The boys of St. Paul’s Choir School in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass., have their first album out this year, and it’s made Billboard’s top five on the classical music charts and has been on the list for the past nine weeks.
You can listen to them sing “The Little Road to Bethlehem.”
John Robinson, the director of music for St. Paul’s Catholic Church, talks about the choir, the music, and the Christmas season in an interview with National Review Online. – KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s so special about Christmas in Harvard Square?
John Robinson: Christmas in Harvard Square is special because it is the debut international recording of this unique traditional choir of boys and men. The boys are educated at St. Paul’s Choir School, which is the only Catholic boys’ choir school in America. This Christmas recording captures a sound that would have been familiar to everyone at one point as the sound of Christmas, and which would have been so important a part of the great treasury of Church music. Often this kind of wonderful music is heard in concert halls, sung by English choirs on tour, but on this recording you can hear the sound of a real American choir of men and boys singing in the church they serve every day. The music itself represents the great depth and richness of Christmas music, extending right back to Gregorian chant, moving through Renaissance polyphony to famous arrangements and hymns, as well as brand-new arrangements and descants.
Lopez: Yours is the only Catholic boys choir school in the U.S.? How is that so? Lack of interest/funding?
Robinson: Really it’s just due to historic patterns of music in the Catholic Church in America. As we know, there were many different interpretations of the documents concerning music at the Second Vatican Council, and actually it was just at that time (1963) that St. Paul’s Choir School was founded by the Gregorian chant scholar Dr. Theodore Marier and Monsignor Augustine Hickey. Luckily, Dr. Marier was blessed with the vision to keep the choir school running despite hardships and challenges, until now it is firmly established as an important institution for Church music in America. Increasingly, we are hearing from people who are interested in seeking to do the same thing. In years, we are the youngest choir school in the world, but I hope we will be the first of many Catholic choir schools in America.
Lopez: How did the CD come about?
Robinson: We had the great good fortune to be contacted by AimHigher Recordings. Their wonderful director, Monica Fitzgibbons, had been a student at Boston University and so had been keeping an eye on the choir school for a long time, with a view to seeing how things were going. I had been with the school for three and a half years when Monica’s husband, Kevin, heard the boys and let her know that he thought we were worth looking at. So often people in my position receive offers that are really “vanity publishing” deals, and so it took a while for the importance of AimHigher’s work to sink in for me. This is a label that (with sister label De Montfort Music) is doing so much to promote beautiful and important music in a world that needs it so much.
Lopez: How were the songs chosen?
Robinson: We were able to use this opportunity to reflect on what ought to go into such a widely distributed recording. The biggest problem was working out what to miss out. We had decided that the recording should represent both the most well known Christmas music like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” as well as things that are less well known today. As a musician, it always excites me to be able to bring absolutely wonderful things back from the past that people are going to be so pleased to hear, especially for the first time, so that side of the recording was important as well. It was enjoyable to be able to make some new arrangements of well-known descants and tunes as well, so that the tradition is kept fresh and alive.
Lopez: What happens to the proceeds?
Robinson: Obviously producing a recording of this quality is a costly business when you look at the sheer production values involved. Even so, AimHigher has been incredibly generous to the choir school itself, which is not an “endowed school” like most of its counterparts in Europe. Since the early days at St. Paul’s, keeping the choir school running has been a high priority for all involved, but we are now looking at what similar schools around the world have done in terms of endowment. Given the choir school is unique, I think it’s extremely important that we look toward safeguarding the future of the school in its mission to train generations of Catholic Church musicians. So where most record deals are not known for favoring the artists overly, this one really does make a difference to help keep this great school running for generations to come.
Lopez: What are you hoping it brings to people’s Christmases?
Robinson: I hope that the joy that we all feel when we sing this music is immediately clear to the listener. After that, it’s good to consider that the Incarnation is such a profound mystery, which is worthy of great devotion and reflection. I hope the music may serve to draw people closer to this truth, and to the gravitas of Christmas. It’s very easy to be wrapped up (excuse the pun) in tinsel and baubles at this time of year, but I think a hearing of “O Magnum Mysterium” by Victoria helps to bring about a more profound joyfulness.
Lopez: How tough is it to work with young boys, whose voices are on the verge of changing? What are the upsides and downsides?
Robinson: It’s a wonderful time for a boy because he has been through the initial training, and the bit just before the voice begins to change is often the best. All voices change differently, and all boys respond differently to the challenges. We have some wonderfully cheerful boys at the moment who know they will not be going on past Christmas but are giving everything in the meantime. Singing with a changing voice is like walking on ice. The voice is unpredictable and difficult to control, so it’s always a sad day when that wonderful transient sound is no longer there. I think the boys live in the moment for the most part, which perhaps makes their sung prayers the more vital.
Lopez: You have some familiar carols and hymns. But you also have “Omnes De Saba Venient.” What’s that all about?
Robinson: This is a most beautiful piece of polyphony about the wise men. It’s a straightforward text that describes the gifts they bring, but the polyphony is just ecstatic and glows like the gold it describes. I remember singing this myself as a choirboy and it being a real favorite.
Lopez: And “O Magnum Mysterium”?
Robinson: This is an absolute gem of a motet that considers how great is the mysterium of the Incarnation. It describes the animals there at the manger, and the Blessed Virgin. I think the animals bring a very moving directness and earthiness to this most elevated of themes, which somehow helps show this extraordinary moment when God takes on human flesh more vividly. There is a magnificent Mass setting by Victoria based on this motet, so we can assume it was dear to him as well.
Lopez: Members of the choir have solos and have done media interviews. How are they handling the sudden celebrity? Will you all be watching your prerecorded Christmas Eve performance on Good Morning America together?
Robinson: We are keeping things as down-to-earth as possible for the boys. We are deeply grateful for all the kind words and inspiring encouragement we are getting, but we have to keep things real as well! A choir like this requires constant work and dedication from all of the members, so rather than getting too carried away with watching ourselves doing things, I think we are happiest when we are rehearsing and singing in the church. I think December 26th will be a good time to take stock of all that has been achieved!
Lopez: How do they handle some boys’ getting solos? Is there competition? Envy?
Robinson: The boys are very used to the idea that they all have different talents. It’s an important Catholic concept — each boy is essential to the choir, but not all are soloists. Not all our soloists are good at singing an inner part, and not all our best musicians have the best voices, so you can see that the gifts and talents really have been shared around in a wonderful way. I always just try to encourage the boys to improve in every area, as at their age, anything is possible.
Lopez: Do the boys know what they are singing? Is there a spiritual component to their musical work?
Robinson: They do, yes — the primary work of the boys is in singing at daily Mass at St. Paul’s, so we are essentially a liturgical choir. We often talk about the words/music dichotomy, and every time we come to the same conclusion. The words are the most important thing to a singer, and the music is really a decoration and elaboration of that, albeit a very elaborate one. Probably our most significant work goes into “expression.” And therefore, what we are expressing is of primary importance. Delivering words sincerely is the hallmark of a good liturgical choir, as our work is prayer. I find that the Psalms are at the center of a lot of our expressions, as there you have incredibly simple music in the Gregorian Psalm tones, with immensely powerful sacred poetry.
Lopez: Can Yankee fans buy this?
Robinson: It’s true most of the boys in the choir school are Red Sox fans, but when it comes to the music, we like to think we cast the widest net possible!
Lopez: What are you happiest about regarding the existence of this CD?
Robinson: I’m happiest that we got to bring the gift of Church music to a wide audience. Music is an incredibly powerful art, and to be able to use it to bring people closer to God is the best thing I can think of.
Lopez: Are there more CDs in the boys’ future? In the choir’s future?
Robinson: I’m sure the boys will always remember this unforgettable time in their lives. The process from making the recording to helping promote it has given everyone a taste of what this is like at the highest level. I could not be more eager to grow this work and to be able to offer widely the things of great beauty that we have been given. I couldn’t be more grateful to AimHigher recordings and the Fitzgibbonses.
Lopez: What does the choir’s schedule look like at Christmas? What will Christmas look like at St. Paul’s?
Robinson: Usually, December is an extremely challenging month, with the boys busing to outlying performance venues from late November onwards. This year, our focus has been more on helping promote the recording, which has meant that we have had some wonderful events recently including a media tour to NYC, taking in Fox & Friends, Good Morning America, and several radio stations. We always have at least three Christmas concerts at St. Paul’s, one of which involves just the boys in a work with harp (this year Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols), and these take place on the Sunday afternoons before Christmas at 3 p.m. Christmas itself begins with a 3 p.m. service on Christmas Eve with Lessons and Carols, which is followed by the first Mass of Christmas at 7:30 p.m. Christmas Day is always a lovely time with a chance to relax a bit after the buildup of the preceding weeks.
Lopez: What’s your goal as choir director at Christmas? To bring Harvard Square just a little bit closer to Bethlehem?
Robinson: You put it perfectly! Perhaps just to give of the best we can. No music is ever worthy, but God can make our offerings perfect, and I hope that we can bring people closer to Him with the gifts He has given at this wonderful time of year.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.