The History of the Schola Cantorum: A Community in Microcosm

From the earliest beginnings of the Christian Church, the faithful have sought to incorporate music into its public worship. In the catacombs and in private homes, Roman Christians sang psalms and simple refrains, and once the Roman government ended its persecutions of Christians, they immediately desired to publicly offer the best of what they possessed in artistic treasure to the Church. In the city of Rome, some of these offerings may still be seen in the form of Romanesque churches and their elaborate mosaics and frescoes, which bear the imprint of the Byzantine and Eastern artistic traditions which influenced them so heavily. Music in the early Roman Church was, we may presume, similarly influenced by the East: a solo cantor or group of singers would lend their voices to music which set the texts of the liturgy. We have testimony of the congregational singing of hymns and psalms from no less than St. Augustine himself, who remarked that the singing in the Church of Milan, where his friend Ambrose was bishop, was distinguished by its particular fervor of devotion.

The Rise of the Scholae Cantorum

The didactic and formative function of such congregational singing in the Church has always been complimented by the singing of specialized groups like the groups of cantors described above, and especially by the scholae cantorum, or “schools of singers.” Naturally, the performance of the florid and often highly ornamented monophonic music was the responsibility of the schola, as it demanded a specialist group of singers who were trained to sing such music well, with due reverence for its integral role in the liturgy. In the Medieval period of the history of the Western Church, scholae were composed variably of clerics and lay faithful, depending on the region and importance of the Church in question. The earliest European schools, which incorporated both, were centered around cathedrals and monasteries. Monasteries, for instance, often received novices from five to eight years old to be educated in preparation for their clerical careers. These boys would receive musical training as a part of their education, and would also assist the brethren by singing the conventual mass and office – what we now term the Divine Office or Liturgy of the Hours, with them in choir.

An Example of Excellence and Spiritual Discipline

Late medieval art and illuminated manuscripts from the same period often depict such scholae in action. The picture below, from a 14th century Italian medical manuscript, is one excellent example.
A 14th century depiction of a Schola Cantorum performing in a church.

The image depicts two men and two boys singing from the book at the left. Since paper and ink were expensive and books laboriously produced, it was customary in many churches to have one very large book of music from which the entire schola could sing. The book in the image is open to the text “Gaudeamus omnes in Domino,” a proper text for All Saints’ and many other feasts and memorials. The boys and men are all tonsured, indicating that they are clerics, or, in the case of the boys, in training to become clerics. The boys are in the posture of prayer customary for the time: hands crossed over the chest to the shoulders. The older men rest their hands on the shoulders of the boys in front of them, holding them close. This attitude expresses a fatherly solicitude and possibly, as fellow educators may infer, a desire to keep the boys focused on the task in front of them.

These individual details in the image all point to a deeper reality understood from the point of view of musical development, and though the image depicts a scene from 700 years ago, it is one which we might do well to learn from. The schola, the school of singers, is a community, not at all dissimilar to the community of Holy Spirit Prep. In the community, children are not simply taught the technical fundamentals of music and pushed onto the stage to perform. As in the image, their older peers stand behind them – so they can hear the music being sung by a mature voice, turn pages for them, and offer a gentle guiding hand on the head (as with the boy in red at right). As in many other aspects of classical education, they are a formative presence for the younger members, providing an example of musical excellence and spiritual discipline.

Introducing: The HSP School Cantorum

I recently met with Charles Cole, the long-standing choir director at the London Oratory School in the UK, to discuss ways in which HSP can partner with them and learn best practices from their singular commitment to excellence.

This model of a choir as a school of excellence in sacred music is worthy of emulation, and one we hope to adopt in the HSP Schola Cantorum. The Schola will be a place for singers to receive specialized training in liturgical music, and it will provide an excellent liturgical resource and group of ambassadors for the school. Most importantly, it will be an educative and formative opportunity for the students involved. I could write countless blog posts on the academic and social benefits which come from singing in a group and striving together for collective excellence. Singing requires students to use a host of abstract and spatial reasoning skills in concert with one another. Singing in a group, as in any ensemble, requires students to work together as a team. In choir, students learn (and reinforce) the same lessons learned on the baseball field and soccer pitch, displaying selfless leadership, resilience, and a commitment to the success of the group. As I become better acquainted with the students here at HSP, I am continually convinced that establishing a Schola Cantorum affords them a unique opportunity in these areas, and I am excited about the possibilities open to us.

Ben Dollar teaches Middle School English and is the Director of the new Schola Cantorum at Holy Spirit Preparatory School.
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