Monthly Archives: October 2019

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!

A WHAT School?!?

Last week I wrote about the affect that the founding of roughly 350 choir schools in the United States would have upon our general level of sacred music within a single generation and provided a number of resources for the novice and not-so-novice who would like to know more about choir schools, but who are currently unable to visit these great institutions.

Today I would like to continue this thread of thought in order to discover more about what makes a choir school tick. I also want to tie the choir school concept to several real models that I feel are every bit worth imitating in one way or another. Along the way I hope to provide more resources for our readers should they wish to dive further into the subject.

In order to begin our conversation, I believe it is necessary to keep in mind that the ultimate goal of the church musician is to provide the most beautiful music possible for the sacred liturgy and NOT (necessarily) to create a school. This is perhaps why in England cathedral choirs are often referred to as choral foundations. For example, there has been a choir at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London since 604 A.D., but it wasn’t until centuries later, in 1123 A.D. that a school was established by the bishop of London to educate boy choristers. The important thing is the choir that sings for the services. The cathedral does not announce each week that St. Paul’s Cathedral School (where the choristers are educated) sings for the cathedral’s services, but rather that St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir sings for the services. It is, therefore, possible to have a fine choral foundation without an actual school (Rippon Cathedral Choir). However, I firmly believe it is more difficult.

Another point to keep in mind is that there are very few “real” choir schools left in the world. What I mean by this is a school whose sole raison d’être is the education of a certain church’s choristers and no other students. Two such elite programs that readily come to mind are the choirs schools at Westminster Abbey (Anglican) and St. Thomas Fifth Avenue (Anglican). Both of these schools are residential and educate only the boys who sing in each church’s choir. As far as I am aware, the Schola Puerorum, the school for boys of the the Sistine Chapel Choir, also exists solely for the purpose of educating the choir’s choristers, but it is not a boarding school (are are Westminster and St. Thomas). The same is true for St. Paul’s Choir School (Boston). The obvious reason for such schools is that the musical education of the choristers becomes the guiding principle for all of the school’s education decisions and programs. The downside, however, is that educating such a small number of children is EXTREMELY expensive and strong in will and perseverance would have to be the rector of any church to attempt building such an institution.

Much more common today is the choir school that educates non-choristers as well as choristers (and often both boys and girls, even where the choir remains open to boys only). This list includes choir schools such as Westminster Cathedral Choir School (Catholic) and the Madeleine Choir School (Utah). The Madeleine Choir School has always educated non-choristers, whereas Westminster Cathedral Choir, like many other European choir schools, began educating non-choristers in order to keep the school financially viable. St. Paul’s Cathedral School (London) is another well known choir school that now educates both choristers and non-choristers (I would recommend readers watch the 1978 documentary Paul’s Children, the first part here, during the tenure of the legendary Barry Rose). Some, like Westminster Cathedral and St. Paul’s are boarding schools (at least for the choristers) and some, like the Madeleine Choir School, are simply day schools. In choir schools that educate both choristers and non-choristers, there can exist a tension between plotting an educational course that provides the best environment for choristers and one that favors non-choristers. The Madeleine Choir School implemented a creative approach to this issue, allowing the school principal to plot a course for the daily educational needs of all students, but retaining the cathedral choir director as the school’s pastoral administrator, a position above the principal, which allows him final say should there ever arise an conflict between chorister and non-chorister interests.

The mission of all of these choir schools remains the training of their choristers in the art of sacred music. The main difference, however, among all of the schools I have mentioned, is how much control each school is able to exert over a chorister’s formation. The greatest amount of control is exerted by the residential “real” choir school that can plan all of its educational and extra-curricular events around the needs of the choir. This lessens slightly as one descends to the non-residential “real” choir school, then to the residential choir school that educates both choristers and non-choristers, next to the non-residential choir school that educates choristers and non-choristers, penultimately to the regular school that partners with a cathedral or church choir and lastly to the choir that exists as an after (or before) school model.

As I just mentioned, there are regular schools (non-choir schools) that work in partnership with a church’s choir to provide an ideal setting for the musical education of that church’s choristers even though the school is not a choir school. This model is perhaps more common in England where there is no-separation between church and state. It is also somewhat easier to facilitate because English schools generally begin much later than American schools (around 9 a.m.), which allows for a choir rehearsal at school each morning at a reasonable hour before the school day officially starts. (I have personally tried this at my own American parish and a 7 a.m. choir rehearsal somehow sounds much more cruel to choristers and parents than an 8 a.m. choir rehearsal.) A wonderful example of such a choir is the London Oratory Schola Cantorum, directed by Charles Cole.

Take a moment to visit these choirs’ websites to find out about the history and structures of each one. Is the choir attached to a school? How often does each choir rehearse and when? How many Masses, parts of the Divine Office or services does each sing weekly? Where are the choristers educated? Do choristers received a reduction in school fees because of the time they give to the cathedral or parish in service to the liturgy? Do choristers receive a thorough grounding in music theory? How many services does each choir sing on a weekly basis? What kinds of music does each choir sing? Are choristers required to take lessons in piano or in other instruments? Are choristers given voice lessons as part of their musical education? Who sings the alto, tenor and bass parts in these choirs, professional singers, boys with changed voices or a combination of both? Are there other organists or helpers on the music staff (educating choristers is VERY time consuming)? Does the choir take part in musical events outside the liturgy, and if so, does this help them to sing at a higher level within the liturgy?

These are things a choir director needs to think about as he plans to build a successful choral foundation at his own cathedral or parish. And because I do think it is indispensable that liturgical musicians in American begin to build choir schools for the training of our own future musicians, next week I will begin taking readers through the histories of the founding of various types of choir schools. The schools I have selected were all founded in the 20th century and therefore have many more documented histories available to help the church musician of today create his own blueprint for such an incredible institution.