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Singing at the Papal Mass - Frances Novillo

Singing at the Papal Mass

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Frances Novillo
Posted at 23:16pm on 13th December 2010
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I have been a cantor since I was young, starting by singing verses to responsorial psalms at Sunday Family Masses, then later leading congregational singing, from the guitar and unaccompanied, learning to animate and sign the shape of the melodies to help the assembly join in singing. As Resident Musician on Iona in 2000, my confidence grew as I sang the lead into congregational responses throughout liturgical and informal worship, and tackled new challenges of improvising and singing in languages other than English. Since moving to London ten years ago, cantoring has been central to my parish music ministry.

At the end of 2009, I was asked to cantor at the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Britain this September. Of course, I jumped at the chance. It was hard to pin down reliable information about the music plans, although blogs and the Catholic media circulated much misinformation. Eventually, it became apparent that the choir would be formed of amateur church and school musicians from around the Archdiocese of Birmingham, alongside school children from the pioneering singing scheme in Leeds Diocese. I went to a regional rehearsal in Worcester, at the church where Edward Elgar, and his father before him, had been organists. This event has encouraged singers across the Archdiocese to tackle music beyond their parishes’ usual capabilities and stylistic comfort zones.

Speculation and rumour surrounded the plans for music during the visit. Behind the scenes, music directors strove to accommodate the suggestions of many interested parties. The results, published together in Magnificat, the booklet of services, articles and prayers distributed to all Roman Catholic parishes in Scotland, England and Wales, reflect the diversity of music used in Roman Catholic liturgy in this country in the 21st century.

Newman’s own hymns were sung with enthusiasm and joy. There was music from across the ecumenical spectrum, alongside contemporary classics such as ‘Christ be our light’. As one of four cantors, I introduced the Gospel Acclamation, shared the singing of the Creed, and as an unaccompanied soloist I sang the lead into the congregational response to the prayers read in several different languages. In my parishes I look forward to using again Paul Wellicome’s setting of the psalm. Catholic celebrities performed and prayed alongside faithful parish and school musicians and choirs: Susan Boyle sang ‘I dreamed a dream’, Maria Fideles Convent School Choir repeated their award-winning gospel performance, The Priests entertained the crowds. Rising young Catholic composer Edwin Fawcett heard his setting of Psalm 34, while established classical composer James MacMillan wrote the Mass of Blessed John Henry Newman especially for the occasion.

My personal ‘wow’ moments during the weekend occurred when I realized the magnitude of the occasion – the sheer size of the site, where choir stands seated 1000 singers on either side of the sanctuary, and the extent of the challenge for us cantors to sing plainchant precisely together while standing so far apart. The dedication of the pilgrims amazed me, when at 6am on Sunday I saw how many had already gathered in the pre-dawn gloom, sheltered under umbrellas, waterproofs and damp sleeping bags. At the very end of the final hymn, ‘For all the saints’, when my musical responsibility was over, I smiled, and couldn’t stop smiling for 24 hours! Haydn’s Te Deum, sung by the Schola at the conclusion of the Mass, will forever be linked in my memory to that ecstatic feeling on that very special day.

Reproduced from the Dec 2010 issue of Church Music Quarterly / Sunday by Sunday. Copyright © 2013 The Royal School of Church Music. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without permission.


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