Monthly Archives: May 2019

Further Thoughts on the Westminster Cathedral Choir

Two weeks ago I shared with readers a letter I sent to the Head Master of the Westminster Cathedral Choir School (London) regarding the school’s recent decision to alter the boarding arrangements of its choristers. I felt (and continue to feel) that such an incredible religious and cultural institution as the Westminster Cathedral Choir must be preserved and promoted at all costs.

The Westminster Cathedral Choir was built, so to speak, by Cardinal Vaughan and Sir Richard Terry, the choir’s first director, in 1901 alongside the actual cathedral, owing to the Cardinal’s belief (and the Church’s) that nothing should be spared in the worship of almighty God and that all the arts, but especially music, should be employed toward that end. If a grand cathedral for London was to be built, then there must be a program of sacred music worthy of the Ancient Rites that would celebrated in it. Sir Richard, a convert to Catholicism and the undoubted leader of the revival of English Renaissance music, fulfilled the cardinal’s desires and made his dream a reality.

In the wider western world, Pope St. Pius X would shorty release his Motu Proprio Tra le solecitudini, calling for the restoration of Gregorian chant as the Church’s music par excellence and for the primacy of Renaissance polyphony above other choral music. At the same time, the early music scene was alive and well in England and much of the early music that Terry unearthed eventually found its was into the cathedral music lists. It was thanks to Terry that we now have the Byrd Masses for 3, 4 and 5 voices and many other gems of the English Renaissance. To this day, the influence of Pope St. Pius X and Sir Richard Terry are evident in the cathedral music lists, where Gregorian chant and polyphony, especially works from the English pen, form the bedrock of the cathedral’s music program.

Equally impressive as Sir Richard Terry are many of the men who took up the baton after him, names such as George Malcom, Colin Mawby, Stephen Cleobury, David Hill, James O’Donnell and now Martin Baker.

A number of years ago I had the privilege of hearing the choir live in concert and even the greatest of expectations I had were blown away. If I had had any misgivings about the $25 ticket I purchased (a large amount in graduate school), they were quickly done away with. I vividly remember being moved that evening by the simple chanting of the Veni Creator in alternatim with Durufle’s variations on the same melody. On my way out, I bought a CD of the choir singing Christmas Vespers and listened to it so much in the ensuing years that many of the tracts no longer played.

There are so many things I would like to share about the Westminster Cathedral Choir, but perhaps I will end with this. Each summer I spend two weeks at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, teaching high school students in the college’s immersion programs. One of my favorite things to do is to share with these young people how music is able to convey Truth, Goodness and Beauty in a way that the spoken word never could. Listening to Sir James MacMillan’s setting of the famous passage from Matthew 16, Thou art Peter… (Tu es Petrus), we flesh out a greater understanding of the  Petrine ministry in the life of the Church in general and in the life of English Catholics in particular.

In this video we watch as Pope Benedict XVI enters Westminster Cathedral during his pastoral visit to England in 2010, the first visit from a reigning pontiff since the number of practicing Catholics surpassed the number of practicing Anglicans in 2007. The very term “pope,” from the Greek word for “father,” reminds us that our Holy Father is just that, a father, and that a father’s first duty is to provide for, to serve and to protect his children, even fighting for them when necessary. When we realize that Catholicism in England only recently emerged from four centuries of persecution and even now is under new forms of assault from modern culture, MacMillan’s setting, which conjures up images of a great battle, seems especially poignant. One might easily imagine it as a musical backdrop to the epic battles in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Pope Benedict, in this moment, prepares to enter into battle on behalf of his English children, but one is struck by the frailty of the man and realizes that this battle will not be of a physical nature, but of a spiritual one. By the grace of the Sacraments, particularly the Holy Mass, the devil will once again be put to flight. The music acknowledges this truth as it serenely comes to an end and the choir intones the Introit. Pope Benedict, papa, enters into the Holy of Holies, and in persona Christi is victorious over sin and death.

I am reminded of the care with which the Pieta was transported from the Vatican to New York City for the World’s Fair in 1964 and I hope and pray that the Westminster Cathedral Choir will be treated with as much veneration and respect.

To the Headmaster of Westminster Cathedral Choir School

As many of you are no doubt aware, Westminster Cathedral Choir School (London) recently made the decision to fundamentally alter the boarding status of its choristers, thus jeopardizing the choir’s sole reason for being, to sing the daily praises of God. What follows is a letter I am posting today to the school’s headmaster, Mr. Neil McLaughlan. I would encourage you to do the same, or to email him via office@choirschool.com.

May 7, 2019

Dear Mr. McLaughlan,

On the afternoon of April 15, Catholics the world over learned of the devastating news of a monstrous fire ravaging through the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, seemingly destroying everything in its path. We watched through flames and embers as the roof and spire crumbled, fearing that all (literally) would be lost. The stained glass, the organ, the Crown of Thorns, the bell towers, even the Blessed Sacrament, Himself—we wondered if the fire would take it all and all that it stood for. Only on the following morning did we learn that miraculously Our Lady’s cathedral still stood, her great rose windows still captured the morning sun, her Cavaillé-Coll organ would once again chant the unending praises of God, and that due to the bravering of so many firemen and their chaplain, and undoubtedly due to the prayers of so many offered around the world, the Crown of Thorns and most importantly, the Blessed Sacrament had been saved.

Imagine my sorrow then when I recently learned that Westminster Cathedral Choir School would fundamentally alter its choristers’ boarding arrangements and decrease the choir’s intimate connection to the Cathedral’s life of sacred worship. It seemed that a second tragedy, on par with the fire at Notre Dame, had struck the Church in Europe. No doubt the choir’s standard will remain high, but that is not the choir’s ultimate purpose. Just as Notre Dame was not built to be a tourist attraction, but as a worthy tabernacle for the Divine on earth, so Cardinal Vaughn and Sir Richard Terry founded the Westminster Cathedral Choir to sing the praises of God daily, not merely when convenient. Just as Parisians in the 12th century felt compelled to give the best they had to God, so should the folks of Westminster Cathedral in the 21st century.

As I am sure you are aware, the Westminster Cathedral Choir is every bit as important, beautiful and sublime a gift as Notre Dame Cathedral, only much more fragile. Fires and revolutions have not been able to sweep away such a great edifice. Even in the quiet of the night, she stands as a testament to the glory of God. The cathedral’s choir, on the other hand, must be renewed, rebuilt and restored through an unending round of rehearsals, lessons, Masses and Offices, which simply are not possible without the full boarding of its choristers.

Several years ago, in an email exchange with Colin Mawby, Westminster’s former Master of Music described to me the precarious circumstances of the choir school during the turbulent 1960s. He told me he never knew from day to day if the choir school would survive another year, and at one point even announced that its doors would close. Yet he fought and prayed, much like the firemen at Notre Dame, and by the grace of God saved the institution.

It is true that changing the boarding arrangements of your choristers is not nearly as drastic as closing the choir school entirely, but it would signal the death knell of the choir’s sole raison d’être, the daily singing of the Church’s Opus Dei. Like the great Cathedral of Notre Dame, this daily musical offering belongs not only to the Church in London and the British Isles, but to the universal Church. It is an inspiration to Catholics and many others around the world and it is THE standard of Sacred Music in an increasingly secular world, but most of all, it is an offering of love we owe to the Creator of All. Please be assured of my prayers in this difficult time.

In Jesus and Mary,

Dr. Lucas M. Tappan

Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum, founder and director