Today I want to share with my readers an audio recording that is rather special to me. Back on October 11th of last year, my parish of St. Stephen Martyr here in the Nation’s Capital celebrated the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, with the Mass Intention being for the repose of the soul of my Mother, who had died six months before. Music was of enormous importance to her, and throughout her life she loved to sing, both as a soloist and in choirs, and enjoyed playing musical instruments. So some weeks prior, our parish Music Director Neil Weston very graciously allowed me to sit down with him, and request a number of hymns and musical pieces that my Mother loved to be included in the Mass. The end result was an uplifting celebration, giving thanks to God for His goodness, and in a particular way for His gift of the lady whom we all prayed for that day.
It has unfortunately taken me an inordinately long amount of time to post it, but the audio of the Mass is now available for you to listen to on YouTube. Admittedly the recording quality is admittedly not the best, as I recorded it on my phone, and of course there are background noises of people moving about or doing things like coughing. However it is certainly listenable, and I want to thank both my brother Alex, and my friend Rich Cromwell from The Federalist, for helping to both improve the sound as best as possible, and to get the resulting video ready for posting.
When Neil and I had drunch a couple of months earlier to discuss the Mass, he did not bat an eyelid at my requests, whether for hymns or for pieces to be performed by himself and his musicians. If you have ever been to Mass at St. Stephen’s, you know that Neil is an amazing organist, and that our choir is magnificent – without exaggeration, it is among the very best in this town, which is particularly remarkable for such a small parish as ours. However as I discovered subsequently, both Neil and the other musicians went far above and beyond the call of duty in preparing for this Mass.
The piece that I had requested for the Offertory was the joyful “Alleluia” from Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate”, and I think you’ll agree from the recording that Neil, violinist Jeffry Newberger, and soprano Grace Srinivasan did a splendid job. I only found out later that Grace had never sung this piece before, and learned it specifically for this Mass. It is a real challenge for any singer, and of course Mozart is particularly infamous for taxing the abilities of his sopranos, but Grace was clearly up for it – plus she absolutely nailed that difficult, high Top C at the end.
I also asked Neil if he could learn the music to the Catalan hymn, “El Virolai de Montserrat”, if there was enough time for him to play it quietly on the organ after “Adoro Te Devote”, the beautiful Eucharistic hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas that I had requested for during Communion. “El Virolai” is a 19th century hymn to Our Lady of Montserrat, the Patroness of Catalonia, to whom my Mother had a particular devotion. To my great surprise, when the time came it was not only played by Neil, it was SUNG by the entire choir – and in Catalan, a language which none of them speak! They all had to learn to sing it phonetically, by carefully studying both the text and audio recordings of the piece.
While I had directly chosen everything else, for the Postlude I semi-left it up to Neil to choose a piece. As he had been so – ahem – instrumental in helping the parish to obtain our magnificent new organ, I suggested that he pick something very loud and grand, which would enable him to quite literally pull out all of the stops and rattle the windows, in the manner of the famous Anglo-American organist and musicologist E. Power Biggs. Neil obliged with a very appropriate selection, Biggs’ arrangement of a piece by the 18th century Catalan composer and organist Father Antonio Soler. “Padre Soler”, as he is often referred to by musicians, had begun his musical studies at the Abbey of Montserrat, before eventually rising to become the Chapel Master to the Spanish Court at the Royal Monastery of the Escorial. While the microphone on my mobile was not quite good enough to capture the full breadth of Neil’s playing of this piece, what an absolutely splendid performance it was.
My thanks once again to everyone who participated in and attended this very special Mass, for which my family and I are eternally grateful. I hope that, for those of you who choose to listen to part or all of it, you will find some joy and beauty in this recording. Even if the audio quality is not the best, it may yet bear good fruit – whether by [hint, hint] encouraging you to visit us at St. Stephen’s on Sunday at 11:00 am, or by supporting and encouraging excellence in your own parish music program, or by introducing you to some wonderful sacred music which you might not already know.