N HIS BOOK, “Why Catholics Can’t Sing,” author Thomas Day recounts the story of a certain American couple that had long felt an abhorrence for the sung Mass (Missa Cantata), preferring instead the Low Mass, where peace and quiet (one might more accurately say the lack of crooning and warbling) prevailed. While vacationing in England, the husband and wife found themselves in London one particular morning, and on the advice of the hotel clerk decided to attend Holy Mass at Westminster Cathedral, naturally opting for the Low Mass. Shortly before Mass began, “majestic organ music thundered through the cathedral,” and they realized to their horror that this particular Mass was to be the High Mass. Immediately they held council and decided to leave, but as they rose from their pew to make their get-away down the center aisle, they saw with dismay the procession already beginning its pilgrimage to the altar. They were trapped and could do nothing but grin and bear it. However, what proceeded took them by absolute surprise—the beauty and power of the music wedded to the eternal liturgy struck them to the core. They experienced nothing less than what many others have experienced in many places and in many different times and cultures—the power of music to convey eternal truths in a way the spoken word could never do. Such an art as that practiced by the Choir of Men and Boys at Westminster Cathedral is only possible via a living and breathing community of musicians (in this case a choir school) that has dedicated itself to the practice of sacred music within the cathedral. 1
Westminster Cathedral in London, England, is home to arguably the greatest Catholic sacred music program in the world. It is the only cathedral choir in the world to maintain the tradition of daily singing the Holy Mass and Vespers. “The cathedral, a beautiful building in the Byzantine style (it remains unfinished to this day), was to become a home for Cardinal Vaughan’s (the cathedral’s builder) views and hopes for the sacred liturgy. He felt that all the arts must work together alongside a well executed liturgy in order to give God fitting worship, and he considered music to be of the highest importance.” 2 Fortunately, Cardinal Vaughan’s vision is alive and well at Westminster today.
I don’t mean to disparage any of the many great cathedral choirs and choir schools in existence, but I chose Westminster Cathedral Choir School to be the first of several choir schools I write about because I think it represents a benchmark or a gold standard for sacred music in the Latin Rite Catholic world … and because it has reached this benchmark using children. I am continually amazed by what these boys are capable of achieving. One need only take a look at the repertoire—both for Sunday and Ferial Masses and Vespers—they sing on a regular basis.
While Gregorian chant and classical polyphony form the backbone of the choir’s repertoire, the choir, nevertheless, sings music of all eras and commissions new works on a regular basis. The group’s founding choir master, Sir Richard Terry, wrote a book entitled Catholic Church Music, which still contains valuable information for those working with children. I encourage you to become familiar with this choir and their work.
Finally, I want to make a couple of “take home” points for those who read this article.
1) Sacrosanctum Concilium declared “The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care. Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral churches (114).” In addition to providing appropriate music for the liturgy, I firmly believe that one of the primary duties of church musicians is to recruit and train new generations of musicians. The cathedral, being the principal church of the diocese, should lead this charge on both accounts and the choir school provides an excellent model.
2) Even if you don’t work in the cathedral setting, the choir school is a great model. If your parish has a school, that school should be fostering the treasury of sacred music in its students to the extent that it is able.
Next week, the cathedral choir school at Regensburg!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 This entire paragraph is taken from my DMA document on the choir school.
2 Taken from my DMA document on the choir school.