A Goan choir that spans three centuries
Panaji: As nine diocesan seminarians prepare themselves for the grand ceremony of the rite of ordination into priesthood at the Se Cathedral on April 26, Rachol Seminary’s timeless Santa Cecilia Choir will animate the mass.
One of the oldest choral groups in Asia, the Santa Cecilia choir has never seen a break in performance since its establishment in the late 1800s. For over a century, it remained strictly a TTBB (Tenor 1, Tenor 2, Bass 1, Bass 2) choir, comprising male seminarians who sang for feasts and important archdiocesan occasions.
It witnessed a sea change in 2007, when, under the baton of Fr Romeo Monteiro, the choir opened its doors to lay singers and musicians, introducing a host of instruments including viola, violincello, doublebass, flute, clarinet, trumpet, saxophone, horn, euphonium and tabla. With the support of the orchestra, the choir, for the very first time, began presenting annual concerts for the public.
This was quite a transformation from the choir’s initial days at Rachol seminary, the oldest professed house in Asia, where it was born.
It was then Archbishop Patriarch Dom Antonio Sebastiao Valente who, on April 11, 1897, ordered the establishment of a choral society at the seminary.
Noted 16th century Italian composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was the inspiration, and the choir was christened ‘Orpheon Palestriniano do seminario’ (Palestrinian Orpheon of the Seminary) after Palestrina, who was considered a pioneer in introducing the polyphonic style in Church music.
Valente then named the choral association Coro de Santa Cecilia , after the Catholic Church’s patroness of music and musicians.
Little of the choir’s set-up has changed over the decades. The rector of the seminary is the president, the professor of music the vice-president and conductor of the choir, which has only 16 ordinary members, the best musicians among the seminarians. Other seminarians and lay members join as extraordinary members. The choir always has a lengthy waiting list of those wishing to join. At its full capacity, together with the orchestra, it has a strength of 150, of which 80 are singers.
A majestic looking 16th century pipe organ at the seminary, one of the only functional pipe organs currently in use in the state, is played every Sunday during mass and at feasts.
Music is integral to the formation of the seminarians at Rachol and forms the basis of the choir. Fr Aleixo Menezes, rector of the seminary and president of the choir, says music is compulsory and very much a part of the seminarians’ curriculum during their three years of philosophy and four years of theology.
A course in liturgical music introduces them to the composition of hymns and the right instruments used during the liturgy. A course in Indian classical music helps them explore the richness of Indian music and culture, familiarizing them even with ragas. Gregorian music, rarely taught at other seminaries, is also an integral part of their training.
All seminarians are expected to learn more than one musical instrument, including the keyboard. “Music is an important pastoral activity to gather the youth and animate the mass. We’re preparing them for their ministry,” Menezes adds. Fr Simon D’Cunha, conductor of the choir, adds, “As priests, they will be able to use music to bring people back to God.”
The choir sings in Latin, English, Hindi and Konkani, as well as from classical works of Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Schubert and the like.
Music composed and arranged by the choir is used all over the archdiocese and by other choirs, too. The Santa Cecilia choir is often the first choice of the church during occasions, celebrations and visits of dignitaries.
The feast mass of St Ignatius of Loyola, the patron of the seminary church, on July 31, is not complete without the choir, as are the feasts of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the seminary’s inaugural day, and Seminary Day, among other occasions.
The lay singers and musicians who join the choir comprise the creme de la creme of Goa’s musicians. They aren’t paid. “They devote much time and energy towards the choir and this is all out of charity. They do it purely for the love of music,” D’Cunha says.
Myola Rodrigues, a soprano from Chinchinim, who has been singing with the choir for over a decade, says it has set new standards for choral music in Goa. “When we started public concerts, we received mixed feedback,” she says. “It was a new concept and not everyone appreciated classical music. Over the past few years, our concerts have been packed to capacity.” Speaking of how the choir influenced her, she says, “I would sing in our church choir, but was never a trained singer. Gradually, after many training sessions and practices, I am able to read musical notations.”
(The Times of India)