Earlier this year, the London Oratory Schola Cantorum Boys Choir, which recently toured the U.S., released its first recording, Sacred Treasures of England. Its home parish is the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, otherwise known as the Brompton Oratory, home to the Congregation of the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri in London. Charles Cole, the director of music for the Schola and Father George Bowen, a priest of the Oratory, both answered some questions about the music, the choir, and the faith.
In my weekly newsletter this week, I celebrate National Review’s founder, William F. Buckley Jr., and his gift for gratitude and his love of music. This Thanksgiving weekend, also the late WFB’s birthday weekend, seems as appropriate a time as ever to encourage good music that lifts hearts to the Creator.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How did the music get chosen?
Charles Cole: The music is all taken from the choir’s repertoire, which is used in the service of the Oratory’s liturgy. The Missa Euge Bone is a recent addition to the choir’s repertoire.
Lopez: How do the boys in the choir get chosen?
Cole: The boys audition at age seven for music-specialist places in the Junior House, which feeds into the main Oratory School. Twenty places are awarded each year, of which around five boys will be given places as choristers in the Schola. The boys sing throughout their time in the school, right up to age 18, becoming tenors or basses when their voices change.
Lopez: Do the boys and those leading them know and believe what they are singing?
Cole: The school is a Catholic school and, being connected with the Oratory, there is a strong emphasis placed on the liturgy. We are all very much engaged with the texts that we are singing, because they are not simply songs to fill time or space but are part of the liturgy itself. Much of the Renaissance repertoire in which we specialize is of astonishing quality, and the meaning of the text is conveyed in a way that transcends the spoken word, adding an extraordinary dimension to the liturgy.
Lopez: Is this primarily Easter music? How can it add to one’s prayer for the season?
Cole: The music on our new album comes from a range of liturgical uses, including Easter and Ascension, however much of it can be used throughout the Church year. Music is, of course, the prayer and liturgy of the Church.
Lopez: Can something like Ave verum corpus be sung without a reflection on its meaning?
Cole: The Ave verum corpus is such an important Eucharistic text, and Byrd’s setting adds the miserere mei, a response to the traumatic experience of the Protestant Reformation. Any good composer will set a text well, but what Byrd does here is absolutely extraordinary, evoking such a powerful reaction to the text and achieving what is probably the greatest English four-part motet of the period.
Lopez: What makes Benedictus special?
Cole: The Benedictus from the Missa Euge bone was written as an academic exercise, in which each of the six voices enter one after the other in strict canon. Tye wrote the Mass as a doctoral thesis, a demonstration of his mastery of compositional technique, and it is all the more remarkable when one bears in mind that he is unlikely to have ever heard it performed.
Lopez: What’s your favorite track on the album?
Cole: I love every one of these pieces, but I especially love the opening track, the Haec dies by Sheppard. There is something very uplifting about its vertical construction, the richness of the voicing, and the soaring treble lines, which lie in the most electrifying area of a boy’s voice, thrilling to sing and thrilling to hear.
Lopez: What do you hope will come of a popular release like this? Is there more to come?
Cole: We hope that this release will introduce this repertoire to people who may not have had a chance to experience music like this before, as well as being something of interest to those who are familiar with it already. We look forward to issuing further recordings of our liturgical repertoire in the coming years. There is a wealth of rich treasure in the sound world of the Renaissance, and it’s a great honor and privilege for us to have this wonderful opportunity to produce recordings, which we hope will draw people to an ever-greater love of this music and ultimately the Faith.
Lopez: And now some questions for Father George Bowen. What’s the most sacred treasure of England? Is it the the London Oratory Schola Cantorum Boys Choir?
Father George Bowen: England has lots of Sacred Treasures, in sacred literature, for example, from early writers such as the Venerable Bede to Blessed John Henry Newman in more recent times. And then in art and architecture, the country is populated with beautiful Gothic churches resplendent with stained glass windows. But in the 15th and 16th centuries, England was renowned for the spiritual beauty of its choral music. This anthology from the Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory School brings that beauty to a wider audience, and we hope and pray it will lift hearts and minds to the Almighty in the way that great music can.
Lopez: Is Philip Neri a saint for our times? And how did you wind up at the London Oratory, and as a priest for that matter?
Bowen: The word oratory means a “place of prayer,” from the Latin verb orare, meaning “to pray.” In the 1500s in Rome, a young man who later became a saint, Philip Neri, founded an oratory in a room above a church in the center of Rome. He wanted it to become a place where young people could join together and pray, while at the same time building a sense of fraternity and companionship. From this upper room, they would go out into Rome and offer their time and talents performing works of charity. But always they would return to their Oratory with its founder Saint Philip.
When they were together, performing music and using music to pray also became central features of Saint Philip’s Oratory. Before long, it attracted some of the finest musicians who passed through the city. Centuries later, Blessed John Henry Newman brought Saint Philip’s Oratory to England and founded an Oratorian community first in Birmingham and then in London.
As in those earlier times, the provision of great music to raise minds and hearts in prayer has been a chief characteristic of our Oratorian churches and in the liturgy for which we are famous. If the Oratory becomes more widely known as a place where people feel uplifted in the liturgical celebration of their faith and as a place where they can come and spend prayerful time with the Lord, then that would have pleased its founder St. Philip beyond measure.
Lopez: How can he become a practical part of modern, busy lives?
Bowen: I found the Oratory because of its music. I was looking for somewhere in London where I could get in touch with the rich tradition of Catholic music for Sunday Mass, and I came upon the Oratory. Gradually, I felt more and more drawn towards the place, and the idea of living a common priestly life in community inspired by the example of Saint Philip.