By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published September 28, 2006
Published: September 28, 2006
ATLANTA— The renowned Westminster Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys will begin its 2006 American tour in Atlanta with a concert at the Cathedral of Christ the King on Friday, Oct. 13, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Diocese of Atlanta.
Every Sunday the Choir of Westminster Cathedral in London shines a beacon of God’s light across the United Kingdom and beyond as it sings in both English and Latin to express the beauty and love of God and lead worshippers to a deeper spiritual experience through the Mass.
Master of music Martin Baker estimates that on a typical Sunday about a third of congregants are parishioners, another third are from across England and the rest journey from countries in Europe and around the world to fill the cavernous Byzantine-style Catholic cathedral, which reverberates with sacred masterpieces from across the centuries. In addition, the choir is the world’s only Catholic professional choir to sing daily Mass and vespers at the Cathedral, where the singers young and old continue an over 500-year tradition in English church music. Baker, director since 2000, believes that sacred music is perhaps able to express, however incompletely, the concept of God more adequately than words as it is more direct and transcendent. And their Latin pieces have a universal appeal to the many visiting worshippers who don’t speak English.
“The Cathedral Choir is known beyond the boundaries of the Cathedral parish. It really is a beacon, which draws people to the Cathedral. It’s there in service to the liturgy, not as an end in itself. It adds something to the quality of worship which takes people out of their daily lives and concerns and draws them up to something much greater.”
The celebrated choir of boys and men performs at major festivals worldwide including at Aldeburgh, Cheltenham and Salzburg, and frequently appears at major UK concert venues and broadcasts on radio and TV.
Now the famed choir will share its rich tradition of sacred music with Atlanta. The music the choir will sing on tour is reflective of the music sung during liturgies at the Cathedral, Baker said in a phone interview from London, and will include works spanning from the 1500s to the 20th century.
“The sense of the sacred is really throughout the program. I hope it won’t just be a musical experience but also give the audience a spiritual uplift as well.”
The boys participating in this tour are ages 10-12 and are “very, very keen to sing” and tour. But especially, he said with a chuckle, “they’re really excited about seeing America. They will absolutely love it” as they stay with American families, visit the World of Coke in Atlanta and have time for enjoying “how big the TVs are and getting burgers like they never get in England.”
CTK’s music director of 40 years, Ham Smith, is also excited indeed to have the choir, founded in 1903, to perform for the first time in the Atlanta Archdiocese and contribute to the jubilee celebration of Atlanta’s separating from the Diocese of Savannah.
“It’s a long tradition of liturgical singing in Great Britain that goes back to when choirs started to develop in the 15th century and when boys were preferred to women for choirs … The men sing alto, tenor and bass parts. Boys replace the soprano part women could sing,” he explained. “They are world-renowned and represent a historic approach to liturgical music for men and boys which is fading away within the Roman Catholic tradition, except for a few bright spots, and with American churches of all denominations … It’s a 500-year tradition of English Cathedral music that these men and boys preserve and they sing music written over the centuries for choirs like this.”
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory will offer welcoming remarks and commentary and has also invited leaders of other faith traditions to attend. The choir’s Atlanta concert will open with “Gloria, Missa Euge bone” by Christopher Tye (c. 1505-1573), and include songs from a variety of periods, including “Ave Maria” by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896), “Hymn to St. Cecilia” by Benjamin Britten (1913-76) and “O salutaris hostia” by Marcel Dupré (1886-1971). Also on the program will be organ pieces “Fantasia in D minor” by William Byrd (1543-1623) and “Te Deum” by Jeanne Demessieux (1921-68).
“(The concert) encompasses many centuries and different styles of music,” Smith said.
Ranging in age from 8-13, the choir’s boys attend the Westminster Cathedral Choir School, which enables them to rehearse daily while also receiving a broad academic education.
In the United States three “bright spots” of this unique tradition are the boy choirs of St. Thomas Choir School of the Anglican tradition in New York City, the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Cambridge, Mass., and the Catholic Madeleine Choir school in Salt Lake City.
The establishment of a fine choral foundation was part of the original vision of the founder of Westminster Cathedral, Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, who laid great emphasis on the beauty and integrity of the new Cathedral’s liturgy and regarded a residential choir school as essential to the realization of his vision. The Cathedral’s first master of music, Richard Terry, was both a brilliant choir trainer and pioneering scholar, one of the first musicologists to revive the great works of the English and Continental Renaissance composers. He built Westminster Cathedral Choir’s reputation on performances of music by Byrd, Tallis, Taverner, Palestrina and Victoria, among others, that had not been heard since the 16th and 17th centuries, and inquisitive musicians as well as the faithful soon attended Mass at the Cathedral. The performance of great Renaissance Masses and motets, or polyphonic choral compositions for liturgy based on a sacred Latin text, in their proper liturgical context remains the cornerstone of the choir’s activity.
“The music of that (Renaissance) era—you have a direct connection between the best composers of the day and the church, and the very best music being composed was for the service of the church and to inspire people to direct their thoughts towards God,” said Baker, whereas now the greatest composers generally have more secular interests and typically must be asked to write for the church. One defining type of Renaissance music is polyphony, a musical composition in simultaneous and harmonizing but melodically independent and individual parts or voices, or counterpoints. Baker described this music, as opposed to homophonic where everybody sings the same text at the same time, as involving a blending of many sounds to create a perfect harmony for Catholic worship where “each voice has a counterpoint and one can (figuratively) hear the perfect society.”
He noted that the Second Vatican Council affirmed that both Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony are still music of the greatest relevance for liturgy. And he will speak at a Vatican conference this December on sacred music, as “the Vatican is taking the role of the choir and the nature of the music performed in the church very seriously,” he averred.
In addition to its performances of Renaissance masterpieces, the choir has given many first performances of music written especially for it by contemporary composers. Terry gave the premieres of music by Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells and Charles Wood; since 1960 works by Lennox Berkeley, William Mathias, Colin Mawby and Francis Grier have been added to the repertoire. Most recently five new Masses by Roxanna Panufnik, James MacMillan, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Judith Bingham and Sir John Tavener have received their first performance at the Cathedral.
The choir made its first recording in 1907, and many more have followed, including most recently the acclaimed series on the Hyperion label. Numerous awards have been conferred upon the group, including the 1998 Gramophone Awards for both best Choral Recording of the Year and Record of the Year, for the performance of Martin’s “Mass for Double Choir” and Pizzetti’s “Requiem.” It is the only cathedral choir to have won in either of these categories. The choir’s recordings also include two discs of Palestrina on the Hyperion label, the “Missa Hodie Christus natus est” with motets for Advent and Christmas, and the “Missa Dum complerentur” with Pentecost motets and plainchant. More recent recordings include a disc of Marian music by Victoria and Vaughan William’s “Mass in G minor.”
CTK organist Timothy Wissler, Ph.D., arranged for the visit. “I’m so excited about this I can’t stand it. Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve wanted to hear one of the professional men and boys choirs here in this space … It just seems like such a wonderful thing for our people to hear them, especially for their children to hear what these boys do,” he said. “I think they are one of the finest (choirs) in the world for men and boys.”
Smith first heard the choir at Westminster with its wonderful acoustics and five-second reverberation of sounds in the interior filled with marbles and mosaics and found that they sing a “wonderful liturgy, which you’d expect with their musical resources.” Among their more contemporary pieces, Smith noted how in 1959 Britten, one of the top three English composers of the 20th century, wrote the “Missa brevis” for the choristers. “We have sung excerpts for that Mass at the Cathedral. That’s an example of how they’re not stuck back 300 years ago,” he added.
Smith finds that well-trained boys’ voices, particularly in the English tradition, have a very pure, clean and transparent sound with a straight tone that delineates the lines very clearly and that “enables the complexity of the music to be better appreciated. And from a liturgical standpoint it means the text can be easily listened to and understood.”
This is the choir’s third tour of the United States since 1998, and after Atlanta they’ll travel to Washington, D.C., New York City, St. Paul, Minn., St. Louis and Kansas City, Cleveland and Birmingham, Mich.
The concert will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for the concert are $15 and can be purchased in advance and be picked up at the door the night of the concert. Remaining tickets will be sold at the door. Please make checks payable to the Cathedral of Christ the King (clearly marked “Westminster Choir”) and mail to Westminster Choir Concert, Cathedral of Christ the King, 2699 Peachtree Road, Atlanta, GA 30306. For more information, call Cathedral Concerts at (404) 233-2145, ext. 470.