WO 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.