Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Pope's Choir. . . the parish choir. . .

My own Cantor has had little good to say about the Choir of the Sistine Chapel.  Historically, he is correct.  They have been a collection of screechers and operatic voices that did not blend well into a choir.  This is one of the oldest choirs in the world and this choir is a professional choir, quite unlike the choirs of most churches which are made up of volunteers -- some of whom can barely read music at all!  That said, its professional cadre of singers have not been without complaint in modern times.  Who can forget the Midnight Masses of John Paul II and the screamers who seemed at one and the same time amateurish and a group of egos -- each making sure that their own voices were heard.

60 Minutes did a story on the Pope's Choir and did not shrink from the criticism that so many had heaped upon the Choir in the past.  But all that began to change in 2010 with a change in leadership.  Maestro Massimo Palombella was determined to prepare a choir worthy of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's.  They began intensive rehearsals and practiced basic skills under the heavy hand of a choir director determined to offer the Lord nothing but the best from himself and all his singers.  Click on the link and watch the 60 Minutes episode for free.  Even better, click afterwards on the link for the online additional footage not aired on the broadcast.  It is worth your time (though it may take a moment to load).

Popes historically were not chosen for their ability to chant or sing.  Often it has been rather painful to listen to popes and bishops attempt to sing the liturgy.  Not so with this choir.  Now the auditions and requirements are arduous.  Only a few are admitted each year.  Boys and men both have to justify their place within the choir -- so great is this newfound commitment to excellence.  The current Pope is not known for the quality of his own voice and yet he seems an enthusiastic supporter of the new voice of what has been called "his" choir.

I think it is absolutely wonderful to have a such "professional" choirs  — not only the Pope's Choir but the choir school voices of Kings College.  I love listening to the pop and more classical acapella groups from Pentatonix to Straight No Chaser to Voices 8 to Cantus to Chanticleer and many others.  I really do love listening to the well crafted harmonies and trained voices of such "professionals". At the same time, we must all acknowledge that this is neither the norm nor a possibility for 99% of all churches.  Every church choir will be made up of volunteers of unequal ability -- all striving for the best.  This is the 30-35 voice choir that I enjoy hearing in the Divine Service in my parish.  This is not merely what we must make do with but, if sacred music is to survive, it will be because of these choirs.  It is surely easier to conduct a choir of professionals who read music and know their own voices but there is profound magic in hearing a church choir like the one in our parish and reach for the stars.

There is too great a temptation and excuse to suggest that sacred choral music requires professional voices.  It is surely more difficult and taxing upon both choir and director, but the church music can not only survive but it can thrive in a parish with limited resources of people and funds.  All that is required are the dedication and commitment of the people (leaders and singers!).  It can be done.  Even when many do not read music.  On Christmas morning we heard Vivaldi's Gloria from a choir down some voices (due to the Christmas season) but faithfully offering their best to God's glory.  And the best part is that the rest of us get to listen in each week as they sing for God's ear.

We have no Pope's Choir here, no cadre of trained professionals, and no magic to make it happen.  Only a choir of faithful and committed folks with a talented and good humored director who make it all happen Sunday after Sunday and in all the special feasts and festivals.  As much as I love hearing good professional choirs and enjoying their improvement, nothing matches what I hear every Sunday from a wonderful group of dedicated singers and our Cantor.



Scott Brison said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Pastor. We are very blessed to have such a wonderful Choir and Cantor.

Anonymous said...

As a member of said choir, thank you so much for your kind comments! I have a theory that the structure of our choir makes it, and any other amateur choir, pleasing to hear. We have some strong voices and even solo quality voices in each section, but the rest of us are just people who can carry a tune and love to sing church music. Our average voices combine really well to blend and achieve a nice sound, and the stronger voices lead the way. And I guess it works well!

Anonymous said...

I'm a tenor not so far from Clarksville and enjoy singing in our church choir too. I'd like to recruit Nikodimos Kabarnos to chant the liturgy.