Just weeks before Covid-19 became a global pandemic, the QUB Chaplaincy choir and alumni visited the Notre Dame-Newman Centre for Faith and Reason at University Church, Dublin. We visited at the invitation of world-renowned American liturgical music composer Steven Warner. Saint John Henry Newman commissioned the building of the church in 1856, as a founder of the Catholic University of Ireland, later becoming University College Dublin. The intended purpose was the establishment of a central community for scholars “to reason well in all matters, to reach out towards truth, and to grasp it.”
The church is currently under the stewardship of the University of Notre Dame as one of five international Global Gateways that act as academic and intellectual hubs, connecting six Global Centres for deeper cultural exchange and development of spiritual pursuits. The most recent addition located at Kylemore Abbey was launched in 2016.
In the same year, Steven Warner established the Vocare Ensemble at University Church on his commencement as Associate Director of Music and Liturgy. The celebrated Notre Dame Folk Choir in the United States which he founded flourished and evolved under his leadership and toured the world extensively, redefining liturgical music for almost forty years.
Entering the exquisitely adorned church was a feast for the eyes as we admired the heavily Byzantine-influenced architecture and ornate frescos. Climbing the lofty staircase to the choir gallery, we were eager to learn about the unique approach Mr Warner is adopting to create a new programme in musical liturgy and spirituality. Aimed at supporting and encouraging the formation of young adults, it sits well alongside a programme of (in)formative lectures and events, all of which have been adapted to virtual streaming online for the public in light of recent events.
The folders we received clearly demonstrated excellent liturgical planning. We were invited to visit the University Church website, to avail of liturgical music planning tools for all choral abilities. Before Mass, Steven Warner commented ‘I realize that my work is just as much about mentoring as it is about music.’ The Notre Dame University Folk Choir’s motto continues to be the “Unifying of hearts and minds aiming to gather both their members and the congregations they serve through song.” It is clear that members of Vocare are also encouraged to ‘share their vocal and instrumental gifts, as well as their individual personalities, to create a life-giving, supportive family.’
Before Mass we prayed as a group and the music which followed captured the beauty of reverent and joyful liturgical singing in the way that Saint John Henry Newman must have intended when he observed “Music…is the expression of ideas greater and more profound than any in the visible world; ideas, which centre indeed in Him whom Catholicism manifests, who is the seat of all beauty, order, and perfection.”
Newman, lauded as a prolific theologian and founder of the Birmingham Oratory, lived from 1801-1890. Among his many writings is a key foundational work ‘The idea of a University’ which continues to have significant influence on educational models to the present. Newman was also a man of great wit and wisdom, a virtuosic violinist, an avid lover of Beethoven, a comic opera composer by the age of fourteen and an accomplished chamber musician. The Oratorian Fathers have established the Institute of Liturgical Music, in association with the Maryville Institute, to provide doctrinal, liturgical and musical formation for parishes. The full QUB Chaplaincy and Vocare Ensemble had the joy of singing one of the composer’s most venerated hymns ‘Praise to the Holiest.’ Newman is known for simple, heartfelt prayer, which was captured in a moving setting of Our Father from the Mass of Our Lady by Warner and Kirner.
The Vocare Ensemble have now released their first album recorded in the University Church, dedicated to Newman who was recently canonised by Pope Francis in 2019. Easter in Ireland, Music For The Paschal Season was fittingly released on Good Friday 2020, during the throes of the Corona Virus as it spread rapidly across Ireland and the world. The peaceful celtic-influenced tracks utilise low whistle, uilleann pipes, impeccable diction and beautifully balanced four-part choral blend. The same sound we remember from singing with the Vocare Ensemble a few months earlier. The Ensemble captures well the spirit of Newman’s motto ‘Coradcorloquitur’ (‘Heart Speaks To Heart.’) through music.
Sunday rehearsal ends each week with “ritual prayer to articulate intentions that choristers might have in their hearts and on their minds during the coming week…As we develop a singing community…our common, personal prayer in the gallery is important too.” As visitors, we felt the community spirit and formed musical friendships which we look forward to nurturing. The day concluded with a social gathering, photographs and words of appreciation.
Armed with our new repertoire, including the stunningly composed Mass for Our Lady, off we trundled home with joyful hearts, singing renditions of the Dominican Magnificat, Edelweiss, Les Miserablés and simple, beautiful Gregorian chant.