Forming the Future: St. Paul's Choir School, Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE -- Dany Intsinci, a seventh grader at St. Paul's Choir School in Cambridge, says that Gabriel Faure's 1893 Requiem is a much more challenging work than the latest Taylor Swift album.

The Requiem, widely considered to be the French composer's masterwork, is renowned for its beauty, complexity, and technical challenges. Performing it is an annual tradition for fifth through eighth graders at St. Paul's, the only Catholic choir school for boys in the U.S.

The boys are all sopranos. The alto, tenor, and bass parts are performed by St. Paul's alumni and professional musicians. The Requiem's soprano parts are typically sung by women, not boys, due to the difficult sight reading and dramatic vocal shifts required of the singers.

"That's why people like singing along to pop songs," said sixth grader Ari Davis. "No one sings along to the Faure Requiem."

On Oct. 31, the boys of St. Paul's donned black robes and white ruffled collars for their first rehearsal for this year's Requiem.

"It's actually pretty comfortable," said eighth grader James Keough. "It feels professional wearing it."

The performance took place two days later on Nov. 2, All Souls' Day. The boys didn't seem nervous.

"Unless you're getting, like, this really big solo," James said, "you don't need to worry that much."

"It becomes your lifestyle," Dany said about the Requiem. "Between fifth to eighth (grade), it's like digging deep into your soul."

Richard Webster, St. Paul's interim music director, called Faure's Requiem "part of the DNA of the Roman Catholic Church."

"There's something about the Faure Requiem that is deeply beautiful yet modest," he said, "and so appropriate to the liturgy."

Webster has directed the Faure Requiem before, but never with boy sopranos.

"What these boys' voices can bring to the mix is out of this world," he said. "It's not of this world. It's from a different sphere."

Webster said that, contrary to popular belief, boys do not need to be great singers to get into St. Paul's. They only need "the potential to sing" -- and a good grade on the entrance exam.

"It isn't that hard to get into the school," said James, who has been singing since he was "little" (four years old, to be exact).

Dany, James, Ari, and sixth grader Dermot O'Boyle were all in the running to be soloists in this year's Requiem. Like their peers, they learn music theory, practice sight reading, and play piano alongside their usual academic courses. (At St. Paul's, it's common for sixth graders to take algebra and eighth graders to take calculus). The boys get at least 100 minutes of rehearsal per day and sing for the Mass at St. Paul's Parish four times a week, not counting Sundays.

"It's really cool to experience the amazing music," Ari said. "Sometimes, I'll find myself thinking, 'What if I stayed in a public school?' And I'd be completely different. This school just completely changes you."

"Some of the music, the rhythm, in the Faure Requiem is really difficult to master," Dany said, "but in time, we're going to get better at it."

"You still get some of the notes wrong now and then," James said, "but you know how it sounds."

James performed in last year's Requiem, which was recorded and released on CD. Currently, it has sold 1,000 copies.

"It feels like a really good achievement," he said, "that I was only, like, 13, and I recorded a CD."

At St. Paul's, Webster said, "two years is a lifetime" because of how quickly the boys' voices change.

All four boys listen to classical music in their free time. Every song on Ari's playlist is in Latin. Dermot and his three-year-old brother listen to Faure's Requiem in the car.

"I think it's a challenge to sing something about death so beautifully," Dermot said.

The boys said that the Requiem's heavy subject matter has not made them think about their own mortality -- they have religion class for that.

When he grows up, Ari is thinking of becoming a professional singer or writer. James wants to be a paleontologist, but still sing in choirs on the side. Dermot is also considering becoming a singer.

"If that doesn't work out," he said, "I'll try to go into government."

Webster said that he doesn't need to make his students love the music; they already do.

"The thing that I love most deeply is working with these guys," he said, choking up. "Their brains are like sponges. They soak it up. They know I get emotional. They get used to it."

Before rehearsal began, Webster gave James, Dany, Ari, and Dermot a group hug.

"Alright," he told them, "Let's go upstairs and make some music!"