Wednesday, 9 January 2013

From the Vaults of Westminster Cathedral II and related matters

So much to write about, so little time.

As cantors in Catholic Churches around the world were preparing to sing the Announcement of Easter and the Movable Feasts on Epiphany, Miserere, the new recording by the Choir of Westminster Cathedral under Martin Baker (Hyperion), was being shipped to the Antipodes, including to Sydney's best shop for classical music, the superb Fish Fine Music in the Queen Victoria Building (saved from the wrecking ball, unlike so many other beautiful buildings in Sydney of a similar vintage which were left to fall into disrepair thereby precipitating their demise - think of the mindset behind those seeking to obliterate the Vieux Ville in Lyon only with a less happy ending - but I digress). 

Like the Choir's earlier CD of music for Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, this CD is a "procession" of music, moving through Lent, St Joseph and the Annunciation, combining chant and polyphony, and modern music styled on the same.  It is also a glorious celebration of music conceived and directed by successive Masters of Music at Westminster - Malcolm and Mawby - hence the title of the Advent CD.  The one piece I wish had been recorded is the Malcolm processional piece for Palm Sunday, Ingrediente Domino.  Happily, we can catch a glimpse of that piece being sung by the same choir on Palm Sunday in their Cathedral:

And for a full recording, sung in deliciously wholesome German choral tones, watch the following video.  One cannot but marvel at the high musical standard of this parish choir. 

One can hear hints of that piece in the Veritas mea, track 15, at the words "exaltabitur cornu eius".  It is probable that several of these pieces are being recorded for the first time.  All are performed with exquisite phrasing.  The year is young, but it I would not be surprised if this choral disc is not surpassed in 2013, and it should be a strong contender for the Gramophone record of the year, for the recorded rarity of much of the repertoire and the quality of the singing.  For Catholics with an interest in restoring music of transcendent beauty and in the best traditions of the Roman Rite (hence also liturgically most appropriate), this disc is a must.  The reading of the Parsons Ave Maria is striking.  The Byrd achingly beautiful.  The Guerrero passionate.  There is a good mix of chant, accompanied and unaccompanied, which must always form backbone of liturgical celebrations in the Roman Rite. 

In a sense, Westminster Cathedral rightly should be the template for other Churches, especially Cathedral churches, to use.  Its pioneering first Master of Music, Sir Richard Terry, seems to have implemented those principles laid down by Pope Pius X in Tra le Sollecitudini (1903).  (Readers will know that I am particularly concerned with the part that reads "Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times", and equivalent exhortations in the documents of and following the Second Vatican Council, at least insofar as the celebration of Mass is concerned).  Many Churches have not adopted those principles to date.  Sydney's Cathedral of St Mary first acted on the moto proprio in the 1950s by re-establishing the choir as one of men and boys, and more closely adhering to the styles of music most appropriate to the liturgy. 

A few incidental and little-known facts about the St Mary's Cathedral Choir:

  • It was once directed by Don Mario Pettorelli, an Italian priest-musician who was present at the Eucharistic Congress when it was held in Sydney in 1928.  In that year, he wrote the motet Ecce Deus and dedicated it to the Brigidine Convent at Randwick.  He returned to Italy after the Congress, but was to visit Sydney again in 1930, overseeing the installation of a small Milanese pipe organ (Balbiani) at the aforementioned Convent.  His motet was sung at the ceremony.  Pettorelli remained in Sydney until 1933, during which time he directed the Choir of St Mary's Cathedral.  The Balbiani organ has been since restored (by the Wakeley company) and now resides in the Church of the Sacred Heart in Carlton, Melbourne, being used by the Melbourne Archdiocesan Seminary (Corpus Christi College).  Relatively simple though it may be, the Seminarians (!), directed by Dr Paul Taylor (Organist at St Patrick's Cathedral Melbourne and now also the Executive Secretary of the Australian Bishops' Commission for Liturgy), sang the Pettorelli Ecce Deus at a service there in 2011 for the blessing of the organ, which I was fortunate to be able to attend.  The motet was unearthed by Dr Geoffrey Cox, Director of Music at St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne (also celebrated for its excellent liturgical Choir and strong tradition of chant), and he has written an article from which I have gratefully drawn the foregoing information.  
  • During the aforementioned Congress, there was a procession of the Blessed Sacrament, led by Papal Legate Cardinal Cerretti and finishing at St Mary's Cathedral.  When the Host was carried into the Cathedral, the Choir, comprising a staggering 430 voices (one is reminded of the gargantuan Handelian choirs of the Victorian era), sang Stadler's Ecce Sacerdos Magnus - see page 7 of this document.  Of course, this was not the size of the usual liturgical choir at the time, which must have been able to fit in the choir stalls clad in soutane and surplice - stalls which I gather were not much bigger than those of today notwithstanding the greater amount of space in the sanctuary prior to a permanent free-standing altar being erected. 

More latterly, David Russell was the director the Sydney choir, and built up a sound choral tradition at the Cathedral for the Sunday liturgies, which has now been expanded to include week day Masses and Vespers, and brought very much more sharply in line with the liturgical principles expounded at the start of the twentieth century and championed in the documents of and following the Second Vatican Council, but rarely realised across the Catholic world.  The Choir's Director is Thomas Wilson, and he is assisted by Oliver Brett.  Dominic Moawad is the Organist, and Michael Butterfield the outgoing Organ Scholar.  Starting from a solid base, the Choir must now be regarded as one of the finest musical institutions in the country.  One of the most pleasing developments has been the introduction of more Chant - the Propers from the Graduale for example, which has been a revelation even to those who were appreciative of the polyphony at which the choir already so excelled.  The liturgies at Sydney are now not only even more beautiful and cohesive, but also more edifying, in the true sense of being instructive, theologically, scripturally and liturgically.  Another of the many notable legacies of Cardinal Pell and his staff.  One should add, for completeness, that the average age of the Music Department is well under 40 - a new generation championing the "new" liturgical order long called for but seldom realised - a liturgical order that is faithful to the Latin Rite, orthodox and beautiful. 

Don't waste your time, like I too often do, reading the crass and ideological verbiage found on some blogs (whatever the merits of other aspects of such blogs).  Buy the new Westminster CD instead.  And then read Pope Benedict's learned pronouncements on the subject of Sacred Music, sophisticated, eloquent, coherent and authoritative as they are.  Between the music on the CD and His Holiness's writings there will be a concordance as harmonious and delightful as the singing of the choir. 

And the best part about this new CD is not that we have beautiful music sung well.  No, the best part is that this is the music sung daily at Mass and Vespers at Westminster.  One day I hope to write about the tragedy that very nearly befell this musical institution - its second disbandment, in the early 1970s, ostensibly for financial reasons, but one suspects also for erroneous and harmful ideological ones (the choir was disbanded during the Second World War but was restored by George Malcolm, under whom the Choir developed its celebrated 'continental' sound).  After many influential musical figures protested about the planned closure of the Choir, including notable Anglicans like the late Sir Philip Ledger, and some financial reallocation, it was Cardinal Hume, appointed as the Archbishop directly from his position as Abbot of Ampleforth Abbey, who, fittingly, secured its future.  If you want to read about the debacle, the Catholic Herald's archives are a mine of information - you can track the whole affair there.  But for now, savour the Choir's continuing fruits.