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Westminster Abbey Choir brings Anglican Patrimony to the Vatican

Westminster Abbey Choir brings Anglican Patrimony to the Vatican
The invitation to sing was issued by Benedict XVI

By Mary Ann Mueller
Special Correspondent
July 3, 2012

I was excited to see, or should I say hear, last week that the cultured young high-pitched voices of the Westminster Abbey Choir were raised in song along with the Sistine Chapel Choir to celebrate the Papal Mass marking the Solemnity of St. Peter and St. Paul in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. This is an historic event which came out of the Anglican choir's charming Pope Benedict XVI when he visited London two years ago, and the Pope's commitment to see the unique Anglican Patrimony enriching the Catholic Church.

In November 2009 when Pope Benedict released Anglicanorum Coetibus he used the words "Anglican patrimony" to indicate the unique richness in music, architecture, language, liturgy, culture, ethos, pageantry and a way of doing things which would cross pollinate with the Roman Church when the various Anglican ordinariates were finally established and up and running. And now it is happening.

The Roman Pontiff made an historic visit to Canterbury in September 2010; he is the second reigning pope to set foot on English soil since the Reformation. Pope John Paul II visited the United Kingdom in 1982.

While in England Pope Benedict heard the angelic voices of the Westminster Abbey Choir when he attended an ecumenical prayer service at Westminster where the young choristers sang. As a German, the Pope is an accomplished pianist and an admirer of classical music and he appreciates that the common language of music as an ecumenical expression. He likes to play the intricate passages of Bach and Mozart for relaxation and he has an upright piano in his papal apartment so that he can indulge in his musical passion.

Vatican Radio reports that the Pope in issuing the invitation to the Abbey Choir did so because he stressed that "such an event may serve to encourage the enriching mutual exchange of gifts between the two liturgical and cultural traditions."

The Westminster Abbey Choir of men and boys dates back to the 14th Century first as the Lady's Chapel Choir at Westminster which daily sang the Choral Divine Offices. The Abbey's foundation goes back to 960 AD, more than 1,000 years ago, as a monastery for Benedictine monks who came to England at the bidding of St. Dunstan, then the Bishop of London. During the English Reformation, under Henry VIII Suppression of Religious Houses the monks disappeared. Eventually his youngest daughter, Elizabeth I, re-established Westminster as the Collegiate Church of St Peter, at it is formally known today. Her 1560 restoration of the famed church came six hundred years after the first Benedictine monks set foot in Westminster, which now a borough of London.

The Sistine Chapel Choir predates its British counterpart by more than 300 years. The Vatican dates the Sistine Choir to about 600 AD and the early Middle Ages. The Roman choir is regarded as one of the oldest religious choirs in the world. Now for more than 500 years the Sistine Choir has been the personal choir of the pope, and the choir has never been known to share its stage with any other group of singers, so Pope Benedict's insistence that the Westminster Abbey Choir and the Sistine Chapel Choir join ranks and form one united choir for the papal Mass is unprecedented.

The timber of the two choirs is definitely different because they come from separate and distinct cultures, diverse liturgical styles, musical backgrounds and living experiences. The Sistine Chapel Choir, which is formally known as Cappella Musicale Pontificia Sistina sings for all of the Pope's Masses, is described as being "warm as the Roman vocal tradition requires, but often loud with a 'harsh, bombastic tone'." Meanwhile the Westminster Abbey Choir is considered to be one of the finest representations of Anglican liturgical music and travels the world with their refined sound.

In May the Chapel Choir travelled to England for in initial practice with the Abbey Choir. This was the first time the two choirs joined voices. As a result of the combining of the two choirs the English learned some of the warmth and intensity of the Sistine Choir while the Italians experienced the precision and detail which the Westminster Choir is noted for. Both choirs learned from each other using the common language of music. The Chapel Choir is under the direction of Monsignor Massimo Paolombella, while the Abbey Choir is under the baton of James O'Donnel.

The Sistine Chapel Choir is made up of 25 boys and 22 men. Not all of the Abbey Choir travelled to Italy. A total of 31 members of the Westminster Abbey Choir made the trip to Rome including 19 boys and 12 men, called Lay Vicars. The boys sing the higher soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto and contralto parts while the men fill in the tenor, baritone and bass. The combined Pontifical Mass Choir had 78 male voices - 44 boys and 34 men.

The 30 boys of the Westminster Abbey Choir are especially trained for their unique musical vocation. They attend the Westminster Abbey Choir School which is the only remaining school in the United Kingdom dedicated to training of church choristers. The school dates back to 1560 and was established early during the 44 year reign of Queen Elizabeth I. At the school the 8 to 13 year old boys are provided with a rigorous classical education which is heavily laden with music. The Abbey Choir School is considered one of the best private preparatory schools in England.

The Abbey Choir's main vocation is to provide the choral accompaniment for the Daily Office and liturgical celebrations at Westminster Abbey. The Choir's avocation are all the other performances, recordings and tours the singers do, such as the trip to Rome to sing with the Sistine Chapel Choir at the command of the Pope.

The choir usually performs eight times a week at Westminster as a part of the church's daily liturgical schedule including daily Choral Evensong and the Sunday Choral Eucharists. They also perform during state occasions such as at the Queen Mother's funeral, Princess Diana's funeral and, most recently, at the wedding of Prince William and Catharine, the Duchess of Cambridge.

The music that was chosen for the Pontifical High Mass was from the works of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina who was a 16th Century Italian Renaissance composer of sacred music. His scared musical compositions are considered to represent the best of the Renaissance polyphony. His work is familiar to both choirs.

At the Pontifical Mass the combined choir sang Missa Papae Marcelli and the motet Tu es Petrus, while the Abbey Choir also performed music from the Ave verum corpus and Laudibus in sanctis, Loquebantur Variis Linguis, and I Was Glad Purcell reflecting their English sacred musical tradition and featuring noted English composers William Bryd, Thomas Tallis, Henry Purcell.

The Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul is an important feast day in the Catholic Church for it is on that feast day that the pope always hands out palliums to the newly-named archbishops. An archbishop's pallium is a circular band of white wool marked with six black crosses which symbolized the archbishop's authority and his unity with the pope. The Pope's pallium is larger and has red crosses. The Mass is always celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica.

In fact the Archbishop of Canterbury's crest still incorporates a pallium symbolizing the roots of the Church of England are grounded in the Church of Rome stemming from the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Augustine of Canterbury first came to evangelize England early in the Seventh Century, and his pallium was a symbol of his commission to evangelize and his spiritual authority.

The combination of the two world-class liturgical choirs produced a fuller richer sound with clearer higher tones. The Catholic choristers were vested in wine-colored cassocks topped with choir cottas. The Anglican songsters were visible in their signature scarlet cassocks and cathedral cottas. The younger boys had their necks ringed with the traditional Anglican neck ruffle.

June 29 was a special day for all concerned. It is the established Feast Day of St. Peter and St. Paul which made that day the joint patronal feast day of both St. Peter's Basilica, and of Westminster Abbey, which is in fact formally named the Collegiate Church of St Peter. This year both choirs celebrated their common patronal saint together. In addition it was the 61st anniversary of Pope Benedict's ordination to the priesthood. He was ordained on June 29, 1951 in Bavaria.

In addition to the Papal Mass the Anglican choir also sang with their Roman counterparts the night before in a private recital at the Sistine Chapel. In addition the Westminster Abbey Choir also performed a Concert of Sacred Choral Music in the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore and then travelled to the Abbey of Montecassino to sing First Vespers Saturday and Sunday Mass with the monks on July 1 before the returned to England.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline.

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