24 December 2011

Birmingham Oratory

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Music and the Birmingham Oratory

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The Oratory’s founder, Saint Philip Neri, was a great believer in the power of music and the arts as forces for good. Cardinal Capecelatro, one of the Saint’s biographers, wrote:

   ‘He has was profoundly convinced that there is in music and song a mysterious and mighty power to stir the heart with high and noble emotions, and an especial fitness to raise it above the senses to the love of heavenly things; hence it was that he gave it a foremost place in his thoughts and plans; and in the various exercises of prayer in the Oratory…music and singing had always a prominent part.

   S. Philip’s Oratory in Rome was one of the great centres of sacred music in the City and the most celebrated singers and composers of the day became associated with it. Giovanni Animuccia (d. 1571) and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (d. 1594) were the most renowned whose works aided S. Philip. This great musical tradition has always been preserved and fostered by the three English Oratories.

   From the start, the Birmingham Oratory was noted for the excellence of its music, due largely to the active interest of Newman himself, whose own love of music coincided with the views of S. Philip. Newman founded the Oratory Choir and himself directed it for three years, learning to play the organ as well. He also composed tunes for his own hymns, some of which are still sung. This musical tradition was fostered be a succession of illustrious choirmasters and organists, among whom special mention should be made of William Sewell, who was organist from 1886 until 1909, and afterwards at Westminster Cathedral, and the famous Henry Bird Collins, organist from 1915 until his death in 1941.

   Composers such as Antonín Dvorák and Edmund Rubbra attended High Mass at the Oratory when their own settings of the Mass were being performed and there was also the precious link with Sir Edward Elgar who donated the manuscript score of his setting of Newman’s Dream of Gerontius to the Fathers’ library.

   So it is that Sunday after Sunday at the High Mass in our church can be heard the great works of Palestrina, Byrd, Victoria, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert and many others, adding to the beauty of divine worship and preserving the heritage of Church music.

Father Paul Chavasse
of the Oratory
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