Tuesday, June 28, 2011

John Robinson and the Boston Choir School

Anywhere in the Catholic world you go today, you can high hear praise for the wonderful things happening at the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School. Their new director since 2010, and only the fourth in the history of the institution, is John Robinson, a young organist and choirmaster from John’s College Cambridge and Canterbury Cathedral.

He seems to be exactly the right person for the position at this stage in the history of the the BACS. He is shepherding the school from being not only an outstanding local institution but one to provide national leadership in Catholic liturgy and musical excellence. The new public profile of the school seems to be making the point that needs to be made right now.

The BACS was founded in 1963 by Theodore Marier, an American composer and musician - a leader in the Gregorian chant revival - who saw the need for the English choir-school model to finally make the treck to the colonies. An expert on sacred music for Catholic liturgy, Marier was in so many ways a visionary who took on the impossible task what might have seemed like the worst time.

Theodore Marier
Sacrosanctum Concilium had just been promulgated, and there emerge a tension between its mandate to preserve the Latin treasury of sacred music and its permission for the vernacular. What neither he nor anyone fully expected was that Catholic music was on the verge of entering a long period of upheaval. Marier never relented in his hope that this new institution would be devoted to bringing Gregorian chant to the postconciliar age.

Through sheer tenacity and creative composition and director, Marier built the school and saw it through this period until his retirement in 1986. John Dunn took over as director and headmaster in the years after, maintaining the tradition and continuing to build in the context of daily sung Masses and the performance of outstanding liturgical music at St. Paul Church in Harvard Square. Jennifer Lester served in an interim role.

One can imagine how difficult it must have been to find a successor after this history. The choice of Robinson was wise indeed. He turns out to have all the right skills to both build on the past and go forward to a bright future . An outstanding musician with a clear sense of mission (he was raised in the very type of system of choral education that he now heads), he is also a brilliantly diplomatic person whose quiet erudition and attention to musical excellence has inspired students, donors, and parents.

He has led the way with a clear focus on the best of the Catholic choral repertoire, the fruits of which have been on display in public concerts and liturgical services. The goal is not just to create outstanding musicians but also to provide an exemplary experience of liturgical music - with attention to both musical and liturgical precision. The BACS is headed toward an ever larger presence on the national Catholic scene, and very well could emerge as a example to many other dioceses around the country.

The BACS is only one of two Catholic choir schools in the whole of the United States. The other (equally impressive) one is in Salt Lake at the Cathedral of the Madeleine accepts both both and girls.The BACS accepts boys from the fifth to the eight grade and trains them in all subjects with a specialization in musical skills. Every student learns piano, music theory, recorder, and perfects the skill of sight singing.

It is not widely understood that over the centuries there have been dramatic changes in the age when the boy’s voice shifts from soprano to tenor or bass. Johan Sebastian Bach sang as a boy soprano at the age of 16, and, in the late middle ages, it was not uncommon for the boy soprano voice to survive until the late teen years. That all began to shift in the 19th century with a change in diet and overall health. Today, the boy soprano voice is gone by the age of 14.

I can recall reading a manual on training boys to sing that was written in the early 1930s, and being struck by what a gigantic task it is to train boys to sing in any historical period. It requires vast experience, a good ear, a great sense of diplomacy, and a huge bag of tricks. Today the challenge is intensified because they must be trained earlier and the trained voice doesn’t last very long at all. Then the voice goes through a time when it seems nearly unusable only to emerge later as something completely different.

John Robinson

This reality is part of daily life at the Boston Choir School, and Robinson and the rest of the faculty must deal with not only the musical difficulties of the boys but the psychological ones as well. I can only imagine what it must be like to develop a wonderful skill at the age of 11 only to have nature take it away two years later. So part of the job of the director is to carefully migrate the acquired skills from childhood into early adulthood and to do this one child at at time.

Robinson himself went through this period and it was during this time that he developed his skills as a pianist and an organist, furthering his educational as an overall musician. So he has an intrinsic sympathy with the plight of all of his students. And even as this constant circulation of vocal timbres is taking place, the choir sings every daily at St. Paul’s for Mass, with an incredibly demanding repertoire ranging from Latin chant to Tallis to modern choral works.

It is a deeply tragic aspect of modern Catholic life that most parishes and even many cathedrals have no program at all for children choirs, or only paltry ones that sing on Christmas. Catholic Children these days learn to sing by listening to pop music on the radio or on their iPods, and this is a serious problem for the state of Catholic music generally. Directors of music in parishes find themselves without any singers among the adults. People don’t know how to read music much less perform it in a way that is suitable for liturgical services. Nor do they know the repertoire.

The best and most fundamental way to bring about long-term change is through the children’s choir. In the year’s ahead, it is clear that the new generation that will lead to a rebuilding is going to emerge from within comprehensive systems of education such as we find at the Boston Choir School.

In this way, every day that Robinson and the faculty there teach, an investment is being made in the state of Catholic music that will bear fruit for decades to come. In the future, you might find that a graduate of the BACS will be leading music at your parish and bringing the glorious treasury of sacred music to Masses and the sung office experienced by you, your children, and your children’s children. This is the gift that Robinson has brought to our shores. For this reason, the administrators, board, parents, students, and director are fully deserving of all the support that Catholics can give them.