Boys’ choirs have been a tradition in the Catholic Church since the Middle Ages, when men and women did not sing together in public, and boys’ higher-pitched voices were needed to round out the sound of sacred music used at Mass. Today, the United States is home to just one Catholic boys’ choir school — St. Paul’s choir school in Cambridge, Mass. The school is open to boys in 4th-8th grade, who must audition to earn a spot in the renowned and rigorous program.
Having celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2013, and having produced their first CD, “Christmas in Harvard Square” in 2014, the school has enjoyed a recent uptick in interest and awareness of both their program and music. Given the success of their first CD, the group decided to produce another CD entitled “Ave Maria,” with a wide variety of sacred music centered on the theme of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was released on Sept. 8, the feast of the Nativity of Mary.
“(We) wanted to do something that would be 'in season' all year round, so something that honors Our Lady seemed like the perfect choice,” choirmaster John Robinson told CNA in e-mail comments. “There is such an amazing richness of music that honors Our Lady,” he said. “Because Mary is so central to everything we believe, we felt that music that honors her can also show certain devotional aspects of other themes as well, so the recording has a wide range of subject matter.”
The 18 tracks selected for the CD cover a range of lesser-known as well as more popular pieces of sacred music, from Gregorian chant written in the 7th century to works written as recently as the 19th and 20th centuries. The boys in the choir school have a small window of time to capitalize on their young voices - the younger boys in 4th and 5th grade go through a practice phase before joining the older choristers, usually around 6th grade.
Each piece in “Ave Maria” is meant to highlight the pitch range of the boys in the choir school, and each selection has its own story to tell in the context of both music and Church history.
“It's always great to get behind each piece and learn about its context, especially some of the great stories in Church Music, like the creation of the Papae Marcellus Mass by Palestrina,” he said. “This piece was written to prove that polyphony (music in many parts) can still have clear words, and the piece actually influenced the direction of the Council of Trent.”
The Council of Trent was called by the Catholic Church to examine possible adjustments of Church practices in light of the Protestant Reformation. One adjustment considered by the council was that all sacred music be clear and readily understandable, and not obscured by complex musical techniques. Palestrina’s Mass helped prove that polyphonic sacred music could be both beautiful and clearly understood.
Robinson said he has been encouraged by an increased awareness of boys’ choral music and sacred music, and he added that he hoped that the CD would appeal to a wide audience and foster a greater appreciation for Church music.
“We want everyone to hear this recording. Of course there are those who already love and know this kind of music, and it's certainly great that they should listen to it, and hear that this tradition is alive and well,” he said. “It's also really important that people who really haven't had access to hearing this unique traditional sound should be able to hear it, and to realize that they can hear it every day of the week at St. Paul's as well.”
The rich history of sacred music and its beautiful sound is something that has the power to unite people both to those who came before them, and to God himself, Robinson added. “Traditional Sacred music is like a collection of beautiful prayers that we can pull out and join ourselves to. Whenever we sing this music at Mass there's a real sense of togetherness with those who have gone before. There's also a great sense of beauty, and appreciation of the gift of beauty. There's a feeling of learning from those great composers, so honed in their Art, and of being part of something much bigger than us,” he said.
“It's great to lose ourselves in the wonderful sounds that have been prayed in Church for hundreds and in some cases well over a thousand years. I hope that this shared heritage can be something that unites everyone, and points to Him who gave it to us.” “
Ave Maria” was released by AimHigher Recordings through their international distribution collaboration with Sony Classical. In addition to Robinson, some of the other people behind the album include multiple Grammy Award-winning Producer Christopher Alder, and Brad Michel, also a Grammy Award-winner.