Sunday, December 24, 2006

Angels heard on high C.

In time for Christmas Eve - which I hope to write more about later in the day - the Boston Globe has a human interest story on a Dorchester church choir that gives a diverse group of inner-city youngsters access to a rich tradition of sacred music:
There were only six of them, but the boys' high, sweet voices filled the huge, empty church.

"Christe Eleison," they sang, sending the Greek words for "Christ have mercy," to the vaulted ceiling high above the sanctuary, and to the diamond-paned windows in the darkened nave.

It was three days before tonight's Christmas Eve service, and the last chance for the boys in the choir at All Saints Episcopal Church in Dorchester to be drilled on their high notes and their phrasing.

It takes a lot of practice for 9- and 10-year-olds to sing like angels in Latin and Greek and archaic English.

The boys are part of an institution that endures at All Saints - improbably, in the face of tight finances, rising secularism, and tectonic changes in the neighborhood that surrounds the limestone and Quincy granite building.

The church, built by Brahmin benefactors Colonel Oliver Peabody and his wife, Mary Lothrop, in 1893, has a congregation that is 60 percent West Indian. Only two of the eight boys in the choir have the Irish ancestry that once dominated the area. The others have parents born in India, Vietnam, Honduras, Haiti, and Jamaica.

Tonight, they will put on their red cassocks, white surplices, and starched, ruffled collars. They will conquer jiggling legs and itchy noses and the temptation to horse around with each other. They will hold candles and try not to let the wax drip. And they will sing.
As the Globe's Yvonne Abraham reports, the boys who make up the All Saints' Choir are trained to the high standards of a great tradition:
The All Saints choir is one of only 30 remaining choirs of men and boys in the country. A century ago, there were hundreds of them, said Frederick Backhaus, the choir's director. Boys need not be Episcopal parishioners, or even Christian, to join the choir. A few of the boys are Catholic, and one is Hindu, he said. The boys are taught about Christian traditions so they can understand what they are singing about, he said.

There are fewer boys in the choir than Backhaus would like. A choir like this is not for every grade-schooler, he said. Few have the good pitch, the facility to learn to sing music on sight, which can take two years, or the confidence to hit their highest notes.

"They're afraid of sounding like girls, and we say 'Listen, girls can't sing half as high as boys,'" Backhaus said.

Few boys have the patience, the time, or the family resources, to invest in two rehearsal nights a week, services every Sunday, and special performances in the Boston area. Or the will to subject themselves to the instruction, which is in the strict, English Cathedral Choir tradition: Choristers are expected to learn complex pieces, and demonstrate skilled musicianship. Backhaus is a tough choirmaster, requiring that the boys raise their hands every time they make a mistake, and urging them not to sound "like chipmunks being put in a blender."

Backhaus also demands that they know repertoires far larger than those of most adult choirs.

"We train them to read music, so they're not learning by rote," he said. "You know how kids always play at being grown-ups? Here, they get to be treated like adults: they sing the same music as men do, they get rehearsed like the men do."

Last year, Backhaus held auditions with about 200 boys in area schools. He invited 45 of them to consider the choir. Ten of those joined. Five stayed.
Demanding for its members, the All Saints' Choir also places heavy demands on a cash-strapped urban church. According to the Globe, the choir costs the parish at least $80,000 a year. For the sake of the choristers and the community they serve, I hope that the All Saints' Choir will continue to keep a great tradition of sacred music alive in Dorchester. If you'd like to help them do so, check out their webpage to learn more. AMDG.


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