Vol. XVI, No. 5
Westminster Choir School — Singing Praises to Our God
by Joanna Bogle
English Cathedral choirs are justly famous — but most of them are Anglican. If you visit one of the great Medieval cathedral buildings in England — Salisbury or Lincoln or Wells or Canterbury — you can soak in the atmosphere of centuries of prayer, and listen to beautiful singing at Evensong or one of the morning services.
However, in recent decades a Catholic cathedral choir has come into prominence and is making a significant contribution to the liturgical life of the Church in Britain. It is the choir of London’s Westminster Cathedral. Westminster is the only Catholic cathedral in Britain that has its own choir school, with boys living right next door to the cathedral and providing the music for a daily Sung Mass and for all the major feasts of the year. It is the only Catholic cathedral choir in the world that sings daily Mass and Vespers. The choir — threatened with closure in the 1970s but today thriving — has become world-famous, and has sung for the Holy Father in Rome, and on tour in many countries of the world, including the USA.
When the cathedral was built in 1901-1902, it was located on a side street in an unfashionable corner of Westminster, near Victoria Station, the terminus for commuter trains from the suburbs. The site had, hundreds of years before, been part of the abbey lands belonging to the Benedictine monks of Westminster Abbey. In the centuries that followed the forced closure of all England’s monasteries under Henry VIII, the land had been used variously for housing and for a prison. It was a poor area, and in the late 19th century the Sisters of Charity established a house nearby where they ran an orphanage and assisted the local people. (It is still a thriving center of charity run by the Sisters, with a famous shelter for the homeless, called “The Passage”).
Westminster Cathedral was built in red brick, in a Byzantine style deliberately chosen so as not to be seen as rivalling Westminster Abbey — which of course still stands, not far away, opposite the Houses of Parliament and is the shrine of Saint Edward the Confessor, the place of coronations and royal ceremonial, and has the tomb of the Unknown Warrior and monuments to the great men and women who have served the nation down the centuries.
In the 1970s major re-structuring of the local road network meant that Westminster Cathedral was finally revealed to the public in all its glory — it now faces on to a wide piazza in Victoria Street, and has become a landmark in its own right, a magnificent building that stops tourists in their tracks and welcomes huge numbers of visitors each year.
The choir school is alongside the cathedral, in Ambrosden Avenue, part of a collection of buildings that includes the Archbishop’s House and the Cathedral Hall, all part of the cathedral complex, built at the same time in matching brick.
Recent restoration and repair work on the cathedral meant that some visitors in 2008 and 2009 were disappointed to find it covered in scaffolding — the work was necessary not only because of the wear and tear of a century’s weather, but also because of long-term damage from wartime bombing. (A World War II raid brought down some neighboring buildings, and caused some jiggling to the great domed roof, which was not noticed at the time). But now you can enjoy the cathedral, and its liturgy, in its fullness.
At the sung Mass each Sunday at 10:30 a.m., and each weekday at 5:30 p.m., you can hear glorious music by composers old and new. The choir sings magnificent settings of the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, written by great composers, in the context for which they were originally intended — the celebration of Mass.
The choir has commissioned new music from composers such as James Macmillan, Matthew Martin, and John Taverner. And all of this is part of a living tradition — the boys are all taught the Faith, and practice it. They sing in the choir-stalls in the great apse, and come down into the sanctuary to receive Holy Communion.
The cathedral is of course the mother-church for the Catholic community in England and Wales and as such the place where great events take place. In 2002 HM Queen Elizabeth II came for Vespers on the feast of Saint Andrew to mark the cathedral’s centenary. In 1982 Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral — an event now marked by a commemorative stone at the foot of the steps leading to the high altar. And as we go to press, we await the arrival at Westminster Cathedral of Pope Benedict XVI on a state visit to Britain.
The Choir School
Choirboys at Westminster have a tough schedule — they board at the school through Christmas and Easter, singing at all the ceremonies. Christmas sees them singing at Midnight Mass and then again on Christmas morning for the main Mass at 10:30 a.m. — though in between they do get stockings filled with gifts, and a special celebratory breakfast. Their families join them for Christmas lunch, and the distribution of gifts by the archbishop, and they finally go home after sung Vespers on Christmas afternoon.
Holy Week sees them singing at the Chrism Mass, when priests of the diocese arrive for the blessing and distribution of the holy oils, and the Maundy Mass, when Catholic Chelsea Pensioners (veteran soldiers, wearing traditional red coats, who live at the Chelsea Royal Hospital, home for Britain’s retired ex-servicemen since the 18th century) arrive to have their feet washed in the traditional ceremony. The choir sings again for the great Good Friday ceremonies, and at the Easter Vigil when the fire is lit on the steps of the cathedral, and for the Easter morning Mass.
In church, the boys wear choir robes and stiff Norfolk collars. The rest of the time it’s traditional British school uniforms in grey and red. In addition to the boys in the choir, the school is open for other pupils as a preparatory school.
There is a certain rivalry with the Anglican choir of Westminster Abbey, sealed with occasional football and cricket matches. There is definite pride in having established a tradition that is really unique, and in a comparatively short space of time — the cathedral’s first Master of Music was Richard Terry in 1903 and there was a blip in the 1970s when it seemed as though, for financial reasons, the choir could not be sustained (it was reprieved by Cardinal Basil Hume and an appeal made for funds to establish the cathedral’s music on a sound footing — funds are still always needed to sustain it all).
The choir school recruits by inviting boys to be a “chorister for a day” to sample the life. It is certainly demanding — but the reward is not only to have unrivaled opportunities in music (each chorister has the opportunity to learn an instrument, in addition to his other musical studies) but also to live the liturgical life of the Church to its fullness in a great cathedral in a great city. And in the experience of this author — who knows several choristers, past and present — the overall message is a very positive one.
A Model for Others
A question arises: why can’t this sense of relishing the great liturgical riches of the Church, and the musical tradition, be something more widely enjoyed? Learning to sing glorious music for Mass is something that huge numbers of children could relish. Is it possible for ordinary parishes to offer some opportunities so that the chance to discover the riches of the Church’s tradition could be shared more widely?
This is a challenge that has been taken up at Westminster. Jeremy de Satge, a musician whose own son is a chorister at the choir school, has launched a Westminster Diocesan Children’s Choir — open to any London child who wants to join. Advertised by posters and announcements in parishes, it now meets at the choir school on Saturday morning, and is steadily acquiring musical skills. There is enthusiasm, and even some modest official funding from Britain’s Department of Education program called “Sing up!”, which encourages music for the young.
In due course, the diocesan choir will be singing in the cathedral, and making its own contribution to the Westminster tradition. An example for others to follow?
Joanna Bogle writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on radio and television. She is a contributing editor of Voices, the publication of our “sister” organization, Women for Faith & Family (www.wf-f.org).
Joanna Bogle has an MA in Theology and is Visiting Research Fellow at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London.