Cathedral music back from the silence

Dr Christopher McElroy

A cathedral chorister's life is a hectic one. Daily rehearsals and liturgies, schoolwork, instrument and vocal lessons and practice are just some of the things on their agenda each day. But since the end of March the choristers of the Metropolitan Cathedral, just like those from other Cathedrals, have been silent.

Well, they haven’t quite been silent, and in fact our choristers have been working hard away from the Cathedral. During lockdown and through to the end of July, our choristers were taking part in daily rehearsals and theory sessions on Zoom with Cathedral music staff. A great deal was achieved during this time; however, the raison d'etre of a Cathedral chorister is to sing at liturgies in their Cathedral.

In July, when government guidance permitted it, the Cathedral began welcoming the congregation to Mass once again, and over the summer music was provided by a cantor and organist at the main Sunday Masses. On 13 September we were excited for the first time to have a small vocal ensemble of four singers leading the music at the Solemn Mass. Judging by the emails received and comments made on the livestream, the return of vocal music at Mass was indeed welcome, enabling people to more deeply enter into the liturgical celebration. Gradually, we plan to increase the number of adult singers leading the music at Sunday Mass.

Before we were able to reintroduce choral music, hours of time, effort and planning were spent drawing up risk assessments to allow the singers to contribute their artistry to the Sunday Mass safely. Among other things, this means ensuring that all adult singers are spaced two metres apart, not sharing music and not singing over-loudly.

Even more planning has gone into planning the safe return of our choristers to singing. Unlike many other English Cathedrals, where full daily choral services have resumed, we have decided to take a very cautious approach to returning our choristers to their role in leading the sung liturgy in our Cathedral.

From 22 September the choristers began rehearsing on a daily basis in our two choir schools: Runnymede St Edward’s and St Edward’s College. Having not sung together for six months, we have planned a full five weeks of rehearsals in school before we consider whether they are ready to sing once again in the Cathedral. Choristers operate very much as a team, and although they have been working together via Zoom, nothing can replicate the joy and experience of singing together in the same space. I hope that in November we will have news of when our choristers will be returning to singing in the Cathedral for Mass.

The streaming of Mass on the internet via Facebook and YouTube has become an important means of evangelisation during the last six months for Catholic parishes worldwide. Viewer numbers for Masses broadcast from the Cathedral have been among the highest in the UK, so it was decided to invest in permanent equipment in the Cathedral to allow for the continued streaming of liturgical events. As part of this installation a camera has been fixed in the choir area, along with high-specification microphones. It is our hope that these new facilities will enable the ministry of the choir to be shared beyond the walls of the Cathedral, among people throughout the country and indeed the world, allowing us to (virtually) echo Psalm 117 – to ‘Go out to the whole world and proclaim the good news’.