I have spent several weeks already going through John Bertalot’s 5 Wheels to Successful Sight-Singing and there will be a number more. I would also like to direct readers to his webpage containing 35 articles on various aspects of leading a choir. Every one is an absolute gem. Please, please read them! You will not be disappointed.
Today I would like to turn away from European choir schools and move closer to home, focusing on several in the United States, the first of which is St. Paul’s Choir School, Harvard Square, in Boston.
Dr. Theodore Marier, the well known chant scholar, founded St. Paul’s Choir School in the autumn of 1963, creating the first and only Catholic choir school for boys in the United States. Today the school educates boys in grades 4 through 8. In 2010, the choir school hired Mr. John Robinson, formerly Assistant Organist at Canterbury Cathedral, to lead the choir. From various articles I have read, he is doing great work, such as implementing the ABRSM music theory curriculum in the school, hiring professional male singers for the choir and increasing the number of liturgies for which the choir sings on a weekly basis. Last fall, the choir released its first international CD entitled “Christmas in Harvard Square.” The parish’s pastor sums up the music at the choir school as (quoting Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) “Music capable of opening minds and hearts to the dimension of the spirit and of leading persons to raise their gaze on High, to open to absolute Goodness and Beauty, which have their ultimate source in God.” Would that all parish music programs could say the same.
One “take away” item I would like to share is that (if Wikipedia can be trusted!) Dr. Marier and the then pastor of St. Paul’s began the choir school in response to De music sacra, the 1958 document from the Sacred Congregation of Rites, which encouraged boys choirs and special schools for the teaching of sacred music. All it took was the vision of one parish priest (St. Paul’s is not a cathedral) and one music director to create such an incredible institution. Are you a priest, are you a music director? Perhaps God is calling YOU!
Here is another stunning version of the Marian antiphon for Lent, Ave Regina Caelorum composed by Palestrina. Chanticleer gives a stellar performance.
In honor of today’s Solemnity of the Annunciation I would like to share Bach’s Himmelskoenig, sei wilkommen (King of Heaven, Welcome) BWV 182, performed by The Bach Ensemble under the direction of Mr. Joshua Rifkin. Enjoy!
I am very excited to announce the Choral Vespers come live today from the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral. The cathedral possesses a fine choir of men and boys, which will be on display today for the Solemnity of the Annunciation. I only wish that Sir Edwin Lutyens’ original design for the cathedral had been carried out. It has been called the greatest building never built. Nevertheless, you will not be disappointed to hear the choir.
Sarah MacDonald, the incredibly talented director of the Ely Cathedral Girls’ Choir, wrote in February issue of the AGO magazine about the hierarchy of organists in the typical English Cathedral. Her piece, well worth a perusal, covers the duties of the organist, assistant organist, sub-organist and organ scholar. Read it here.
The city of Regensburg, Germany (also know as Ratisbon), is beautiful on many accounts, not the least of which is the Cathedral of St. Peter and its famous choir, the Regensburger Domspatzen (literally “the Regensburg Cathedral Sparrows”), which celebrated its 1000 anniversary in 1975. Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, brother of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, directed the choir for 30 years (1964-1994), since which time Roland Buechner has held the baton. I would like to highlight this choir today for a number of reasons as we discuss the choir school in general and its role in the ongoing efforts to celebrate the Roman Rite in a worthier manner.
The choir at Regensburg is set up according to what I call the German model, meaning that while boys still form the treble lines, high school boys (I believe up to 19 years of age in the case of Regensburg) sing the lower parts in the choir, as apposed to the English tradition of having profession men, or university level choral scholars sing those parts. The choir’s sound tends toward a judicious use of vibrato (a continental sound) as opposed to a straight tone (an English sound), and the backbone of the choir’s repertoire, like that of Westminster Cathedral, is polyphony and chant. At the same time, the choir sings much religious music in the German tradition as well as German folk music and art songs, which they perform in concerts across the world. If you speak German, there is a wonderful video series about the choir on YouTube with a decent amount of footage of actual vocal instruction being given to new choristers, which I have found helpful.
I would like to point out that while this choir is world class, I nevertheless feel that the quality of the singing is not at the level of Westminster Cathedral (this causes me incredible anguish because I have an unyielding passion for all things German) simply because it does not sing together in public as often as the choir as Westminster does (the choir at Regensburg sings for Mass on a more weekly basis). The fact that Westminster usually perfects a polyphonic Ordinary and Gregorian Propers along with choral Vespers most days of the week brings about an incredible cohesion among all of its singers. Regardless, I would still love to see a choir of this quality in every major Catholic church in America.
Finally, I make my usual plea to all pastors, principals and musical directors to give the choir school a chance at your parish. Think of how much good you could do if every child graduating from your school grew up with Gregorian chant, simpler polyphony and good solid hymns as part of their spiritual formation. Change the way they pray and you will change the way the believe!
In honor of Mary during this holy season of Lent, here is a setting of the Lenten Marian antiphon by composer Philip WJ Stopford sung by the Salt Lake Vocal Artists. Simply Beautiful. Enjoy!
The choir at Durham Cathedral traces its routes back long before the English Reformation, more than 900 years in fact. Durham was originally a monastery where boys sang the treble line. Today the Cathedral Choir includes both a boys choir and a girls choir, which, as is often the case, split the services between the two, while lay clerks sing the lower parts for each group. The choristers are educated at the Chorister School, found in the cathedral precinct. In all, another typical English cathedral choir set-up. So… what gem of information can be gleamed from Durham?
If one visits the Chorister School website (specifically the music page), one will find that almost all of the students at the school (far more than just the choristers) are involved in music to some extent. Almost all learn some piano and sing in some kind of choir. I bring this up to refute an argument that has been brought up to me before, namely, that by creating one very select choir within an institution, one denies all the other children in the school the legitimate right to make music to a high degree (being forced to sing on the B-Team as it were). Instead, I have found that having one select choir that sings to an incredibly high standard encourages the other choral groups in the school to sing at much high levels than usually thought possible because those students in the secondary choral groups have a tangible standard toward which they can strive. A high tide raises all boats. This always students to sing in a choir commiserate to their musical abilities. All in all, wonderful thing! If you run a parochial Catholic school, why don’t try this model for your music program. YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOOSE!
Here is an archive recording of Choral Evensong from Durham Cathedral. I post this rather than a recording of an individual work because of my love for Anglican psalmody. I hope you enjoy!
IN HONOR of the Solemnity of St. Joseph I post for your enjoyment Monteverdi’s setting of Psalm 112 (111) Beatus vir.
Blessed is the man that feareth the LORD; he hath great delight in his commandments.
His seed shall be mighty upon earth; the generation of the faithful shall be blessed.
Riches and plenteousness shall be in his house; and his righteousness endureth for ever.
Unto the godly there ariseth up light in the darkness; he is merciful, loving, and righteous.
A good man is merciful, and lendeth; and will guide his words with discretion.
For he shall never be moved: and the righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.
He will not be afraid of any evil tidings; for his heart standeth fast, and believeth in the
His heart is stablished, and will not shrink, until he see his desire upon his enemies.
He hath dispersed abroad, and given to the poor. and his righteousness remaineth for
ever; his horn shall be exalted with honour.
The ungodly shall see it, and it shall grieve him; he shall gnash with his teeth, and consume
away; the desire of the ungodly shall perish.