Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Westminster Cathedral Choir is in peril

Westminster Cathedral: the LMS Annual Requiem

The saga of Westminster Cathedral Choir School claimed a fresh victim last week with the resignation of another senior employee, the Music Administrator Madeleine Smith. Like the Director of Music, Martin Baker, she was unhappy about the sidelining of the choir at Englands premier Catholic Cathedral. Baker resigned late last year, and was absent from Christmas services. There was no official explanation, and he has not been replaced. What is going on?

Westminster Cathedral Choir is served by men and boys, in the ancient Catholic tradition. The boys attend a school set up specially for them by Cardinal Vaughan, the founder of the Cathedral, in 1902. He wanted to have something in his new Cathedral equivalent to the great choirs of the Anglican Cathedrals, which commonly have their own schools—boarding schools—so the boys can be recruited from a wide area and are available to sing on Sundays. Vaughans vision was realized, and Westminster Cathedral Choir is famous. It is, or was until recently, at least as good as the best Anglican Cathedral choirs, such as those of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s, and in the context of the global melt-down of Catholic sacred music since the 1960s, it was regarded as the best Catholic Cathedral choir in the world. Westminster Cathedral was the only Catholic Cathedral in the world to have a Sung Mass every single day: again, until recently.

Just as Cardinal Vaughan and other Catholic leaders over millennia wanted to build the most beautiful churches possible, and have in them the most moving devotional art, so too they wanted the best sacred music. The greatest achievements of the human spirit should be offered to God, and our acts of worship should be clothed in the best we can offer Him. Art and above all music has the power to touch the heart, to get through to us when words fail, to express our awe, our joy, and our sorrow, and as Pope John Paul II expressed it, can be ‘an echo of the Spirit of God’ (Ecclesia in Europa (2003) 60).

I know this kind of argument confuses some people. If the best we can do is not all that great, it will be acceptable to God: because, yes, He looks at the heart. If the best we can do is reserved for mindless secular entertainment or commercial ends, God will be less impressed. What does it say about us as a society that the best efforts of artists are devoted to making violent and immodest films? What does it say about us as individuals if our home entertainment systems are more expensive than the altar furnishings in our churches?

So what has happened in Westminster Cathedral? As reported in The Times, the key change has been a new Head Teacher of the Choir School, of which the choristers now only represent 10%, who has abolished full-time boarding for choir members. Allowing them to go home on Saturdays may seem uncontroversial, but in fact they are obliged to go home, so the school is no longer able to accept pupils from outside London, and Saturday rehearsals for Sunday services are impossible. As has been pointed out by many distinguished Catholic and non-Catholic musicians, the quality of the singing cannot be maintained under this regime.

Why would the authorities, bequeathed Vaughan’s astonishing legacy, not wish to make the most of it to raise worshippers’ hearts to God in prayer, and to draw non-believers into the Church? Knowing the debate as it has played out on these issues over decades, it is clear that there are two factors in play.

One is the desire of the schools new leadership to make it a commercially and academically successful school. The emphasis is on getting the pupils, who leave at the age of 13, into elite Public” (i.e. independent) schools such as Eton, where many of the UKs Prime Minsters have been educated, including the present one.

The other is that, in the context of this temptation, Church authorities have no strong interest in maintaining the choirs ability to sing to a world-class standard. Normally they would find the idea of competing with posh private schools a bit embarrassing, but they evidently find the idea of an elite choir even more so. The choirs unique ability to sing the most complex and sublime pieces of the Catholic patrimony of Sacred Music in the way they were intended to be sung—by boys and men, rather than using adult professional female singers—pushes the Cathedral down a particular liturgical pathway which is not particularly congenial to them. They pay lip-service to the value of the choir but in some ways would be happier with a third-rate choir singing the kind of third-rate modern music which makes many Catholic worshippers flee for the hills. (I’ve written about the love of the mediocre here.)

We can only hope that some sanity returns before the damage to Westminster Cathedral Choir becomes irreversible.

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  1. Thanks, Dr Shaw, for this explanation, which is very helpful. Damian Thompson has a useful podcast on the situation:

  2. This is just the final act in a situation which began after Vatican 2. I was a chorister in Newcastle in my very young life (I'm now 82). I was not a cathedral chorister but at St Michael's Church in the urban area. There were several great choirs in the diocese; St Mary's Cathedral (under Bishop Lindsay's father), St Michael's (under Joe Gribbin), St Dominic's (under Mr Malia), St Bede's in Jarrow (under Gerard McNally). These were amazing choirs of boys & men & we even had a competition at which each choir sang 3 motets. Not only did these choirs provide a wonderful musical accompaniment to either Missa Cantata or Missa Solemnis each & every Sunday, they also brought young boys into a sacred atmosphere which served them all their lives. Vatican 2 has, quite rightly IMHO, been blamed for many of the worst things to happen in our Church but surely the fact that young boys & men are no longer subjected to the beauties of the Mass & liturgy must rank very near the top. It is to be hoped that the main perpetrators of this disaster have answered to God.

  3. It seems that some people are determined to stamp out any remaining vestige of Catholic sacred practice, perhaps because it does have a profound and enduring spiritual impact on the faithful, those who sing and those who listen. These are truly enemies of God who would bring ruination to such an exalted institution.

  4. Here is a letter I sent to the catholic press (unpublished) with a certain tongue in cheek flavour.


    In contrast to the uproar created amongst the parents of the choristers of Westminster Cathedral Choir as a result of the proposed changes to the choir school, I wish to add a more positive note.

    In Catholic Churches all over the world, and for some fifty years now, the Church liturgical experts have tried to make the Mass more relevant to the beliefs and daily lives of ordinary people and that does not include plainsong and the works of William Byrd and Palestrina. During this time Catholic choirmasters have battled to save the deposit of sublime music handed down to us from antiquity. Unfortunately they are fighting a losing battle because the clergy, most of whom have been educated in post-Vatican II seminaries, have been indoctrinated with the notion that the Mass comprises the three ‘C’s: Communication, Celebration and Commitment. This is the governing principle now prevalent amongst Catholic Priests and has resulted in a transformation of Catholic culture.

    Most of the beautiful music which is sung by the choir of Westminster Cathedral was definitely not written for the new English Mass and it simply isn’t good enough for the choir to be singing Missa Papae Marcelli whilst, in the sanctuary of the cathedral, the celebrants are sitting down and looking at their watches. The music and the liturgy should be in complete unity and complement one another and a visit to a sung Tridentine Mass will demonstrate how this is achieved.

    Perhaps many of the faithful who attend the Cathedral services enjoy the music but the Mass is not some form of entertainment which excludes people who don’t like classical music.

    The Cathedral choir had always been under threat from the liturgists who feel, rightly in my view, that in the English Mass different music is required and the choir should not be so remote from the proceedings, stuck out of sight well behind the main altar. It might be a better idea to place it at the back of the cathedral in order to lead the congregation in the communal singing.

    Now that the Church has embraced the English Mass it is logical that Westminster Cathedral should also embrace the new music which emphasises the element of dialogue and communication with the faithful. A choir of such international renown is not necessarily needed for this purpose.

    Yours faithfully,

    Joseph Bevan LLB