tisdag 19 mars 2013

Four decades of Catholic music - 3

At the end of 1976 I moved to Hove where my parish church was St Peter's, Portland Road. The Parish Priest was Fr Dickerson, a big man with a severe limp, possibly a war wound. He was of fearsome aspect and in his sixties. There were two curates, Fr Chris Benyon, and a big amiable Dutchman, Fr van der Most, both in their early thirties. Fr Dickerson was clearly not enthused by the changes of Vatican Two. The altar remained in its original position and Mass was celebrated facing the liturgical east, which was also true east. The building was a basilica in the classical style with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, built in 1915, when the neighbourhood had been developed and the congregation had grown out of its smaller church which then became a church hall.

The main Sunday 11 am Mass was in the Novus Ordo, entirely in Latin apart from the readings and sermon, and there was also a folk mass at 12 o'clock, with a group of young guitar players. This was, I would think, the initiative of Fr Benyon. I would imagine that Fr Dickerson was tolerant rather than actively supportive. It was a good arrangement. Members of the congregation had options and the liturgy was probably what the authors of the Vatican Two documents actually had in mind.

The choir was run by a chain-smoking woman in her fifties. During rehearsals in the church hall, she could sing a long Easter season alleluia without taking the cigarette out of the corner of her mouth, indeed, without disturbing a half-inch of accumulated ash. I told her that I had sung a little bit of Gregorian chant and was accepted as a member. She worked on the principle of keeping the music just within the limit of the choir's abilities and being very strict about how it was performed, in tune and in proper unison, with no straggling allowed.

The core of the repertoire was the Ordinary plus a couple of dozen seasonal and occasional Latin hymns. The Propers were normally sung to psalm tones, carefully arranged, and possibly inherited from long before. There were also a couple of dozen of the simpler Introits and Communion antiphons in the repertoire, including those for Easter, Ascension, Whitsun, Corpus Christi and Trinity Sunday, plus the sequences. We sang these from Liber Usualis, of which there were a dozen or so copies in the choir loft. We had a few simpler four-part motets in the repertoire, stretching to some Elgar, Mozart, Byrd, Palestrina and Victoria. We did not stagnate but constantly extended this repertoire, though always with regard to the singers' abilities and limitations, and always with an insistence on the highest standards - that we were an amateur choir was not an excuse for sloppy performance.

The result of this strategy was that the choir got the reputation of being one of the best parish choirs in the Arundel and Brighton Diocese. The quality of the liturgy was far above what might have been expected in a medium-sized parish in an undistinguished neighbourhood of a south coast seaside resort. It was a living proof of the success of this approach. There was a stable and reliable membership which also helped keep up the musical standards. The choir had its share of parties and social events at which a little too much could be drunk but it help to cement the social fabric and the committment that went with that.

Once Mary Berry's Gregorian Chant days were up and running, members of the choir would often attend these within easy travelling distance and develop their knowledge of the music.

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