Ex ore infantium et lactentium perfecisti laudem propter inimicos tuos. Psalm 8:3
Out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings you have perfected praise.
Perfect praise is what drew nearly 200 people out in the stifling heat to share an evening of sacred music at St. Mary Church in Norwalk. “It’s precisely just the right conditions in both heat and humidity as it will be in Madrid,” began director David J. Hughes, describing what will most likely be the climate when the Scholas of St. Mary’s and the Sisters of Life reach Spain for World Youth Day along with over 1 million youth pilgrims on August 17.
No amount of discomfort could sway this group of singers from the task at hand. As St. Mary’s pastor, Fr. Greg Markey explains, “This is why we go to Madrid, [this group] truly brings the Gospel with them; they carry our tradition.” This is the tradition of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, the sacred music, chant and polyphony, that spans back over a thousand years, and still continues today. St. Mary Church’s belief is that the tradition and spiritual heritage of the Holy Catholic Church is “an inexhaustible treasure that has helped countless souls throughout history achieve holiness of life.”
The audience could sense the magnitude of their mission, as the singers processed down the aisle toward the sanctuary to a solemn organ processional. Nonetheless, as the children and sisters took their places, their faces reflected nothing but joy. The processional then immediately segued into the anthem, Virgin Great and Glorious a traditional Catholic hymn, conducted by Sister Mary Concepta, SV, with David Hughes at the organ. To begin with this pure, beautiful, yet expansively powerful hymn left no doubt that this work is consecrated to the patron saint of the parish, and Queen of all saints.
The combined voices of Sisters and students were a strong and flawlessly unison blend that was never overpowered by Hughes prayerful accompaniment. As David Hughes then took his place at the podium, the rapport between singer and conductor was evident, with all eyes riveted on him in anticipation, and there they remained.
Jesu Dulcis memoria (Jesus, sweet remembrance) followed, the title of both an 11th century chant, and a polyphonic motet by the 16th century Italian composer Palestrina. The Student Schola sang the motet verses with the help of St. Mary Schola Cantorum’s tenor and bass, Joshua Copeland and Richard Dobbins, alternating with the chant sung by the Sisters’ Schola. The Student Schola exhibited control and poise, with their subtle phrasing and dynamic range, and the Sisters chanted a flowing prayerful unison, all products of the apparent communication between singer and conductor.
Continuing with a tableau of Eucharistic hymns, from 7th century chant to 19th century polyphony, the group exhibited its stylistic versatility as well as a grasp of Latin. Anna Gawley, nine year old singer, explains how the Student Schola works on Latin in rehearsal: “Before we begin singing the music, Mr. Hughes asks us what certain phrases mean when translated into in English.” Anna added, “I think it is actually easier to sing in Latin than in English, due to the limited vowel sounds.”
One of the highlights of the evening was the 8th century plainsong chant, Christus vincit (Christ conquers), a powerful litany to Christ and the saints for Holy Mother Church, her Vicar, Bishops and the faithful. “What lies at the heart of this chant [are] the sacrifices of our forefathers in faith,” explains Hughes. “And going to Spain, to a land that has stood fast to Catholicism, this chant is especially appropriate.” What lended to the potency of this chant was the organum, an ancient form of harmony added, in this case, above the melody in the interval of a perfect fourth, adding a sense of authority and ceremony to the chant. The audience prayed this chant along with the group, and responded with the largest round of applause, outside of the concluding standing ovation, of the evening.
To round out an already rich program, the Scholas presented Marian music, including familiar chants, such as Ave Maris Stella, Salve Regina, and Regina Caeli, in both simple and solemn tone, and Ave Maria, the motet attributed to Tomas Luis de la Victoria, renowned 16th century Spanish composer. While the audience may have been compelled to sing along to these more familiar chants, they prayed silently while thoroughly enjoying the enthusiastic rendition of these well-rehearsed chants. A special mention should go to the artful organ versets, played by David Hughes, and written by French Baroque composer Nicolas de Grigny, which alternated with the Schola during the Ave Maris Stella.
A grateful audience applauded generously with a standing ovation, a sight unseen under the usual circumstances in a Catholic Church. After graciously accepting the deserved praise, the Scholas sang an encore. Anna Gawley shares her gratitude, “I feel privileged to be a part of my schola and to be singing not only beautiful music but prayers to Our Lord.” While the group has thus far raised $115,000, in the two weeks that remain, they still need $30,000 before the trip. To donate to the St. Mary’s Student Schola or purchase their CD, visit their website: www.chantwith.us .