Easter 2024

02 February 2008
McGrath, Daniel James - The Choir School in the American Church

Herself was away last evening, so one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I had read all 147 pages (double-spaced) of Daniel McGrath's doctoral thesis, The Choir School in the American Church, which is a hearty defense of men and boys choirs and an advocate for their implementation.

McGrath wisely points out the checkered past of the men & boys choir phenomenon in England: moving from monastery to cathedral and being periodically suppressed by ornery monarchs. In the U.S. choirs of men & boys enjoyed a brief golden age from the 1890s to the early 1920s when there were well over 100 such choirs in the country, many accompanied by choir schools. Now there are about 25 and one school (St Thomas, New York).

McGrath gets a lot right in his dissertation, and his keen observations on rehearsals and structure of choir programs would be well worth a look to anyone in the business.

One of the irritating facets of the dissertation, however, is McGrath's insistence that the 1979 American Prayer Book is antithetical to the notion of a men and boys' choir.

[The] development [of the 1979 Prayer Book] has had a devastating impact on American choirs of men and boys because their repertoire uses the words of the classic Anglican liturgies, and thus the content of the liturgy, rather than the shape, is of greater importance. Some choirmasters of this era argued that it was “inconceivable” that four and a half centuries of great choral repertoire would have to be abandoned just because the priest was saying some thing new at the altar. However, music and the liturgy are so closely intertwined in the Anglican tradition that it is difficult to see how there could be any other outcome.

At face value this just doesn't seem factual or logical. Choirs of men and boys still exist at 25% of their Golden Age levels, and the repertoire they sing is still drawn from those "four and a half centuries". It should be noted that some of these churches still use the 1928 book, but it simply doesn't follow that "traditional prayer book parishes" are the only ones able to support choirs of men and boys.

At times it seems like McGrath's distinction between content (1928) and shape (1979) is an artificial dichotomy he constructs to further his preference for the 1928 book. In my mind, the shape of the Gloria, and its original place in the service (not the errant place it is given in the 1928 book!) has been preserved in the 1979 book. Whether the "content" of the choral Gloria matches the book is irrelevant; no Book of Common Prayer has ever included the Gloria in Latin, yet most choirs of men and boys sing a number of settings in that language.

The 1979 version of Evensong, however, does necessitate some revision in order for the traditional versions of the Preces and Responses to be sung. But to my mind, the 1979 Prayer Book accommodates these "content" changes within the "shape" of Evensong.

And even McGrath admits that places like Grace Church, Newark perform the 1979 liturgy "tastefully".

For all that is well reasoned in the dissertation, McGrath's personal contempt for the 1979 prayer book clouds his arguments in favor of the traditional liturgy. I am not convinced that the Anglican choral tradition is a propaganda tool with which to advocate a return to the traditional liturgy. In some sense, McGrath, whom I presume identifies as an Anglican, and not an American Episcopalian, comes dangerously close to suggesting this.

Nor am I convinced that present liturgical realities will permit a large-scale return to the traditional prayer book. Those cathedrals and endowed parishes in the Episcopal Church who have or desire to have choir "schools" will likely have them with Rite II liturgical language. But how do we prepare our choirs for the next prayer book revision? How do we reconcile the tradition with the theoretical "Rite III"?

If we recognize the men and boys'/girls' choir as an outreach opportunity for the Church that edifies the moral and musical fiber of young men and women, we should seek to open that tradition to all who are interested, and not limit it to a singular understanding of the liturgy.

We limit not the truth of God
to our poor reach of mind,
by notions of our day and sect,
crude, partial, and confined.
no, let a new and better hope
within our hearts be stirred:

The Lord hath yet more light and truth
to break forth from his word.

George Rawson (1807-1889)

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It does seem to me that we need to pay more attention to boys and girls choirs. As a barometer of the seriousness with which they are taken, noting the success on YouTube of "groups" of videos of boy choirs, I started a group for videos of mixed children's choirs. I have to say the group has been pretty much an unmitigated failure, as there just don't seem to be mixed choirs out there, or at least nobody is creating YouTube videos of them! Too bad! The sound is different, but there's nothing inherently wrong with it.

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