Formerly world-class Westminster Cathedral Choir now declining under new management
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September 16, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — The saga of Westminster Cathedral Choir School claimed a fresh victim last week with the resignation of another senior employee, the music administrator, Madeleine Smith. Like the director of music, Martin Baker, she was unhappy about the sidelining of the choir at England’s premier Catholic Cathedral. Baker resigned late last year and was absent from Christmas services. There was no official explanation, and he has not been replaced. What is going on?
Westminster Cathedral Choir is served by men and boys, in the ancient Catholic tradition. The boys attend a school set up specially for them by Cardinal Vaughan, the founder of the cathedral, in 1902. He wanted to have something in his new cathedral equivalent to the great choirs of the Anglican cathedrals, which commonly have their own schools — boarding schools — so the boys can be recruited from a wide area and are available to sing on Sundays. Vaughan’s vision was realized, and Westminster Cathedral Choir is famous. It is, or was until recently, at least as good as the best Anglican cathedral choirs, such as those of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s, and in the context of the global meltdown of Catholic sacred music since the 1960s, it was regarded as the best Catholic cathedral choir in the world. Westminster Cathedral was the only Catholic Cathedral in the world to have a sung Mass every single day — again, until recently.
Just as Cardinal Vaughan and other Catholic leaders over millennia wanted to build the most beautiful churches possible, and have in them the most moving devotional art, so too they wanted the best sacred music. The greatest achievements of the human spirit should be offered to God, and our acts of worship should be clothed in the best we can offer Him. Art and above all music have the power to touch the heart, to get through to us when words fail, to express our awe, our joy, and our sorrow, and as Pope John Paul II expressed it, they can be “an echo of the Spirit of God” (Ecclesia in Europa  60).
I know this kind of argument confuses some people. If the best we can do is not all that great, it will be acceptable to God — because, yes, He looks at the heart. If the best we can do is reserved for mindless secular entertainment or commercial ends, God will be less impressed. What does it say about us as a society that the best efforts of artists are devoted to making violent and immodest films? What does it say about us as individuals if our home entertainment systems are more expensive than the altar furnishings in our churches?
So what has happened in Westminster Cathedral? As reported in The Times, the key change has been a new head teacher of the Choir School, of which the choristers now represent only 10%, who has abolished full-time boarding for choir members. Allowing them to go home on Saturdays may seem uncontroversial, but in fact they are obliged to go home, so the school is no longer able to accept pupils from outside London, and Saturday rehearsals for Sunday services are impossible. As has been pointed out by many distinguished Catholic and non-Catholic musicians, the quality of the singing cannot be maintained under this regime.
Why would the authorities, bequeathed Vaughan’s astonishing legacy, not wish to make the most of it to raise worshipers’ hearts to God in prayer, and to draw non-believers into the Church? Knowing the debate as it has played out on these issues over decades, it is clear that there are two factors in play.
One is the desire of the school’s new leadership to make it a commercially and academically successful school. The emphasis is on getting the pupils, who leave at the age of 13, into elite “public” (i.e., independent) schools such as Eton, where many of the U.K.’s Prime Ministers have been educated, including the present one.
The other is that, in the context of this temptation, Church authorities have no strong interest in maintaining the choir’s ability to sing to a world-class standard. Normally, they would find the idea of competing with posh private schools a bit embarrassing, but they evidently find the idea of an elite choir even more so. The choir’s unique ability to sing the most complex and sublime pieces of the Catholic patrimony of Sacred Music in the way they were intended to be sung — by boys and men, rather than using adult professional female singers — pushes the cathedral down a particular liturgical pathway that is not particularly congenial to them. They pay lip service to the value of the choir but in some ways would be happier with a third-rate choir singing the kind of third-rate modern music that makes many Catholic worshipers flee for the hills. (I’ve written about the love of the mediocre here.)
We can only hope some sanity returns before the damage to Westminster Cathedral Choir becomes irreversible.