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.