Musica Sacra: Community and Comfort in Sacred Music
It may have closed many churches and silenced many choirs, but ultimately the pandemic has failed to silence those determined to make a joyful noise.
Musica Sacra Virginia is a new group founded by Brian Dean Sousa of Ivy, a singer, organist, choirmaster and conductor, and assisted by the group’s president, John Harvey of Crozet. “I’ve always loved well-crafted choral sacred music,” Sousa said. The group, which started rehearsing in October, has grown to 10 members.
The centuries-long evolution of sacred music includes many forms. In fact, Sousa said, some of these forms are found only within this tradition. Harvey explained that “form” means either the way the piece is organized, or how the notes and rhythms are organized, or a combination.
It’s what makes a hymn different from a chant and both different from a motet, for example, “what makes Amazing Grace different from Handel’s Messiah,” Harvey said. Sacred music forms were born within the liturgy of the Church or from those expressing their devotion outside the church, but they’re also found elsewhere, when the composer (for instance in an opera or a movie sound track) wants to create a sense of the sacred. In a way, he said, when you talk about these forms (chant, organum, Laura, motets, modern hymns and chorales, cantatas and oratorios) you’re really talking about the history of western music itself.
Most of us are familiar with sacred music in the mass or requiem settings. Harvey said this category spans centuries of sacred music and includes all forms, depending on the text set by mass ordinaries (the part that never varies during the liturgical year) and often sung by the congregation, and the Requiem Mass for the Dead, much of which follows a set text as well.
The group’s repertoire is not limited by religious affiliation or time period, Sousa said, but only by the quality of the music, and the desire of the founder and his choir to perform it at the highest level possible. As time goes by, Musica Sacra would also like to attempt sacred music from religions other than the familiar Christian tradition.
How do you do this, when the pandemic prevents gatherings and singing has been named a powerful force in spreading the virus? Sousa and Harvey, who’s a technology professional as well as a musician, have devised a way. With ingenious use of modern technology, each choir member is able to learn the part, follow the conductor, and get extra help when needed.
Sousa and his wife, Narumi, record each piece, and use Dropbox, the digital content-sharing platform, to send it to each member of the choir. Sousa includes some direction to the choir in his initial instructions. “I’m familiar enough with the pieces that I can point out any possible difficulties they might not expect,” he said. Choir members rehearse on their own, listening to the master recording with one ear and to themselves singing their part with the other.
They’re asked to listen to the new piece three times and make three recordings of their part, choose the best, and send the audio file back to the conductor. Harvey said the process is as streamlined as possible, but there’s still a learning curve. “It can be hard to sing as part of a choir when you’re singing as a soloist,” he said. Choir members don’t have advanced equipment; they use their phones set in landscape mode in front of their monitors. Sousa will accept the recording or provide guidance for a new one. Finally, the separate recordings are merged together into a video. It’s an exercise of faith in more ways than one: The choristers wait with some suspense to hear the sound of the whole group when it’s posted to YouTube. Musica Sacra has shared links on NextDoor, to the delight of community music lovers, who enjoy pieces as cohesive and polished as a formal concert heard in person from a choir loft or sacristy, and can see their friends and neighbors singing.
Auditions during the pandemic are also done virtually: “I ask for three pieces,” Sousa said. “If people aren’t yet familiar with sacred music, they can send any music they choose.” While some of the choir members have professional experience, that’s not a requirement for joining. Besides enabling professional and administrative guidance, membership fees include a voice lesson every month.
There’s a rigorous discipline to the process, consistent with the group’s mission to perform at the highest possible level. Musica Sacra will offer virtual concerts during the pandemic, including a holiday celebration Dec. 21, and now have several pieces on YouTube, including a requiem for All Soul’s Day, a hymn for St. Cecilia, and a stunning version of “Abide with Me.” The group is on social media, including YouTube, as “Musica Sacra Virginia.” They’ll be part of Charlottesville’s Grand Illumination Saturday, Dec. 4. “We’re open to new members,” Harvey said, and you’ll find more information about joining on their web site, www.musicasacravirginia.org.
Sousa and Harvey acknowledge the significant obstacles in forming a new musical group in the midst of a pandemic, but there were incentives as well. “I can’t imagine a time when singing could be more important,” Sousa said. “It’s an incredible way to pray. I know it’s helped me.”
“It’s helped me, too,” Harvey said. “It gives us community and comfort, to be making and sharing art in the midst of 2020. Like the hymn, ‘Abide with Me,’ it reassures us that we can endure whatever life throws at us.”
Crozet Baptist Shares the Blessing
The loving work of many hands enabled the “Share the Blessing” ministry of Crozet Baptist Church to serve 400 people in 110 families, despite the pandemic. Other area churches also pitched in, said Heather Laramy, co-leader (with Kristie Morris) of the CBC Missions Team.
Laramy said the huge community response with donations of time, food and money allowed the church to fill every request for Thanksgiving food, including several late additions. This year, the ministry focused entirely on Crozet, following recommendations from Crozet schools. Because of the pandemic, families who would ordinarily have bags of groceries delivered picked up their turkeys, sides, and pies at the church after a massive packing effort a few days before. Laramy said the system worked well, and gave church members a chance to spend a few minutes getting to know the families they served.
Numbers of people served at the annual event have remained pretty stable, Laramy said, but those needing monthly help with food sponsored by Crozet Baptist has grown during the pandemic, and she expects that trend to continue. Those wanting to donate non-perishable items can drop them off at a designated box at the church on St. George Avenue, or support the church financially.
The yearly effort has gone far beyond Crozet Baptist, Laramy said, and has become an event supported by the whole Crozet community. “In these uncertain times, our community has shown up bigger than ever before.”
Bethlehem Village Closed this Season
Hebron Baptist Church will not open its beloved Bethlehem Village this year because of the continued threat of COVID-19, said Lynn Coffey. Lynn’s husband, Billy Coffey, has returned as pastor of the Afton church. Both of the Coffeys have had a relationship with Hebron’s loving congregation for many years, and look forward to continuing to work and worship there, Lynn said.