Online Edition – April 2006
Vol. XII, No. 2
Cardinal Vaughan Memorial Schola
British Boys Bring Songs of Praise to Rome
by Joanna Bogle
Are today’s teenagers prepared to sing Latin? Are they really likely to do so with any enthusiasm? Charles Cole, director of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial Schola, can give a definite “yes” to both of these questions.
In the entrance of the Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School in London, loyalties are clearly proclaimed: a picture of Pope Benedict has central place, flanked by one of Queen Elizabeth II, and one of Pope John Paul II. This is a Catholic school emphasizing public service, and has been doing so since it was founded nearly 100 years ago, named in honor of a former Archbishop of Westminster.
But today’s boys live in an unimaginably different world from that of 1914, the year of the school’s founding — computers, TV, international travel, and the massive social and cultural changes of recent decades mean that old truths have to be taught and presented in new ways.
The school’s chief claim to fame is its schola — the all-boys choir that has recently toured the USA and frequently sings at cathedrals and concert halls across Europe. Its CDs sell well, and it is much in demand in the diocese of Westminster, singing at confirmations and ordinations as well as major events such as the annual Mass for Papal Knights. This is a choir that sings Latin plainchant and traditional Mass settings, has recorded programs with Vatican Radio and been greeted by the pope.
Catholic schools in Britain are supported by public funds, so admission is free. They are extremely popular and are frequently over-subscribed. But by no means all take an interest in the Church’s rich musical tradition.
The extensive music department that occupies a newly built top floor at Cardinal Vaughan has all the very latest equipment, facilities for learning a wide range of instruments (piano, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, cello, viola) and a superb choir practice room with elegant modern choir stalls made to order after careful perusal of their medieval counterparts at Westminster Abbey. Here, the schola — entrance to which is following audition and is much sought-after — practices in the early mornings before school Monday-Thursday and again on Monday evenings, with extra rehearsals when a major event is near.
The schola sings at the school’s regular Wednesday Mass. “We sing a Gregorian Mass, usually either a Missa de Angelis or Missa Orbis Factor, and, during Advent and Lent, Mass XVIII”, said Charles Cole, the youthful director, himself a former pupil at the Westminster Cathedral Choir School.
“In addition, the schola sings the Alleluia, the Marian Antiphon, and a communion motet. On major feast days, we sing a major Mass setting, motets, a psalm, and the schola is often complemented by a Brass Consort in the hymns. The boys relish any opportunity to sing decent music, and the trebles are always delighted to sing a lofty descant at the end of a hymn”.
And is there any sense of resistance to singing Latin — is it seen as confusing and unintelligible? “The boys find Latin very easy to sing. It is an immensely beautiful language built on pure vowel sounds which lends itself very easily to singing. I don’t tend to explain the meaning of every piece, but I try to get them to build up a vocabulary of ecclesial Latin so they can construe the approximate meanings of the texts, rather as I do.
“We sing a very wide range of repertoire, starting with chant, going through renaissance polyphony, Viennese classical, English anthems, right up to twentieth century music, with an emphasis on the French composers, my own leaning.
“They have quite discerning tastes and generally appreciate well-written music which is enjoyable or challenging to sing. I recently wrote them an Introit to sing at the National Shrine in Walsingham, but I left my name off the copy and didn’t own up to composing it until I knew they approved of it. I hope their approval was genuine and not charitable….”
A recent American tour saw the schola singing in Washington and in New York. They have also sung in Paris, Rome, and Assisi, and are especially proud of a picture that shows them singing with Pope John Paul II, the pope in the front row with his arm around the shoulder of a songster.
For Charles Cole, music doesn’t stop with the schola — he also directs the children’s choir at London’s famous Brompton Oratory. He laments the lack of encouragement of good music in most parishes but sees signs of hope.
“A French Benedictine Abbot once told me ‘La liturgie est la coeur de la foi’ — liturgy is the heart of the faith. It may seem a fairly obvious statement, but it made a real impact on me and I often remind myself of those words when I attend a parish liturgy. From a musical point of view I think there is much to be done in the parishes — there is a lack of uniformity in the settings which are used from parish to parish, and some of the music is frankly of a very low quality. But there are moves afoot to remedy this and I believe there is real cause for hope over the next few years”.
His experience with both the Vaughan Schola, and the (mixed, girls and boys) Oratory Junior Choir is that much could be done to revive good liturgical music starting with youngsters.
“If children in Catholic schools — and I’m thinking in particular of primary schools [i.e., under age eleven] — were taught the staple chants and a uniform Mass setting in the vernacular, that would be a huge step forward. It would give an immense lift to singing in the parishes and would be something to inspire the older generations who would, I’m sure, feel inspired to embrace it, or perhaps rediscover it”.
The mood of the Vaughan Schola is upbeat: the boys enjoy their singing, competition to enter the choir is strong, and morale is high. “It’s also a lot of fun. Our overseas tours — 90 boys, plus accompanying adults — can feel like a massive undertaking. Imagine shepherding that lot on to the Metro in Rome, and getting them to various venues on time. But the mood is great.
“On our last tour, the boys volunteered to carry my bags, which contained among other things my good shoes which I wasn’t wearing for sightseeing as we all found trainers more comfortable on all those cobbles. When my shoes were returned to me for the concert that evening, they’d been fresh polished by the boys and had a fantastic shine. That’s the sort of spirit that you get, and it’s great to work with”.
The schola’s CDs include “Praise to the Holiest”, a collection of traditional hymns, and “Lauda Sion”, featuring works by Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Langlais, and Gardiner.
Further information from the website: www.cvms.co.uk
Joanna Bogle is a British journalist and a frequent contributor to Adoremus Bulletin, Voices, and other Catholic journals in the England and the United States.