Lots of performers record Christmas music. Many choirs pound out Christmas hymns. But few make it sound truly ethereal.
One of the great joys I had during my college years was attending the 8 am daily Mass at St. Paul's Church in Cambridge. It was a Missa Cantata in which the priest celebrants beautifully sang all the prayers of the Mass and, unforgettably, the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School (BACS) sang the hymns, Psalms and Mass parts. It was like a principal Sunday Mass almost every day lasting about 50 minutes, finishing just in time for me to scamper across Harvard Yard to make my 9:00 am classes.
Daily exposure to that liturgical beauty really had a huge impact in stoking my priestly vocation. Leaving that experience after graduation left me in a sort of spiritual withdrawal even though I had entered the Seminary.
Those memories of a quarter century ago have been coming back to me as I've been listening to Christmas in Harvard Square, the recently-released CD from the St. Paul's Choir School, as the BACS was renamed two years ago. It's one of the best CDs of Christmas music I've ever heard. Lots of performers record Christmas music. Many choirs pound out Christmas hymns. But few make it sound truly ethereal. And few are recorded well enough that you sense you have an entire choir singing live in your room.
What makes this CD particularly special for me is not just the happy memories of my halcyon days as a university student. It's also because my 13-year-old nephew Christian, the oldest son of my twin brother Scot and his wife Ximena, is a member of the choir and has three different solos. "Finally a Landry worth listening to!," one friend recently joked to me.
The story of the making of the CD is providential. Kevin Fitzgibbons -- who with his wife Monica founded in 2007 AimHigher Recordings, which has produced chart-topping CDs from the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles and the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist -- happened to be in Boston and attended Mass at St. Paul's when the choir school was singing. When Monica was a student at Boston University, she used to come to hear the choir school frequently and recommended it to her husband. Kevin ended up recording the boys on his phone and texted a cut to Monica suggesting that the Choir ought to be their next project. The Choir School agreed and Grammy award winning producer Blanton Alspaugh was eventually brought in to record them.
The CD has 19 tracks, including "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and "Angels We Have Heard on High" that are among the best renditions I've ever heard. There are also many hymns from the English Cathedral School tradition that beautifully ponder the mysteries of Bethlehem but that most Americans have unfortunately not grown up hearing. And there's superb, heart-lifting polyphony: my personal favorites are the "O Magnum Mysterium" and "Omnes De Saba Venient."
It's hard to listen to the CD just as background music, because the variety leads you to pick up the jacket and ponder the lyrics. The fact that one can't sing along with all the tracks communicates that the mystery we're pondering is greater than our attempts at domestication.
It's nice that St. Paul's Choir School is finally getting the attention it deserves. The BACS was founded in 1963 by the legendary Theodore Marier and it remains the only Catholic boys choir school in our country. The school is now led by the superlative young Music Director John Robinson, headmaster William McIvor and St. Paul's Pastor Fr. Michael Drea.
50 boys from the greater Boston area presently attend. To be admitted, incoming fourth- or fifth-grade boys must be academically bright and pass an audition to show that they have a promising musical ear and can hold and repeat a tune.
In addition to a rigorous academic curriculum of math, history, science, English, Latin and French, students also take music theory, music history, learn the piano and recorder and practice choral singing an hour a day in addition to chanting the daily Mass. Students also receive one of the finest and most challenging educations in the Catholic faith I've seen in any Catholic school. Everything leads to form boys to glorify God through singing, study and the spiritual and moral life.
It's not a surprise that many priestly vocations have come out of the Choir School.
Students enter as "Probationers" in fourth grade. If they persevere, they are eventually invested in the "Trebles," where they continue through fifth grade. In sixth, they enter the principal choir, the Choristers, where they stay until their voice changes and they enter the Schola Cantorum.
Since the release of the CD, the boys have been fittingly getting a lot of attention: a PBS special, a segment on Raymond Arroyo's The World Over, and opportunities to sing for national audiences on the morning programs in New York. They've pre-recorded a session that will air on Good Morning America Christmas Eve.
If you're looking for a gift that will allow you to give Christ this Christmas and support a great institution, I'd encourage you to order Christmas in Harvard Square from Amazon or directly from the Choir School's website (stpaulchoirschool.com).
This CD leads listeners from Harvard Square to Bethlehem and evokes the angelic choirs singing to God's glory who greeted the Shepherds on Christmas night.
Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.