Montserrat school relaxes some policies, but not language policy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jun 13 15:11:56 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes, June 9, 2005

Age-Old Boys' Choir Eases Up as It Seeks to Survive

MONTSERRAT, Spain - Europe's oldest boys' choir and one of its finest,
based here in a monastery atop steep limestone cliffs 25 miles northwest
of Barcelona, is struggling to survive, a victim of its own traditions.
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.
Falc, 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 Falc 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

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 Piqu,
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
Pal, 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."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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