Friday, August 15, 2008

A National Treasure

In the movie series “National Treasure” there is always a last scene in which the treasure hunters break into the hidden cave to find a world-historic stash of rare and beautiful things of priceless value. In terms of Catholic music, I feel as if I’ve walked into that hidden cave.

I’m in Portland, Oregon, at the Byrd Festival, which is several weeks of concerts and lectures and services, including Masses, that use and celebrate the music of William Byrd. The point of my being here is to distribute A Byrd Celebration but what I’ve found here just amazes me.

For starters, I’ve heard Cantores in Ecclesia, a singing group that surely ranks among the best polyphony choirs attached to any parish in the English speaking world. It was founded by Dean Applegate and sustained all these years by his total dedication to the cause. He very wisely maintained a children’s choir too, so now Cantores is populated by the grown members of his children’s choir. The average age of these 35 singers is probably 32 years old—just my estimate.

Last night, they were being rehearsed by choirmaster Richard Marlow, now retired from Trinity College, London. The rehearsal lasted 3 hours. Sometimes rehearsals can be as interesting as concerts, and this is the case here. I’ve heard so much music that I’ve never heard before. I know Byrd’s Masses and a few common motets but there is a whole world out there that has just been opened to me. During that time, they sang from Byrd the following and much more:

Viderunt Omnes (Communion, Gradualia)
Viderunt Omnes (Gradual, Gradualia)
Tui Sunt Coeli (Gradualia)
Dies Sanctificatus (Gradualia)
Puer Natus Est Nobis (Gradualia)
Non von Relinquam (Gradualia)
Hodie Christus Natus Est (Gradualia)
Confirma Hoc, Deus (Gradualia)
Veni, Sancte Spiritus (Gradualia)
Proper Veritatem (Gradualia)
O Sacrum Convivium (Gradualia)
Deus miseratur (Psalm)
Factus est Repente (Gradualia)
Emitte Sprituum Tuum (Gradulia)
Magnificat (English, The Great Service)
Nunc Dimitis (English, The Great Service)
Teach Me, O Lord (English)

It seems unbelievable doesn’t it? It was. And though most choir members would deny it, each one of these could have been recorded on the spot and distributed. The balance, the confidence, the tone, the phrasing, the pitch – everything was in place as it should be. I’ve never heard a choir that makes all this music seem so easy and effortless.

I was able to follow along with the scores as they sang. It suddenly struck me that Byrd has been terribly neglected in the polyphonic revival. We (I guess I mean I here) tend to be so focused on the Italian tradition of Palestrina and the Spanish tradition of Victoria that we don’t look to England like we should. This was true half a century ago as well. Byrd’s Gradualia, an incredibly rich source of polyphony based on proper texts and the Gregorian melodies, have just not been part of the apparatus of Catholic music as they should.

Most of this music is free on Most of it is in four or five parts. It is fresh, energetic, creative, and magnificent in every way, satisfying to both singer and listening alike. Most of it is short—and that is for a reason. It had to be short because it was largely used in secret Masses in which singers and the congregation had to be in and out in a hurry. There could be no long languishing on huge motets. But this constraint ends up being fantastic for modern choirs, simply because there is less to learn. Each of these pieces—and there are many dozens more—are suitable for parish choirs, right now. If you are not in a position to sing Gregorian propers right now, these make a great substitute. Ideally of course you would sing the plainsong followed by the motet.

But I don’t want to get off track here. My point in writing is just to say that Cantores in Ecclesia is a national treasure. Why some entrepreneurial recording company has not seized on them is beyond me. They could make a dozen CDs right now that would be splendid contributions. For that matter, OCP itself is right here in town. Cantores has recorded one CD of chant for this publisher and it remains their bestseller. This project should be dramatically expanded and immediately. If OCP doesn’t jump on this opportunity, someone should.

If you think that the Catholic Church in America doesn’t have much to offer in the way of professional musicianship, come to Portland. Hear this choir. See what they are doing. Observe the professionalism and love at work.

We also need to appreciate the vision behind both Cantores and The Byrd Festival. There is nothing in the structure of the universe that demands that these exist. They are product of crazy dreams, impossible goals, relentless determination -- and then the reality exists and it changes the way with think and live and worship. Tremendous credit goes out to all those who have worked so hard to make this happen.

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