A mass of bouncy children appeared at my feet in the main hall of St Wulstan’s in Wolstanton, Staffordshire. They had run down from their choir practice in the organ loft, where they had been rehearsing the plainchant Orbis Factor Mass and a couple of Renaissance motets.
Were they enjoying it, I asked? “Yes!” they screamed. And what was their favourite piece to sing?“Agnus Dei and the Sanctus from the Orbis Factor,” said a couple of the nine-year-olds, quick as a flash.
“Victoria is my favourite,” chipped in Olivia Turner (nine and a half), and she was not referring to Mrs V Beckham. She had meant the 16th-century Spanish priest-composer Tomas Luis de Victoria, the great polyphonist. She would sing his Ave Maria in the bath, she said.
She was not the only one. Richard Keane (10 and a half) admitted enjoying the Orbis
Factor and claimed he intoned it while walking down. Tiny Joseph Daniels (seven)
had learned how to sing plainsong before he could read.
To hear children this young talk about early music in this way – music that few of my peers would have even heard of – was simply astonishing.
And yet I was not in London or Winchester; I wasn’t visiting one of the great cathedral schools with their vast resources and venerable traditions. I was in a small Midlands town, a modest place with a middling parish. All the kids were local, Catholic boys and girls, all attendees of the Catholic school next door, St Wulstan’s Primary.
What had transformed the musical life of this ordinary parish was the initiative and belief of the husband-and-wife musical team, David and April West.
The couple converted from the Anglican faith in 1993 and had no sooner entered their new Catholic community than they had begun to reorganise its musical foundations.
They were trained musicians and were sick of hearing people say there was no decent music in the Catholic Church. “It was crazy to think people actually believed this. I mean, think of all those great Catholic composers,” says David.
So, instead of grumbling, they decided to do something about it.
When the Wests first arrived in the parish, the choir sang three Sundays in a month and was composed of a loyal band of elderly folk who “sang in unison straight from
copies of the hymnbook”. On every second Sunday of the month a guitar-based “music group” would take over from the organ and choir.David West decided to
amalgamate the two. It was a delicate enterprise. The choir and music group would now both reside in the organ loft every Sunday. To integrate the two, they decided, at first, to use both the organ and guitars in the same Mass, and sometimes even in the same piece of music. This ensured both “factions” would be present every Sunday.
But this did not mean a reduction in the quality of the music. The Wests ensured this didn’t happen by imposing an unofficial ban on the more excruciating products of the post-Vatican II musical “reformers”. The fashionable happy-clappy songs from the 1970s – the “Carpenters stuff”, in David’s words – were consigned to the bin.
“We’ve never sung ‘Bind us Together’, nor have we done a single Israeli Mass, nor the [shudder] ‘Gloria, clap, clap,’ ” says David with pride. Contrary to popular belief, these pieces did not have a cachet with the young. “It’s an old style. What you get, in my view, is the mums and dads saying ‘this is what the young people want’, and they’re speaking as ageing ravers and Beatles fans.”
David and April realised that children didn’t necessarily like this or that music more or less than any other type – they didn’t know any, so how could they?
So when the Wests set up a junior choir to run alongside the senior one, they didn’t shy away from the hard stuff – they embarked upon teaching the children serious,
unadulterated Church music.
There was to be no talking down to the young’uns; instead,they were to be introduced to some of the finest music ever written. The kids loved it, and were eager to learn.
As a result, they quickly got the hang of the plainsong notation and the Latin, and now have several heavyweight pieces under their belts, for example: “If ye love me” by Thomas Tallis, Elgar’s Ave verum and Victoria’s Ave Maria.
The more experienced junior members moved up to join the main choir, where they might perform a Palestrina Gloria or a Byrd four-part setting. Remarkably, the main choir’s repertoire now numbers over 100 motets and Mass settings – a total any professional outfit would be hard pushed to match.When I arrived they were singing a piece of Lobo, then some Guerrero, and finally a run-through of the Sanctus of the Orbis Factor, all performed with understanding and astonishing precision.The project, however, has not been without its ups and downs. Not everyone in the parish had supported their cause, particularly when it came to the more ambitious programmes.
One such event was the visit to the church of former Archbishop Maurice Couve de Murville. To impress the prelate, David thought they might put on Bruckner’s great motet Ecce Sacerdos Magnus, a mighty piece for choir, organ and three supporting trombones. As the archbishop left, David explained the story behind the music: it had been written for the Archbishop of Linz in 1888.
Archbishop Maurice’s response? “They can’t have liked him very much.”
Most others were more positive. None more so than the parish priest, Fr Anthony Dykes.“I sometimes worry – what if they change the priest?” David told me anxiously. “It could change everything.”
He and Fr Dykes worked together not only in starting the junior choir but also the St Wulstan’s Musical Education Trust, whose aim is to install an abandoned 1922 organ found in a Welsh church. They now need £66,000 to do it. “I realise we’re up against more important charities like Cafod, but I think there are people out there who could and would support us as well,” says David.
The inverse snobbery of certain clergy has not helped. “They’ve told me it’s too expensive or that people don’t want it. This is just not true.”
The reality is that the Wests’ initiatives have been anything but unpopular. The choir members are keen and contented; pupils of the school are desperate to join; and people have even moved to the parish just in order to participate.
David hoped that their example would make those who doubt that traditional music has a place in the modern Mass think again. “It is Pope Benedict’s message – he wants us to preserve our musical heritage and we are just doing our bit.”
Before I left, I asked the kids who their favourite composer was, dead or alive.
“Victoria!” they shouted. “No, Britney. No, Victoria...”
Plainsong in the Bath from the Catholic Herald (UK)
Out of the Mouths of Babes. If this can happen in Protestant England, maybe there is hope for us across the pond.
Bonnet Tip to Gerald at Cafeteria Is Closed