It is perhaps easy to dismiss the Catholic choral tradition in America as being an inferior art to its elder European counterpart. We certainly don’t have as great a quantity of English choir schools or French monasteries. Nevertheless, we have had, and quite frankly still have, a number of fine choirs, conductors and organists that I would place on par and even above our European brethren. One such name that behooves mentions is that of Fr. William Joseph Finn of the Paulist Fathers.
Fr. Finn, a Bostonian native, founded the Paulist Choristers at Old St. Mary’s in Chicago, and later the Paulist Choristers at St. Paul the Apostle, NYC. His choirs were considered legendary in their time, and under his direction the Chicago choir won first prize in a Paris competition from among almost 100 choirs, for which Finn was awarded the Palms of the French Academy by the French government. His choirs often sang on radio and toured the country and western world at a time when this was almost unheard of.
Sometime after Fr. Finn left Chicago for New York, one of his former choristers and by then brother priests, Fr. O’Malley, took over the reigns of the Paulist Choristers at Old St. Mary’s and conducted them masterfully until 1967. Some have wondered if this formed the story line of the film The Bells of St. Mary’s.
Hearing loss forced Finn to give up the Paulist Choristers in the 1940s, but his influence continued through the numerous books he wrote on music through the years. Quite possibly his great work, The Art of the Choral Conductor is worth a doctoral education on the art of choral training, and the amount of ink he gives to the blending of individual lines and to blending of the choir as a whole is eye (and ear) opening. His later chapter on sight-singing is perhaps the most succinct explanation I have ever read on the process of teaching this art to choristers.
Then again, if you prefer something rather more light hearted, his autobiography, The Flats and Sharps of Five Decades, is a delightful read. My one disappointment after having digested it is that I found very few extant recordings of his choirs. In the book he took such pot shots at world famous ensembles, going so far as to accuse the Westminster Cathedral Choir of always singing flat, that his own choral institutions must have been, or at least should have been, almost other worldly.
Another early work is his Manual of Church Music, which he co-authored while still a seminarian. This book is every bit as foundational and even more in depth than Sir Richard Terry’s Church Music, but has largely been forgotten. It contains a wonderful apologia for the use of men and boys voices within the liturgy, linking it back to levitical priesthood. Of course, this would largely fall on deaf ears today, but one can sense the excitement at the time and the feeling that following Pius X’s motu proprio Church Music had at long last been pointed in the right direction and that days of glory were ahead. In many ways the early liturgical movement was a beautiful time in the life of the Church.
As a final gift, I thought I would leave the listener with a recording of the Paulist Choristers of Chicago performing the Gloria from R. R. Terry’s Mass of St. Gregory at Midnight Mass at Old St. Mary’s in 1964. The choir is under the direction of Fr. O’Malley, but since he was a disciple of Finn, perhaps it will offer us something similar to what one might have heard under the later’s baton. Enjoy!