onsdag 17 april 2013

Four decades of Catholic music - 5

July 1978 saw me back in Hove and singing with the choir at St Peter's, Portland Road. It was a stable choir in a stable situation. Most of the time was necessarily spent learning the music for the following Sunday High Mass, which was all in Latin apart from the sermon and readings. There were three priests, the ageing Fr Dickerson and his two curates, the Dutchman Fr van der Most and the young Fr Chris Benyon. The latter had encouraged the setting up of a folk group which sang at the 12 o'clock Mass, accompanied by guitars. I think Fr Dickerson gritted his teeth but the ruling principle was live-and-let-live.

We slowly increased our repertoire with some polyphony, including pieces by Palestrina. A few people left when they moved away from the area, and a few joined when they arrived from somewhere else. The music consisted mostly of the Gregorian Chant Ordinaries and the Propers, sung to psalm tones. The choirmistress tried to vary these from the usual tone 8g which it is tempting to stick to all the time. We also learned the correct Introits for the main feast days: Christmas, Easter, Ascension; Pentecost; Trinity; Corpus Christi; St Peter and St Paul; Assumption; All Saints, and a few others.

The guiding principle was to do simple things and do them well. The music was chosen so as just to stretch the ability of the choir, which had the reputation of being one of the best Gregorian chant choirs in the Diocese. We rehearsed once a week from 8.00 to 9.30 and then retired to the pub. On Sundays we would arrive an hour before the start of Mass to warm up our voices and have a final run-through. This was in the church hall and the choirmistress smoked most of the time, often singing between, and even during, drags.

I do not recall the choir ever being expected to sing music that people did not like, in part because when it comes to Gregorian chant, the music is the music and like and dislikes do not come into the matter. Singing the music is a task to be done, just as the priest has to say Mass. Likes and dislikes began to enter into the equation with the introduction of the vernacular and new music to go with it, but as this had not happened at St Peter's, we could just get on with doing what was required.

A new bishop, Cormac Murphy O'Connor, was installed in the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton, and he must have leaned on the priest, to say Mass facing the people, as a new movable altar was added, for use during the week. This was similar in general appearance to the original altar and placed just in front of it. It cramped the sanctuary and gave a strange double-vision effect, but it was put to the side for the main Sunday Mass so nobody minded too much.

The Parish Priest was not as fearsome as he seemed at first impression and he took both choirs out to dinner at a country hotel once a year, as a token of his appreciation. Fr Dickerson retired just before the Summer holidays, in July 1983, giving a memorable farewell speech. Naively, nobody really expected any significant change. After all, things in the parish were running smoothly, with well-established traditions which could have continued in the same way for decades. The liturgy was set up so that there was something to suit all tastes. We could not have been more wrong. We had underestimated the wrecking skills of the bishop.

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