Category Archives: Anglican Choral Revival

Forming the Next Generation of Church Musicians

Recently I stumbled across a fantastic read, a DMA document entitled The Choir School in the American Church: a study of the choir school and other current chorister training models in Episcopal and Anglican parishes, by Daniel McGrath (2005). I share it with readers today because McGrath is the first author I have found who systematically and succinctly describes the the nature of, as well as the various models of, the Anglican choral system (both in England and in the United States), a model I feel passionately about and one that I believe has the power to inaugurate a true renewal of sacred music.

There isn’t a church musician I know of who isn’t concerned about the state of church music in the western world, but rarely do I find one who knows what to do about it. Obviously our university system with its decline number of organ departments as well as choral conducting departments hasn’t provided the answer. Consider the current situation in music schools where students learn about Renaissance music for one semester and are assumed to have the skills necessary to tackle the repertoire. On the other hand, choristers in the English choral system begin singing large portions of the best of Renaissance music around the age of 9 or 10 and do it repeatedly for four and five years as sopranos. If they are boys they go through the same repertoire again as countertenors, tenors and basses during their time in the Oxbridge colleges. Which program do you think is more successful?

A number of these same students are already accompanying services on a regular basis at a young age. How many young organists in America are accompanying world class choirs and helping to train younger choristers in junior high. Which program do you think is more successful?

One might object that the English choral system is tied too closely to England and the Anglican community to present a model for Catholic parishes, but I would argue otherwise. Firstly, the English choral system grew out of  the monastic, collegiate and cathedral music foundations in existence long before the English Protestant Revolt. Secondly, the system is extremely diversified even among the English Cathedrals–there is no “one size fits all” way of executing it, and this diversity makes it extremely adaptable to other places. At the heart of this system is the development of a beautiful and natural vocal tone, musical literacy, and singing high quality liturgical music on a regular basis within the church service. There is nothing here that couldn’t be adapted to the people of Russia, South Africa, Argentina or the United States.

I would encourage those interested in the English choral tradition to read McGrath’s document and familiarize themselves with what actually constitutes a choral foundation and determine if this wouldn’t work for your parish.

Then read and learn about the three main forms of the English choral foundation. In its highest form is the true choir school, a boarding institution that educates only choristers. In reality, there are only two such institutions left in the world today, Westminster Abbey and St. Thomas, NY, and I doubt this avenue would be useful for most. The second form of choral foundation is the parochial school, usually a preparatory school of some kind, that educates both choristers and non-choristers, but makes the necessary allowances for the musical education of the former. This model is perfect for many Catholic parishes sporting an attached school. Lastly is the after-school model, where choristers are drawn from the surrounding schools and educated either before or after school. This construct might easily serve the school-less parish or the parish with a school music program that has not yet been put under the vision of a pastor who wants to implement the Modern Roman Rite in continuity with the Older Form and the hopes of the Second Vatican Council. The author also gives advice for implementing each of these options.

One last point McGrath makes is how important it is that choral foundations are properly supported. In England the force of tradition as well as that of the monarchy and parliament (many of these institutions are enshrined in law and supported by taxpayer money) ensure their continuation, but such is not the case in America. Instead he suggests that it is the the pastor (and I dare say the bishop) who must support the formation and continuation of good choral foundations. I believe that the more the clergy realize that such schools are important centers for Christians formation, the more they will support them.

I also hear complaints (well founded) that these institutions are not cheap, but restructuring the budget in 50% of parishes would probably do the trick. Lastly, I realize that there aren’t the musicians around to found such choir schools, but the more choral institutions are founded in the US, the more great musicians will be fostered.

I want to paint a picture of what such places could accomplish in the Church. There are currently almost 200 cathedrals in the United States. If each of these cathedrals were to found a choral institution of some kind, each graduating approximately 10 children per annum, that would mean 2000 young people receiving such a formation each year. Within one generation (20 years) 40,000 young people would have been formed in the Church’s vision for the Sacred Liturgy and music. That would be an absolute game changer. Until we start forming our youth in the Church’s treasury of sacred music we will continue contracepting our musical future to death.

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.

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!

A Musically Model Parish

I have written before about the serious need for church musicians to posses vision in order to create and maintain a great music program, so I thought today I would share some visioning ideas with the reader regarding music in the Ordinary Form parish.

The greatest visioning challenge I find is wedding the “objective” desires of the Church to the “subjective” needs of each individual parish and then creating a strategy for implementation. As for the desires of the Church, it would be redundant on this blog to rehash everything She has taught about sacred music over the last century, but in short remember that the Mass should be sung (which means the priest’s parts as well as the congregation’s)Gregorian chant, being the official music of the Latin Rite, should actually be used and not left sitting on a dusty shelf in our secular universities where professors with nothing better to do argue over the use of the ictus and finally, the treasury of sacred music should be used (and not left sitting on a dusty shelf…), and finally, all of this must be integrated into an individual parish within the context of a certain culture and period in time. At this point the faint of heart realize the impossibility of such a task and give up its ghost, but for those of us who love a challenge, let’s dive in.

First, you simply must convince your pastor to sing the Mass (and recourse to the documents is generally of no use in this point). Whether you have to beg, plead or bribe, it doesn’t matter, just get him singing (and don’t tell him your ultimate goal is that he sing the entire Mass, it will only give him a heart attack). If you work for a priest who simply won’t budge or even listen to you, you might want to find another job anyway! More often than not, however, the pastor simply doesn’t feel his voice is good enough and he is probably terrified of singing in front of 400 people. That means it is up to you to encourage him and build him up every chance you get. I generally ask our pastor to add something new to his singing responsibilities every year or two. Currently he (and our vicar) sings the Collect, the Prayer over the Gifts, the Preface Dialogue, the Preface, the Lord’s Prayer and the Prayer after Communion at all Sunday Masses. You will be amazed at what this alone will do to raise the sense of the sacred in your parish.

Secondly, integrate Gregorian chant into your Masses. I personally began with the Kyrie because of the repetitive nature of the chant, but singing the Agnus Dei is another good option. There are also lots of great Gregorian melodies whose texts have been translated into English and make a great introduction to chant for your congregation. The Adorote devote and Attende, Domine are two such hymns that I have found to be very popular with children. We have a youth camp in our archdiocese that annually hosts thousands of young people, and they make it a point to end every night at the camp by singing the Salve Regina. Every child who has attended the camp loves that particular antiphon. I will admit that it is going to be harder for your adults to accept the chant. One thing a number of adults in our parish have come to appreciate (and it took several years for this appreciation to develop) is the quiet and reflective nature of the sung Communio from the Roman Gradual, which several men of the choir sing for about the first 3-5 minutes of the Communion procession, after which the choir leads a congregational hymn.

The one thing I would caution other directors about is the tendency for chant to drag, especially when done a cappella. Not singing chant would be better than chant sung ploddingly. I have been to parishes and even cathedrals where chant is butchered this way and even I have to admit that it becomes a boring distraction. Don’t immediately assume that your parishioners hate chant when they tell you they think it is boring. Record your choir and make sure that your parishioners don’t have a valid point.

Thirdly, integrate a few of the Church’s great choral works into you choir’s repertoire. Even if you arrive at a new parish to take up the post of choir master and you find your choir can’t sing a cappella, start by teaching a simple chant (such as the Adorte) or a 4 part hymn a cappella for them to sing after Communion. These works, too, are part of the Sacred Treasury of music. If you begin in this way, within two years they will be ready to tackle Byrd’s Ave verum corpus and other such liturature.

Finally, one must integrate the Church’s teachings on sacred music into the time and place in which he lives. Merely adapting to the local culture won’t do! Remember that Gregorian chant and 16th century polyphony have a universal appeal and can be used everywhere. At the same time, we need to bring our own cultural offerings to the table. There are a number of fine composers in the English speaking world today as well as a strong tradition of hymnody. While I realize that there are no hymns to speak of in the Roman Rite of the Mass, the reality is that the music director in the Ordinary Form will be using them anyway, so why not look to some of the great English translations of Latin and Greek hymnody, such as Draw Nigh and Take the Body of the Lord. The hymn texts of Kathleen Pluth are great examples of modern American hymn texts, and don’t forget the many wonderful American hymn tunes, such as those from Southern Harmony. Lastly, we need to raise up a new generation of composers. This will only happen if we train our young people in the incredible art of Sacred Music, which is where I will end my ramblings by putting in a plug for the choir school. If your parish already has a school, all you need is a little vision and a capable musician, and you too, can have your very own choir school!

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.