The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys

The Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys have been adding more of the lesser-known canticle settings of Herbert Howells to their repertoire. It’s good to see this and to hear those (neglected) Services, rather than always hearing the usual, “Big Three” (the Collegium Regale Service, St Paul’s Service and the Gloucester Service). Of “The Big Three,” the St Paul’s Service and the Gloucester Service are my favourites. I think they should add Howells’s gorgeous anthem, “I love all beauteous things” to their repertoire. It’s a beautiful anthem for Mass/Festal Choral Eucharist or for Choral Evensong and the Choir of Men and Boys would perform it superbly.

[There’s an update at the bottom of the page regarding the 24 December “Midnight Mass.”]

Saint Thomas Church on 5th Avenue in Manhattan have the best Liturgy you’ll find anywhere in North America, that is, especially if you like the hymns played rather plainly (as opposed to elaborate and High Church), and if you don’t like descants. You won’t hear many of those. (I’ll get started on that in a moment).

But their camera crew’s obsession and fixation with showing the stained glass windows and statuary of the parish is so frustrating and annoying. One wants to see the Choir of Men and Boys performing at the moment but the camera has zoomed back up to the windows for the umpteenth time. I think regular viewers could draw the windows from memory at this point we’ve seen them so often.

Saint Thomas is a parish church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Some people confuse Saint Thomas for a cathedral by the way it looks outside and in, but the cathedral (the seat of the Bishop) is The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan.

Jeremy Filsell is Organist and Director of Music at Saint Thomas. He was hired in 2019. He previously held a similar position at a parish in the District of Columbia. He was also Artist-in-Residence at the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul (also known as Washington National Cathedral) in Upper Northwest in the District. Jeremy sometimes filled in when Cathedral Organist Benjamin Straley was away. As of this writing, superb Thomas Sheehan is the Cathedral Organist.

Mask insanity and Mask Dyslexia at Saint Thomas: 

As I wrote down the page, masks at Saint Thomas have been on, off, on, off, on, off, on, off. No consistency. Even if one is fully-vaccinated (the complete series of 5 jabs), one can still get COVID. But they don’t seem to care about that, like everywhere else. It seems that some people don’t mind being sick or not feeling well in the name of, “I’ll take my chances.” With your health? Two of the priests were wearing masks on 18 December when the Nave was not that crowded.  But for the Lessons and Carols Liturgy on 22 December where the Nave was mostly packed with people — and most people in the congregation not wearing masks — the same priests processed through the crowded Nave NOT wearing masks. What was their rationale for not wearing masks on 22 December? Or was it a case of Mask Dyslexia? What happened in their mind between 18 December and 22 December re COVID protocols?  Insanity. And for the Men of the Choir on 22 December, only one of them was wearing a face mask. At least he cares about his health and doesn’t hold to the flippant, “I’ll take my chances” way of thinking. None of the boys were wearing masks on 22 December or 18 December for that matter. I can’t remember the last time I saw the Choirmaster wearing a mask. There’s more mask insanity down the page.

Also, most of those there for the Lessons and Carols Liturgy on 22 December seem to be — what I call — “the Christmas and Easter Christians.” They’re the ones who only show up in a church on those High Holy days, even though it was still Advent. I didn’t see one person in the Nave bow to the processional cross as it went by. They knew nothing about an Anglican Liturgy? The “Christmas and Easter Christians” annoy me. They seem to be trying to fool/deceive The Holy Trinity by presenting themselves as “a good Christian” so they show up at church twice a year. I don’t think The Holy Trinity is fooled/deceived by these Christian frauds.

Pre-COVID, Saint Thomas had the best congregational singing one would hear anywhere. Their congregation sounded almost rehearsed, even though they were not. At least I don’t think they were. This was also during the days where the hymns were often played very legato, rich and lush, leading the congregation with full-organ with elaborate High Church introductions to the hymns and with equally elaborate High Church interludes between one of the verses of the hymn to make them more interesting to the congregation. The organist at that time was superb Jeremy Bruns. I was sorry when he left. He was outstanding and made hymns very interesting and High Church. I loved his playing. Well, those days are gone, unfortunately. Wouldn’t you know it?! Have the priests noticed the change?

One observation I’ve made: It seems that all descants from before Jeremy Filsell’s arrival as Director of Music at Saint Thomas are gone. Rather sad, really. Should Jeremy ever read this, he might have the trebles sing one descant from the past if they still have them in the Music Library, but don’t count on it, because the thinking seems to be: Those descants are from the past, so out they go. Well so is the hymn itself, but he didn’t get rid of that. Why such an approach to descants? I know the hymns well that have descants for them and have heard the boys sing them before Jeremy’s arrival, but under Jeremy the boys no longer sing them, that I’ve heard. So with no descant to make the hymn more interesting and to “spice it up,” along with “dry as dust and by-the-book” hymn playing by the current three organists, the hymns are, well, pretty boring and monotonous. The same thing each verse. Nothing like the days of Jeremy Bruns with his superb High Church improvisational skills. I suspect some in the congregation are asking themselves: How many more verses of this thing do we have? Yes, hymns are pretty monotonous without the organist “spicing it up.”*

The hymns are played very plainly.  Nothing elaborate or High Church about the hymn playing these days. The hymn playing can best be described as dull.

What’s the appeal of dull hymn playing? Pretty much anybody can do that. When I was Organist/Choirmaster in Anglican parishes, I tried to make an art out of hymn playing by “spicing it up.” The congregation never quite knew what to expect from me. I was spontaneous. For some interludes between verses, I even mixed hymn tunes for hymns with the same title — such as for “O Worship The King” (Tune: Lyon) — and then ended the interlude with the tune the congregation was currently singing. They loved that. I also played hymns rather briskly; leading the congregation, which the congregation referred to as “joyful.” I used interludes quite a bit. This gives the congregation a break, makes the Liturgy more High Church (we were an Anglo-Catholic parish where the Nave was usually full of incense) if the organist is skilled at improvisations and makes the hymns much more enjoyable. The rewarding thing about that for me was that I had parishioners come to me after the Mass telling me, “I enjoyed the music this morning. It was so joyful.” I very much appreciated them telling me that, and that was my intent. To make it joyful.

I suspect someone might want to tell the organists at Saint Thomas: I mean no disrespect but the hymn playing this morning was ‘as dry as dust.’ Absolutely boring. Oh you changed registration every now and then but that was dull in itself and even for the last verse there was nothing grand and glorious about that. Did you study hymn playing where you trained? I know you’re playing a pipe organ — and a very nice one; a new installation — but if one didn’t know any better one might think you were playing a Casio keyboard by the way the hymns are played. Is there any bass on this organ at all or are you afraid to use it? There is bass on this organ, but it’s only used selectively (don’t want to wear out those stops!), which one might hear during the improvisations after The Gospel reading for example or for the organ voluntaries, but other times? Not so much. Is rich bass and lush, legato hymn-playing not allowed for hymns anymore at St Thomas as was the case under Jeremy Bruns? But in all honesty, I don’t consider the hymn playing at St Thomas “joyful” no matter who’s playing of the three organists. It was very “joyful” and High Church when Jeremy Bruns was there however.

During the days when St Thomas used the Doxology, Jeremy Bruns (I think it was Jeremy, or that’s how I remember it) played this elaborate High Church introduction into the Doxology, lasting a couple of minutes. It sounded like an organ symphony. He was improvising. He played the melody to the Doxology in the pedals and then concluded on the manuals. The congregation came in like you would expect a Symphony Chorus to do. It was Full-Organ, and a full congregational singing. That was the best Doxology I’ve ever heard from both the organist and the singing congregation. It wouldn’t be like that these days, I can assure you of that, in part, because the congregation now is not a singing congregation. They are a stand and mumble congregation just like at Washington National Cathedral.

On another topic, I think it’s time that the priests of Saint Thomas use one or more of their Homilies (although they call it a “Sermon” which is what Southern Baptists call it) to give a second and re-affirming Confirmation Class to the congregation on what Anglicans do and why. Maybe then the congregation won’t appear to be so (surprisingly) Low Church. Maybe then we would see most of the congregation bowing — not weakly nodding — to the processional crosses and we would see them genuflecting to the reserved sacrament when entering and existing the pew, and other aspects of Anglican protocol. I think the congregation desperately needs a “refresher” course. Isn’t this suppose to be a High Church? An Anglo-Catholic parish? Well, you wouldn’t know that by observing the congregation. The congregation doesn’t seem clear on that concept what-so-ever.

Which makes me ask the following: Is High Church a thing of the past these days with congregation? I think so. Absolutely. A High Anglican Church these days is rare. Well, they were pretty rare to begin with. I think most churches are Low or Middle. Some are trying to be Pentecostal and Anglican at the same time and it’s a real mess. High Church is a “dying breed” sort of like church pipe organs, which is really a shame. Shallow and superficial Pop Culture seems to think of pipe organs as “outdated.” (Sigh). Does one need to be a trained organist to enjoy the sound and appreciate the finest of pipe organs? I’ve read that some Anglican Choirmasters have said “These days, we feel like we’re always on the verge of extinction.” Yes, I can understand that.

Based on the congregation that I’ve seen at Saint Thomas, High Church is out. But I thought Saint Thomas was supposed to be Anglo-Catholic/High Church, no? That’s what I’ve always heard about Saint Thomas. But that doesn’t appear to be the case based on observing the congregation.

The Saint Thomas Choir School

Things in our society have become so watered-down, and standards have been lowered, if not outright gutted.

But fortunately there’s one area that the standards remain consistently high and that’s with the Saint Thomas Choir School. Those boys — consistently singing with perfect intonation — are stellar and performing some of the most difficult repertoire at their young age. They perform music that your average podunk Church Choir couldn’t begin to perform. Even some experienced choristers would have a bit of difficulty with some of their repertoire. They effortlessly perform descants — on the odd occasion that descants are used — that many Church Choirs don’t have a soprano section that could possibly do a descant justice in choral excellence.

If these boys stay in music, they will go far in their career, and it began with the Saint Thomas residential Choir School, which I should think would open many doors for them along with their outstanding talent and choral-vocal skills. Do the boys realise this at their young age? That’s hard to say really. I think some of them do, maybe the older boys. But then comes another reality: The Choir School is an intense experience. These boys have a rigorous performance schedule all week singing the Mass and Evensong on Sundays along with Evensong during the week and other Liturgies, plus all their school work. It’s like being a kid with a job. I suspect many of the boys feel burned-out at the end of this experience. I can relate to that. I felt burned-out at the end of my Conservatory training — I needed a break and a big sigh — and the same with my Kennedy Center and Davies Symphony Hall Concert Hall Orchestra Chorus performance experience too. And I suspect some of the boys are not there because they want to be there, and I’ve sensed that’s the case with 2-3 of the boys. They don’t look like they’re into it or engaged but just going through the motions. Might that be because of their parents and their own personal “issues?” That happens. It’s really their mother most likely who — for attention — wants to be in the Choir herself, but she knows that’s not possible so the boy’s parents try to get their son in the Choir. “I have you know that my son is in the highly-regarded and esteemed Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys.” It becomes a status-thing for them, although these days I don’t know how many people would care about that or be impressed by it, or even know what it is. “What’s a Choir of Men and Boys? You mean they sing?” Sigh. In our dumbed-down society that would likely be the response. I can relate to the boys’ experience even though I was not in a Choir School. My brother and I were required to be in churches as musicians — whether we wanted to accept certain engagements or not — because of our mother’s “issues.” I speak from experience. She got all of the praise mostly for our performances as “the mother of the boys.” And that made her want to accept every engagement we were offered no matter where it was or when. Ugh. It became too much and something I didn’t look forward to.

But not all boys enrolled in The Saint Thomas Choir School are in the Choir of Men and Boys. From my research the total enrollment in The School is 30 boys and roughly about half of those are in the Choir. It’s about 7-8 trebles on each side of the Choir stalls.

By the way, there are only two residential Choir Schools in the Anglican Communion that I know of and they are Saint Thomas Church and Westminster Abbey in London.

Jeremy had one of the boys sing a solo on Advent III. He has a superb treble voice. He didn’t seem at all nervous singing his solo. He’s the Asian boy who sits closest to Jeremy (when he’s conducting) in the Quire stalls. One of the counter-tenors and one of the basses also had a solo. They both have lovely voices. Well, they wouldn’t be in this Choir if they didn’t, quite frankly! I can tell you that. The Men of the Choir are also in demand — which can lead to burnout in some; I know from experience having Anglican Cathedral Choir experience — because they perform when the trebles are not there, such as when the Choir School is closed for holiday breaks. Assuming they work the same way that other “on-call” parish and cathedral Choirs work (they’re all paid “per call”), the Men of the Choir are of a caliber of choral excellence — superb sight-readers (and one can only sight-read a piece once, after that you’re rehearsing it) — that they mostly perform the repertoire with very little practise at least with the full ensemble. They might work on some of the more difficult repertoire that they’re not as familiar with privately at home. But, for example, they could easily sight-read the Stanford Service in C or the Howells’s Collegium Regale Communion Service.

Now back to the Low Church congregation: They have been a disappointing let-down for me to see based on what I had read about St Thomas. Awhile back, I read reviews of Saint Thomas online and based on those reviews of people who had been to the parish for Mass or Evensong, I was led to believe that Saint Thomas was “the most devout of the devout.” That’s not what I see. It’s not today. I don’t see that in the pews. Or was the review referring to the priests? It’s supposed to be, I thought, an Anglo-Catholic parish (meaning High Church), but you’d never know that from observing the mostly Low Church congregation. It’s as if the priests are mostly High Church and the congregation is mostly Low Church. They don’t match. Most don’t genuflect before entering or existing the pew. What happened to genuflecting to the reserved sacrament? Most don’t bow to the processional crosses. And those that do are rather lame about it. They nod instead. Don’t put yourself out people! That’s why it’s been a let-down. The congregation is the same as other parish and cathedral churches I’ve seen that are not High Church. Some bow or nod (nod?….again, don’t put yourself out, people!) to the processional crosses but many don’t. The congregation has indeed been disappointing to see. Are these tourists or visitors who know nothing about Anglican protocol? Do they even know where they are? It’s the same thing I’ve seen at Washington National Cathedral in the District of Columbia, but they don’t even pretend to be High Church there. In fact, they’ve gone in the opposite direction. Don’t let me get started on that!

I also get annoyed — I guess this is my thing — when I see people turn to watch the procession coming up the aisle like people do at weddings. What is there to watch? When I was in congregations in Anglican churches, I usually sat on the end of the aisle and I saw no one turning around to watch the procession. We stood facing the High Altar and then the thurifer, the Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys passed by us along with the two groups of acolytes/processional crosses which we bowed to (not nodded to) each time, and then the Gospeller passed and then the priests. It’s not a wedding procession where one watched the bride walk up the aisle. But that’s how some people act. They turn and face it. Weird. This is a relatively new thing I’ve noticed. Maybe these people are not Anglicans and don’t even know what church they’re in or the domination. That’s sort of how they behave as if, “this is all new to me.”

It would appear that Saint Thomas has lost a chunk of its resident congregation and or the congregation has changed. Is this because of COVID or possibly because the parish hired some women priests and some in the congregation didn’t agree with that decision? Up until COVID, to my knowledge the parish had no women priests. I remember them as being one of the last “hold-outs” in that regard. Typically, Anglo-Catholics are known as conservative, although that was not the case with the Anglo-Catholic parish I served as Organist/Choirmaster for, so maybe it depends upon the Anglo-Catholic parish. I’m also wondering whether COVID changed the parish somehow and has made it lower church. These days, much of the congregation could be mistaken for Southern Baptists because Southern Baptists don’t do anything but sit and stand. I also don’t see most people singing the hymns at St Thomas. Oh they’re going through the motions of standing, but they’re not singing. One sees the same thing at Washington National Cathedral. They stand and mumble-sing. Whereas the congregational singing at St Thomas from the days of Organist Jeremy Bruns sounded like perhaps they had been trained by someone from The Juilliard School. Not these days. The congregation pre-COVID (before cameras) was a singing congregation. Again, they were so good that they sounded almost rehearsed. The congregational singing was the best I’d heard anywhere. It was extraordinary but also unusual for a congregation.

But today? That’s all changed. So I don’t know what has happened to Saint Thomas’s congregation based on the online reviews. I’ve never been there and it wasn’t until they started video recording their Liturgies that I was able to see what goes on there. What really makes Saint Thomas High Church is the music: the superb Choir of Men and Boys and the organ interludes (such as after The Gospel reading) and the organ voluntaries.

*But again, the congregation is really quite Low Church, not what I would expect from a supposedly Anglo-Catholic parish. Although I will say they are higher church –but that doesn’t mean much! — than the lowest of dismally Low Church congregations I’ve seen in the Church of England. I’ve only seen the congregations of St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral and Westminster Abbey in particular. Those congregation don’t do anything per Anglican protocol. No genuflecting, no bowing to the processional crosses, I don’t know if they even bless themselves (the cameras are usually not on them for that). Maybe they do follow Anglican protocol at other CoE parishes, but I’ve not seen them. The congregations for state events at St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey would make excellent Southern Baptists. And the Royal Family is rock-bottom Low Church. I had read that The Queen was known for being notoriously Low Church. I can confirm that by observing her. And the rest of her family is just like her.

At Saint Thomas, I do see a few people (seniors) genuflecting or nodding when going to Communion. Why nod? Genuflect instead, as you were trained to do to the reserved sacrament. “If you don’t do it, you’ll lose it.” That’s my response to someone who would say from an ageist-brainwashed point of view, “I can’t genuflect anymore, I’m too old.” What, at 40 year old? Or did one decide they were “old” at 30? You can use the pew as a crutch to get back up if one’s legs are that weak. Many people do talk themselves into being “old” regardless of their chronological age. I have an ageist-brainwashed relative like that. She’s a piece of work. She says she’s “old” in her early 60s. She’s ready for a “senior retirement home” so she can “luxuriate.” She seems to be trying to emulate her 90+ year old mother.

With their renowned residential Choir School, their trebles/boys are unsurpassed, consistently singing with perfect intonation and clear diction. I suspect they are the envy of other Choirmasters in the Anglican Communion. The Men of the Choir are also an excellent ensemble.

But again, if you’re expecting to hear descants on a regular basis as was the case before Jeremy showed up at St Thomas, you’ll be disappointed. One of the renowned former Choirmasters of Saint Thomas, Gerry Hancock, supposedly said that a Liturgy is not complete without at least one descant. Well, with the current Choirmaster, Jeremy Filsell, it seems that he takes that Hancock quote quite literally. One descant is all you’re allowed — if that!– even if there are other hymns being sung in the same Mass that one knows has a descant for it and the boys have sung that descant many times. You won’t hear it because one descant was already sung for the processional hymn. Jeremy F. comes across to me as an anti-descant guy. Or, he’s not too hot on continuing the past.

He also changed the response before and after The Gospel reading. I preferred the old responses, which the congregation could sing if they wanted to. The new responses are way too difficult for any congregation. Maybe that’s the point. They only want the Choir to sing it? That wouldn’t have gone over well where I served as Organist/Choirmaster. The Rector would have come to me and insisted on a setting that the congregation could participate in. But for Advent 2022, the old responses are back, but toned-down. The trebles are not allowed to soar up the scale after The Gospel reading which was the best part of those responses. I presume this is to “tone-down” the response for Advent, which really doesn’t make much sense. Because the descant on the processional hymn (fortunately) soared gloriously through the Nave. So why wasn’t the response after The Gospel reading allowed to soar gloriously through the Nave as well? Odd. Why are some things “toned-down” and others are not?

As for descants, I sense that the thinking is, “I don’t want the congregation to expect a descant just because they know from experience of being a parishioner here that a hymn has a descant for it because they’ve heard the trebles sing it. I want it to be spontaneous.” Well, I suppose. Although now, when I see a hymn listed on the service leaflet that I know has a descant for it, I don’t expect the boys to sing it because that’s not the way things work now under this new musical “leadership.” “Out with the old, in with the new.” Jeremy doesn’t like descants, or at least the time-honoured descants. It has to be a new descant.

My problem with the Anglican approach to descants is that one only hears the descant once during a hymn. Why is that? Well with Jeremy, you won’t even hear it once because the score for the descant of a particular hymn in the Music Library is collecting dust! At Notre Dame de Paris (French Catholic) when that was open before the fire, they used descants on occasion — usually when the excellent Children’s Chorus of Boys and Girls was there — and when they did, the descant was sung a couple of times during the hymn. On one occasion, I remember the descant for a particular hymn was sung on each verse. ice during a hymn. In some cases, the descant was sung on every verse. So the congregation didn’t have to stop singing to hear the descant which only had one chance during the hymn, the way it is in Anglican churches.

St Thomas sang Winchester New on Advent III. Did the trebles sing the descant for that hymn? No. They only sang the new descant for the processional hymn which was Helmsley. Mindset: “You’re only allowed one descant per Liturgy, remember!” The congregation sang the hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” on Advent I. I know there’s a descant for that. I heard that when John Scott was Choirmaster there. It’s sung on the last verse which also has harmonic changes to the hymn. Did the boys sing the descant for “O Come, O Come…?” No. This is whyI really do now have the sense that Jeremy is anti-descant. I’ve never known a Choirmaster like that.

The thing is: Descants add so much to a hymn when they’re well done — as the boys do — so to have this unspoken rule of not using descants from the past just because they’re from the past is pretty silly, if not unfortunate. They use anthems from the past, what’s the difference? All of the hymns are from the past and before his tenure at St Thomas, but I don’t see Jeremy refusing to see any of them.

Again, as for the hymn playing these days? They have two well-trained organists — well three organists, including Jeremy — and you’ll get the same thing from all of them when it comes to hymn playing. I don’t think I’ve heard one interlude between verses of hymns with the current organists. None that I recall. And St Thomas used to sing an “Amen” at the end of hymns. That’s gone too. I remember when Jeremy Bruns improvised an introduction into the Doxology on Sunday. They no longer sing the Doxology these days, but the introduction Bruns played sounded like an elaborate orchestral sound track with the tune to the Doxology played in the pedals. I’d never heard anything like that before. It was glorious, followed by the Doxology itself in very rich, legato organ playing, full organ or close to it. When the congregation came in, they sounded full and lush as well. The congregation singing today is nothing like that.

I preferred the old organ to the new organ. The old organ had much more bass to it and it rumbled, and the organ was fiery. The new organ is weak on bass — or maybe it has to do with the registration used — and is not as fiery as the old organ.

Mask Insanity

I touched on this up the page. The mask wearing per the COVID pandemic at St Thomas has been rather insane: Masks have been off, on, off, on, off, on, off, on. I’ll never understand the big deal about wearing a mask. Medical professionals do so all the time. And where I live, the medical centres have not stopped required wearing masks on their campuses since the pandemic began, so what does that tell you? Do they know something “we” don’t know? I’d read that New Yorkers are “done with COVID.” Well the problem with that thinking is that COVID is not done with New Yorkers. Period. New Yorkers are bored by it. Well, being bored by it doesn’t change the reality. Denial doesn’t prevent one from getting infected no matter how much one is “done with COVID.” One can be “done with” or bored by other diseases too, but those diseases are not “done with” humans. One can still get infected with COVID even if one has the full series of all 5 injections (the vaccine and 4 boosters). Those who are not wearing masks at this point, signal to me that they really don’t care about their health and are willing to “take my chances.” Take your chances of being sick, huh? Why would one “take a chance” with one’s health? One’s health is the most important thing you have. That’s not a chance I care to take since I hate being sick or not feeling well even from the common cold or flu. Take you chances on possibly being face-down on a ventilator? Well, if they were truly well-informed on what this virus can do, I doubt they would take that flippant attitude, especially with Long-COVID being a possibility. Are they even aware of Long-COVID? But as of Advent III, many in the congregation were masked — maybe about one-third of the congregation — as well as some of the Boys and Men of the Choir, and some priests. Just a few weeks ago, no one was masked. That’s why I say the masks have been off, on, off, on. Others gave the impression: I couldn’t care less. Well, it’s your health you couldn’t care less about. Plus there’s also the flu and colds. I guess unmasked people don’t care if they get a cold or the flu either since a mask can prevent one from getting infected with the flu or cold viruses as well. But, the mask wearing or lack of has been rather insane at St Thomas and pretty much everywhere else, except medical centres. Why would one take any chances with one’s health?

Their production/camera crew:

It’s good to finally see the Liturgies at St Thomas as well as the Choir of Men and Boys performing, as well as the organists.

As for their camera crew: the online “worship experience” should be no different than if one were sitting in the pew. Does one gaze at windows and statutes and the ceiling when sitting in the pews? No. I’ve seen no one doing that, nor would I if I were there. But that’s the impression the camera crew give when there’s music being performed and only when music is being performed. One knows where one is when one hears the music. One does not need a reminder by being shown stained glass windows. And to regular viewers, the windows don’t change. They’re the same windows each time. The viewer is focused on what’s happening up in the Quire stalls and the High Altar. If I were sitting in the pews, when the Organist is playing the Prelude, I would not be gazing at windows or statuette or every dimension of the High Altar. I would be focused on the organist’s playing. But too often the musicians are slighted in favour of showing off what’s in the parish. But we already know what’s in the parish. It should be pointed out that when anyone is speaking such as a priest or a reader, the camera never leaves that person and goes gazing off at stained glass windows or statutes during those times. No, it’s only during the music as if the music is “background” and of a lesser importance. It is not. It is an equally important part of the Liturgy. Does the camera crew not grasp this? I want to see the choristers and musicians and not windows. Oh the choristers and organist are shown of course but too often it’s as if Mr/Ms Camerperson thinks, “The viewer will be bored by seeing the Organist or choristers so let’s break up this ‘boredom’ by showing anything in the parish except the outstanding musicians performing the high–quality music. I don’t understand it. To be clear, they show the choristers performing but they seem to think they need to keep the camera moving or move to something that “breaks the monotony.” There is no monotony with the choristers or the organists. The camera crew seem to be trying to cater to pop culture short-attention span people. That’s not who watches the Liturgies from St Thomas. There seems to be a rule with camera crews: Show windows, ceiling, columns, anything when you’re recording in a parish or cathedral church. But when the priest or a reader is speaking, never move the camera from them. When might we expect musicians to receive the same level of respect? When Organist Diane Bish recorded The Joy of Music, her camera crew showed the building but only minimally. It was never at the expense of the music or of Diane’s playing. But the difference was: Diane was always in a different building/location each week. Unlike St Thomas, she was not always in the same location. So regular viewers to St Thomas don’t need to be shown the same stained-glass windows for the umpteenth time when the camera should be on the Choir of Men and Boys who we hear in “the background.” This stellar Choir is NOT “background music” nor should they be treated as such. Any boy who trains in the St Thomas Choir School has not trained there and does not train there to be treated as “background.” This is the same complaint I had about the often-inept camera crew at Washington National Cathedral in the District. What is it about camera crews and churches? They seem to think they have to create this unnatural or “prayerful” or “philosophical” mood of “when music is being played by showing windows or statues or candles or anything, BUT the musicians.” Give the musicians the same respect you give the priests and the people who read the First and Second Lesson.

When would I look at the building if I were a visitor? At the very beginning when walking into the parish, OR after the Organ Voluntary. Not during the Liturgy. I would be there for the Liturgy, not as a person there to gawk and sight-see.

Camera frustration: The trebles were singing their (new, of course) descant for Helmsley for the Advent Procession of Lessons and Carols and where was the camera? The camera was stuck on the organist who wasn’t the topic. The descant was the topic and what was special and being heard. The thurifer was also the topic as he was censing in the Quire area and to the congregation. We got to see very little of the thurifer. The camera was glued on the organist for some reason. The camera finally switched to the boys when they had a couple of measure remaining. And we saw the thurifer walk briskly by having completed his incense job. Sigh. Camera crews, ugh!

Where’s the incense? I thought this was High Church?

They do use incense, but not as often as I was led to believe. When they only had audio versions available of their Liturgies, I remember hearing the Rector (I think) welcoming the boys back from Summer holiday and he made some reference to one of the boys complaining about the incense. The Rector responded, “Get used to it!” I don’t think that’s still the thinking. Where’s the incense in procession smoking up the Nave like it was in the Anglo-Catholic parish where I was Organist/Choirmaster? The thurifer doesn’t have much to do these days. I mainly see incense being used at the High Altar and the thurifer censing The Chancel, Quire stalls and congregation (but not going into the congregation but rather at a distance). Have some of the Low Church people complained about the use of incense? Why would one care what they think when they would be quite comfortable in a Southern Baptist “worship service,” as they call it.

When it comes to the 12 Days of Christmas…

If Jeremy takes the same position on descants for the 12 Days of Navidad/Christmas or Christ’s Mass (which is what Christmas means), in this case, I’d have to sort of agree with him on that. One of my complaints about Choirmasters and Chorus Directors is that they are and have been in a rut with the Sir David Willcocks’ descants from the Carols for Choirs series. The Willcocks’ descants have been used every single year for over 40 years, literally — since about 1976 if I’m not mistaken when Oxford University Press published them — by Choruses and Choirs with a soprano section capable of singing descants beautifully and with perfect intonation (no wobbling or fluttering, no noticeable vibrato). I had just graduated from the Conservatory where I trained and was in my first season with Norman Scribner’s Choral Arts Society of Washington when the Carols for Choirs were published. The scores were there for us to pick up on the chorister check-in table. I think we were the first Orchestra Chorus in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to perform them with the pick-up Orchestra with members of the National Symphony Orchestra for our holiday performances. Not that it matters who was the first, but that’s how I remember that. Robert Shafer’s Oratorio Society of Washington may have also performed them that season as well, if Robert knew about the Willcocks’ descants. At this point the Willcocks’ descants have become so predictable and are overdone.

The thing is: It’s very easy to write a descant and or to change the harmonies of a hymn to write a creative descant. And the descant notes should stay in the upper register as much as possible to soar above the congregation because the lower they are on the staff the less likely the descant will be heard because the congregation will cover it up, because the descant notes will then be more in the congregation’s register. But other than a descant or two by Philip Ledger (for “Hark the Herald…” or “Adeste Fideles“), I know of no other descants available for the twelve days. So if Jeremy does not use the Willcocks’ descants during Christmas, I’d go along with that. But he might just use them in this case because they are part of “tradition” at this point. It’s hard to say, unless he’s written one or two of his own. Well, he only needs one new descant per Mass, since only one descant — if that — is allowed per Liturgy these days! Chau.


Update 24 December 2022: For the “Midnight Mass,” it was essentially a potential COVID super-spreader event, as expected. (BTW, the latest data from NYC: There were 4,559 new COVID cases in NYC on 23 December). The Nave was mostly filled with people. The priests who had worn masks the previous Sunday did not wear masks for this potential super-spreader Liturgy. Insanity. One would think they would wear a mask when it’s more crowded (“Midnight Mass”) as health officials have urged. But instead, they chose to wear a mask when it was lesser crowded and to not wear a mask when it’s very crowded — or did they reverse the COVID protocol in their mind; a case of Mask Dyslexia? — and they processed through the three main aisles of the crowded Nave where most people were not wearing masks. I fail to understand that so-called “logic.” Also, none of the Choir of Men and Boys was wearing masks. In past week, some of the trebles were wearing their usual pretty red masks (that match their cassocks), presumably instructed to do so by their parents. Their parents didn’t care about this potential super-spreader event? Apparently not. There were some in the congregation who were masked, mostly older people. It seems that the 20s and 30s age group are still under the illusion that they are above it all and invincible to any and all viruses and diseases (COVID, the flu, colds, and so forth). They don’t care. I read recently that the 20s and 30s age group is the group that is becoming most infected with COVID. As for descants, the trebles did sing the over 40-year old Willcocks’ descants. No one there could write some new ones? Descants are much easier to write than an organ voluntary with brass, which is what was programmed. And of course they must have brass for the Christmas Liturgy. The Organ Voluntary (with brass) was composed by Jeremy Filsell. I’ve noticed that, as a composer, Jeremy does promote himself quite a bit in the repertoire he selects for St Thomas Liturgies. Personally, I don’t think I would feel quite comfortable doing that to the extent that he does. It does come off as self-promotion.

UPDATE 23 December 2022: They’re singing Christmas carols during Advent, for A Service of Christmas Lessons and Carols. The trebles sang the Willcocks’ descant for Adeste Fideles. I was hoping Jeremy would have written his own descant, but no. And that hymn was not on the service leaflet. For this Liturgy, the Nave was packed, no physical distancing at all, but some of the non-singing congregation were wearing face masks as the COVID pandemic continues. And the congregational singing was non-existent. The opposite of how it used to be at St Thomas. They were just standing and observing or that’s how it seemed. The organ playing for the processional hymn was “by the book” or “dry as dust.” The final verse was played more grand and glorious with fuller organ and bass. And Jeremy used the descant for Willcocks’s “God Rest You Merry…” So that answers my question as to whether he would use those 40+ year old descants. End of Update.