Age-Old Boys’ Choir Eases Up as It Seeks to Survive16/06/2005
For centuries, parents brought their 9- to 14-year-old boys to the choir and its music school, known as the Escolania of Montserrat, then part company for most of the next 11 months. But in recent years, fewer parents in Catalonia, this northeastern region of Spain, have been willing to send their children away for so long. When only 8 students were admitted last year from a pool of 20, the fewest number of candidates in recent decades, it was clear the future of the school, which dates to at least the 13th century, was at stake. This fall, the school will reopen under greatly relaxed rules governing student life. Down the road, it is planning the most radical step of all: the admission of girls.
The Escolania is part of the Benedictine monastery that has clung to this mountain from the 11th century, weathering war, sectarian strife and dictatorship. But more recently the school has had to cope with the enormous social and political developments that have transformed Spain since the death of Franco in 1975 and the transition to democracy. Those developments have included the weakening hold of the Roman Catholic Church; the integration of Spain into an increasingly secular Europe; and in an era of shrinking families, parents’ resistance to long separations from what may be an only child.
"We decided that we didn’t want to close the school, but rather to do the exact opposite," said the Rev. Josep M. Falcó, the school’s director. "We’re pushing hard for the Escolania to have a good future, and while we should have made changes earlier, I think we’ve made them in time."
Starting this fall, students will be able to go home overnight and on weekends, and 8-year-old boys will be added, a step taken mostly to address a tendency of boys’ voices to change earlier. Summer vacations will increase from one month to two. But the biggest change, expected in the coming years, will be the admission of girls, a truly radical proposition for a choir that has been all boys for 800 years.
"The subject of girls is delicate," Father Falcó said. "First, mixing the timbres of a boy and a girl is very delicate. And second, we belong to a tradition of boys’ singing, and it’s not easy to leave behind centuries of tradition. I think it will happen, but we want to get people used to the idea."
The option of spending nights at home seems to have helped, lifting the number of candidates to 32, of whom 12 or 13 will enroll. While in itself a modest improvement, when combined with the new younger class, the choir will grow to 50 again, its typical size for most of the past century, up from 35 this year.
Though run by the Benedictines, the Escolania’s mission is to prepare students for advanced study in music conservatories, not for a life in the clergy. Religious instruction is limited to two hours every week, and only one student in the past 30 years has gone on to be a monk. But the choir participates in the liturgy of the basilica twice a day, singing publicly more often than perhaps any other choir in Europe. Montserrat receives two million visitors a year, who come to see the venerated 12th-century statue of the Virgin of Montserrat, Catalonia’s patron saint, and to hear the boys of the Escolania sing.
In December, Jordi Savall, the renowned viola da gambist and conductor based in Barcelona, conducted the Escolania with the small orchestra Le Concert des Nations in performances of "A Christmas Repertory," by Narcis Casanovas, an 18th-century monk at Montserrat. It was his first experience working with the Escolania, and he said he had been impressed by its professionalism, which he attributed to daily public performances.
"They’re children who are accustomed to being directed, react well to directions, and take to their work intensely," he said.
Along with studying voice, each choir member studies the piano and one other instrument. A remarkable aspect of the Escolania experience is the ratio of teachers to students, right now at 32 to 35, allowing for a great deal of personal attention and encouragement. Another is the approach to musical education, both choral and instrumental, developed by the Rev. Ireneu Segarra, who directed the school for 44 years, until 1997, and whose guidance raised the Escolania choir to the upper echelon, spreading its influence beyond Spain.
"The Escolania’s approach to singing, its distinctive sound, is a model that all choirs keep in mind as a reference," said Toni Ramon, the director of the Radio France Youth Chorus and an Escolania alumnus. "Personally, I have it in mind unconsciously. I am always looking for a much rounder sound than the English choirs. People say my choirs have a more Baroque, Romantic, expressive sound. It’s more Mediterranean, more Montserratino."
While the boys’ choir’s repertoire emphasizes the polyphony of the 16th and 17th centuries, reflecting its liturgical role, it ranges far and wide in concert, from music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to works by contemporary composers. This year, for the third time, it ventured into opera, something it plans to do more often, performing in the Spanish debut of Benjamin Britten’s "Midsummer Night’s Dream" at Barcelona’s Liceo.
Despite its solid reputation and the success of many alumni, like Josep Pons, director of the National Orchestra of Spain, in Madrid, the Escolania remains a relative secret, especially in the United States, where the choir has never performed. Unlike its more famous cousins, including the Vienna Boys’ Choir and the King’s College Choir, from Cambridge, which tour for several months a year, the Escolania tours no more than two weeks, keeping its obligations to the visitors who travel to Montserrat expecting to hear the Escolania.
The Escolania is ready to bend in many ways, but in others it will not. The school is a symbol of Catalan identity, and plans to continue conducting classes in the Catalan language, even though that may limit its demand among speakers of Castilian Spanish. But it has also been behind the times when it comes to promoting its name in the mainstream, a consequence largely of Father Ireneu’s long tenure. Though a fine teacher, current directors say, he brought a monk’s perspective to demands of the modern age.
"Our intention is to be more current in many respects," said Joaquim Piqué, the school’s choir director. "We’re adapting to the 21st century socially, and we need to seek out more high-profile collaborations and venues."
Much of this is lost on the students, who remain immersed in music and the mysteries of a legendary mountain where some believe the Holy Grail was once hidden.
"I’d compare the Escolania with Hogwarts in ’Harry Potter,’ " said Xavier Palá, a 14-year-old who is graduating. "There they teach you to make magic with wands, and here they teach us how to make magic with music."
Publicat a: The New York Times (www.nytimes.com)
Temàtica: Escolania de Montserrat, Música, Montserrat, Cant coral, Història