I have heard the Heavenly Host and it is 20 people from Belfast.
In their real lives, they’re bankers, priests, music teachers, insurance brokers and telecommunications workers. But when they sing, Cappella Caeciliana, Northern Ireland’s premier liturgical choir, will literally make you feel like you died and went to heaven.
They’re coming to the Philadelphia area the last week in April for two concerts, one at Villanova and the other at St. Malachy’s Church in Philadelphia, bringing 18 singers, a playlist of religious and Irish music, and a brand new composition by Neil Martin, who, as a musician, has played alongside Sinead O’Connor, Phil Coulter, Altan, and the Dubliners and records on Universal with his own West Ocean String Quartet.
Founded in Belfast in 1995 on the feast of St. Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians, Cappella Caeciliana specializes in liturgical music that’s largely gone from weekly worship. When was the last time you heard your church choir sing “Tantum Ergo?” Or “Ave Maria” in Latin? Or “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring?” Many younger Catholics will have to say, “Never.”
Choir member Phillip O’Rawe, who works for British Telecom, says the choir was started to “prevent that tradition from dying out.
“A lot of what we sing would rarely be heard at Mass because it’s a lot of Latin stuff from the 16th century and requires a reasonable advanced choir to sing it,” he says. “Although we do a wide range of music, including Irish music, from the 16th century till today. We just don’t sing secular music, except for the Irish stuff which we do for tours and concerts.”
When the choir was formed it was largely all Catholic. “It was started by three priests and a couple of other guys who roped in their friends,” O’Rawe says.
And those three priests? They’re “The Priests,” the break-out group made up of Fathers Eugene O’Hagan, Martin O’Hagan (they’re brothers), and David Delargy who have three CDs on Sony (one spent 13 weeks on the UK classical album charts) and can fill a concert hall the way many priests these days wish they could fill their pews.
Cappella Caeciliana is no slouch in the CD department either. They also have three, including Cantate Domino (2001), Sing for the Morning’s Joy (2005) and O Quam Gloriosum (2008), all available at CDBaby.com, where you can listen to excerpts of their music. The priests are on the CDs, but as part of the choir. “If we had known [The Priests] were going to be famous we would have had them do some things as a trio and we could make a lot of money,” jokes O’Rawe, laughing. (The poverty, chastity, and obedience vows are still in place: the priests are hardly rock stars since they continue their parish work and fit their musical careers around daily Mass, baptisms, weddings and funerals.)
The choir members are not all Catholics anymore. “Over time we changed and spread the net wider to keep bringing new blood in,” says O’Rawe. “But everyone in the choir has a feeling for the music. A lot of the members have have grown up with the music and have sung in other choirs. It’s very much their own ethos and the underlying religious significance is important to them. I think if people believe what they’re singing, they’ll give a better expression of it.
“Not that we’re a bunch of holy Joes going around all day in prayer,” he adds quickly, laughing. “Still, we try not to have our pictures taken in pubs because it might get used in the wrong way!”
Having Protestants in the choir will likely be helpful when the choir sings choral evensong at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, on April 29. “It’s Anglican and we’re used to Anglicans and the way they do psalms,” says O’Rawe. “They’re very much into chanting, which is more English style, while ours is a much more Italian style of singing.”
And being from Northern Ireland has had its perks. The concerts are free because the choir was able to get funding from both the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (via the UK National Lottery) and Culture Ireland, the Irish republic’s international arts program. The National Lottery made it possible for the choir to commission a new work from Neil Martin, “Exsultet,” a traditional Easter song of praise, to be premiered in Northern Ireland and on the US tour.
The only thing required to join Cappella Caecilia is the voice of an angel. When O’Rawe joined the choir at its inception, there were no auditions as there are now. Having an exceptional voice is vital: Except for the occasional organ accomaniement, the choir, as it name suggests, sing a cappella. “And there’s no hiding place in a choir of 20,” he points out.
Cappella Caecilia will perform at 7:30 PM on April 27 at Villanova University’s St. Thomas Church on the Villanova Church and at 7 PM on April 28 at St. Malachy’s Church, 1429 North 11th Street in Philadelphia. Both concerts are free.