These are difficult times for musicians, artists, and singers. At the moment the advice is against congregational hymn-singing in churches. Many say that ‘church is not the same.’ The issues are much bigger than this, of course. There have been many reports in the news around the world of the difficulties facing cathedrals with choral foundations as a result of the CoronaVirus pandemic, and efforts to make sure that there is no lasting damage to something that has been vibrant, precious and inspirational.
Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral Choir in Cork made full use of online meeting facilities during the lockdown period. Zoom meetings became Zoom choir practices from late March until the end of June when the break for summer was taken as usual. Although there were no services to rehearse for, Director of Music Peter Stobart decided to keep going. While ensemble singing was never going to work online, simple note learning was possible and some new music was quickly learned. He said:
I sat at the piano and sang along to my own playing. The choristers then joined in with me in their own homes. I sent them the music in advance so that they could read the notes at the same time. The children seemed to enjoy the new experience and hopefully took something away from it too. We won’t know if it worked until we all come back together and see how much they really learned.
At Easter there was a quiz with 80 questions split into diverse rounds such as Spot the Composer, Cathedral Architecture, National Flags, Latin, and Cork History. There was also a drawing competition between the rounds, and the subject was the Director of Music. This was judged by Assistant Director of Music, Robbie Carroll.
The last few weeks of practices were devoted to music theory in smaller groups which gave an opportunity for more direct tuition and a tailored approach to learning. Powerpoint screens could be shared with the choristers as the rudiments of theory were unpicked. Sight-singing practice was even possible.
The obvious absence from all of this was personal interaction, and it was evident that this was greatly missed. We held a choir picnic in late July as our first time being back together. This was outside and fully compliant with regulations, meaning that everyone brought and ate their own food. However it did give an opportunity for a gathering after months of separation which was appreciated by everyone.
Speaking more widely about the challenges facing Cathedrals and Choral Foundations at the moment, the Dean of Cork, the Very Reverend Nigel Dunne, said:
We have put so much time, effort and funding into building up the Cathedral choir over the last decade and more recently starting up the highly successful Diocesan Church Music Scheme, we now find ourselves in worrying times. With almost forty choristers, two full time music department staff and up to eight (adult) Lay Vicars Choral, we have a vibrant and high quality choral foundation here at St Fin Barre’s.
Like so many walks of life, the Covid-19 pandemic has not only had a very serious effect on the Cathedral generally, but also on its music department in particular. The sudden shutdown in March has led to a huge reduction in our tourism and event income which is key to sustaining our life and witness in the city, diocese and beyond, not least through our ministry through music. It is often said that our historic Choral Foundation (begun almost 700 years ago) is the ‘heartbeat’ of the Cathedral. This is now under threat but we are doing all that we can to ensure that that ‘heartbeat’ is not extinguished. This historic tradition is under threat across Ireland and is part of a high quality and vital musical tradition offered in this country.
Our Director of Music and Assistant Director of Music have shown great resilience and imagination in providing the choristers and Lay Vicars with regular online rehearsals, recitals and even table quizzes and an outdoor picnic since ‘lockdown’ began. While there is still uncertainty about how and when the full Cathedral choir can return, we are working hard to seek the necessary funding to continue providing this long-standing and unique opportunity for a free and fun musical education and experience to young (and not so young) people into the future.
The bottom line for me is that this historic and unique part of the Cathedral’s mission and outreach cannot be allowed to disappear. ‘
The Bishop of Cork, Dr Paul Colton, who himself once sang in Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral Choir and deputised at the organ as a young law student, emphasised the importance of not losing sight of the place in both Church and society of distinctive musical and artistic expressions that have endured for centuries. He said:
This period of the pandemic must not be allowed to jeopardise or dismantle all that has been achieved and is inspirational and nourishing in the world of art, theatre and music, whether religious or otherwise.
I want to take this opportunity to pay a particular tribute to our own musicians in the Diocese, and most especially to our music department at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral. Even during the most arid days of the weeks of the early lockdown they have been an inspirational and hard-working resource to draw on, and like so many others have found ways to “keep the show on the road”.
The choir are on their summer break now, but I thank them all, together with the Director of Music, Peter Stobart, the Assistant Director of Music, Robbie Carroll, and also the Dean of Cork for his hard work in this connection throughout these challenging times.