Choral Evensong comes live today from Exeter Cathedral in the southwest of England. The Cathedral Choir, consisting boys and girls, lay vicars and choral scholars sing six days a week. The choristers are educated at Exeter Cathedral School.
If you direct a children’s choir and would like to introduce them into the beautiful repertoire of chant, you simply must download a copy of the Graduale Parvum, or “Little Gradual.” This is the work of Fr. Guy Nicholls, a priest of the Birmingham Oratory. Perhaps over the next couple of weeks we can go through some of this music. It is simply an outstanding piece of work and a great aid in the restoration of authentic sacred music into our liturgies, especially those with children.
The very first choir school I ever visited was St. Thomas (Anglican) on 5th Avenue in New York City, where I attended their annual Choir Master Conference. David Hill, who once directed the music at Westminster Cathedral, led the workshop. As we arrived, we were invited into the choir stalls to observe Mr. Hill lead a full rehearsal of the men and boys prior to Choral Evensong. The warm-up was beautiful (I could have listened to a concert of just that), but what came next struck me speechless. The first piece the choir sang was an Anglican psalm setting and it moved me to the very depths of my being (I am NOT an emotional person!). I had never heard a choir sing so beautifully, while at the same time communicate the text at such a profound level (one can hear them almost daily via their live broadcasts). Such is the power of music.
I enjoyed reading Richard Clark’s recent post wherein he writes that beautiful music within the sacred liturgy is not merely a “frill,” but an integral part of the liturgy. Speaking personally, beautiful sacred music moves me more than the most eloquent of homilies. I have a feeling this is true for many others. Perhaps if we invested in better music in our parishes (along side personal holiness in general) the Good New would be spread more effectively. Another reason for establishing a choir school.
BBC’s Choral Evensong comes live today from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, sung by the chapel choir under the direction of DR. Geoffrey Webber. Click here to listen to a few of their posted recordings. What an incredibly beautiful choral sound, just what a mixed choir should sound like! I can’t wait to listen to this broadcast.
I readily admit that I am a perfectionist. When I do something, I believe in doing it well and to the greatest extent possible, which has always been my goal in the sacred music field (why else do something so insane as beginning a choir school!). To that end, my choir began singing at least the Communion antiphon during choral Masses. I decided to sing them in English (thinking this might temper any anti-Latin backlash), settling on two different simplified versions. However, neither of these versions went over well with the choir (myself included), the congregation or even our pastor. One day he came into my office and echoed what the choir had been telling me for several months—he found these chants to be boring and asked if we would please stop singing them. A little while later I decided to go for broke and used Richard Rice’s Communio settings. Funnily enough, no one protested (several people did ask for translations, which we now provide) and a number of people commented to me how beautiful they thought the chants were. So… what did I conclude?
We often speak of Gregorian chant as having a deep Catholic spirituality and ethos, and I think maybe it was those universal qualities that appealed to my fellow parishioners. When I reviewed Fr. Weber’s new book The Propers of the Mass for Sundays and Solemnities, I found those very qualities in his settings of the Propers. Andrew Motyka wrote that they have the “smell” of the Liturgy. I might add that it is because they have the “smell” of the Gregorian prop (especially the first option for each antiphon) and those universal qualities described above. If I were to use English settings of the Propers of the Mass, this would be my go-to book. Bravo Fr. Weber!
Choral Evensong comes via an archived recording from the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1992. I encourage all directors of sacred music programs to visit the choir’s website to hear recordings of an incredible choir and to see how this choir takes sacred music into the public sphere through its many incredible recordings and commissioning of new music. Truly amazing, and a challenge to all!
Here is a great video celebrating the 50th anniversary of St. Paul’s Choir School, Harvard Square. Enjoy!
Today I would like to write about the Madeleine Choir School in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was privileged to spend 6 weeks there in the fall of 2012. Several events took place that I will never forget and I would like to share them with you. The first one happened on the Sunday after I arrived. I stood in the choir loft before Mass as the organist sounded a chord on the organ. The choir of 25 boys plus men, standing beneath the loft, intoned the introit and the sound rang through the cathedral in a way I cannot describe. As the choir returned to the antiphon following the Gloria Patri, the boys and men processed up the aisle to the apse, from where they sing. Watching 25 boys singing the introit without a conductor while they walked in procession was more than I could comprehend. Even more important than that was the way in which the introit set the tone for the entire Mass.
The second event I remember was sitting in a rehearsal with the junior high girls. The cathedral’s organist at the time, Dr. Douglas O’Neil, passed out copies Palestrina’s 5 part Offertory motet, Superflumina Babylonis, which many of the girls (it was a young choir that year) had not sung before. O’Neil asked for a translation and for the most part the girls gave gave him one (all students at the school take Latin). Then he asked them for the historical background of the psalm, and without any prodding a couple of students explained how the Jews were sad because the Babylonians had carried them off into exile (they even gave dates!). Afterward, the students began to sing it fairly well at sight. As a music director, I was more than slightly jealous.
The third event I remember was a rehearsal before a daily Mass when the boys weren’t as focused as they should have been. Greg Glenn, the founder of the choir school, stopped and very seriously explained to the boys that most people in the world looked to politicians or political systems, money or power to save them. Instead, as Catholics, he told them, they knew that the most powerful thing in all of the world was the Holy Mass, and that was why they were there to sing. He told them to give it their absolute best. I sincerely wished every Catholic could have heard him.
I bring up these three stories because they pull together for me what a choir school is really about, the wedding together of love of God, worship of God and giving Him the absolute best we have to offer, and the Madeleine Choir School does that.
The Madeleine Choir School was founded as an official school in 1996 by Greg Glenn in cooperation with the Cathedral of the Madeleine and Msgr. Francis Mannion, then the cathedral’s rector. Glenn spent three months at Westminster Cathedral (London) immersing himself in that program, which served as a model for the Madeleine Choir School (the Madeleine, however, educates both boy and girl choristers). I will be forever grateful to Mr. Glen and Ms. Melanie Malinka, the school’s music teacher, for allowing me to visit the school, which became the model for my parish’s choir program. The Madeleine Choir School is one of the crown jewels of sacred music in the United States and I wish it were more widely imitated. This institution is truly forming Catholic musicians for the future.
During the Season of Easter the Church changes her Marian antiphon to Regina Caeli (Queen of Heave, Rejoice) in honor of the Resurrection. Enjoy this incredible recording of Mozart’s Regina Caeli, KV 108, sung by the Men and Boys of Westminster Cathedral with the Academy of Ancient Music, conducted by Christopher Hogwood.