Category Archives: Feasts of the Church

Colin Mawby (1936-2019)

I learned with sadness last Sunday that Colin Mawby (Nov. 24) and Stephen Cleobury (Nov. 22), both former directors of music at Westminster Cathedral, London, had passed away–a great loss to the world of sacred music. While Cleobury, who went on to direct the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, is undoubtedly the more well known of the two men, I want to pay particular tribute today to Colin Mawby and his particular services to the Church.

Mawby began his music career as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral under the great George Malcolm, the man responsible for introducing the “continental sound” to Westminster, making it unique in the world of English Cathedral Choirs. Mawby assisted Malcolm at the organ from the age of twelve.

In 1961 he ascended to the post of Organist and Choir Master at Westminster Cathedral and it was because of his work there that I first came into contact with him. As I was finishing a chapter in my dissertation about the cathedral’s Choir School, I contacted Martin Baker to inquire about the turbulent times of the 60s and 70s and how the choir had managed to survive the upheaval. Baker put me in contact with Mr. Mawby, for which I am forever grateful. I will never forget sitting down to supper with Mawby one evening in Rome and asking him what Westminster was like during the days of the great Cardinal Heenan. He laughed and said that modern child labor laws would never allow the choir master at Westminster to work the boys the way he had been worked as a chorister and the way he had worked the boys in his early days at the helm of the choir. I share this completely from memory, so my apologies if it is not 100% accurate, but I remember him saying the boys sang roughly 15 services weekly, including the capitular High Mass, Vespers and Compline on most days.

He told me of marching the boys into the cathedral on Christmas Eve to chant the entire office of Matins, after which the boys launched right into Midnight Mass. If that wasn’t enough, and because Westminster was a cathedral and it was the bounden duty of the cathedral’s chapter to offer to God the worship of the Divine Office, the boys sang the office of Lauds immediately after Midnight Mass. Because the mystery of the Incarnation is so great that the Church gives us three very distinct Masses on Christmas Day to celebrate different aspects of Our Lord’s birth, the boys still had two more Masses to sing. They were back in the apse of the cathedral to sing for Mass at Dawn and again for Mass during the Day. They still couldn’t officially begin Christmas break, though, until they had sung Solemn Vespers on Christmas Day in the afternoon. The choir’s heaviest workload occurred in the spring during the Holy Triduum, when Mawby said they might spend up to eight hours a day singing in the Cathedral.

All of his efforts to that point paled in comparison to how hard he had to work following the Second Vatican Council to keep the choir going and the school open. He fought for the choir and school even to the end of his life. He also battled for quality sacred music all throughout the church. I think I speak for many church musicians today when I say how grateful we are for his work at Westminster Cathedral.

Mr. Mawby also deserves recognition for his work as a composer. Probably his most well known work is his Ave verum corpus, one which has already entered the current canon of sacred works and which (I believe) has the power of endurance.

Other works include Haec dies

…and his Tu es Petrus.

 

Finally, I would like to add an Ave Maria I am happy to say I had a part in. In January 2016 our Schola Cantorum traveled to Rome and Mawby composed this work for the choir to premiere at the Basilica of St. Ignatius (it begins around 30 seconds).

Mawby was gracious enough to fly to Rome and have supper with the choir and listen to them sing. It was a time that many of our choristers and their families will never forget.

We give thanks today for the great work Colin Mawby undertook for the good of our Holy Mother, the Church, but even more importantly, we commend his soul to the mercy of our Heavenly Father.

Requiem aeternam, dona eis Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.

A Professional Choir in 6 Years!

Two weeks ago I wrote about the Westminster Cathedral Choir School (and choir) and the Guildford Cathedral Choir, two choral foundations of incredibly high standards founded in very short amounts of time to chant the services in their respective cathedrals. But what of the cathedral music director who needs first to prove the viability of a cathedral choir school before he founds one? I would venture to say this is where most choir masters find themselves and thankfully we have the wonderful example of the Madeleine Choir School at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah. Mr. Gregory Glenn, the choir school’s founder and long time pastoral administrator, graciously accepted my request to spend 6 weeks at the school in the fall of 2012 in order to collect information about the school and choristers for my DMA document and it opened my eyes to what was musically possible with children. One question I continually asked myself during my time at the school (and ever since) was why no other cathedral had followed the Madeleine’s lead to found such an institution. It is such a gift to the Church!

Regarding the school’s history, Mr. Glenn related to me that he had had some desire to found an institution like the Madeleine Choir School, but it had always seemed more of a dream than a reality. Nevertheless, he visited all the Catholic schools within a 40 mile radius of the Cathedral and auditioned all students in grades four through eight. Roughly 70 choristers (half boys and half girls) accepted his invitation to join an after school choral program at the cathedral and rehearsals began in the Spring of 1990. The boys and girls practiced separately, each for 90 minutes every week, and only sang for Mass once per month. This went on for some time until the cathedral’s rector, Msgr. Francis Mannion, decided that Glenn should spend time at a real choir school if he hoped to start one in Salt Lake City. Glenn packed his bags and traveled to London for three months in residence at the Westminster Cathedral Choir School in the fall of 1992. Four years later the Madeleine Choir School opened her doors and has been growing ever since.

What We Can Learn
I think the first and greatest lesson we can learn is that Mr. Glenn had a love of and passion for the cathedral choir school model and had a vision for what such a thing could look like at the Madeleine Cathedral. He also worked with a rector who could share in his vision. Sometimes I talk with music directors and pastors who want the children in their music programs and schools to sing good sacred music, but they haven’t taken time to flesh out in their minds what such a program in their parishes would look like or how they might actually carry out such a plan. They are under the impression that all it takes is learning a couple of neat music hacks for their students to be able to tackle Palestrina Masses, and all for the price of only $10,000 a year for a part-time music director! But this simply isn’t realistic.

The second lesson we can learn is to persevere when the long route is necessary. Glenn began with a good number of students and a strong desire, but not much more. He and Msgr. Mannion didn’t know if Glenn could pull it off. He ran an after school choir program for six years before the school began. It was also A LOT of hard work and Glenn was honest in relating to me the problems he encountered along the way. In the beginning the choir, even with 35 students in each group, never strayed from unison singing. Moving on to part-singing was difficult and didn’t take place until he began a summer camp where choristers finally experienced daily rehearsals for the first time. Chorister parents found it difficult to understand the idea that the choir had an obligation to the cathedral to sing her daily services, even when that meant returning to the Cathedral on Christmas afternoon to chant Vespers, and all this after having sung Midnight Mass and Mass During the Day. When it came time to propose an actual school for the choir, he had to create model budgets and numbers to give to cathedral committees because such a thing had never been done. When the bishop finally gave permission to found a school, it was full the next day, but Glenn had no teachers. Teaching sight-singing has also been a challenge all the while keeping up with concerts and other obligations (thankfully he has the incomparable help of Mrs. Melanie Malinka, the school’s music director).

I write all of this because it shows how one man’s dogged determination brought a choir school into being. There were new challenges all the time, but Glenn kept finding solutions and eventually his plan took root and developed. As in the case of Sir Richard Terry having the friendship and backing of Cardinal Vaughn, Glenn had the support of Msgr. Mannion, the cathedral’s rector. This support was key, but once he had the necessary vision and support, the rest was a matter putting one foot in front of the other. The thing to remember, though, it that he did it, and you can too!

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!

Let the Fun Begin

Today’s Feast of St. Gregory the Great appropriately marks the beginning of the 9th year of the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum. It was decided last week that I should move the entire choir rehearsal area not only to a new room, but to a new building on our parish’s campus, so the week leading up to the august event proved to be quite a circus.

While most Americans enjoyed the fruits of the grill yesterday to celebrate Labor Day, my family and I were hard at work: my wife and sisters carried gobs of cassocks and surplices, my children carried music stands, my 72 year old mother carried wooden benches(!) and I drank a martini… To be honest, I was moving benches, music, the piano, cassocks and surplices and setting up the new room. We really had a fun time!

On top of everything else, I have also been searching for ways to bring more choristers into the choir (along with their families), to keep them on board, to provide better and more comprehensive choral and Faith formation to youth and to give my own work a new energy. Perhaps some of these might work for you and your choirs and I offer them in the spirit of mutual enrichment.

  1. Recruiting: I have written about this before, but things such as a summer camp, annual auditions for all the students in the parochial school, trips (especially international trips) and the opportunity for a quality musical education are all enticements for students and their parents. However, as Mark Rohwer explains in  an article entitled “If You Build It…” from Choral Director magazine, “a great musical experience is a better recruiting tool than a pizza party every time.”
  2. Retention: Delivering a quality choral experience for children and parents is essential, but other things are critical as well. I keep attendance for all of our rehearsals and Masses, but until recently I never did anything with the information. Now when students miss a rehearsal or Mass and I don’t know why, or if I hear of the reason second hand from others, I send a friendly email to parents to make sure everything is alright and this helps busy families to stay accountable and let’s them and their children know they are essential to the team.
  3. Choral Education: I need to  be learning constantly if I expect my choristers to do the same. In this regard, I find it essential to be learning from the best, whether in person or via other means. I try to keep in contact with other professional musicians and have no qualms calling for advice whenever I need it. For those who cannot get away (I often find myself in this boat) YouTube is an essential tool for one’s formation. I also peruse the websites of various choirs because they often provide videos of choral warm-ups, snippets of their latest CDs and videos of rehearsals and concerts. Did you know that the Indianapolis Children’s Choir provide several videos of choral warm-ups plus a video for children and parents that tells them how and what to expect when auditioning? There is a wonderful set of videos that track the entrance and training of choristers at the famous Cathedral of Regensburg. They are amazing!
  4. Faith Formation: Some of my choristers have an incredible knowledge of the Catholic Faith and very deep interior lives, while others not so much. I admit that I do not have a comprehensive program for teaching the Catholic Faith during rehearsals, but I do make sure that every child can recite from memory his or her purpose in life: to know, love and serve God in this life and to be happy with Him forever in Heaven. The music or the day’s feast often provides plenty of points for discussion and I try to make time for those discussions. The Imaginative Conservative recently published an article entitle Music and the Education of the Christian Soul. While the article doesn’t address specific ways to teach the Faith to choristers, it does address the importance of music in the formation of the moral imagination.

I hope and pray the new choral year proves to be fruitful year for each of you.

Music in Our Schools

Today marks the first day of school for parochial children in my city and thus provides an appropriate occasion to reflect on the nature of our Catholic school music programs and their work of education. Without doubt, the men and women who head these programs provide an enormous service to the Church and I wish to thank them for their work. At the same time, I would like to challenge the prevailing concept, or layout, of such music programs, which more often than not, are modeled after their secular counterparts with a seasonal nod to our Catholic Faith, such as the singing of Christmas carols every December (although they mysteriously disappear in January).

If we desire to educate, we should keep our end in mind–to teach children what is good and to love that good. In our case, students will only know what is good if they hear it and participate in it on a regular basis and they will only love that good if they see it loved and cared for by those they look up to. To this end, I would propose that our music programs should be founded on the ideal of teaching the Church’s music and music in general within the western tradition and to inculcating a love in students’ hearts for this music in all of its forms.

What follows are a few suggestions as to how we might begin moving our music programs in this directions.

  1. Sing real folk music. Invite children to join you in the joy of making music, real music. Children shouldn’t feel as though they are in class. Grab your guitar (appropriate in this case) and have fun. Don’t forget to teach them real dances and perhaps host a ball for older students and their families. At the same time, we should find a way for these things to happen in the home. As musicians, we lament the loss of communal music making, but I wonder how many fight this loss by making music with their own children.
  2. Teach the Church’s music. Children should know a couple of chant Masses by heart, particularly the more beautiful ones. The same can be said for a few of the Church’s well known hymns such as the Adorote devote, Pange lingua or Veni Creator, whether in Latin or in a good English translation. Ideally this would be linked to a child’s Church history and catechetical classes.
  3. Learn to sing the Mass. Whether you have a small schola capable of chanting the Communion antiphon or you teach the entire school to sing the Introit for each Mass to a common psalm tone, introduce your students to the idea of singing the Mass. Encourage (pester if necessary) the priest to sing his parts.
  4. Choose worthy hymns and metered music for use in the Mass. If you aren’t aware, the National Catholic Education Association, in conjunction with Pueri Cantores, has produced a list of Mass settings and hymns appropriate for school Masses, which is a VAST improvement on what one normally hears at school Masses.
  5. The High Mass isn’t just for Sunday. If your parish is an Extraordinary Form parish and is blessed to have a classical school attached, fight the urge settle for daily Low Masses in the effort to get students into class where the “real” learning happens. Priests in this situation would never consent to ditching the proper clerical vesture for Holy Mass, and in like manner, the same Holy Mass should ever be clothed in the aural vesture of sacred music. Beautiful sacred music will go far in forming a love for the Sacraments in the moral imaginations of your students.
  6. Raise up a new generation of church musicians. Support and encourage musically talented children to take up the work of sacred music. Just as we should cultivate religious vocations from the ranks our students, so should we do the same with liturgical musicians.

I wish you all many blessings in the school year ahead!

 

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!

 

Here is Where We Go

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.”

Incredible Advent/Christmas Resource for Families

My wife recently stumbled upon what I consider to be an incredible Advent/Christmas resource for families who wish to live the liturgical life more deeply within the home and who hope to incorporate music into their familial piety.

Catholic home schooling mother and blogger Jennifer Mackintosh has put together a daily calendar (download here) for the seasons of Advent and Christmas that contains not only the greatest Christian traditions surrounding the season and when they take place, but also a schedule of how to make preparations ahead of time so these wonderful customs don’t catch your family unawares. She also gives great musical resources, especially if you struggle to find Advent carols and hymns for your family. It also contains daily reading list and so much more (this is an understatement). Please take a look.

If you feel that Advent is already too busy, I hope you will re-read my post from last year (Your Family and Adventtide) challenging families to finish your shopping before Advent and to refocus the season on preparing for the birth of Christ.

Please know you and your families will be in my prayers and we enter into the blessed season of Advent.

Chorister Catechesis

Each year the Archdiocese of Kansas City (KS) hosts a vocation day for area 5th grade students and as part of the day, Archbishop Joseph Naumann celebrates Holy Mass for all of the students. Quite naturally, he speaks to them in his homily about vocations, both the universal call to holiness given to each person as well as the particular vocation God gives to each Christian in order to live out his call to holiness.

I wasn’t able to attend the Mass this year, but I heard afterward from the mother of one of my choristers (Matthias) that at one point in the homily, the archbishop asked the students what their purpose in live was. One student answered with Matthew Kelly’s to become the best version of yourself. The archbishop acknowledged that was true, but that he was looking for something else, so he asked the question again. Matthias shot his hand in the air and the archbishop called on him. With a volume that only a 5th grade boy can muster, he rattled off that his purpose in life was to know, love and serve God in this life, and to be happy with Him forever in the next. Archbishop Naumann acknowledged that this was what he wanted to hear, strait from the catechism. Matthias’ mother told she she beamed with prided thinking she had done her duty to make sure her son knew his purpose, but when she asked him about it afterward he told her that “part of the credit goes to Dr. Tappan, who makes us tell him at every choir practice what our purpose in life is.” I must confess that I felt a great amount of pride upon hearing that. It is true that I ask each one what his purpose in life is, both on that particular day and for all eternity. I often wonder if what I teach in choir has much of an eternal effect on the lives of my choristers—I hope it does.

In a similar vein, my wife’s aunt and uncle, cattle ranchers in the beautiful Kansas Flint Hills, have five children, four of whom are grown now, but the father told me once that every single day, when they awoke at 5:30 in the morning and put on the first pot of coffee, he asked his children to tell him what their purpose was in life, and they had to be able to answer as Matthias did. The father told me recently that he still asks that question daily of his two grown sons who work on the farm. He also asks his daughters whenever they visit.

About 10 years ago, the middle of their five children, a daughter of only 15 years, was diagnosed with cancer and the family watched as she succumbed to the agonizing disease over the course of more than a year. Still her father asked her that question. What is your purpose in this life?  He told me that he also had long conversations with her about the glory of Heaven and how she was truly blessed because she would arrive there before the others. He told her she would have to pray that the rest of the family made it.

As the cancer worsened, she refused morphine as much as possible, offering up the pain for the conversion of sinners and for the holy souls in purgatory. As her body became so emaciated she stopped having visitors for a time because she was embarrassed by how she looked. It wasn’t long, though, before she asked for visitors again and told her family it was just the devil working on her vanity. The night before she died her family gathered in her hospital room to pray the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross and afterward she told her family that that was the last time that they would pray together, that she was going to go home. She died peacefully the next day as her mom drove home from the hospital and her father was driving to it. It is the only time I can ever remember a parent being filled with joy that his child had made it “home.” I will never forget having had the privilege of chanting the In pardisum at the funeral.

As we remember all of the faithful departed during this month of November, be mindful of the immense power that you as a choir director having in orienting your choristers toward Heaven, so that they, too, might one day be counted among the faithful departed.

A Problem with the Universal Prayer of the Church

“The Catholic liturgy is the supreme example of an objectively established rule of spiritual life. It has been able to develop… in every direction, and in accordance with all places, times, and types of human culture. Therefore it will be the best teacher of the via ordinaria–the regulation of the religious life in common, with, at the same time, a view to actual needs and requirements.” (R. Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy)

The great problem with the Universal Prayer of the Roman Catholic Church today is that for all practical purposes (speaking subjectively) it has ceased to be the Universal Prayer of the Roman Catholic Church. Those things that allowed the Mystical Body of Christ to worship as one family, transcending both the limitations of time and space, have been shoved aside if not outright discarded. It amazes me that within living memory the average Catholic could travel anywhere in the world in which the Latin Rite was celebrated, trusty hand missal in tow, and pray the Mass, even in foreign lands. The homily might have been in a different language or the Mass might have had a certain European, American, African or Asian feel, depending upon where one found oneself on Sunday morning, but the differences were rather minor–but no more.

Contrast this with the experience of typical Catholics today, who go to Mass in their  own state or country and wonder if they still inhabited the same planet, much less attend the same Mass. Anymore, the Holy Sacrifice has taken on the fluidity of one’s gender. What, you don’t like it? Just change it and make it whatever you want it to be! Admittedly, the experimentation is NOT what it was in the 70s, nevertheless, the mentality exists that the Sacred Liturgy can be adapted and personalized in an almost unlimited number of ways.

Our liturgical problem is really symptomatic of a much deeper problem, the loss of Faith in Christ and in His Church (really the two problems are deeply connected). Thankfully I meet more and more young people who are seriously embracing Faith in Christ and the Church. As they do so, they are discovering the great cultural riches of the Church, whether in Her Liturgy or prayer life, the lives of Her saints or in Her moral life. This group of people is by no means a majority, but it is a strong and vibrant minority. I also see holy priests coming from among them, and Deo gratias for that.

Young people today aren’t yearning for the ancient expressions of the Church’s liturgical life merely due to a distorted view of a supposedly golden former age, but because their very souls  and their humanity need these things to pray in the first place. Young people are mired in individualism and simply handing out more of it in the form of giving them “what they want” is not going to bring them to Christ. Rather, the answer lies in uniting them to the universal, to what is True, Beautiful and Good–to God; uniting them to the Church Militant, the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant. The Sacred Liturgy used to have the power to do this (again, subjectively speaking).

What follows is a very simplistic list, in no particular order, of some of the externals in the Church’s liturgical life that had the power to draw the believer out of his own little kingdom and into the universal family of the Church. Would that return sooner rather than later.

  1. The beauty of a common, sacral language. Whether you like to admit it or not, the Latin Rite was formed by the Latin Language, which provided a basis for communication for Catholics across the globe, and the loss of that language and the communication it allowed has proved a travesty. The fact that the majority of fathers at the Second Vatican Council could communicate with each other reasonably well, not withstanding such diverse backgrounds, was a minor miracle. Latin Rite Catholics could take part in the Mass or Divine Office wherever they found themselves and Latin provided the sacred vehicle for that prayer, removed from the vulgarities of everyday speech. Interestingly, the Latin, via beautiful translations, supported and shaped sacral speech in the vernacular. Now each Catholic is marooned on his own linguistical island, islands which tend to be culturally impoverished and bereft of any beauty. I chuckle when I pray the Gloria using inclusive language (peace to his people on earth) but then switch to “sexist” language in the Creed (and became man). Then there are the Responsorial Psalm antiphon translations, which don’t match the translations of the psalms themselves because each one was translated from different different versions of the scriptures. And these problems pale in comparison to the general tone of the English texts–common, common, common. One would think the translators despised beauty and poetry altogether, although what we currently have is infinitely superior to what we had 10 years ago.
  2. The priest visibly standing in the Sacred Liturgy in persona Christi. Quite frankly, it shouldn’t matter if the celebrant is “Faaaather Bowwwb.” or HE, the Cardinal Archbishop of such and such… They and their personalities shouldn’t matter–it is Christ Who matters. Why have we allowed the regrettable “tradition” of naming all of the participants in a particular “liturgy?” “…Our celebrant for this liturgy is Faaaaather Bowwwwb; our lectors are Mary Smith and Jane Thomas; our servers are Jane Smith, Lucy Jones and Samantha Jones; our Eucharistic Ministers are Helen Quick, Nancy Slow, Marcia High and Janet Low; our musicians are terrible, oh I mean Mary Right and Kenny Wrong; our ushers are ……….” (All joking aside, I have experienced this in real life.) On and on and on. I don’t know any of them, and quite frankly it wouldn’t matter if I did. It isn’t about the priest, the “ministers” or me–not in that sense. It is about God. The habit of naming everyone physically taking part in Mass belies the assumption that the priest is an MC whose job it is to stir up good vibes among those “assembled” instead of another Christ, offering Himself to the Father through the Holy Spirit. I can’t imagine Christ having worried about stirring up good vibes in the apostles at the Last Supper. Christ, as head of the Mystical Body of Christ, focused on the Father, which provides an excellent segue into plea for worshipping ad orientem. There is no reason for me to keep beating the horse here, but I firmly believe that the simple act of facing east would probably do more than anything in the Novus Ordo to reverse the travesty of Mass being about the priest and people rather than about God.
  3. A classical (and shared) view of what constitutes Christian architecture, art and music. In times past one could visit the city of Cincinnati or Tokyo, it wouldn’t matter, and make an educated guess at which buildings were Catholic Churches (or at least churches) and which ones weren’t. Christians shared a common symbolic language in their architecture and art. The same could be said for music, but in the rush to be relevant (to society, but not, ironically, to God) we have jettisoned much of what is beautiful in Catholicism and replaced it with what is fashionable.
  4. A rich life of piety and Christian Community. In former times, families came together daily to make the Morning Offering and to pray the Rosary, parishes hosted processions, novenas and May crownings, people sang hymns in their homes and young people formed dance bands and played for their friends on Saturday nights at the local barn or community hall. That is all gone now and we shove everything, even the Sacraments, from Weddings and Confirmations to Baptisms and Anointings, into the Mass. On the flip side, the Church has tried to make all devotions outside of Mass conform to the Liturgy of the Word, complete with readings and petitions. No wonder many cultural Catholics think the Mass is all that’s left, so they shove evening thing into it, from the band they formed to the pop music they like to the Sacraments and many other more or less important life events. The richness of the Divine Office (the other part of the Sacred Liturgy) and Benediction, which found a home in so many normal parishes prior to the 1960s have been forgotten. All this means that the Universal Prayer of the Church, Her Sacred Liturgy, must be adapted to every situation, whim or need of a particular church and its members. No wonder so many people leave Mass early. If you aren’t from such and such parish or if the menagerie of speakers who stroll into the sanctuary at the end of Mass to talk about this or that don’t touch on what’s important to you, why stay to the end for an extra 10 minutes of irrelevant community announcements.

I would like to end where I began, with Gaurdini. He writes “The primary and exclusive aim of the liturgy is not the expression of the individual’s reverence and worship for God. It is not even concerned with the awakening, formation, and sanctification of the individual soul as such. Nor does the onus of liturgical action and prayer rest with the individual. It does not even rest with the collective groups, composed of numerous individuals, who periodically achieve a limited and intermittent unity in their capacity as the congregation of a church. The liturgical entity consists rather of the united Body of the faithful as such–the Church–a body which infinitely outnumbers the mere congregation.

I don’t hope or even desire that every Mass be exactly the same, but I should be able to experience the reality of the Mystical Body of Christ instead of banging my individualism up against someone else’s. This is something I hope we can all pray for.