A couple of months ago I composed a short article asking the question “Where do we go from here?” challenging cathedral musicians and music directors everywhere to found choir schools, or at the very least, choral foundations, where the art of sacred music might flourish once again. Looking forward, I hope to tackle various problems and answer questions regarding the tradition of choir schools and choral foundations in order to spur the renewal of sacred music in the English speaking world.
Our first task is to flesh out an answer to the question “What is absolutely necessary for the existence of a choral foundation (as opposed to the mere “choir”)? I would argue that at the very least it requires 1) a stable community of professional musicians who are 2) committed to practicing the craft of sacred music 3) within the context of the Sacred Liturgy celebrated in all its fullness.
Stable Community of Professional Musicians
As Dr. Kevin Vogt is wont to say, “music is an ephemeral art that only exists when it sounds in time.” Unlike a beautiful cathedral that is built once and stands for centuries, music must be created in time over and over again. It simply isn’t possible to put together a stellar choir once, sing the Missa Papae Marcelli and forever clothe all future Masses in that church in the sonic glory of one of Palestrina’s crowning works. It takes a stable community of professional musicians daily practicing their craft in order to offer God and the faithful the Church’s treasury of sacred music (especially the best of it done well). The lack of such communities of professional musicians at churches around the United States is a serious impediment to the liturgical life of the Church.
Regardless of how it is accomplished, we need these stable communities, but we must be mindful that they will develop differently in different places. The major metropolitan cathedral will need an entire staff of professionals. The average parish in the mid west will need only one professional capable of gathering a community of committed amateurs who can be raised to the rank of professionals, even though they remain volunteers.
At the very least, a parish will need one trained professional to build this community. Unfortunately, I find there are two objections generally raised against hiring a professional musician: 1) there aren’t enough professionals to go around and 2) there isn’t enough money in the parish’s budget to pay for one. To the first objection, I can only concede its truth–there aren’t as many as there should be. To the second objection, I argue that it is all in one’s perspective.
The Church commands that we give God the best. If the injunction to give God the best doesn’t move you to find the means to hire at least one full time music director, perhaps the overwhelming evidence from secular sources that music is one of two things that most affects a worshipper’s experience (I hate that expression, but I am using it nevertheless) at Mass. If you still don’t know where you will find the funds, let me say this. As a Catholic man who tries to follow all that the Church teaches, my wife and I have been and continue to remain open to new life in our family. Because of my wife’s ongoing struggles with infertility, each one of her pregnancies is much more expensive than the average woman’s. It costs a lot of money to be open to new life, especially as the number of one’s children increases (and we are only at four). We would be much farther down the road to retirement had it not been for children, but that is what it costs. It is simply going to cost you. How important is the sacred liturgy to you?
Returning to the question of a stable community of professional musicians, I would like to ask a question. What if, for the sake of argument, you are the great professional your pastor hired to begin a sacred music program and you have turned a really solid group of amateur singers into a semi-professional church choir that sings every Sunday and Holy Day between September and Corpus Christi? Is your choir a stable community? I would answer that you have accomplished something to be very proud of, but you still haven’t arrived at the point of being a stable community. Your choral foundation needs permanence. Even if your parish has a full time salary in the budget and you plan to be at your parish for the rest of your life, your work hasn’t been made permanent. What if your pastor moves and the new pastor cuts the music budget in half? What if you keep your great pastor but there is a recession and your budget gets cut anyway? What if you have to move? Is the program and budget sufficient to entice a replacement to your location? I have known of more than one excellent program succumb to similar circumstances.
There are a couple of solutions to these cunnundrams. If you work in a larger parish or cathedral setting one possibility is to endow your music program. This will help to ensure that you always have an assistant organist and a quartet of paid singers to augment what is hopefully an already fine amateur choir. Another possibility, and one that is probably more feasible in the smaller parish, is to establish your choral program as a separate non-profit. This will make sure you can continue to operate your program and GROW your program into an actual choral foundation without the entrusion of often well meaning people who nevertheless place other priorities, like air-conditioning and parking, before those of a great program of sacred music.
Lastly, I think a community of professional musicians, a family of musicians we might say, who are dedicated to the craft of sacred music, should be open to new musical life. What I mean by this is that there should be a commitment toward the formation of new musicians, and this is why a chorister program for children is essential to any choral foundation. It is a wonderful thing if your parish or cathedral possesses a fine choir capable of tackling all sorts of repertoire, but you need to pass on this craft or it will die, no matter how beautifully your choir sings or how often it sings. There are all kinds of challenges to working with children, but there are great rewards, too, especially when one comes to you and announces she has been inspired to enter the field of sacred music.
Learning the Craft of Sacred Music
We marvel at the skills of organists such as Olivier Larry and James David Christie, or great choirs like the Madeleine Cathedral Choir or St. Paul’s, Harvard Square, because they make what they do look so easy, but the reality is very different. It has taken them years of practice to arrive at such a place. If you ever hope to start a great choral foundation, you must acquire the mentality and habit of constantly teaching all those who sing or work for you (and learning just as much from them in return). In order to raise a choir to the point where it is able to chant the full Ordinary and Propers of the Mass beautifully and tackle the great choral repertoire of the Catholic Church, you will have to train your musicians, even the best of them. I am not aware of an organist training program in the US that actively trains organists to accompany Gregorian chant. I have also encountered a number of professional singers who struggle to sight-read music, whether modern or square note. When you train children you have to teach all of this from scratch. Hopefully you will also inspire others to take up the work that you yourself do.
I will also say that the more Masses and Offices your choral foundation sings, the greater its proficiency will become in a shorter amount of time, which leads to my last point.
The Sacred Liturgy Celebrated in All Its Fullness
This is something that I grant is hard for the musician to control. This last point comes down squarely upon the priest. It isn’t enough to have the Novus Ordo celebrated in continuity with our liturgical heritage, or even to have the Extraordinary Form. There has to be a mentality on the part of our priests that the Sacred Liturgy REALLY is the source and summit of our Christian life, the very heart of all we do in this life and the totality of all we will do in the next. It is not merely about passing on doctrinal purity (although this should happen) or ensuring uniformity in Christian practice (as important as this is). It is about being brought into the very life of God in all of its truth, beauty and goodness right here and now. It is the Gesamptkunstwerk of eternal magnitude and only when we view the Sacred Liturgy in this way will we understand the effort of generations of Christians to build churches like Chartres or Cologne Cathedral or to found choral institutions like Regensburg or Westminster. The priest must understand this and strive to live this reality in his own parish or what we do makes no sense (our music will be nothing more than a great concert tacked on to the liturgy). Once this reality is present and lived, I think there are some basic principles musicians should follow in order to support the work of our priests in their sacramental duties.
First, we should make the commitment to provide for the Sung Mass on most Sundays and Holy Days of the year. Ideally this commitment would extend to EVERY Sunday and Holy Day of the Year. David Hughes’ fine professional choir at St. Mary’s in Norwalk, CT, is an example of a choir committed to sing the Holy Mass every Sunday and Holy Day. Closer to my home, the Fraternity parish of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne in Kansas City, KS, makes the same commitment with its incredible fully amateur choir. Ideally, this might even include Choral Vespers on these days.
It also behooves me to write that we need parishioners who live the liturgical life as well (this again will fall on the priest to cultivate). Otherwise Vespers looks like a concert with only the priest in attendance and it quickly becomes just another professional commitment for the choir. We should recall that there are people living today who grew up in large working class families that faithfully prayed Sunday Vespers in their parish communities as part of their spiritual lives. We need to bring this back if we want to make all of Sunday Holy. The parish community is just as necessary to the health of a choral foundation as the community of those in the choir itself.
Some might ask if all of these things have to be present before we begin our work and I would reply that obviously we have to start with what we have and rebuild our civilization brick by brick. Nevertheless, we have to keep the big picture ever before us and not shy away from building as much as we can. Some of these things will have to develop organically and some of them just need to be done. Regardless, in the words of St. Francis, “Let us begin again, brothers, for up until now, we have done little or nothing.”