Category Archives: Organ

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!

 

To the Headmaster of Westminster Cathedral Choir School

As many of you are no doubt aware, Westminster Cathedral Choir School (London) recently made the decision to fundamentally alter the boarding status of its choristers, thus jeopardizing the choir’s sole reason for being, to sing the daily praises of God. What follows is a letter I am posting today to the school’s headmaster, Mr. Neil McLaughlan. I would encourage you to do the same, or to email him via office@choirschool.com.

May 7, 2019

Dear Mr. McLaughlan,

On the afternoon of April 15, Catholics the world over learned of the devastating news of a monstrous fire ravaging through the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, seemingly destroying everything in its path. We watched through flames and embers as the roof and spire crumbled, fearing that all (literally) would be lost. The stained glass, the organ, the Crown of Thorns, the bell towers, even the Blessed Sacrament, Himself—we wondered if the fire would take it all and all that it stood for. Only on the following morning did we learn that miraculously Our Lady’s cathedral still stood, her great rose windows still captured the morning sun, her Cavaillé-Coll organ would once again chant the unending praises of God, and that due to the bravering of so many firemen and their chaplain, and undoubtedly due to the prayers of so many offered around the world, the Crown of Thorns and most importantly, the Blessed Sacrament had been saved.

Imagine my sorrow then when I recently learned that Westminster Cathedral Choir School would fundamentally alter its choristers’ boarding arrangements and decrease the choir’s intimate connection to the Cathedral’s life of sacred worship. It seemed that a second tragedy, on par with the fire at Notre Dame, had struck the Church in Europe. No doubt the choir’s standard will remain high, but that is not the choir’s ultimate purpose. Just as Notre Dame was not built to be a tourist attraction, but as a worthy tabernacle for the Divine on earth, so Cardinal Vaughn and Sir Richard Terry founded the Westminster Cathedral Choir to sing the praises of God daily, not merely when convenient. Just as Parisians in the 12th century felt compelled to give the best they had to God, so should the folks of Westminster Cathedral in the 21st century.

As I am sure you are aware, the Westminster Cathedral Choir is every bit as important, beautiful and sublime a gift as Notre Dame Cathedral, only much more fragile. Fires and revolutions have not been able to sweep away such a great edifice. Even in the quiet of the night, she stands as a testament to the glory of God. The cathedral’s choir, on the other hand, must be renewed, rebuilt and restored through an unending round of rehearsals, lessons, Masses and Offices, which simply are not possible without the full boarding of its choristers.

Several years ago, in an email exchange with Colin Mawby, Westminster’s former Master of Music described to me the precarious circumstances of the choir school during the turbulent 1960s. He told me he never knew from day to day if the choir school would survive another year, and at one point even announced that its doors would close. Yet he fought and prayed, much like the firemen at Notre Dame, and by the grace of God saved the institution.

It is true that changing the boarding arrangements of your choristers is not nearly as drastic as closing the choir school entirely, but it would signal the death knell of the choir’s sole raison d’être, the daily singing of the Church’s Opus Dei. Like the great Cathedral of Notre Dame, this daily musical offering belongs not only to the Church in London and the British Isles, but to the universal Church. It is an inspiration to Catholics and many others around the world and it is THE standard of Sacred Music in an increasingly secular world, but most of all, it is an offering of love we owe to the Creator of All. Please be assured of my prayers in this difficult time.

In Jesus and Mary,

Dr. Lucas M. Tappan

Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum, founder and director

Strive for Greatness!

I offer the following as a healthy antidote to so much drivel we hear today in the Church coming from people who should know better. Stop trying to remove the cross from Christianity and from our every day lives. Stop trying to make everything easy, and therefore unimportant. Instead, help us and those around us to pick up our cross and follow Christ.

Consequently, if you are church musician, strive for greatness, both for yourself and for your music program. Don’t stoop to the lowest common denominator. Again I say strive for greatness!

  1. Strive for greatness yourself. Do you strive to become a better musician, singer, organist? Do you strive to better manage your tasks? (and I don’t mean trying to get more done).
  2. Ask those around you to strive for greatness. Do you expect greatness from those around you? Do you always push them to greater heights, without pushing them too far? Do you strive to understand them and what you can do to help them achieve greatness? Do you accept constructive criticism from those same people when they push you toward greatness?
  3. Give your musicians quality music to sing and play and ask them to sing and play it well. Each parish will have a different dynamic, but even if you find yourself in a less than ideal situation, insist upon quality in the music. You won’t find yourself striving for greatness if the best you can hope for is mediocre music done well.
  4. Communicate through the music. I assume you work to get the notes right, but do you work to communicate the text? Yes, what we do is ultimately for God and this should always be first and foremost in our minds. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with edifying our parishioners at the same time.
  5. Ask for feedback from sources you can trust. Not everything you do will be great. Make sure you have some trusted sources who think with the mind of the Church, but who nevertheless will tell you when things aren’t going well or could even be better.
  6. Work to build healthy friendships and to know your musicians outside of your music program. Holiness and love for good music is more caught than taught.
  7. Strive for holiness and real communion. This is the most important of all, but don’t think it is holiness versus excellence. Rather, excellence is part of your holiness. Above all else, spend time with our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and do all that you do with Him and for Him.

Regarding the last point, I am reminded of the following passage from the book In sinu Jesu: “This is what I want of you: time “wasted,” spend in My presence. Time given to Me for My sake…Do you think that I was always meeting with My disciples to plan events, to organize and strategize and plot our course of action? All of this is the world’s way of achieving what it sees as results. When I walked with My disciples, when I rested with them, our delight was in being together. They remained with Me for Me alone, and I remained with them out of My love for them, just as I remain in the Sacrament of the Altar out of the love I bear My whole Church…” (102)

 

 

The Cantor and Congregational Singing

The sight of the liturgical cantor is a familiar one… some man or woman, usually planted in the sanctuary with raised hand, beckoning us to song. In all fairness to these much maligned people, the vast majority do offer their gifts back to God and others in a spirit of generosity. They simply wish to serve and I am eternally grateful for that. At the same time, I wonder if we haven’t lost sight of the cantor’s original purpose of fostering congregational singing. Is it possible that the cantor is actually at odds with the goal of congregational singing? I wonder.

Regarding the Cantor, we find in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal the following: (104) It is fitting that there be a cantor or a choir director to lead and sustain the people’s singing. When in fact there is no choir, it is up to the cantor to lead the different chants, with the people taking part. Thus, the role of cantor is succinctly summed up in two words, leading and sustaining, but does the cantor succeed in these two roles?

It goes without saying that someone or something must establish the pitch and rhythm of the congregation’s sung prayer, otherwise cacophony would ensue, and the cantor is certainly capable. It is also true that someone or something needs to sustain the congregation’s sung prayer. Again, the cantor is suitable. But is the cantor the best candidate? Here we need to remember that this honor belongs first and foremost to the choir, and cultivating excellent choirs we must. The choir represents all of Heaven (and earth) present at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and a single cantor fails, at least symbolically, to convey this reality. You might well agree, but what about in the absence of a choir? Even in those rare parishes where the highest ideals of liturgical prayer are sought after and practiced, it is unlikely that the choirmaster possesses the ability to convince his choir to sing for multiple Masses 52 Sundays of the year, not to mention Holy Days and ferial days. Not even Westminster Cathedral, the London Oratory or St. John Cantius are capable of producing such a rara avis. There must be an alternative to the choir, and so we are given the cantor.

A well trained cantor is undoubtedly able to communicate pitch and rhythm, at least to a small group of parishioners, and should be able to sustain their singing, but this becomes extremely difficult in all but the smallest churches without the aid of the microphone and here is where I believe the role of the cantor fails. The cantor as we know it within the Ordinary Form wouldn’t be possible without the aid of amplified sound and I am convinced that electronic amplification kills congregational singing. First, it creates the impression that the church is filled with singing, which is rarely the case (if you doubt me, try turning off your sound system in the middle of any hymn and LISTEN). More often than not, the cantor masks the fact that many have stopped singing. Second, which is probably the reason for the first, cantors regularly lead music unsuitable for congregational use, music that is pitched too high, requires too wide a range and demands what is rhythmically impossible (this is apart from questions regarding theological soundness and principles of beauty). Third, even when suitable music has been chosen, the nature of amplified sound overpowers even the greatest amount of congregational participation. No matter how gustily the congregation sings, the cantor can and usually will sing louder. Lastly, amplification rids us of the necessity to build acoustically live and resonant churches.

This last point reminds me of a certain stairwell in my college’s library that amplified even the smallest whisper into a force of nature. One day at lunch it came out around the table that all of us seated there (I believe I was the only music student at the table) loved to sing in that space when we found ourselves alone in it because the sound seemed to come alive. Resonant churches provide that same impetus to many faithful who otherwise feel exposed and vulnerable singing in dry spaces where their individual voices and mistakes are readily noticed, especially by themselves. A live acoustic is somewhat like grace, it takes the earnest, but often modest, vocal offering of the Christian and transforms it into something beautiful.

Resonant acoustics aside, this leaves us with two main questions. 1) Does the cantor fulfill its role in the Ordinary Form? and 2) If not, then who, or what, can? For the moment, I want suspend judgment on the first question and tackle the second.

If not, then who, or what? First, we need to remember that congregational singing pre-dates the Second Vatican Council and even the advent of amplified sound. Congregational singing in the Germanic and Slavic nations runs deep and certainly wasn’t predicated on the presence of the cantor.

The pipe organ is the only other living thing that could possibly fill the void left in the absence of a choir. No other instrument on earth can sing as high or low, as loud or soft, or with as much gentleness, passion or majesty as the Sacred Liturgy demands (and all without amplification). If we look at the history of the pipe organ, long before it ever accompanied the congregation it was used to establish pitch and sometimes tempo for the singers. A good organist today can easily end his introduction in such a way that the congregation knows it has come to an end and that the hymn or chant will begin NOW, on THIS pitch, at THIS tempo. As a matter of fact, I have done it many times. The organist should be able to adjust his registration, timbre, tempo and key to fit the congregation’s needs without the unnatural aide of the microphone. To lead and sustain via the organ, coupled with good, singable music, is to place the responsibility for congregational singing in the hands of the congregation. As with anything else in life, if you want someone to succeed, you have to first give him the tools and then step back and let him do it.

Now I can tackle the question of the cantor’s necessity. If the organ/organist is able to lead and sustain congregational singing in a purely natural way (without amplification), is the cantor no longer necessary? In a perfect world every parish would have an organist capable of leading from the organ and all the music used would be known and loved, but that simply isn’t the case. Nevertheless, there are ways we can place the responsibility for congregation singing back in the hands of the congregation while making concessions for a cantor when necessary.

  1. Move your cantor out of the sanctuary and into the organ loft if possible. Before anyone objects that in the older form of the Roman Rite the liturgical cantor would have been both vested AND in the choir/sanctuary, we must remember that the cantor as envisioned by the GIRM is very different from the traditional cantor in the Roman Rite. It is simply too easy for the modern cantor to become the star of the show as opposed to the servant of the liturgy and liturgical song.
  2. Ask your cantor to begin well-known music and then step away from the microphone.
  3. Ask your cantor to lead all new music, but only until the congregation is capable of sustaining it themselves. If the congregation isn’t able to do so after a reasonable amount of time, perhaps the music you’ve chosen is simply not suitable.
  4. Ask your cantor to sing the proper antiphons. Since these change weekly, it can be difficult for your congregation to learn all but the simplest settings of them.
  5. Do NOT, I repeat do NOT!!! ask a cantor to sing at the same time as the choir.
  6. Find smaller groups of musicians, perhaps two strong singers, to lead the music, without microphones, in the absence of your choir.

We need to be honest and ask if what we are doing supports or hinders our sung prayer. Such honesty can be brutal, but ultimately life giving.

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 Review of Fr. White’s Tools for Rebuilding

I recently finished reading Tools for Rebuilding, a well known book in U.S Catholic leadership circles written by Fr. Michael White, pastor of the Church of the Nativity in North Baltimore, and his assistant, Tom Corcoran. If you are unfamiliar with this work, it is the sequel to the book Rebuilt by the same authors, detailing the re invigoration of the Church of the Nativity over the course of Fr. White’s tenure. The parish’s story is well known among bishops, priests, directors of religious education, youth ministers and others who seek to spread the Gospel in an increasingly secularized society. The entire Rebuilt movement is spreading through workshops given across the county and via social media.

To be fair, I find much in the book worthy of reflection. Both Fr. White and Mr. Corcoran possess and promote a lively and orthodox Faith, which they refer to as “dynamic orthodoxy.” They took a failing parish and turned it around, tackling issues that many pastors and parish leaders might find overwhelming (only high school boys serves).

Many of the book’s 75 Tools (each is a chapter) embody common sense strategies for creating any healthy organization, and to be honest, parishes can learn a lot from them. Fr. White challenges his parishioners’ consumer mentalities. He welcomes newcomers, asks the newly arrived to get involved and challenges those involved to go deep into their faith.

Interestingly, he acknowledges the Eucharist to be the source and summit of the Church, channeling most of the parish’s energy into making the “weekend experience” the best the it possibly can, but here I feel his model runs out of steam. The Mass cannot be reduced to a “weekend experience.” This mentality focuses on the people being the primary end of worship as opposed to the Triune God. One finds this none too subtle ideology in the book’s focus on clean bathrooms over beautiful vestments, or “relevant” music (read pop music) over the Church’s music. This is really sad because it sets two objectively good things in opposition to each other instead of making them work side by side, another silliness of the modern age. Why shouldn’t a parish have beautiful vestments AND clean restrooms? Why can’t there be relevant music that is ALSO truly beautiful? Why can’t we worship God, build up the faithful AND welcome the newcomer (or the fallen away Catholic)? Why can’t we celebrate the Sacred Liturgy worthily AND build Christian fellowship?

I am truly edified by Fr. White’s work, but I do hope that his regard for the church growth movement doesn’t negate the Sacramental and supernatural nature of the Church. We need to present the Church in ALL of Her fullness.

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!

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.

Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord!

Perhaps it is due to the artistic temperament endowed to me by God, but among Truth, Goodness and Beauty, it is without doubt Beauty that speaks to my soul. To be sure, I love Truth and Goodness, but I love them because they are beautiful. God has called me to walk the via pulchritudinis along my earthly pilgrimage and I praise God for that!

At the same time, I acknowledge that the pilgrim way is not always as beautiful as one might hope. On a daily basis I am forced to confront the ugliness of my own sins, the hatred of God by some, the disdain shown for His creatures by many and a great apathy quietly professed by most in the world for anything heavenly. Unfortunately, the last of these plagues seems to be the modus operendi in too many celebrations of Holy Mass in the western world. As a society we have become completely exhausted with living; we are tired with everything and Mass is just another event to be endured and gotten through, another obligation. We no longer care. It is an irony supreme that in the face of a renewed focus on evangelizing in the Church today, we have ceased, in practice if not in belief, to care about the Church’s Sacred Liturgy. We no longer find it beautiful.

The celebration of Holy Mass should be the daily event in the life of the Church where the Christian worships the Lord, spends time with Him, receives Him, is renewed and strengthened by Him, where his love for God and neighbor is given new breadth and where he begins to live the life of the blessed in Heaven. But alas, no longer. Now the Mass is merely a filling station where the Christian hops in for a short time, inserts his coin into the basket and in return receives the Eucharist from whichever of the 20 vending machines (Eucharistic Ministers) is closest in physical proximity. He might even spend five minutes afterward in personal prayer where he tells God exactly what He needs to do so the day’s plans will be successful, after which the Christian can move on to the really important tasks of the day, which usually take place in the office.

This is in stark contrast to the view of so many saints who saw the celebration of Holy Mass as a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet (I am reminded of the text of the Ave verum corpus) where Christians were taken up, and if they allowed God, were formed more fully into His image and likeness to become like living tabernacles, sent out into the world to be other Christs. By sharing the joy of living as such, the saints thereby converted the world.

The former view, which we struggle with today, is an extremely utilitarian one, which uses the Mass as a tool to produce what the Christian needs. The second view, a very classical one, acknowledges the Mass to be a partaking in the Heavenly Liturgy, one which calls all of creation, the entire world, to enter into the worship and rest of God. To be honest, who is not tired of the modern world’s utilitarian view, which asks how useful a thing is. What is useful in a child’s laughter, or Thanksgiving dinner or in the worthy celebration of the Heavenly Liturgy. None of these things are useful in the eyes of the world and therefore we are exterminating each one by one. We abort our children, we cut short Thanksgiving dinner in order to shop on Black Friday (which has been transferred by our secular liturgists to Thursday afternoon) and we have given up anything more than the most banal celebration of Holy Mass.

I recently read the EU Report in my latest edition of The American Organist (March 2017) and was both fascinated and frustrated by Paulo Bottini’s article entitled The Organ and Organist in Italy. He writes “You can count on the fingers of one hand the musicians who, when asked the question, ‘What do you do for a living?’ could rightfully answer, ‘I am a church organist. This is because in the Catholic Church, singing and instrumental music are not considered constituent parts of the rite, but ultimately are optional (my emphasis). For this reason many pastors… prefer to rely on anyone to make do—preferably for free—clumsily accompanying the same few botched songs.” Unfortunately this is believed believed by most in the western world, including our clergy, which is why I was happy to see the recent publication of Cantate Domino Canticum Novum: A Statement on the Current Situation of Sacred Music on the 50th anniversary of Musicam sacram.

The first point made in Canticum Domino concerning the regrettable state of church music today is this, “There has been a loss of understanding of the ‘musical shape of the liturgy,’ that is, that music is an inherent part of the very essence of liturgy as public, formal, solemn worship of God“(my emphasis). I agree with the document’s authors–we must recover the biblical belief that all of creation is called to be caught up in “one triumphant hymn of praise” to the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, what has been called the cosmic liturgy. This true (and ultimately beautiful) belief is indispensable if we hope to pull modern man out of himself and into eternity. I appeal to our bishops, pastors and seminarians, please re-orient the Church toward Heaven, to God. Do it first by re-orienting our worship, where Heaven truly meets earth. Give us churches that point to the reality of Heaven. Give us music that reminds us of the eternal hymn of praise sung by the angels, Give us homilies that inflame our hearts to love God and neighbor more deeply. Point us once again to God Who is Beauty Itself!