Category Archives: Organ

A Professional Choir in 6 Months

So it continues… the challenge I lay down to church musicians to found choir schools or choral foundations in their respective cathedrals and churches. To that end, I offer these brief histories of two choral foundations begun in the 20th century, namely Westminster Cathedral Choir School (Catholic; 1901) and the Guildford Cathedral Choir (Anglican; 1960-61). The incidents I relate in these histories come from a variety of sources, but I rely primarily on Andrew’s Westminster Retrospect (Westminster) and Carpenter’s The Beat is Irrelevant (Guildford).

My reason for offering these histories simultaneously is that both institutions were founded at the same time as their respective cathedrals and were considered as part of the fabric of each building. Cardinal Vaughn, the spiritual son of the great Cardinal Manning and builder of Westminster Cathedral, felt the choir to be as important to the solemn celebration of the Church’s sacred liturgy as the cathedral itself. His original agreement with Sir Richard Terry, Westminster’s first choirmaster, was that the choir would sing the daily High Mass, the little hours, Vespers and Compline (can one even imagine!). At Guildford the original plan had been for sung services only on the weekends, but Barry Rose, the choir’s first director, was adamant that there be daily choral services in the cathedral and his opinion held sway. In either case, it was unthinkable that the celebration of the liturgy could be separated from the best liturgical music. Of course, this view requires the creation of some sort of stable, first rate choral foundation, in order to make it a living reality.

The second reason I offer the histories of these two great cathedral choirs in the same post is that they had to be founded and their choristers trained to extremely high standards in relatively short periods of time. Terry had only six months to prepare his boys for Holy Mass on Ascension Day (1902), when the they, together with the men of the choir, offered Byrd’s Mass for 5 Voices in the  cathedral’s Chapter Hall. Rose had roughly the same amount of time before his choir’s first choral service in the new cathedral (1961), the televised enthronement of the new Anglican bishop of that see, followed by the cathedral’s consecration a month later.

Westminster Cathedral Choir School (originally a boarding school for choristers only) opened in 1901 with 11 choristers, then grew to include about 25 boys by the following June when daily choral services began in earnest. Terry was known for his unrelenting hard work, grueling standards and numerous rehearsals. During his tenure at Downside Abbey (before moving to Westminster) teachers complained that his rehearsals eclipsed all other school activities and one can only wonder what they were like when he began anew at Westminster. Rose didn’t have a dedicated choir school, but did form a partnership with the Lanesborough School, where he trained choristers four days a week in addition to rehearsals at the yet unfinished cathedral. I have sat in on rehearsals conducted by Rose and I can say they are truly thrilling and his quest for beauty in unrelenting. I can well imagine that neither he nor Terry ever settled for less than twice what the choristers thought was their best.

It must also be noted that Byrd’s Mass for 5 Voices not withstanding, both choir masters put the quality of performance before the difficulty of repertoire and always focused on the music of the liturgy before moving on to “filler” music. Rose would often spend most of a rehearsal before Choral Evensong on getting a few lines of one of the Psalms perfect, which necessitated scrapping the proposed anthem in favor of Tallis’ If Ye Love Me, supposedly sung more often in the early days of the choir than many singers cared to remember. Thankfully Mr. Rose recorded most of what his choir sang during his tenure at Guildford Cathedral (offered on YouTube by Archives of Sound). Terry noted in his 1907 book Catholic Church Music that it would be better to sing the psalms and antiphons at Mass and in the Office recto tono than to give them an unmusical rendering. I often wonder if some of the vitriol directed against the Church’s music is due to its less than stellar presentation.

Lessons to be Learned
The greatest lesson I feel we can learn from both of these is the connection between the sacred liturgy and liturgical music. The Second Vatican Council reminded us that the Church’s treasury of sacred music is Her greatest art because it doesn’t just adorn Her rites, but becomes part of them. If we want to renew the Church’s Sacred Liturgy, we must also renew its link with sacred music. It is a travesty of titanic proportions that the completely sung Sacred Liturgy is rarely offered in Cathedrals today, even for great feasts, much less on a daily basis. Our Cathedrals owe God nothing less than the solemnly sung Liturgy (which encompasses more than Mass!) on a daily basis. Please note that this is not a slight against Cathedral music directors. I know so many good ones who work tirelessly to make things as beautiful as they are allowed.

The second lesson we can learn is that the practice of making the Church’s music is only possible with constant rehearsal and dedication on a daily basis. It is wonderful that volunteer choirs exist at cathedrals and they most certainly add to the beauty of the Cathedral’s sacred worship, but they simply cannot bear the load of the Church’s daily liturgy. This is almost impossible without the aid of a choir school. Of course this begs the question of which kind of choir school should a cathedral have, but this can only be discerned by those at each cathedral. A cathedral in one of our great metropolitan areas almost necessitates a residential school of some kind simply because there often aren’t many children living in their geographical areas and grueling daily travel would be to much for children and parents. Most cathedrals in the United States could adequately work with a day school, while those in the more remote areas might have to content themselves with an after school choral foundation that sings on Sundays and major feasts only.

Because this article deals with cathedral choirs that were founded in a very short amount of time I want to address circumstances particular to their foundings. While I can’t speak from personal experience, I feel that this would be the most musically rewarding way to begin a cathedral choir school or choral foundation. In order to do this, a musician would need to have the complete trust and friendship of the bishop, rector and the cathedral’s master of ceremonies (or in the case of a larger parish, the pastor). The musician would need carte blanche to do whatever necessary (and within reason) to make such a foundation possible and would need to have every help from the cathedral and diocese as are regularly necessary to establish a new school, much less a residential one. If the cathedral or church already had a school, the music director would need the same cooperation from the principal, teacher and parents.

Another key ingredient to such an undertaking would the selection of the best choristers. In this kind of institution only the most ideal children could be accepted. Children, even those who had no previous training, would need to possess a beautiful singing voice, free of anything that might hamper the development of the choir’s tone, an incredible ear able to reproduce what it hears correctly the first time, a driving desire to be part of such a choir and the intellectual capabilities to deal with such intense learning on top of all his or her other school requirements. I once heard John Scott, while at St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, mention that as of May in that particular year, he had only accepted four candidates on probation for the choir the next year. His standards were that high (and yes, there were a number of other boys who inquired and even auditioned). Those selected had to be able to learn to read music in a very short time, create a quality choral sound and develop a decent repertoire to handle the demands of daily choral services. One would also have to be as exacting with the men of the choir.

If you are a bishop or cathedral music director and are reading this blog, I venture to guess you already understand the intimate relationship between good sacred music and the Church Liturgy. If you do, please consider moving forward with such a venture as a cathedral choir school. There are wonderful people of great faith and incredible talent who are more than willing to help. We need to be bold!

A WHAT School?!?

Last week I wrote about the affect that the founding of roughly 350 choir schools in the United States would have upon our general level of sacred music within a single generation and provided a number of resources for the novice and not-so-novice who would like to know more about choir schools, but who are currently unable to visit these great institutions.

Today I would like to continue this thread of thought in order to discover more about what makes a choir school tick. I also want to tie the choir school concept to several real models that I feel are every bit worth imitating in one way or another. Along the way I hope to provide more resources for our readers should they wish to dive further into the subject.

In order to begin our conversation, I believe it is necessary to keep in mind that the ultimate goal of the church musician is to provide the most beautiful music possible for the sacred liturgy and NOT (necessarily) to create a school. This is perhaps why in England cathedral choirs are often referred to as choral foundations. For example, there has been a choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London since 604 A.D., but it wasn’t until centuries later, in 1123 A.D. that a school was established by the bishop of London to educate boy choristers. The important thing is the choir that sings for the services. The cathedral does not announce each week that St. Paul’s Cathedral School (where the choristers are educated) sings for the cathedral’s services, but rather that St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir sings for the services. It is, therefore, possible to have a fine choral foundation without an actual school (Rippon Cathedral Choir). However, I firmly believe it is more difficult.

Another point to keep in mind is that there are very few “real” choir schools left in the world. What I mean by this is a school whose sole raison d’être is the education of a certain church’s choristers and no other students. Two such elite programs that readily come to mind are the choirs schools at Westminster Abbey (Anglican) and St. Thomas Fifth Avenue (Anglican). Both of these schools are residential and educate only the boys who sing in each church’s choir. As far as I am aware, the Schola Puerorum, the school for boys of the the Sistine Chapel Choir, also exists solely for the purpose of educating the choir’s choristers, but it is not a boarding school (are are Westminster and St. Thomas). The same is true for St. Paul’s Choir School (Boston). The obvious reason for such schools is that the musical education of the choristers becomes the guiding principle for all of the school’s education decisions and programs. The downside, however, is that educating such a small number of children is EXTREMELY expensive and strong in will and perseverance would have to be the rector of any church to attempt building such an institution.

Much more common today is the choir school that educates non-choristers as well as choristers (and often both boys and girls, even where the choir remains open to boys only). This list includes choir schools such as Westminster Cathedral Choir School (Catholic) and the Madeleine Choir School (Utah). The Madeleine Choir School has always educated non-choristers, whereas Westminster Cathedral Choir, like many other European choir schools, began educating non-choristers in order to keep the school financially viable. St. Paul’s Cathedral School (London) is another well known choir school that now educates both choristers and non-choristers (I would recommend readers watch the 1978 documentary Paul’s Children, the first part here, during the tenure of the legendary Barry Rose). Some, like Westminster Cathedral and St. Paul’s are boarding schools (at least for the choristers) and some, like the Madeleine Choir School, are simply day schools. In choir schools that educate both choristers and non-choristers, there can exist a tension between plotting an educational course that provides the best environment for choristers and one that favors non-choristers. The Madeleine Choir School implemented a creative approach to this issue, allowing the school principal to plot a course for the daily educational needs of all students, but retaining the cathedral choir director as the school’s pastoral administrator, a position above the principal, which allows him final say should there ever arise an conflict between chorister and non-chorister interests.

The mission of all of these choir schools remains the training of their choristers in the art of sacred music. The main difference, however, among all of the schools I have mentioned, is how much control each school is able to exert over a chorister’s formation. The greatest amount of control is exerted by the residential “real” choir school that can plan all of its educational and extra-curricular events around the needs of the choir. This lessens slightly as one descends to the non-residential “real” choir school, then to the residential choir school that educates both choristers and non-choristers, next to the non-residential choir school that educates choristers and non-choristers, penultimately to the regular school that partners with a cathedral or church choir and lastly to the choir that exists as an after (or before) school model.

As I just mentioned, there are regular schools (non-choir schools) that work in partnership with a church’s choir to provide an ideal setting for the musical education of that church’s choristers even though the school is not a choir school. This model is perhaps more common in England where there is no-separation between church and state. It is also somewhat easier to facilitate because English schools generally begin much later than American schools (around 9 a.m.), which allows for a choir rehearsal at school each morning at a reasonable hour before the school day officially starts. (I have personally tried this at my own American parish and a 7 a.m. choir rehearsal somehow sounds much more cruel to choristers and parents than an 8 a.m. choir rehearsal.) A wonderful example of such a choir is the London Oratory Schola Cantorum, directed by Charles Cole.

Take a moment to visit these choirs’ websites to find out about the history and structures of each one. Is the choir attached to a school? How often does each choir rehearse and when? How many Masses, parts of the Divine Office or services does each sing weekly? Where are the choristers educated? Do choristers received a reduction in school fees because of the time they give to the cathedral or parish in service to the liturgy? Do choristers receive a thorough grounding in music theory? How many services does each choir sing on a weekly basis? What kinds of music does each choir sing? Are choristers required to take lessons in piano or in other instruments? Are choristers given voice lessons as part of their musical education? Who sings the alto, tenor and bass parts in these choirs, professional singers, boys with changed voices or a combination of both? Are there other organists or helpers on the music staff (educating choristers is VERY time consuming)? Does the choir take part in musical events outside the liturgy, and if so, does this help them to sing at a higher level within the liturgy?

These are things a choir director needs to think about as he plans to build a successful choral foundation at his own cathedral or parish. And because I do think it is indispensable that liturgical musicians in American begin to build choir schools for the training of our own future musicians, next week I will begin taking readers through the histories of the founding of various types of choir schools. The schools I have selected were all founded in the 20th century and therefore have many more documented histories available to help the church musician of today create his own blueprint for such an incredible institution.

 

Sense and Sensibility

In Jane Austen’s immortal novel Sense and Sensibility, we encounter the devoted, if extremely dissimilar, Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne. Elinor, the eldest, is the model of sense and self restraint, always ready to place what is right, as well as the good of others, before her own self concern; Marianne, on the other hand, is the model of sensibility, always ready to follow the mood and emotion of the moment, regardless of the needs and feelings of others. As in all of her works, the affairs of the heart of both Elinor and Marianne form the plot of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

As the story begins, the Miss Dashwood’s dying father evokes a promise from his only son (from a previous marriage) to financially provide for his step-mother and step-sisters (Elinor, Marianne and a younger sister) after the elder Mr. Dashwood’s demise. Despite every good intention to carry out his father’s wishes, the younger and fickle Mr. Dashwood is promptly discouraged from doing so, thus Elinor and Marianne are left with only the capital of their good names and family relations to make up for their unfortunate deficit of fortune and rank.

Elinor eventually falls in love with Mr. Edward Ferrars, whose family has higher prospects in mind for him than the impoverished daughter of a landed gentleman. Matters are further complicated because earlier in life, Edward secretly and foolishly promised his hand in marriage to another, Lucy by name, whose decent good looks and unending use of flattery are barely able to conceal her want of education and good breeding. She is the model of the social climber. Nevertheless, the honorable Edward refuses to break his promise of future marriage to Lucy, even though it means he will forever be separated from Elinor. For most of the novel both characters silently and secretly put right and honorable conduct before their own hopes and desires–no doubt a bitter cross to carry.

Marianne, on the other hand, falls in love with Mr. John Willoughby, a young man as different in temperament and conduct from Edward Ferrars as Marianne is from Elinor, yet whose exuberant love of life and eternal gaiety are as eminently suited to Marianne’s sensibilities as Edward is to Elinor’s sense. Such reliable facts and sure sign-posts as the emotions of the human heart prove to Marianne beyond a shadow of doubt that she and Willoughby are the perfect couple. It comes, then, as quite a shock when Willoughby gathers up his own sensibilities and leaves her (before the proverbial knot is tied) for a jealous women of lesser worth but greater fortune.

Marianne, upon learning of Willoughby’s treachery, indulges in every form of interior questioning and self pity—if her soul should soar in moments of jubilation, then it surely must sink in times of despair. She is wasting away when she learns of Elinor’s own cross and how her sister has born it in silence and serenity. She wonders how it is possible and Elinor replies that “…while the comfort of others was dear to me, I was glad to spare them from knowing how much I felt.”

Marianne wonders if her sister ever really loved Edward, if she can so easily let him go. Elinor replies “I understand you.—You do not suppose that I have ever felt much.—For four months, Marianne, I have had all this hanging on my mind, without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature; knowing that it would make you and my mother most unhappy whenever it were explained to you…— If you can think me capable of ever feeling—surely you may suppose that I have suffered NOW. The composure of mind with which I have brought myself at present to consider the matter, the consolation that I have been willing to admit, have been the effect of constant and painful exertion;—they did not spring up of themselves;—they did not occur to relieve my spirits at first.— No, Marianne.—THEN, if I had not been bound to silence, perhaps nothing could have kept me entirely—not even what I owed to my dearest friends—from openly shewing that I was VERY unhappy.”—

“Marianne was quite subdued.—

“Oh! Elinor,” she cried, “you have made me hate myself for ever.—How barbarous have I been to you!—you, who have been my only comfort, who have borne with me in all my misery, who have seemed to be only suffering for me!—Is this my gratitude?—Is this the only return I can make you?—Because your merit cries out upon myself, I have been trying to do it away.”

Of course Edward and Elinor eventually wed and Austen declares them to be “one of the happiest couples in the world” and that “Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favorite maxims.”

I heartily recommend the novel for the pure and simple pleasure of reading it. I also recommend it because of the lesson it teaches us regarding the folly of leading one’s life based on human sensibilities untethered from truth and reason. This lesson is true no less in the realm of sacred music than in the realm of lovers.

In a real way, Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony are the sense in liturgical music. Contrary to popular belief there is emotion in this music, but it is always in harmony with, and ultimately subjugated to, truth and reason. It gently awakens emotions that raise the mind and heart to God, rather than stirring them up purely for their own sakes.

On the other hand, Praise and Worship and other similar styles (there have been such styles of music since the beginning of the Church—this is NOT an old versus new issue)  form the sensibility aspect in liturgical music (although they really aren’t liturgical works). These styles place emotion and the self at the center of the Sacred Liturgy and Christian life and that simply can’t be. The Church’s public worship and our Christian life isn’t about ourselves, it is about the Other.

This is obviously a very simplistic analysis of an extremely complex issue and I haven’t yet even touched upon the untold number of works of sacred music in about as many different styles and national qualities, ranging from ancient to modern, that are imminently suited to the Sacred Liturgy, but that isn’t the point of this article. My point is to challenge those involved in the world of sacred music, especially where the youth are concerned, to first ask themselves what is musically most appropriate and only then to ask themselves what music do people like.

All too often I hear the battle cry that we must offer the dwindling number of young people in our churches music in accord with their sensibilities and emotions—music that they like, music they can “get into,” music that moves them and helps them to experience God… and yet the numbers keep falling. Like Marianne Dashwood, we are tasting the bitter fruits of disappointed love.

What if, on the contrary, we flip the paradigm and first offer what is musically most appropriate and then allow peoples’ sensibilities to be formed by it. Perhaps like Elinor Dashwood, we might have the sense and charity to look beyond ourselves, our own musical wants and whims and obediently follow a much surer path.

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.