Sacred Choral Music in Worship Has a Power All Its Own
by Michael McGlynn, guest contributor
Participants in the Royal School of Church Music Cathedral Course (RSCM) perform in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin. The RSCM promotes singing for people of ages by training choirs to sing church services to a high musical standard in cathedrals and churches throughout the United Kingdom. (photo: Richard Bloomfield/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
I was brought up as a Roman Catholic. My parents endeavoured to give me every opportunity to be exposed to a vast range of music, strongly encouraging our explorations, be they rock or classical music. In school the main exposure to singing was musical drama in the form of Gilbert and Sullivan with a few hymns in unison at every church service. It is understandable, therefore, that when my first exposure to sacred choral music at last arrived at age nineteen in University College Dublin Chamber Choir, it was like being hit with a mallet on the head.
I clearly remember my first rehearsal. We sang two songs, “Christus Factus Est” by Anerio and “O Sacrum Convivium” by Messiaen. Suddenly much was made clear to me. Maybe this was why people still spoke fondly of the extinct Latin Mass, with its remote and mysterious ceremony? It also helped explain to me why services were structured as they are. Music wasn’t simply a chance for the congregation to sing together, rather it was a series of sonic sign-posts angled towards illumination of the underlying spiritual truth of the service.
The Latin language, with its soft and non-percussive sound, had a natural affinity to the music that it was carried by. Later I discovered the music of Tallis, Gibbons and Byrd, being struck by the beauty of the harmonic language and the mellifluous use of the less-musical English language. Simple, direct statements of belief were woven into a powerful lattice of spiritual affirmation. Exposure to more recent music written for the Church today plainly showed that composers were acutely aware of their musical ancestry and quite capable of working within the practical constraints of service structures and the capabilities of the performing groups that they composed for. Indeed, the love of singing contemporary music among the better choral groups was a great pleasure to behold, even if much of the music demanded skills that were just on the edge of what the singers were capable of.
With respect to my Roman Catholic upbringing, I had rarely understood how the odd hymn here or there and the simplistic one-line responses and calls in the vernacular could compare to the carefully constructed musical structures that I participated in while singing in my first Church of Ireland services. It irritated me that much of what was musically beautiful in the pre-Vatican II church had simply been consigned to performance repertoire, rarely heard within its originally conceived context.
Sometimes I felt like a starved man who eats as much as possible very quickly, deputising and singing at the two major Church of Ireland Cathedrals in Dublin, St. Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedrals as often as I could. I sang for free at weddings, funerals, services — anything I was asked to do simply to experience this music in the context of its original conception.
By this time I was beginning to compose on a regular basis. Although the main thrust of my composition was towards the development of a new form of Irish choral music, I was consistently drawn to spiritual texts. Two early efforts I wrote for competitions organised for use in the Church of Ireland service were “Codhlaim go Súan I’d Chroí” (“I Sleep Softly in Your Heart”) and the anthem “Come Let us Sing” the former for a competition to find an anthem in the Irish language and the latter a setting of a more traditional Church text. This work eventually gave rise to my “Celtic Mass”, a combination of texts in Latin and Irish on diverse texts. Latterly my spiritual output has included the four “Tenebrae Responsories”, a “Missa Brevis” for St David’s Cathedral in Wales and a diverse collection of individual sacred works that include my “Agnus Dei” which was commissioned by the American choir Chanticleer in 2006 for their five-composer project “And on Earth, Peace: A Chanticleer Mass”.
Despite it being nearly thirty years since I was so profoundly influenced by this music, it continues to be a part of my life. I attend regularly at Saint Bartholomew’s Church in Dublin which has a fine and ambitious musical programme. I believe that the power generated by community singing of good quality has a ripple effect on the entirety of society. This music and literature has survived because it is simultaneously functional and art. It is important to bear in mind that composers who have written this music for over a millennium have done so with a desire to articulate their own spiritual ideas while transmitting genuine and heart-felt insight to a congregation. I now realise why this music has influenced and affected me the way it has. Choral music in worship can bring congregation, singer, and composer together in a unique and wonderful way. The power of this should never be underestimated.
Michael McGlynn is a composer, choral director, and founder of the Irish choral group Anúna. His music has been recorded and performed by vocal ensembles such as Rajaton, the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, The Dale Warland Singers, Conspirare, the BBC Singers, the Phoenix Chorale and Chanticleer. You can read more of his reflections on life and music on his Pictures & Visions blog.
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Before the Destruction: A Dublin School for Deaf Boys and Its Demise (photos)
by Tristan Hutchinson, guest contributor
Up the main steps of the building and into the hallway, four floors of corridors that lead to numerous rooms. Inside the rooms sit beds with sheets on, jars of hair and face products, old TV sets. Classrooms of books, teaching aids and chairs. When the building falls into dust, with it go the memories.
After the Famine, the Catholic Church, together with the Christian Brothers, established St. Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys in Cabra, on Dublin’s north side, in 1857. The deaf population of Ireland was of particular concern to the Church as they had received no religious teaching, and emphasis was placed on religious instruction through sign language.
St. Joseph’s played a significant role in the formation of the Irish deaf community. Here, boys were also taught trades such as tailoring and shoemaking, and the school produced many skilled craftsmen. Tuition through sign language continued until 1957 when the controversial oralism method was introduced, prompting a separation of boys based on communication ability.
After a series of media revelations in the 1990’s about child abuse in Irish institutions, the government set up the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA), and, after a lengthy investigation, produced the Ryan Report. This report outlined hundreds of systematic and “endemic” cases of abuse of children in institutions, including St. Joseph’s, and found a culture of abuse that for many years government inspectors failed to stop. St. Joseph’s was the only school featured in the Ryan Report where parents had sent their children voluntarily.
In 2006, the Christian Brothers acknowledged that boys in their care had suffered sexual and physical abuse at the hands of “individuals,” remarking that sexual abuse was seen as a “moral failing on the part of the Brother in question.” Boys reported instances of rape and molestation by staff. Others were engaged in sex talk and were shown adult movies in their rooms. The Commission also revealed that this level of systematic abuse led to a disturbing trend of peer abuse.
The Ryan Report states that children were not believed when instances of abuse were reported, and were more often than not ignored. At best, offenders were removed from the school and sent to another, where abuse continued. Recent studies show that deaf children are more at risk of physical, mental, and sexual abuse, with some studies stating a risk two to three times higher as these children may not be able to communicate their experiences, or understand what has happened.
The CICA report contained allegations of abuse stemming from 1914 to when the commission started, and the intention of the CICA was to publicly name the abusers, but was blocked in doing so by a right-to-privacy lawsuit taken out by the Christian Brothers. As well as this, an indemnity deal between a number of religious orders involved and the government allowed the Orders to avoid paying the full cost, and an eventual settlement of over €400 million was agreed, with the Irish taxpayers picking up the rest of the compensation. The report also opened up and criticized evidence of State and Church collusion during the period of abuse.
In 2006, the Christian Brothers relinquished control of Irish schools, bringing to an end over 200 years of management that formed the backbone of Irish education. This year sees St. Joseph’s School for Deaf Boys demolished, making way for a new national deaf centre.
For some, the school represented an opportunity to develop and excel in a safe environment. Trades were taught and the school produced many skilled craftsmen. For others, it was a place of shame and brutality. When the oralism method was introduced, those who were profoundly deaf were segregated from others, kept apart in classes and in living quarters. It bred a system of fear into the lives of children who were seen as particularly vulnerable.
I started the project with the intention of documenting what remained of St. Joseph’s before its demolition.
Some spaces were stripped bare.
Dorm rooms empty.
And sinks taped off.
Other rooms contained years of relics, objects, files, and reminders of the past.
On the walls scrawled graffiti; chalkboards still had writing.
There were beds with sheets still on. Bottles of hair products and tonics.
The building echoed my footsteps, yet the past was tangible and loud in the silence.
I wanted to document all this before the building disappeared into the dust.
Tristan Hutchinson is a photographer based in Dublin, Ireland. He’s currently working on a project in the home of his mother’s birth, Cobh, a small harbor town in the south of Ireland, which has one of the highest incidences of cancer in the country. You can see more of his work on his website or follow him on Tumblr.
We welcome your original reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.