A song for all seasons

Mags Gargan visits a rehearsal of the Palestrina Boys Choir

Christmas is a busy time of year for the Palestrina Boys Choir of St Mary’s Pro-cathedral in Dublin. Already committed to three weekly rehearsals of about three hours each and singing at Sunday Mass, during the Christmas seasons rehearsals are almost daily as they prepare for concerts, charity performances, carol services and Christmas Masses. It is a huge commitment for the boys aged from 6-13, but ask any of them if it is worth it and the unanimous answer is yes.

As The Irish Catholic arrives at the cathedral to sit in on a choir rehearsal some of the boys are outside playing tag, before we all climb the back stairs together to the choir rooms in a boisterous stampede. The boys come from schools from all over Dublin and from different backgrounds, but when they put on their blue robes they become one unified team, and those rowdy children from a few moments ago transform as their angelic voices fill the room.

“The first time I heard the music I thought it was really good so I wanted to join,” says Cameron Drumm (9). “I like the singing and it is great fun because all my friends are here.”

“When I first came I thought it was pretty cool. Then I started to enjoy the music that we started to sing and then it just became a part of my life,” says Pierce Cullen (12).

The Palestrina Choir has its origins in a boys' choir formed in the 1890s by Dr Vincent O'Brien, then a music teacher at St Mary's Place Christian Brothers School in Dublin. It came to the attention of Edward Martyn who wanted the Catholic Church in Ireland to have music of an equivalent standard to the great cathedrals of Europe and he offered an endowment for a choir to be established St Mary's Pro-Cathedral in 1903.

Over 100 years later, Blanaid Murphy is now the choir director and it was the same love for liturgical music that attracted her to the choir 11 years ago.

“I always wanted to be director of the Palestrina choir – I love what it stands for, I love the fact that it is the only choir of its kind in Ireland and it kept going since 1903, so it is really special,” she says. “I loved the sounds of the boys and the repertoire. They did a lot of Gregorian chant, a lot of Renaissance music as well as commissioning new works, so I knew it was a very special thing.”

It was the unusual character of the Palestrina Choir which led to them receiving an invitation to join the Sistine Chapel choir to sing for Pope Benedict at a Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on the Feast of the Epiphany last year. At the time they were only the third choir in history to receive the invitation following the Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey choirs.

Getting the opportunity to sing for the Pope made a strong impression on all the boys, with many describing it as their favourite trip aboard, among many other overseas trips including Germany, Budapest and the United States.

“It was such an honour,” says Ross Fitzpatrick (13). “It was the best experience,” agrees Cristopher Kenny (13).

Cristopher is the Head Chorister, which comes with many responsibilities from managing the younger boys to singing solos.

“It is very important role and the director needs to be able to rely on me,” Cristopher says. “But it is a huge team effort and you have to participate and put in a lot of hard work and time, but it is worth in the end.”

Cristopher says his first solo performance was nerve-wracking, but he doesn’t get nervous anymore. “It is very enjoyable and a pleasure to sing. I am friends with everybody in the choir and it is a bit like being in sports club.”

Cristopher’s mother Arlene says she can really see the difference in her son since joining the choir when he was six.

“He was a shy, quiet fellow and this has brought him out of his shell,” Arlene says.

“The choir has benefited him in so many ways, and not just the musical knowledge. Some days he might come home from school flustered or in bad form, and when I collect him from choir it is like another boy comes out.

“His confidence has grown – at first he might have sung in the hall for us, and then progressed to the same room but with his back to us, and now he gets up in the National Concert Hall and sings solos.”

Reaching the position of Head Choirster is no easy feat. The choir holds auditions in 20 different schools around Dublin. About 30% are chosen to come in for a vocal test and those successful are offered a trial periods of 6-8 weeks. The boys start off as junior probationers, then senior probationers and then they move through a series of different coloured medals as they build their repertoire, with Head Choirster being the most senior position.

“What’s good about the choir is that there is always change – there are always boys leaving when their voices go and there are young boys joining,” Blanaid says. “I like that it is always slightly moving.”

However, it can be extremely upsetting for the older boys when their voice breaks and they have to leave the choir, and Blanaid says however much they may know it’s coming they are always shocked.

“They have been here up to 12 hours a week and at Christmastime even more. They are friends, they go on trips together, they have tea here on Fridays and there is great camaraderie. Then suddenly they find that is gone and it leaves a huge hole in their lives”, she says.

“But we have a junior man programme now and five young men who were in the boys’ choir have come back, which is nice because they were very interested and wanted to keep it going.”

The camaraderie between the boys’ parents has also led to the establishment of the ‘Mamastrina choir’.

“One of the boys came up with the name,” explains Cora Newman, the boys singing coach and the director of the Mamastrinas. “It varies but we have about 10 good voices and it is great fun. We sing chant or 1940s songs or musicals. We have a two-part harmony at the moment but we are trying to branch out.”

A girl’s choir was also formed in 2009 to provide girls the same opportunity to be involved in the music and liturgical life of the Pro-Cathedral. They sing on Tuesdays at 5.45pm Mass and at weekend liturgies during choir term. So there could be about 100 children in the music rooms of the Pro-Cathedral at one time, sharing a love of music that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

“I think they do develop a deep love for liturgical music,” Blanaid says, “and I hope when they leave they believe they can do anything. I hope I have instilled that in them, whatever they end up doing, that the impossible is possible.”