“He who sings prays twice,” is the often quoted line from St Augustine, and this would be the experience of Blanaid Murphy, after nearly 15 years at the helm of the Palestrina Choir.
“Sacred music gives you a glimpse of something beyond yourself, a window towards the Godly,” she says. “If you go to a Mass that we sing at, of course there are parts where the congregation sing, but a lot of the time the most special part for people is when the choir sings, because they get transported to a higher experience and that helps them pray and brings them closer to God.”
The Palestrina Choir has its origins in a boys’ choir formed in the 1890s by Dr Vincent O’Brien, then a music teacher at St Mary’s Place Christian Brothers School in Dublin. It came to the attention of Edward Martyn who wanted the Catholic Church in Ireland to have music of an equivalent standard to the great cathedrals of Europe and he offered an endowment for a choir to be established at St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral in 1903.
Over 100 years later, Blanaid is now the choir director and it was the same love for liturgical music that attracted her to the choir.
“It is the most revered Catholic choir in the country and I had always wanted to be director, so when the position came up I went for it,” she says.
Since then the choir has evolved and flourished in many ways. Perhaps viewed as a choir for the more well-heeled families, the Palestrina operates an inner city programme, visiting 20 schools each year. A girl’s choir was also formed in 2009 to provide girls the same opportunity to be involved in the music and liturgical life of the pro-cathedral.
So now there are about 90 children in the music rooms four times a week, sharing a love of music that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.
Blanaid herself started in music at an early age. She learned piano at four and started playing the organ in local churches from the age of 10. She grew up in Notting Hill in London with Irish parents – from Longford and Omagh – and she always identified as Irish. She studied music in Cambridge University and then in Germany, where she continued to play in Catholic churches.
Blanaid moved to Ireland in 1993 and became director of music in Kilmacud church and then in Donnybrook church in Dublin. She was also involved in RTÉ Cór na nÓg, before taking up the position at the pro in 2002. “I was always very interested in singers, not singing myself, but in playing with singers and getting singers to sing together,” she says.
Over the years Blanaid has travelled extensively with the choir and performed at many prestigious events including a papal Mass for two Popes.
In 2013 the prestigious Sistine Chapel choir invited the Palestrina to sing for Pope Benedict at a Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on the Feast of the Epiphany.
At the time they were only the third choir in history to receive the invitation following the Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey choirs. Last November they were invited again by the Sistine choir to join them at a papal Mass with Pope Francis.
However, for Blanaid the highlight of all the choir’s performances under her directorship was a little closer to home. “It was a concert during the Eucharistic Congress. We premiered a new Mass by Colin Mawby which had been commissioned and we also did it with Vivaldi Gloria. We put it on as a kind of fringe event and we had a massive turn out. This new Mass involved people joining the last movement, the Gloria Hallelujah, and for me it was very uplifting and a very special evening,” she says.
When pushed to pick her favourite piece of music, Blanaid goes back to the origins of the choir and the Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, the performance of which first caught the attention of Edward Martyn in 1898.
“I love Palestrina Papae Marcelli,” she says. “The piece is considered one of the most splendid, powerful piece of music. That piece has a certain bit of magic to it but there are loads of others I love doing with the choir.”
While Blanaid might be the driving force behind the choir, she emphasises the importance of team work. “The choir is a real team,” she says. “We get very good support from Canon Damian O’Reilly and all at the pro, and the diocese is very supportive. There are a lot of resources needed to maintain the choir and I think they really do value it.
“The choir is a real example of family involvement and commitment too. Parents who mightn’t go to Mass come to listen to the music. A lot of people who help at pro had boys in the choir many years ago and stayed on as stewards and readers. The sense of family is very strong and it is the backbone of the choir.”
*Blanaid Murphy will lead a Gregorian chant workshop on March 18 in Our Lady of Good Counsel, Mourne Road, Drimnagh, Dublin 12.