The Catholic Church’s vast heritage of sacred music, which has been kept alive for years by university music faculties and commercial publications rather than being a living presence in our Catholic churches, received two quite different expositions in Washington, DC this weekend.
On Saturday evening in the Basilica of the National Shrine, the Shrine’s resident professional choir joined with the vocal ensemble Seraphic Fire to sing Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, an extensive piece which Seraphic Fire has recorded previously. The music was in every way stunningly beautiful, filling the vast space with unbelievable harmonies and overtones. The great choruses were beautiful, but perhaps even more of an aural treat was provided by small groups, duets and trios. The physical space was used to great effect, most notably on the charming call-response hymn Audi coelom. It was a start-to-finish celebration of the human voice, in praise of God and the Blessed Virgin, and hopefully the prolonged standing ovation will be some small encouragement for this sort of enormous effort to be repeated in the future in our outstanding Catholic music programs.
On a much smaller scale, and in a liturgical context, the choral ensemble Musikanten sang a polyphonic Solemn High Mass at Old St. Mary’s Church in Chinatown, DC. The resident men’s schola sang the proper chants from the Graduale, and the Ordinary and motets were sung by Musikanten.
Weekends like this feel to me something like the Antiques Road Show, where someone’s forgotten old belongings turn out to be worth millions. I think it’s just marvelous that these nearly-forgotten treasures of ours have been brought out from the boxes and cupboards where they’ve lain for centuries, scarcely noticed, and fill the air with excellence, beauty, and praise.