On a weekday morning before school bells have rung, youthful angelic voices fill a room alight with the colourful glow of the rising sun scattered through stained glass windows. Students, about 15 of them ranging in ages from 7-13, are practising Gregorian chants.
It’s the first time that the Cathedral Choristers are taking on the tradition of performing Christ Church Cathedral’s candlelight service for Advent, taking place Sunday, Dec. 3. When that moment comes, the cathedral will be darkened, illuminated by candles and young voices singing spiritual melodies.
Learning the Gregorian chants isn’t easy, but it’s a challenge that choir director Donald Hunt, who started the choir in 2017, wanted the students to experience.
“For me, it goes to show just how far they’ve come in one generation as a choir. Because in choirs like this when you start in Grade 4 and you stay with it for your school career, you leave in Grade 8 … I just thought it would be a great challenge for them to learn them. And also as they get better as a treble line, I want them to get more exposure and more of an opportunity to do these wonderful high-profile services in the cathedral,” Hunt said.
“I mean, there’ll be 800 people here for that service. And people deserve to hear them sing because they’re doing such a great job.”
The choir is the only school-based, fully immersive Anglican Cathedral Chorister program of its kind in Canada. It’s a rigorous program which means the students are no strangers to challenge; they’ve sung in the UK at Edinburgh Cathedral, St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, and for a crowd of a thousand at Westminister Abbey.
However, learning the Gregorian chants that usher in the Christmas season is a new challenge considering they date back to the sixth century and are sung entirely in Latin.
Liam Wood and Catherine O’Neill both joined the choir on their own accord – Wood liked music and wanted an extra activity and O’Neill said she had always been complimented on her voice and wanted to take it to the next level. They practise with the choir four days a week before school and both said they enjoy this new challenge of learning the chants.
“It’s fun and difficult, so it’s not boring and easy to learn. It takes work,” said Wood.
“It’s like when we learned Handel,” O’Neill said. “When we were first learning the coronation anthems, it was really confusing to get everything together, but once we did the Queen’s 70th anniversary, we sang them and then the second time we did it for the King’s Coronation, it was much easier.”
One thing’s for certain; these students are one of a kind and worth a listen to.
See the choir perform yourself at The Advent Procession on Sunday, Dec. 3 from 4-5:30 p.m. at Christ Church Cathedral on Quadra at Rockland.