By continuing to use this site, you agree to our use of cookies. (More details.)


Founded by
Dr Mary Berry, CBE

Chant notation

Young Catholics and the Chant

Young Catholic Adults are holding their National Weekend at Aylesford Priory from Saturday 31 October to Sunday 1 November. As in previous years, the Schola will provide a programme of talks and tuition to enable participants to sing at the solemn Masses. To do so successfully, we need a nucleus of more experienced singers to support the choir. We are looking for Associates to come and help fulfil one of the most important of our aims, to pass the Church's musical heritage on to young Catholics. Please use the contact form, and we will provide all the necessary information. Associates will be expected to pay for their own travel and accommodation, but not for tuition or music. As with previous such events, it promises to be a very interesting and engaging weekend.

Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge at Quarr

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014, was a special day in the life of the Benedictine community of Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight. After ten years of, often, laborious work, the Heritage Lottery funded development project was brought to completion with the solemn blessing of the new Visitors Centre by the Right Reverend Philip Egan, Bishop of Portsmouth. A festive meal followed the ceremony but to conclude a day of celebration, Dom Xavier Perrin, Prior of our community had invited the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge to provide a concert of sacred music. The monasteries of Medieval Europe were places where sacred music found an early home and a concert was to express something of the spiritual vitality and creativity which lies at the heart of every monastery and its mission.

In his introduction to the concert, Fr Prior spoke of the monastery as a place of historic continuity, where past, present and future work together in harmony. He went on to argue that the monastery is therefore a place of identity, because it is through memory of the past experiences of the human heart that it is possible to build a truly human culture. And this is built in confidence because God is at the centre of monastic life. “Where God is in the centre, man is not diminished, man flourishes.”

Christopher Hodkinson, the Director of the Schola Gregoriana, came with eight of his cantors to Quarr: Sopranos, Jessica Gillingwater and Alison Summers; Altos, Sally Dunkley and Nicola Beckley;Tenors, Stephen Lawrence and Philip Duffy, and Basses, Charles Pott and Peter Wilton.They entranced us all with a warm and full sound which filled the large building with ease. And they provided a varied and very well ordered programme of music. The simplest of tones, taken from the medieval Lectionary was complimented by the most complex of polyphonic harmonies from Mouton and Tallis. The programme was inspired “by the various identities of Quarr over the centuries:Cistercian and Benedictine;French and English, yet always Roman.” And because the Abbey of Quarr has always been dedicated to Mary, the Mother of God, Our Lady of Quarr, the concert was given a Marian theme.

It was intriguing to hear the well known Marian antiphon, the Salve Regina, sung in the solemn tone of the Cistercian tradition. It was so reminiscent of, and yet so obviously unlike the older Benedictine melody which we still sing on Sundays and Feastdays at Quarr. It was a reminder of how rich and varied the Gregorian tradition of music was; a rampant growth of artistic sensibility sprouting new forms all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages.

The concert concluded with what was in every way a big piece. Thomas Tallis’ Motet “Gaude gloriosa Dei Mater” needs time and requires eight voices, all interweaving in a bewilderingly complex way to construct a great edifice of sound. The voices interact like the different instruments of a symphony orchestra- and I almost forgot they were voices- creating a unified, but varied tissue of melodic lines, a veil of heavenly mysteries. Was this an early work of Tallis, or was it written during the Catholic revival of Mary Tudor’s reign? Whenever it was written, it bore eloquent testimony to the conviction of Fr Prior that “Where Christ is present, God and Humankind create together Peace, Harmony and Beauty.”

From the New Director

There are rare moments in life when we are privileged to see the world not merely as it is, but as it could be.

One such was a rainy Sunday morning a few months ago, when I was able to attend Mass in a parish I hadn’t visited before. By the time Mass began the church was packed full, with close to three hundred people present, including many families with children (fifty of the younger ones went out to the Sunday School during the Liturgy of the Word). A team of about eight boys processed with the priest to the altar, carrying candles and incense.

During the Introit, as at the Offertory and Communion, the small choir chanted the Proper texts of the day in English using Adam Bartlett’s Simple English Propers with light organ accompaniment. The music for the antiphon was provided to the congregation so that they could join in, but there was also time at each of these points to sing good, time-honoured hymns. As Mass continued, the priest sang his words to the tunes in the Roman Missal, and the congregation responded confidently. The Ordinary of the Mass was sung in Latin chant: Mass XI (Orbis factor) rather than the more widely-known Missa de Angelis. The strength of the congregational singing suggested deep familiarity with the Gregorian melodies, and this was demonstrated in stunning fashion at the Alleluia, where the whole congregation joined the choir in singing one of the authentic Gregorian Alleluia tones, complete with its melismatic jubilus.

Considered from an artistic point of view, the Mass demonstrated a pleasing aesthetic unity: a happy marriage of English and Latin chants and with some familiar hymns interspersed. In other words, the music served the liturgy, and was for the most part an integral part of it, so that the aesthetic experience was also a liturgical experience. The essential key to achieving this was the priest singing of his parts: the sung dialogue between priest and congregation impressing silently upon us that music was the medium by which the words of the liturgy became the praise of Almighty God.

Where, you might wonder, was this remarkable parish, this model of good liturgical praxis? This was a typical Sunday at St Mary and St Ethelburga, Barking.

At first sight Barking might seem like an unlikely venue for the scene I have described. The church is a modest brick building constructed in the 1970’s, with pews on three sides of the altar and a leaky roof. The congregation I saw was as diverse as any in the country; people who might be described as ‘White, British’ were certainly a minority, and the parish could hardly be described as wealthy. The choir consisted of a handful of faithful volunteers, led by an organist who helps out playing sacred music on Sunday mornings even though his real métier is jazz piano on Saturday nights. Perhaps the only indisputably excellent feature of the church is its small pipe organ, a chamber instrument with a lovely tone which was donated to the church some years ago.

If you are familiar with English parish life you will already realise—it could hardly be otherwise—that the liturgical achievements of the parish are largely due to the tireless work over many years of the parish priest, Fr William Young. Possessed of few resources and largely self-taught, he has nevertheless achieved a genuine realisation of the spirit of the liturgy in his parish; a celebration that is at once genuinely inclusive, culturally rooted and faithful to the practice of the Church.

If this can be achieved in Barking, it is hard to see why it cannot be achieved everywhere. Many of this country’s parishes have considerably greater material resources and the potential to achieve very much more. Yet in practice too many liturgical celebrations are marred by uninteresting music of secular inspiration with little relation to the liturgy. Good music can lift up souls to God, but a bad aesthetic experience tends to reinforce an atmosphere in which prayer and reverence seem out of place.

Barking has been able to achieve something better—something with aesthetic integrity—because its liturgical music makes clear reference to the authentic structure of the rite. This structure is most clearly defined by the repertoire of Gregorian chant. Resources do not at present permit fine renditions of the Gregorian propers and so simpler solutions have had to be found; yet since these make reference to the Gregorian tradition they participate to some extent in its spirit and are therefore satisfactory substitutes.

It is therefore clear that the Gregorian tradition is ultimately the key to the aesthetic, cultural and religious success of the liturgy in this parish, and if other parishes do not match this standard the most obvious reason is lack of knowledge of that tradition. Here of course the importance of the ongoing work of the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge becomes clear. The gap between the ordinary realities of parish life and the kind of ideal celebration of the liturgy, in Latin and with chant, that is so familiar to us from Schola weekends, might seem immense to the casual observer. Yet in fact there is no contradiction: the one serves as a model to guide the other; the demands made of the participants differ only in degree, not in kind. In promoting the Gregorian tradition in all its richness, we are helping to make possible its ordinary, even unremarkable presence in parish life, where its liturgical function is every bit as important as in the great monasteries where popular imagination typically locates it.

When Mary Berry founded the Schola in 1975 her primary motivation was the preservation of a great cultural treasure that seemed about to be entirely lost. Since then, and in no small part due to her efforts, much has been preserved, and in many places there are signs of revival. Yet the work of Schola is far from over. Today there is increasing receptivity to the chant, but more than one generation has grown up with little experience of it in its proper liturgical context; a far cry from those who remember being drilled in chant by nuns in their pre-conciliar schooldays. Our great challenge is to pass on this great tradition from generation to generation. This cannot be done quickly; results will be achieved person by person, parish by parish. But there is every reason to believe that if we persevere our efforts will be richly rewarded.

The Schola’s vision for the promotion of the chant has always been a holistic one. Education and training remains one of the Schola’s key priorities, and is an area which I am keen to develop; our recent weekend at Downside saw some developments in this regard with more study sessions, and we have also held two day in London this year which combined a liturgy with an extended rehearsal.

Recordings and concert performances are also important as a way to bring the chant to new audiences. At the start of September our team of professional cantors will give a concert at Quarr Abbey, and in November we will field a choir to sing Dupré’s Vespers, which the Schola recorded many years ago. The worsening economics of recording may prevent us from undertaking a major project for some time, but in this area too we must look for new opportunities. The Schola also takes a close interest in promoting and disseminating scholarship and in providing resources for singers and choir directors, and I hope that the coming years will see some significant developments in this regard.

I am becoming ever more aware as I begin my time as Director that there is very much more to be done than I can possibly do myself, and that the talents, resources, contacts and experiences of all the associates are essential to our mission. If there is any way in which you can help, please do not wait to be asked! Our most pressing task is to recruit a new generation of associates: this is essential to our mission, if we are to pass on the tradition with which we have been entrusted, and something with which everyone can help. In order to achieve this we will need to overhaul our website and our internet presence, for which skills in media and graphic design are especially needed. We also need to increase our fundraising efforts, not merely to ensure our long-term financial viability but also so as to be able to offer a greater number of bursaries to students and clergy, and to undertake major projects such as publications and recordings.

Jeremy speaks movingly in his letter of the responsibility which Mary entrusted him, to carry on the work which she had begun. He has indeed made an outstanding contribution in recent years, with a tremendous commitment of his time and talents. But in truth the responsibility to carry on the Schola’s work is one which belongs to all of us who at various times over the years were privileged to study, sing and pray with Mary. She has surely gone to her reward; we must still try to merit ours. Please pray for me as I take up my turn at this task.

Christopher Hodkinson