Sing, Choirs of Angels!

Sing, Choirs of Angels! June 30, 2016

Macau choirsIn the past days, the 40th congress of theFoederatio Internationalis Pueri Cantores convened in Rome. This congress also include participation in several events, among them the Holy Mass at Saint Peter’s Basilica on January 1 and an audience with the Pope. It can only be imagined how thrilled were these youth to see Rome and to perform in the eternal city and, at the same time, have the chance to interact with the Holy Father. But this has to be also an occasion for reflection for church leaders, educators, nuns and all those people having to do with the education of children. Indeed good education in music and especially in singing is a strong help to develop personality and to educate emotions from a tender age.

Let us see what is the situation of children’s choirs first. Children’s choirs, as every conductor and teacher knows, are very rewarding but also difficult to handle. This is due to many factors: the young age of the singers, little ability to focus, being careful with vocal development, emotional issues and so on. Everyone who has to do with choirs of children knows that these elements and many other enter into play when someone has to deal with these ensemble. Nevertheless, it seems – at least in Italy – that children’s choirs are not out of fashion.

In one article in the Italian newspaper La Stampa (Tra i bambini è boom di cori di voci bianche, 23 September 2014) it said: “A growing interest [in children’s choirs] has caught on among the numerous musical associations who promote choirs, as well as  historical musical institutions of the country, which, despite limited resources, expand year after year the offer of preparatory courses and beyond, to accommodate children, aged generally between 8 and 15 years before the changes of voice, opening up the youth ensembles even to toddlers. This is the experience of the National Academy of Santa Cecilia, who last year opened its doors to 4-year-olds and this year had to activate three courses for baby singers given the enormity of requests for auditions and San Carlo, which will welcome in its preparatory course in 2014-2015 also 5-year-olds.”

This news should make us all very happy, because even science confirms how important musical education is in the holistic development of human personality. But we should be more happy from a religious point of view, because we all know the power that music has on young people, a power that can elevate them or pervert them. Singing elevated music can only help youth to discover that Beauty that is beyond all earthly pains, even if in their life Jesus was not present for other reasons. And moreover, their voices are so pure that really help to elevate our hearts to the supreme Beauty that is God.

But this care for children choirs is obviously not just confined to Italy. We think, for example, of the work done in Macau by Father Cesare Brianza SDB, an Italian priest who was able to build a choir of young boys that would perform in and outside Macau. Let us see how he was remembered in an article originally published in the Hong Kong Catholic newspaper Sunday Examiner: “He drew his greatest satisfaction from the many concerts and church performances given by his Little Singers of the Wooden Cross over a period of almost thirty years in Macau, Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Italy and Portugal. He founded this well-known Choir in 1959 and brought it to a remarkable standard of artistic excellence through hard work, patience and an enthusiasm that he succeeded in communicating to his boys. He was exacting, but the boys loved him because they knew that his great heart was open to them” (Carpella, 1986).

Still today the work of father Brianza and of other like him is remembered not only for the beautiful music he has taught to his choristers, but also for the deep values and emotions that the singers will bring with them for all their life. How important it is that, especially in places like Macau where the majority of population is not Christian, these young kids can associate with Jesus, with the liturgy, with sacred things a music that is reverent, celestial, not contaminated with earthly passions. I know of people fighting for the elevation of the standards of choral singing in Macau, standards that are unfortunately extremely low. But then one has to recognize that this is also part of what is today the “Macau system,” an impossibility to look outside certain boundaries that at the end penalize the good talents (of which there are!) that are only unfortunate because they were born in a city that is unable to offer them the opportunities they deserve.

It is very important to insist on the necessity of creating children’s choirs and to expose them to high quality music. It is deeply naive to think that they should sing music only at their level of understanding, because one of the goal of choral activities is to stretch their boundaries, not to confine them to narrow and confined repertoires that very often reflect the personal boundaries of teachers and educators. There is no conductor who cannot testify that when rightly educated by capable conductors (which is exactly what is actually missing in Macau) children can get from music much more than we can, because they are more pure and receptive. If only schools and churches will make of this a priority I am sure that this will also bring positive changes to society as a whole.

It was mentioned before that Pope Francis has received the Pueri Cantores(Latin for treble voices) on December 31, 2015. Answering the questions of some of the participants he stated the following: “Singing educates the soul, singing is good for the soul. For example, when the mother wants the baby to sleep, she does not say, ‘One, two, three, four ….’ She sings a lullaby … she sings … and it is good for the soul. The child becomes quiet and sleeps. St Augustine says it so beautifully. Each of you must learn it in their own language. Speaking of the Christian life, the joy of the Christian life, he says: ‘Sing and walk.’ The Christian life is a journey, but it is not a sad journey, it is a joyful journey. And for that you have to sing. Sing and walk, do not forget! Everyone say it in his own language: sing and walk! [every one repeats: ‘Sing and walk!’] I have not heard well … [‘Sing and walk!’] Here it is. Remember this: sing and walk. And thus your soul will enjoy more of the joy of the gospel” [my translation].

Then, the Pope added that he likes to hear people singing but he does not sing because, he said, when he sings he sounds “like a donkey.” Now, that is interesting. I remember that at the beginning of his pontificate there was this issue between people involved in liturgical music. Why does the Pope does not sing? Some people said that is because he had a problem with his lungs that makes singing tiring; other refer to the fact that notoriously jesuita non cantat(the Jesuit does not sing). Now, whatever the reason, the Pope asserted something of interest that is often misunderstood from so called liturgists: listening to good and beautiful singing is also good and elevates the soul to God. How many choirs have been sent away from churches, how many children’s choirs have been destroyed, how many musical archives were abandoned to follow the new dogma that the “people have to sing always and everything!”.

The liturgical reforms never called for this. This was only an abusive interpretation of the Vatican II teachings that indeed were never pointing in this direction. Also here the “spirit of the Council,” with its destructive wind,  more than edifying the faithful, has created confusion. In his encyclical Mediator Dei(November 20, 1947), Pope Pius XII explain well this point: “Therefore, they are to be praised who, with the idea of getting the Christian people to take part more easily and more fruitfully in the Mass, strive to make them familiar with the ‘Roman Missal,’ so that the faithful, united with the priest, may pray together in the very words and sentiments of the Church. They also are to be commended who strive to make the liturgy even in an external way a sacred act in which all who are present may share.

“This can be done in more than one way, when, for instance, the whole congregation, in accordance with the rules of the liturgy, either answer the priest in an orderly and fitting manner, or sing hymns suitable to the different parts of the Mass, or do both, or finally in high Masses when they answer the prayers of the minister of Jesus Christ and also sing the liturgical chant. These methods of participation in the Mass are to be approved and recommended when they are in complete agreement with the precepts of the Church and the rubrics of the liturgy. Their chief aim is to foster and promote the people’s piety and intimate union with Christ and His visible minister and to arouse those internal sentiments and dispositions which should make our hearts become like to that of the High Priest of the New Testament. However, though they show also in an outward manner that the very nature of the sacrifice, as offered by the Mediator between God and men, must be regarded as the act of the whole Mystical Body of Christ, still they are by no means necessary to constitute it a public act or to give it a social character.” It is not necessary that this participation means that everyone has to do everything. Let us enjoy choirs of angels singing, if they are available. We should be grateful to Pope Francis that in his simple way, has reminded us of this important truth.

(From O Clarim)

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