‘Evangelists for the Beauty of Sacred Music’
An interview with Richard Childress, director of the ensemble His Majesty’s Men, highlights song that ‘lifts [the] soul up to higher things.’
Richard Childress directs His Majesty’s Men. The ensemble has an upcoming concert in Chicago on Aug. 12 at the Church of St. John Cantius. The program will feature multiple newly commissioned Marian works by composers Mark Nowakowski and Peter Kwasniewski. Both composers will be present at this concert, which will also feature several Renaissance and Medieval motets, including the works of William Byrd and Guillaume Dufay.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview, Richard. Can you tell me a little about your ensemble, His Majesty’s Men? How did you come to form it? What is its primary work?
Having founded and co-directed a Chicago choir in the 1980s, and subsequently guest-conducting in several countries, singing professionally for many years here in Britain, and as a newly confirmed Catholic, I decided I wanted to form a new vocal ensemble in Chicago to give something back to the place I came from. But I didn’t know who the best singers might be, so I asked a few trusted people, and in 2016, five of us sat down at a table to rehearse for our first concert. We five guys from Chicago, New York and Britain had never sung together before, and I was a bit apprehensive, but from the first chord, we all felt we had something special.
Because of our disparate locations, we obviously can’t perform as often as we’d like. It takes logistics and funds to bring us all together currently once a year at St. John Cantius Church, which has been our concert and rehearsal home since that first performance.
The men sing countertenor, tenor and bass, a voicing that enables the group to come close to the original sound and performing pitch of much early sacred vocal music, a legacy that forms a large part of our repertoire.
I think of His Majesty’s Men as evangelists for the beauty of sacred music.
Singing with just one person to a part, a subtlety and nuance can be achieved that is not easily matched by larger choirs. Such intimate beauty can and does move people to come to faith.
At your upcoming August concert, you will be performing works spanning 800 years, from the late Middle Ages to contemporary compositions. Why a mixed program, instead of just old or just new?
I believe sacred music from all historical periods has its beauty, and audiences should hopefully experience the whole variety of this incredible repertoire. Most audiences, via our feedback, appreciate some sort of variety when they hear us. Some of our concerts focus on certain periods like the 16th century, of which Spanish music is a particular focus of ours (for example, music by Cristóbal de Morales), but in other concerts, I like to cast a wider net, occasionally including tasteful arrangements of songs in what we might say is a more popular vein, because there is beauty to be found there also.
It is important to note that there is a particular set of vocal skills that makes early music combine well with some contemporary choral music. For example, the music of Tavener and Pärt can well complement Medieval and Renaissance music, as has been shown by groups like the Hilliard Ensemble. Those modern composers who can best tap into the mind of the Medieval and Renaissance composers have much to show us.
What makes sacred music “sacred”? There are evidently a number of styles considered “sacred.” What do they have in common?
A relationship exists between music and text, which helps explain why we sense a piece of music as “sacred” or even “devotional.” That relationship between words and music, which the earlier composers knew almost by instinct, hopefully enables us to “see through” the notes to something higher.
The best modern composers of sacred music take what is best from history and tradition and use it as grist for their creative mill.
So we could say that the finest sacred music probes the listener’s soul for a way in and then lifts that soul up to higher things.
You are featuring several contemporary composers. Can you say something about what led to your choice in this regard?
Since our first performance, we have presented contemporary composers such as Tavener, Moody, Moore, Skempton and others, alongside the music of earlier centuries.
But in early 2019, composer Mark Nowakokwski asked if he could write something for us. Usquequo, Domine? was the piece that came out of that conversation. Since then, Mark has been our composer-in-residence and has written new works for us every year.
This year, he is putting the finishing touches on Ave Maris Stella, his setting of an ancient Latin hymn. Last year, we also worked with Chicago composer Chad McCoy. His moving piece A Cloud Enveloped Them, a meditation on the Transfiguration, made a huge impact on our audience. We will perform it again on Aug. 12. Also this year, Catholic writer and composer Peter Kwasniewski will write for us a setting of the devotional hymn Stabat Mater. We are delighted that an increasing number of composers want to write for us.
Our program this August, overall, has a Marian theme.
How do you envision the apostolate of singing sacred music in concert as similar or different to that of beautifying the liturgy with the same music?
In concert, one can listen to this music in different ways, and if surrounded by the aesthetics of a beautiful church, hearing it can be an entry point into faith for some people who otherwise would not think of attending a liturgy where this music is heard.
Sadly, for the Catholic Church, music of this kind is rarely heard in liturgies, as the Church was robbed of its musical patrimony in the 1960s and is only now starting to recover.
What are your future plans with His Majesty’s Men? Where can we find out more about your work?
We would obviously like more performing opportunities, which will be dependent on more funding.
From the beginning, I have had plans for the ensemble to have two arms: one, to perform the wonderful music written over the centuries for vocal ensemble, in buildings of great architectural beauty; and two, to develop an educational component to our work, so that aspiring young singers in the Midwest could study and perform in the context of small-ensemble work. More information can be found about His Majesty’s Men at HisMajestysMen.com or on Facebook at Facebook.com/hismajestysmen.
Tickets are available here.