.  Secondly, in the beginning of the first motet, Ubi caritas, one hears the Gentlemen of the Choir by themselves.  Often one is so busy with the choristers that nary a thought is given to the Gentlemen of the Choir, especially since they traditionally only attend the full rehearsal.  Thirdly, text was primary with Guest, so listen to the way in the choir expresses the text, simply beautiful.  Enjoy!


George Guest

I found an old interview today with George Guest, one of the greatest conductors in the English Cathedral choral system in the 20th century.  His comments range from the nuts and bolts of running a world famous choir school to the state of church music as he saw.  I would like to share a few quotes for the benefit of the reader.

Regarding the voice trial at St. John’s:

“As far as the little boys are concerned, we have, each year in early January, a voice trial.  It’s rather like a cattle auction.  If you were to go through the courts of Saint John’s College on the first Saturday of January, you’d see a lot of ladies clutching the hands of small boys, all with freshly combed hair and brushed shoes, wearing their best suits and carrying miniature violins and miniature cellos with them.  They would be coming to the Saint John’s choristers trial.  We have about thirty or forty of these boys each year, for about, on average, four places.  They come up to my rooms in college and they’re all just a little nervous, although it’s true to say that the parents are more nervous than are the children.  They are given some arpeggios so that one can listen to the sound they make and for quality of their voices.  We give them ear tests.  We give them two- and three-part chords, and they have to pick out the middle note or the bottom note or the top note of these.  We hear them play their instrument, and quite a lot of them, in fact, play two instruments.”

I do believe that all children should be given a very fine musical education.  At the same time, it is essential that we have choral institutions singing to the highest standards, which ultimately raises the choral bar for everyone.

Of special importance in this paragraph was his description of how he chose future probationers.  The examiners looks for a beautiful tone as well as a good ear and musical potential. I have also found that asking a possible probationer to read a piece of prose is very important.  I can’t prove this in any scientific manner, but in my experience a child who reads well seems to learn to read music much faster.

Regarding where he believes sacred music is going today:

“Well, I don’t know.  That’s such a wide question; it’s almost like the title for a dissertation of a master of literature or even a Ph.D. three years thesis.  I don’t know where it’s going!  It depends not so much on the musicians as on the church itself, and on those who are constantly bringing out new liturgies and addressing the almighty in terms of familiarity, which they would not dare to use either to the Queen or even to Mrs. Thatcher!  This is the trouble.  If you have a new liturgy, it does presuppose the fact that you’ve got to have new settings.  We at Saint John’s don’t come under any bishop at all, so we can do exactly as we like, exactly as our dean likes, or our college council.  We tend to be old-fashioned because we’ve found amongst young people at the university that they largely resent the innovations that are going on in the United States as well as in England.  They think that they’re being patronized.  They feel that all this business of addressing the almighty in everyday, modern language, and all the other gimmicks that are used in church serviceslike guitars and dancing and all the rest of itare rather pathetic attempts to increase congregations.  We have found most definitely that young people are now turning back towards dignity in worship, and they dislike the feeling that they are being patronized.  I suppose it may well be thus in a changing and often frightening world.  Lots of young people are frightened.  They’re frightened by the rulers of the United States as much as they are frightened by the rulers of Great Britain.  They’re frightened by the possibility of a nuclear war.  They’re frightened by the rulers of Russia.  They wonder if they will ever be able to live a full life such as their fathers and grandfathers did, or whether they’ll reach the age of three score years and ten.  In this frightening and turbulent world, it’s as if they’re turning back to something which has the appearance of stability.  So church services, with a fresh gimmick each week, are not things which have, to the modern young mind, any kind of stability at all.  I may be wrong in all this, but you put the question to me and that’s the best way I can answer it.”

Dr. Guest said this thirty years ago and I believe it is even more true today.  I pray more and more people realize this.