Fr Simon Gillespie writes:
Lying in the bottom (forgotten?) corner of Lincolnshire, cheek-by-jowl with Northamptonshire and the Unitary Authority of Peterborough, it’s not often that Stamford feels as though it’s part of the mighty Diocese of Nottingham. But all that changed one sleepy Sunday in September, when no less a person than Alex Patterson, Director of Music from Saint Barnabas Cathedral, visited St Augustine’s parish, together with some of the Cathedral Choral Scholars. Their purpose, as well as admiring our beautiful Stone Town, was to enhance the 11.00am Mass with music not heard in these parts for many a year. Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices lifted the hearts and souls of the Sunday morning Mass-goers, inspiring the congregation to sing the Missa VII de Angelis with renewed enthusiasm. More delights awaited, with the Gifts being presented to the accompaniment of Pitoni’s Cantate Domino and Holy Communion received to the strains of Croce’s O Sacrum convivium. Small wonder, with the talents of Grace Bale (soprano), Leah Smith (alto), Hayden Elves (tenor), and James Farmer (bass), that the Catholics of Stamford were floating on angels’-wings as they were sent out into the world that morning, after the glimpse of heaven that they’d seen and heard.
Not content with music for the Mass, after a short break for lunch, parishioners spent the afternoon in three workshops, led by Alex and the Choristers, looking at ways in which the parish music might be augmented and developed. The first workshop was a guide to singing the plainchant of the Mass, starting with the Missa VIII which was relatively well-known, and moving through some numes and quilismae, to the unfamiliar Missa XVII. Within an hour or so the hitherto mysteries of plainchant notation were deciphered, and whilst parishioners might not be quite rivalling the Vatican’s choristers (yet...) nevertheless the aura around those strange squares and diamonds on the four-line stave had been dispelled, with plenty of good fun and humour along the way.
The second workshop moved into parts singing, and this was really where Grace, Leah, Hayden and James came into their own. Although some of the parishioners were able to sight-sing, a recurring difficulty was the combining of various voices whilst keeping each cohort singing their own distinct line. Four solid voices leading the sopranos, altos, tenors and basses made short work of keeping parishioners in line, and with confidence solidified smiles broke out on faces previously pensive to make too much noise “in case someone hears me”.
Our final workshop of the afternoon was a prelude to choral vespers, an initiative which the parish had been undertaking for some months, but which certainly needed a lift. Work was done on the way in which psalms can be sung, and lines broken up or combined, as well as understanding how the psalm tones relate to the syllables in each stanza. Some of the parish vespers is sung in English and some in Latin, and the relationship between the four- and five-line stave notations was explored,
before practically applying this newly acquired knowledge to actually singing from the Psalms, the ‘hymn book of the Old Testament’.
When five o’clock came round, and other parishioners joined for vespers, the difference from the previous week was obvious for all to behold. Clearly, five singers of Cathedral standing helped . . . but the members of the newly constituted parish choir were able to hold their own, singing with a new-found confidence and conviction, and allowing their God-given voices to soar to the rafters.
Six months on, choral vespers is still celebrated every Sunday afternoon (at 5pm, if you’re ever in the area), and the choir, whilst still small in number, continues to grow its repertoire and its confidence. The liturgies of Midnight Mass at Christmas, and the offices and services of the Sacred Triduum, were more beautiful than ever, and the 4.30am Easter Vigil, with a darkened church and solo voices singing the seven psalms by candlelight, truly drew back the veil between man and God.