It’s 8 a.m. in Harvard Square, and John Robinson is leading a dozen choristers in an early-morning rehearsal. His comments and questions are totally professional. “Think about how much air is needed.” “The dangers are going flat plus mutation of vowel.” “What do you think, more or less vibrato?”
The singers are, however, professional in achievement only. They are the Boys of St. Paul’s Choir School, members of the sole Roman Catholic boys’ choir school in America. Their repertoire includes Renaissance polyphony by Victoria and Palestrina. They have sung Mahler with Leonard Bernstein; they’ve sung with the BSO; they’ve performed for Pope Francis in Vatican Square. Their debut CD, “Christmas in Harvard Square,” came out in October from Decca/AimHigher Recordings, and a one-hour documentary about the making of the CD, also titled “Christmas in Harvard Square,” will air Friday at 7 p.m. on WGBX 44.
What’s more, the school isn’t just about singing. Established in 1963 as the result of a papal encyclical, St. Paul’s Choir School is a Catholic day school for boys grades 4 through 8 whose curriculum includes English, math, Latin, and French. Its music director, Robinson, was a chorister at Hereford Cathedral, and then went to Cambridge University. An organist at both Carlisle Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral, he made a number of recordings before coming to America five years ago.
Why would he leave his native England for the US? “The uniqueness of it was a real draw for me, and also the Catholicism of it,” he says. “In England there are only really three major Catholic choirs: the Westminster Cathedral Choir, the London Oratory, and Liverpool Met. What else drew me, I think, was the cultural fascination of doing this in a country that, having been on tour here a few times, I always thought had enormous potential to do this just as well as anywhere in Europe.”
He describes the current enrollment as “in the mid-40s. It varies, because we can only take boys who can match pitch at auditions. We’re not looking for finished singers, just boys with the potential to thrive at this sort of school. I don’t know why there aren’t more such schools, and my own view is that there probably will be more in the future, because it’s a model of education that blends very disciplined singing with academic study. We look for academic potential as well, so the boys take a written test. We talk to them, obviously, and we talk to the parents. Having some support is essential because of the time commitment. They’re here at 7:50 every morning, so it’s a commitment for everybody.”
Colin Lapus is a good example of that commitment. “My cousin had come here,” he explains, “and he graduated the year before I came, and I saw what he was doing, and I wanted to be a part of it, so I moved here.” In fact, his whole family moved here from the D.C. area so Lapus, now 11 and in sixth grade, could attend St. Paul’s. He allows that “the academics are pretty hard, which is a challenge.” On normal days, he says, there are two rehearsals, one at 7:50 in the morning and one at 11. “After that, it’s a regular school day.” His family lives in Watertown, so he doesn’t have to get up till 6:15 or 6:20, but he points out that students come from as far away as Easton and Brockton.
The academics, Robinson adds, include piano and music theory, what he calls “a unique education in classical music.” And he says he has high expectations of the students: “The boys seem happiest when they’re challenged.”
They were certainly challenged last December when the Vienna Boys Choir performed at St. Paul Church. “We actually sang with them, one number,” Robinson recalls. “They’re a world-class choir in a rather different tradition. The vowels are much brighter than the vowels I train here. You could hear our boys singing with a different technique and a darker sound than the Vienna boys did.”
This year the choir’s busy schedule has already begun. On Nov. 14, the boys sang the Duruflé Requiem, in memory, Robinson says, “of the six Harvard undergrad Catholics who died in World War I.” The following evening, at the Harvard Square Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony in Winthrop Park, they sang selections from their CD, which ranges from familiar carols like “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” to Victoria’s “O magnum mysterium” and Elizabeth Poston’s “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree.”
The Boys of St. Paul’s will offer their annual holiday program on Dec. 7 and 14 at 3 p.m. And on Dec. 21, also at 3 p.m., they will sing Benjamin Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols.”
It all goes back, Robinson says, to “boys finding an education in monasteries, and at some point the monks decided they wanted to sing in more than one part, so they invited the novices and the young boys to sing different bits in plainsong and eventually in polyphony, and so the tradition of boys’ choirs started to develop.” Now he, says, “it has become such a rare art form that hopefully it’s very legitimate to have a flourishing example.”