Saturday, April 14, 2018

The glorious return of the boy choir

(Photo credit: Mitchell Mark)
 In 2014, I visited Mater Dei Parish in the Diocese of Dallas (the FSSP's largest apostolate in the US) for a Sunday Mass on my way to attend a concert by the world-famous Choir of Westminster Abbey, over at Incarnation Episcopal Church. I even took the occasion to write about the importance of men & boys' choirs on my blog afterward. Well, as Providence would have it, my focus returns to Dallas once again. I'm pleased to share with you--nay, shout "alleluia" across the rooftops--that the very same Mater Dei Church recently debuted its own choir of men and boys! This is, as far as I know, the only boys' choir dedicated to the traditional Latin Mass in the entire United States. The FSSP's efforts in Dallas here are an unqualified triumph for traditional liturgy and a beacon of inspiration for the rest of us around the world. 

To celebrate this advancement and share the news with my readers, I casually spoke on the phone with Mater Dei's associate music director and founder of the Men & Boys Choir program, Mr. Chase Fowler. Mr. Fowler (incidentally a longtime reader of this blog) began at Mater Dei in 2016. He has a highly liturgical spirit and knew very well that the perennial tradition of the Church, when it comes to sacred music, as constantly expounded upon by Saint Pius X and other popes and leaders of the liturgical movement, valued the schola cantorum of men and boys singing together as the ideal. While Mater Dei is blessed to have many parishioners--five fully packed Masses back to back on Sunday, as many old-timers remember before Vatican II--they still have all the other obstacles against establishing a boys' choir that most of us do. The parish has no school at all, much less one that could focus specially on a music curriculum. Most parishioners live outside the usual territorial parish boundaries (some as far away as the state of Oklahoma, I hear), so commuting on another day of the week for even just one rehearsal after school hours is a pain. 

And yet, undaunted by any of these challenges, Mr. Fowler pressed on. The fruits of their labor blossomed this Passion Sunday, March 18, when the Men & Boys' Choir, clad in the traditional cassock and surplice of an ecclesiastical choir, sang in liturgy for the first time at the 9am missa cantata. The men naturally handled the minor Propers in their full melodies from the Liber Usualis, while the boys assisted with the Ordinary of the Mass. Not to be treated with kid gloves, the boys still capably handle serious choral works of the Catholic tradition by composers like Palestrina and Victoria: a feat most professional directors might scoff at as impossible for boys not enrolled in a full-time choir school and, therefore, not even worth trying. So far, the boys' choir is still going strong. They'll continue to sing at Mater Dei, in rotation with the other choirs of the parish, until the end of this term (the Fifth Sunday after Easter).

Why all the fuss, though? Why not just rely on capable female singers, like virtually every other church does? Mr. Fowler and I chatted about this, and he outlined a few reasons: 

The spirit of the liturgy: the choir of Levites

Illustration of the old cursus honorum. The first four degrees after tonsure are the minor orders.
First, the all-male choir is most in keeping with the spirit of the liturgy. Basically all Catholic communities dedicated to traditional liturgy in some form or another (whether the traditional Latin Mass, the "Anglican" Ordinariate, or the Eastern rites) accept that altar servers should all be male. Lay altar servers fill roles which were, in times long past, exercised only by men or boys who were tonsured and "ordained" to the minor orders. These minor orders eventually came to be restricted to men in formation for the priesthood, despite the canons of the Council of Trent ordering them to be restored to normal parish use. The canons were ignored, but it was universally understood that lay substitutes should at least potentially be able to be ordained acolytes... therefore, male.

What even most traditional Catholics today have lost is the understanding that singing in an ecclesiastical choir is, in itself, a form of altar service; perhaps better described as the foundation of all other altar service. This is obvious if you observe the daily worship at a traditional seminary or monastery chapel. A few seminarians assist the ministers at the altar as acolytes, but the rest sit in the choir stalls in cassock and surplice (fittingly called "choir dress") and assist primarily by singing the Mass or Divine Hours. The sheer amount of singing done at a traditional seminary is probably mind-numbing to diocesan students, but this is simply how the clergy lived for the first seventeen or so centuries of Christian history. In medieval times, an inability to sing on-key was considered an impediment to priestly ordination. This is why medieval literature usually describes priests not as "saying", but as "singing Mass".

The ideal of the seminary choir is shown beautifully in the FSSP's promotional video above for their Requiem album.

One of the biggest favors any parent can do for a son who might have a vocation to Holy Orders, therefore, is to develop his singing talent at a young age. This is where a boys' choir comes in. By learning liturgical music, especially how to read and sing Gregorian chant, and by becoming intimately familiar with many settings of the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei), a boy is formed in liturgy just as he would by serving the altar. Indeed, a boy's time is better spent in learning music because the ceremonies of altar service are easier learned as a teenager or adult, while the skills for singing are better formed from youth. But whether the boys sing well or poorly, they nonetheless fulfill a clerical role in liturgy which can't be said for mixed or women's choirs. Pius X felt strongly enough about this that, in his 1903 motu proprio on sacred music, Tra le sollecitudini, he banned women from church choirs entirely (with varying levels of success):
"With the exception of the melodies proper to the celebrant at the altar and to the ministers, which must be always sung in Gregorian Chant, and without accompaniment of the organ, all the rest of the liturgical chant belongs to the choir of levites, and, therefore, singers in the church, even when they are laymen, are really taking the place of the ecclesiastical choir. Hence the music rendered by them must, at least for the greater part, retain the character of choral music."
"On the same principle it follows that singers in church have a real liturgical office, and that therefore women, being incapable of exercising such office, cannot be admitted to form part of the choir. Whenever, then, it is desired to employ the acute voices of sopranos and contraltos, these parts must be taken by boys, according to the most ancient usage of the Church."

Feminization of sacred music and decline into performance art

The Choir of King's College, Cambridge, established by King Henry VI in 1441, is considered by many to be the greatest men/boys choir in the world.
Second, an all-male choir helps counteract the feminization of sacred music. Here, I don't mean to denigrate the countless women who devote so much time and talent towards the betterment of worship (nor do I have any foolhardy plan to abolish women from church choirs overnight). Indeed, it's because of women's tendency to more freely devote their time that church choirs everywhere have more women than men unless they enforce an all-male schola. Traddy parents often, subconsciously, send their boys to serve, and their girls to sing in choir. The end result is that singing becomes perceived to be a feminine activity, or perhaps a consolation for not being able to serve the altar. The greater consequence is that the choir becomes divorced from its traditional understanding as a liturgical office, and then becomes focused more as performance art--pretty background music while the real work is done around the altar.

Some of the strongest evidence for this mentality is from a screed I found in the April 1917 issue of The Musical Quarterly, titled "The Boy Choir Fad", which you can read in full here. N. Lindsay Norden wrote this diatribe as a response to the revival in the later 1800's of boys' choirs, starting in the Anglican churches with the Oxford Movement, then expanding to Rome by the efforts of the Cecilians and others we might call "plainchant fundamentalists". Here are some of the more pungent excerpts:
"The boy choir fad has grown so alarmingly that the choral ideals of the American church will degenerate unless a decisive check is firmly put upon this disastrous evil in church music."

"Who would dare compare any boy choir with some of the splendid mixed choirs in New York City? Only an individual with no musical conceptions upon which to base judgment, or perhaps one imbued with the idea that a 'real' church choir should look in real life as some painters have elected to picture it."

"The principal elements which have made for the development of the boy choir are: sentimentality, a certain amount of ignorance about the 'angelic' qualities of a boy's voice, hollow imitation of the English church, and the unusual belief that it is not proper to have women in the chancel."

"If church music standards in this country are to equal those in the secular field, the boy choir must go. Rational, refined, musical considerations must overcome sentimentality, and uncultured, unworthy motives, which make for lower standards and insufficient results."
And perhaps worst of all:
"Church music in this country is mainly a mechanical echo of the ideals of the English church, which some of us consider the stupidest and dullest the world has ever known."

For the Modern Medievalist, at least, all these protests simply betray a mind more geared to sacred music as performance art rather than an act of liturgical worship. In any case, I would say Mater Dei's success over one hundred years after the publication of Norden's screed, long after the "fad" of boys' choirs collapsed everywhere outside of the most famous English cathedral and collegiate institutions, shows that with faith, the impossible can be made possible.

The chancel: uniting altar and choir

The chancel of Bristol Cathedral, with choir stalls
Mater Dei doesn't have a chancel and so this isn't an option for them, but this aspect of the choral tradition deserves some commenting on as well. A much more edifying article was posted in response to the above piece, in The Musical Quarterly's July issue of the same year, titled "Why We Have Male Choirs in Churches". This piece, which explains how all-male choirs were inherited even from the ancient Temple of Solomon under the Old Covenant, can be read here. It goes on through medieval history up to the Anglican movement to restore proper chancels with choir stalls, now seen in so many Anglican churches built from the mid-1800's and after. Ironic that so many Catholics perceive the choir loft in the back of the church as the more traditional style when it was really a later innovation to accommodate the introduction of women singers. The article has a fascinating quotation from the Bishop of Covington (presumably Ferdinand Brossart):
"We have succeeded in the past in removing the choir as far as possible from the altar, and have been spending money in the wrong way. Therefore we need not be surprised that we have succeeded in banishing also the music of the altar, the music of the Holy Service, from the church, and have substituted in its stead something more in keeping with exterior worldliness and profanity, and, with all, we have driven in a measure from the hearts of our men and boys that love for things most sacred, which the closer communication between altar and choir fostered so extensively in the Ages of Faith. Let us learn to spend more and more wisely, and restore the chancel choirs to the churches, and bring our men, old and young, back into the Sanctuary of God, that they may take a more active part in our magnificent Liturgical Service. Let us return to the old Catholic way of building our churches with a long chancel, and, if possible, an organ chamber, and vestries not only for the priests but also for the choristers. Let us bring altar and choir nearer each other."

A powerful call to action, to be sure! When I bring my chant schola out to some church for Mass, there are many times when we have to sing in the choir loft as a practical necessity because of the architecture of the place. However, whenever possible, I try to situate us within or near the sanctuary to emphasize our role as a true liturgical choir. 

It's also worth revisiting one of my favorite quotations from Augustus Welby Pugin, in his Earnest Appeal for the Revival of the Ancient Plainsong, which I transcribed for my blog long ago (see here). In addition to his many skills as architect and designer, the father of the Gothic Revival also sensed the importance of recovering the Church's traditional Gregorian chant. He had this to say about the state of choir lofts in his day:

"Formerly such persons as now constitute the choir were unknown. The service was sung in Parochial Churches, between the clerks and devout laymen (ministri), who assisted them in the chancel, and the people in the body of the church, who responded in unison. This grand and overpowering effect of the people answering the priest is yet to be heard in parts of Germany. At Minden the Habemus ad Dominum rose from more than two thousand voices of faithful worshippers. What a difference from the vicarious reply of three or four professionals, thrusting their heads from out of their curtained gallery in the intervals of their private conversation, and whose hearts, instead of being raised up, were probably groveling in the contemplation of a pull at a wine bottle between the acts of the performance, for it must be distinctly understood that all persons who sing in galleries are performers by position. Nutshells, orange peel, and biscuit bags, abound in organ lofts and singing galleries, and those who are acquainted with the practical working of these places must be aware, that they are a constant source of scandal and irreverence.  

Now, when we contrast the Catholic arrangement in a chancel to their miserable expedient of a gallery, we shall at once perceive the infinite wisdom and beauty of the former. All are habited in vestments, whose colour reminds them of the purity of heart and intention, with which they should celebrate the praises of Almighty God. They stand within the sacred enclosure set apart for sacrifice; the very place tends to preserve a recollection of the Divine presence, and to keep the singers in a devout posture. The distinct and graduated Chaunt offers no impediment to the perfect union of the heart and mind with the words as they are sung; and in lieu of a more empty and vain display of vocal eccentricities, we have a solemn, heartfelt, and, we may trust, an acceptable service to the honour of Almighty God."

The next step: the parochial school

The Atonement Academy, San Antonio
Mater Dei has shown us that it's possible to establish a boys' choir even without the benefit of a school. Still, for the perfection of the art, a school is the logical next step. In my chat with Mr. Fowler, he said one of his inspirations was the parochial school attached to my hometown parish, Our Lady of the Atonement in San Antonio, where I was received into the Church. The Atonement Academy is a full K-12 school (for both boys and girls) in the Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter which, in addition to its overall mission in providing an orthodox Catholic education in the classical liberal arts tradition, requires every student, in every grade, to be in a choir. For this, Atonement has the outstanding honor to have one of the only Catholic parish churches in the whole world to have a daily choral Mass during the school year. 

The Atonement Academy represents a rare example of the fulfillment of an ideal espoused long before, during the original Liturgical Movement of the early 20th century. I recently picked up a book from 1963: really, a collection of essays titled Liturgy for the People. Most of the authors are Jesuit priests of a heavily progressive stripe, typical for the era. But one essay stands far above the rest: it's titled "The Schola Cantorum and the Parish School", by Theodore N. Marier. Marier was one of the leading advocates of Gregorian chant in the American Church, and was the second president of the Church Music Association of America. Shortly after writing this essay, he went on to found the St. Paul's Choir School in Cambridge, Massachusetts: the only Catholic boys' choir school in the United States. It still exists today (see website here) and is working hard to reclaim its identity as a liturgical choir, even singing Vespers every Thursday.

But what about the essay? In it, Marier says that the difficulties in fully participating in the liturgy are not Latin or Gregorian chant, but a lack of education. It's important to observe that Marier wrote this essay at the height of the Catholic parochial school's glory days in the US. Indeed, Marier himself seems to know it at the time of his writing: "our vast and complex network of parochial schools serving the cause of Catholic education from the kindergarten through graduate schools is vigorously operative in these times."

And yet, he laments that almost nowhere is any of this energy being directed toward the cause of sacred music. Where they are thought of at all, the choirs are "lunchtime choirs", with rehearsals made only during recess while other kids are at play. Drawing on the many statements from the popes of that era on the need for a schola cantorum to be established in every parish, Marier outlines a plan in his essay for every parish school:

First, of course, is the hiring of a full-time music director. The director would be responsible for developing a special curriculum for choir boys within the larger school, with the assistance of two other teachers, from fifth to eighth grade.

Second, one of the parish priests would be assigned to the schola's spiritual direction. He would teach the boys Latin, the liturgy, and how to serve Mass (all choirboys would also be expected to serve the altar).

Third, as the schola develops, it would take on more and more liturgical duties, enhancing the overall life of the parish. The schola would become the principal choir for Sunday high Mass and major feasts, and hopefully take up one or more of the Divine Hours (such as Vespers or Compline). Teams of boys in rotation would handle the cycle of Requiems, weddings, and other votive Masses as they come.

Marier ends this essay with an imperative, which is as relevant for 2018 as it was for 1963. I'll use it to end this column as well. Marier writes:
"The training of leaders must begin early in their formative years and continue over a long period of time. The Palestrina, Josquin Des Pres, Guido D'Arezzo or even St. Gregory of tomorrow is perhaps today in a parochial school third grade, waiting to be led, encouraged, and motivated by the Church to a life of fruitful creativity in her service. If the opportunity of training him is not seized now, the Church will sit by and watch him spill out his musical talents in the service of the theater or a television network, instead of in the fully dedicated service of her liturgical music."

My personal favorite men/boys choir is that of Westminster Cathedral (the chief church of the Catholic Church in England, often confused with the also-excellent Westminster Abbey Choir)


  1. There will be more men and boys choirs coming. I'd like to get one rolling at my parish in the next year or so.

  2. I can confirm the Oklahoma rumor; I've met a lady at the FSSP parish of St. Damien of Molokai in Edmond, Oklahoma who normally makes the trek to Dallas on Sundays. Edmond is a northern suburb of OKC, so it's easily a 3.5-4 hour drive from Edmond, Ok to Dallas one-way. Certainly not an impossible trek, but it's quite the time commitment!

    By the by, if you're ever in the DFW area again, you really should visit Saint Mary the Virgin in Arlington if you've never visited it. I'm sure you've heard of it given that it's one of the movers and shakers in the Ordinariate; it's by far my favorite parish that I've ever been a member of. Alas, work brings me to the OKC area, but I still get to visit from time to time, and it is still as good as ever.

    I do have to agree with you that Mater Dei is an excellent parish as well; their preachers are among the best you're going to find. Honestly their biggest problem is that they bring in too big of a crowd; their building is a bit too small for their purposes and they really start to run out of pews as the place fills up.