Herbert Howells (1892-1983), one of the great English composers of the 20th century, composed the little know work, Mass in the Dorian Mode, which premiered at Westminster Cathedral under the Sir Richard Terry in 1912. I have always loved the a capella music of Howells, which contains beautiful harmonies and longer melodic lines. I feel he gives full justice to the texts. Howells’ setting of the Mass Ordinary is within the reach of a solid choir and well worth the effort. I hope you enjoy!
Glouchester Cathedral Choir is typical of the English cathedral choir, consisting of 18 choristers, several probationers, 7 lay clerks and 4 choral scholars. The choir sings a number of weekly services and choristers are educated at King’s School. Today, however, I would like to focus on the number of choristers in a choir.
It continues to amaze me that 18 boys and 12 men can fill a large cathedral without the use of microphones, but how does that happen? When you watch YouTube videos of Westminster Cathedral Choir during their Midnight Mass, you will notice how full the sound it, but you have to remember that while their sound is not mic’ed through the cathedral, is for television, so what you are hearing is very different from what the faithful in the pew hear. I once heard Westminster Cathedral Choir in concert in the US and I will admit that they can sing LOUDLY (I was blown away, literally!), but I bet it doesn’t sound like that inside Westminster Cathedral.
I once attended a service at St. Thomas, sitting halfway down the nave. There the choir sounds full, but it nowhere near overpowering. However, later in the day, I was able to sit in the chancel and observe a full rehearsal of boys and men, and I was BLOWN away (again literally!). So, what can we glean from this?
Choristers can be trained to resonate in such a way that they do not need to be amplified, even in a large church. My choristers finally reached this blessed point last fall. At the same time, it is a different sound. Amplified sound is often too loud, which people mistake as robust singing. Often mics are just a cover-up for a lack of congregational singing. When you take them away, it will take time for people to adjust to a full, but less in-your-face natural sound. Go for it anyway. It is better. Trust me!
Choral Evensong comes live today from St. David’s Cathedral in Cardiff, Wales (I see Howells is on the program, always a treat!) The choir is unique in the English cathedral tradition in that the treble line consists exclusively of young girls, although the cathedral does operate a boys choir, among others. On a side note, the legendary George Guest came from Wales (although he was a chorister at the cathedral in Bangor). I once asked a choir director who had met Dr. Guest why he thought Guest was such an incredible choirmaster. His reply was that the musicality of the Welsh language and Guest’s command of it came out in his music. I have no familiarity with the Welsh language, but having watched videos of Guest, I can attest to the musicality of his English. I do believe the manner in which a choirmaster speaks plays a role in shaping the the way his choir sings.
Sunday mornings can be very interesting in the Tappan household, depending on the amount of sleep our boys granted us the previous night and on the speed at which we can locate all shoes and socks. If it was a really great night, we might attend the earliest Mass as a family, when I play the organ, as opposed to the later Masses when I direct the choirs. On these days, our oldest son knows that he gets to sit with dad at the organ bench and turn on the organ and pull stops, something he really enjoys and does fairly well. Talk about proud dad moments! Sometimes I have to remind myself that he is only three years old. This was somewhat comically brought home to me last December during a Mass for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, when he decided to make his organ playing debut.
He sat next to me as I softly accompanied the psalm verses of the Responsorial Psalm, waiting for me to point to a stop and give him the signal to pull. All of a sudden he dropped a pencil he had been holding in his hand and my world went into slow motion as I watched him jump down onto the pedals (of course I had some loud pedal stops pull out for the psalm refrain) to retrieve it. I immediately when into one-handed playing mode (perfected several years before when I broke my elbow) and grabbed for him frantically with my other hand. My wife jumped up from her pew, still nursing our youngest son, to do the same, while the cantor struggled to get through the verse without chuckling. Father told me he, too, had to chuckle when he looked up at the choir loft and saw what was going on.
I bring up this story because it relates to the vicissitudes of one of the forgotten duties of the parish organist—recruiting more organists. We all know there aren’t many. I remember listening several years ago as a priest told me in desperation he couldn’t even find a guitarist to strum three chords at his parish, much less an organist. If we want organists for the Church in the future, we must recruit them. When a young child comes up and shyly watches you playing your postlude, do you invite him to try push down a few keys when you are finished or do you just close up shop? Do you pull out the trumpet stop and tell him to press down the lowest pedal note and hold it? Do you tell him to try out the swell pedal and watch as the shades open and close? When you ask him if he wants to run his fingers over the keys and instead he plays the first few notes of Fuer Elise to hear what it sounds like, do you immediately chide him for playing secular music in church or do you ask God to understand that it is one of His little ones excitedly trying out the big “piano” in church? Do you offer to teach organ playing to children in your parish who possess a decent piano proficiency (and no, there is nothing wrong with requiring remuneration for this)? If mothers and fathers stopped having children, family life would die in one generation. What will you do to keep the art of organ playing alive?
I am always on the search for a new or old setting of the Mass Ordinary in unison or for equal voices that could be sung by my choristers. However, what does one do when his choristers are on break? The answer, of coarse, is to find the same kind of work, only for male voices, and Kevin Allen’s Missa Rex Genitor fits the bill. I first heard it sung by the gentlemen of the Madeleine Cathedral Choir in Salt Lake City. It is a serviceable piece of music, although almost too Medieval sounding for my ears, but it is worth singing. If your choir can’t sight-sing (why is that?!), or you have new singers who struggle, the rehearsal tracks found on Mr. Allen’s website can be helpful.
Exeter Cathedral, located in Devon in southwest England, is home another fine choral program of the kind regularly found in the English cathedrals, both Anglican and Catholic. Like many of the Anglican cathedrals, Exeter boasts both a boys’ and a girls’ choir (up to 18 choristers in each, plus several probationers), whose choristers are educated at the Cathedral School. I found it interesting that choristers are not necessarily required to board, rather some board full time, some board only during the week, and some board only once or twice a week, in order to ease the burden of travel.
I would like to direct your attention the the Chorister Information Packet. This is well worth a read to find out more about the internal operations of the choir, etc. I find it fascinating to learn the number of hours a choir spends in rehearsal, how many liturgical functions the choir sings for and the process for chorister voice trials. I use this information to help me make decisions about my own choir. It is all very helpful.
BBC Choral Evensong comes live today from Lichfield Cathedral’s Choir of Men and Boys. I noticed on their website that the choir has a rather full men’s section on a regular basis, comprising 9 lay vicars and three choral scholars for a grand total of 4 countertenors, 4 tenors and 4 basses. I am curious to see what kind of sound they make.
Several weeks ago, while I waited for my oldest son to finish his last Catechesis of the Good Shepherd class before the summer vacation began, I was speaking to several home schooling mothers in our parish about music. One asked when her child could enter our children’s choir, then she made the usual comment that she herself couldn’t sing. I gave my standard reply—if she couldn’t sing, she wouldn’t be able to talk.
Unfortunately, many mothers and fathers THINK they can’t sing, and therefore don’t sing to their children. Don’t make this mistake because you will almost assuredly destroy much of your child’s musical potential! Your voice doesn’t have to be great to sing to your child, you just have to be willing to sing, no matter what.
How many of us want our children to get to Heaven, but because we aren’t a saint on the caliber of St. Thomas Aquina, St. Jean Vianney, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, or Pope St. John Paul II don’t even try to pass on the Faith to our children. Of course not, that would be ludicrous!
You can sing to your children everywhere, believe me, ask my children. Driving in the car, doing the dishes, pulling weeds, while in church, during family prayers, cleaning the house, walking around the neighborhood. (Yesterday, as my wife and I left Target, I intoned the Deus in adjutorium from the beginning of the Divine Office without thinking. There was a decent ring in Target’s entry way.) My oldest son’s favorite song is I’ve Been Working on the Railroad (he loves trains), but we sing everything, including children’s songs, folk songs, funny songs we make up (or we change the lyrics of songs we know), hymns, chants, rounds, and even a version of the alphabet song in second species counterpoint (both major and minor) I made up trying to be funny — we just have fun while we do it. Don’t deprive your children (and yourself!) of such a gift. I will admit I was very proud last week when my wife told me that she had the boys in the car headed somewhere around town when the oldest said, “Mommy, let’s sing!”
For today’s piece of liturgical music, I would like to highlight Paul Burke’s Tribus miraculis (listen here on his homepage). I just learned of this work earlier in the week and I was surprised and moved. Firstly, I was moved with the beauty of the sacred liturgy, specifically with the Magnificat antiphon for second Vespers on the Solemnity of the Epiphany (Tribus miraculis). A translation of the text follows:
We observe this holy day, ornamented with three miracles: Today a star led the Magi to the manger;
Today wine was made from water at the wedding;
Today in the Jordan Christ desired to be baptized by John, so that He might save us, Alleluia.
I knew of the connection between Epiphany and other events in our Lord’s life, but to hear it so specifically stated within the liturgy was incredible.
Secondly, I was moved by the beauty of Burke’s setting. When thinking of these three events, something immediately came to mind. Each of these events is an incredible manifestation of our Lord’s Divinity, yet the first episodes are rather quiet affairs, not majestic in the way we would commonly associate with an earthly, much less an eternal king. Even Christ’s baptism does not include great fanfare and marching of armies. I am reminded that Elijah did not hear the voice of God in the mighty wind, the earthquake or in the fire, but in the gentle breeze. Burke’s work presents these beautiful words in a quieter and contemplative setting, allowing the listener to contemplate the voice of God, as opposed to being shocked by Its grandeur. God longs for our love, but He respects our freedom without resorting to force. We must learn to listen and respond to His love. Incredible!
Today I would like to focus on the choir and school at Ely Cathedral. The history of music at Ely is an interesting read and well worth it for any church musician. We often think of the Anglican choral tradition as always having been at its current standard, but that is far from the case. I often wondered why the tradition of cathedral music never crossed the pond from England to America. A large part of that is because many of our early settlers were Puritans. However, I think an equally important reason is that the cathedral music tradition in England really wasn’t worth emulating until the Anglican choral revival, which took place as part of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century. Musical conditions at Ely were considered to be among the worst until that revival. Today, however, Ely has an incredible music tradition, very much alive. The choir comprises some 22 boy choristers, educated at King’s Ely, and 6 plus lay clerks.
Another exciting aspect of the Cathedral Choir is the Cathedral Girl’s Choir, directed by Sarah MacDonald. The girls’s choir began in 2006 and is already at a very high standard. The girls in the choir are of high school age, which lends an emotional depth to the choir’s sound not as easily reached with boys. I have been fortunate to have been in contact with Mrs. MacDonald regarding choristers and sight-singing. She told me that one important aspect of sight-singing is actually the number of times a choir sings each week. She felt that a choir should be singing at least three times each week in order to truly exercise the choristers’ sight-singing abilities. I have never forgotten that.
Finally, I would like to mention the scholarships that each chorister receives at Ely. The boy choristers receive scholarships around 50% of their school fees. For churches that can afford this (or fund raise for it), this is a great incentive for recruiting and retaining choristers, especially when sports have almost entirely taken over the lives of American youth.