ToiCelestial Banquet might easily be mistaken for a homily on the Eucharist or a series of lectures on Eucharistic theology. It is, in fact, the title of an outstanding festival of organ music recently performed at Westminster Cathedral.
The festival comprised the complete organ works of Oliver Messiaen and some orchestral pieces which the programme described as "a celebration of the music and spirituality of Oliver Messiaen on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of his birth". The titles of some of the compositions illustrate the spiritual nature of much of Messiaen's work: La Nativiti du Seigneur (1935), Quatour pour la Fin du Temps (1941) to the Livre du Saint Sacrement (1984). The outstanding performances were given by Dame Gillian Weir, on the magnificent Henry Willis III grand organ of Westminster Cathedral. Scripture readings and commentaries were read by Fr Cormas Rigby.
The imaginative programme resulted in the Organ Festival being voted "Pick of the Month" by the BBC Music Magazine. In The Times Barry Millington enthused, describing Messiaen as "Catholic in his tastes". Nearly 500 people from all walks of life attended this artistic, musical and religious occasion each week. Their presence indicated another dimension of the Cathedral's minstry outreach to our contemporary world through the gift of music. In establishing the choir, in 1903, Cardinal Vaughan was clear that the Roman liturgy had to be supported by all that was best in Catholic church music. He had been inspired by the revival of Gregorian Chant at Solesmes and by the Anglican cathedral choir tradition. Nothing less was good enough for his foundation at Westminster. Cardinal Vaughan's original plan for music in the Cathedral was to engage the Benedictine monks, first of Downside and then of Solesmes, to sing the plainchant at the Capitular liturgies. VIlien this proved impracticable, Vaughan turned to the establishment of a choir composed of boy choristers and adult lay clerks.
Under Sir Richard 'Ferry, the first master of music, the Cathedral Choir took the world of church music by storm. It revived countless works which had not been heard for several centuries and vigorously added newly commissioned works to its repertoire.
Among the many modern composers who have written specifically for the choir are Benjamin Britten, Gustav Hoist Lennox Bukely and Herbert Howells. Vaughan Williams' Mass in G Minor was first performed publicly at a Mass in Westminster Cathedral.
The Cathedral Choir is recognised as being one of the finest in the country. In addition to the enormous demands made by its daily singing of the Capitular liturgy, the choir regularly records sacred music with the prestigious Hyperion record label. The Daily Telegraph described the recording of the complete sacred choral works of Maurice Durufle as "...carrying the lyricism and harmonic luxuriance to an ethereal plane. The choral singing is superb." The Sunday Times critic described the choir's recording of Vittoria's Missa 0 Quam Gloriosum as "my most satisfy ing choral disc of the year". The BBC Record Review described the recording of Missa Papa Marcelli as a "rapt and truly inspired performance".
Such critical acclaim is a reminder that the ministry of music transcends denominational boundaries. Music speaks not only to those who are committed to their faith and regular worship but also to people of all religions, or none, who are in the search of the transcendent. The regular worshippers at Westminster Cathedral know that the plainchant and polyphony, the ancient and modem settings of Mass, the psalms and the prayers are powerfully expressive of the action of God. As we read in the letter to the Hebrews: "The Word of God is something alive and active; it acts more decisively than any two edged sword... it can pass judgement on secret emotions and thoughts," (Hebrews 4:12).
There is no doubt, however, that the multi-faceted dimensions of the work of the Cathedral Choir helps countless thousands of people to experience something of the numinous, the transcendence of the God we worship, that God who is made flesh in word and sacrament.
The task of the Cathedral Choir is also to provide inspiration to composers to create new music for the liturgy. Such was the challenge to which Roxanna Panufnik responded with her recent composition of The lastminster Mass marking the 75th birthday of Cardinal Hume. Having undertaken a retreat at Stanbrook Abbey and studied the structure of the Roman liturgy carefully, Roxanna composed a Mass to be sung by Westminster Cathedral Choir. It was accompanied by a 24-string orchestra, two harps and tubular bells. There is also a version to be accompanied by organ only.
The Mass was first heard on the Feast of the Ascension. In addition to the normal congregation at the Ascension Day Mass, the numbers were swollen by almost 300 visitors who had come to support the Cathedral's Music Foundation which benefited enormously from the income generated by this commission.
The responsibility for the establishment of the famous "sound" of the choristers of Westminster Cathedral Choir with one of its previous masters of music, George Malcolm. Between 1947 and 1959 "he turned on its head the traditional perception of how a boys' choir could (and in his own strongly held view, should) sound. He opened up a new range of choral possibilities by seizing on the inherent strains of liturgical music and projecting them strongly in his full-blooded performances".
By the time he left, the Cathedral choristers had achieved a widespread reputation for the total brilliance and interpretative maturity of their singing. My own view is that, under Malcolm's influence, the Cathedral choristers developed and maintain the discipline and order of the English choral tradition whilst expressing something of the flamboyance, warmth and passion of their continental cousins an unbeatable combination.
George Malcolm died on October 10, 1997. A memorial service was held at Westminster Cathedral on January 19, 1998. It is not without significance that, despite the fact that George Malcolm had a hugely successful career as a harpsichordist following his time at
Westminster Cathedral, almost all the obituaries devoted most of their column inches to what was undoubtedly his crowning achievement his direction of the Cathedral Choir.
Like all cathedral choirs, that of Westminster Cathedral depends enormously on the generosity of its worshippers and those who make donations to ensure its future financial viability. The Cathedral Music Foundation, established as part of the 1995 Centenary Trust, is the vehicle for this long-term planning. The funds raised by the Cathedral Music Foundation will ensure the security of the Cathedral choir into the next century and beyond.
ItN.." A N DDMO to the 4,000 worshippers who come to he Cathedral each Sunday, we also welcome many thousands of visitors each week. Among these are many hundreds of American visitors who are stunned by the beauty, liturgy and music they find here.
Throughout the summer we welcome large numbers of college and university choirs from the US which are delighted to give informal recitals as part of their European tours. A major undertak
ing for the Cathedral Choir it 1998 is the forthcoming tow of certain US cities at the end o: October. Chicago, Cleveland Ohio, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia. Washington DC, New York and Manchester, New Hampshire. are the concert venues to lx visited. The tour which is only the second time in its 95-year history that the Choir will have visited the USA will help tc develop and nurture the many close links the Cathedral has with its American admirers and supporters. In this way it is hoped to bring the Choir's music to a wider audience, as well as raise much-needed funds for the future of the Choir intc the next millennium.
Now that the Cathedral is on the Internet, not a day passes without requests for information on the Choir, the American tour, recordings and the liturgy of Westminster Cathedral (and how to make a donation to the Cathedral Music Foundation). Why not visit the Cathedral website for information on this and many other facets of Cathedral life?
■ The address of the website rs http:Ilwww.westminstercathedraLotg.uk. Mgr George Stack is the administrator of Westminster Cathedral.