Schola Cantorum Choir Reach New Heights

Guided by Nigel McClintock, the first full-time choirmaster employed by the Catholic Church in Ireland

‘People need to be committed in a choir. There needs to be huge loyalty and commitment. Unless that’s there, a choir’s not going to succeed.’

The words of Nigel McClintock, director of music at St Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast, and of Schola Cantorum, the boys’ choir he founded there in March 2008. He has since built Schola into one of Northern Ireland’s most prestigious vocal ensembles.

McClintock is uncompromising on the levels of dedication necessary to be a member of a working choir like Schola Cantorum. ‘These boys have got to come in at a quarter past nine on Sunday morning. They’ve got to come on time, be respectful, and co-operate with those in charge,' he says.

The idea of starting a boys’ choir at St Peter’s came originally from Father Hugh Kennedy, the cathedral administrator. With the renewal of the traditional Latin liturgy and the refurbishment of the cathedral building itself, Father Kennedy wanted music as an integral part of life at the new St Peter’s.

‘To bring people back,’ as McClintock puts it, ‘to the high standard of music that on the Catholic side maybe wasn’t known. The traditional repertoire that had gone by the wayside since Vatican II.’

The specific idea of forming a Schola Cantorum (‘singers’ school’) came from McClintock himself, who was inspired by what he had observed while teaching at London Oratory, the school which three of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s children attended.

There, McClintock saw the Oratory Schola, under the direction of Mike McCarthy, ‘develop into a very good choir very quickly', eventually featuring in the Lord of the Rings film soundtrack.

McClintock’s plan to replicate McCarthy’s work at St Peter’s was ambitious, not least because he started with just 14 voices, the remnants of the old Down and Connor Boys’ Choir, established in 2000. It was ‘a basis to build on', as McClintock puts it, but he needed three times as many singers to make Schola Cantorum a viable proposition, able to reach the high standards he envisaged.

It was crucial to identify potential new members of the choir quickly. Was it difficult to attract them, given the allegedly short attention span of the modern young person, the dumbed-down attitude to ‘culture’, and the lack of any established tradition of local boys singing in the kind of choir McClintock was proposing?

‘Recruiting was very easy indeed, compared to what I’d experienced when I was director of music at St George’s, Belfast,’ recalls McClintock. ‘The Catholic schools were an untapped source. So I went into the schools. I wanted to tell people what this new choir’s vision was. The fact that this was going to be different, it was going to work to a higher standard.’

Auditions for membership of the new choir must therefore, I suggest, have been fairly stringent? Not at all, according to McClintock. ‘Anybody who could pitch from a piano!’ he laughs. ‘It’s not about the voices, because you make the voices afterwards. It’s actually just getting the ear.’

The raw talent, ‘the ear’, was certainly there in plenty. ‘I could have started the same choir three times over,’ is McClintock’s recollection of the vocal potential he identified during the recruitment process. The hard work of actually building Schola Cantorum into a fully functional choral unit singing to the highest possible standard was, however, only just beginning.

‘You can’t wave a magic wand and create results overnight,’ observes McClintock. ‘It does take time.’ Crucially, though, McClintock had a clear plan of action in place long before the first rehearsals started. ‘I knew the method I was going to use, and I was fortunate enough to be organ scholar at St Alban’s Cathedral when Barry Rose was director of music.

‘I sat in on every rehearsal he did. I took copious notes and watched how he worked with the boys, and what he was trying to achieve in terms of the sound he wanted.’

So what is the ‘McClintock method’ of choral training, distilled from those painstaking years of apprenticeship observing an acknowledged master of the craft in operation?

‘It’s basically a series of vocal exercises, creating everyone singing on unified vowels,’ explains McClintock. ‘And enthusiasm! My enthusiasm. That is a huge factor. People have got to want to sing for you. To enjoy the fact that you’re there trying to get the best out of them.’

Schola Cantorum

McClintock is also keen on adding what he calls ‘continental edge’ to the sound, allowing Schola boys ‘to express the natural vocal quality they have’, which he claims can be ‘tamed’ by the cloistered, hermetic nature of the Anglican choral tradition.

It is evident from Schola Cantorum’s achievements in the three and a half short years of its existence that McClintock’s blend of enthusiasm, vision and technical know-how has paid rich musical dividends. The choir’s uniquely pioneering mission was initially rewarded by the patronage of Mary McAleese, then President of Ireland. Television and radio broadcasts followed, and two CDs have been recorded.

Schola has sung to great acclaim in Westminster Cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris, and for Pope Benedict XVI at St Peter’s Basilica, Rome. All, of course, in addition to the choir’s commitment to weekly services at St Peter’s, where it also gives a monthly recital.

McClintock, however, is far from resting on his laurels. He is a believer in the culturally enriching influence of touring, and wants to take his Belfast boys to sing at St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, in 2013. ‘But we need a year off to save up!’ he says ruefully. ‘Anything we have in the small kitty the boys fund-raise themselves.’

There will also be more recordings. ‘That’s the biggest legacy a choir can have,’ says McClintock. ‘I would love to record the Duruflé and Fauré Requiems next term.’

As he approaches five years in his job as the first full-time choirmaster ever to be employed by the Catholic Church in Ireland, it’s clear the boys of Schola Cantorum continue to challenge and delight McClintock as together they venture further into previously uncharted territory.

‘They are actually the ones that stretch me, rather than the other way round,’ he smiles, and offers an anecdote in illustration. ‘All the boys watched the recent Royal Wedding,’ he remembers. ‘When we came back after the Easter holidays, they said, "Can we do that 'Ubi caritas' by Paul Mealor from the ceremony?"

‘I said, "No we can’t, it’s too hard". But they said they wanted to do it. And right enough, within a month, we’d learnt it, they were able to pull it off. And so they’re always surprising me by what they’re actually capable of doing.’