Twenty-two years and counting… That’s how long Rosemarie Darby, an alumna of The Lay Centre, has been directing the St Philip Neri Singers, a semi-professional liturgical choir she founded in Manchester, England, in 1993.
Her 16-member choir travelled to Rome for a seven-day tour, from 23 May to 30 May; their first Rome tour was in 2013.
The beauty of sacred music, namely Renaissance polyphony, inspired Darby, a music instructor at Manchester University, to found the choir.
“I think it is important to keep alive all the wonderful music that has been written for Catholic worship throughout the ages,” said Darby.
“The basic idea is that the beauty of the music can help people to pray,” she said, adding that the choir’s patron, St Philip Neri (1515-1595), would say, “Music has the power to raise men’s minds and hearts to God.”
The St Philip Neri Singers are based out of the Manchester University Catholic Chaplaincy. They usually sing in Latin, mainly Renaissance polyphony, such as Palestrina, Victoria and Byrd, but also Gregorian chant and sometimes classical and more modern sacred music.
“With the revival of interest in especially Renaissance music and Gregorian chant, we find that this music is popular in concerts,” she said. “But I feel its real place is in the liturgy. That was its original purpose.”
In fact, while in Rome the choir sang at several liturgies, including Mass on Pentecost Sunday at St Paul Outside the Walls, evening Mass at St Peter’s Basilica on 26 May, and Mass for the feast of St Augustine of Canterbury, 27 May, at the English College. The choir also performed at The Lay Centre on 24 May.
Perhaps the highlight, however, was singing for their patron’s feast-day Mass, 26 May, at Chiesa Nuova, where the saint is also buried.
St Philip Neri officially founded the Congregation of the Oratory in 1575, and the church, commonly known as Chiesa Nuova, was subsequently built in Rome’s city-centre. Officially named Santa Maria in Vallicella, the church was consecrated in 1577.
It “quickly developed a reputation for a high standard of musical performance and used music as an important teaching tool in Rome during that time,” said Darby.
“St Philip attracted many musicians to the Oratory offering them the opportunity to compose music for the liturgy and to perform, as well as offering them spiritual guidance,” she said. “Some eventually chose to join the congregation and were ordained.”
Darby said the Oratory had amassed a large music library. However, it was dispersed in the late 19th century when the Italian state took over church buildings and libraries. Only a small amount of music remains at Chiesa Nuova. More is now housed in the National Library and the Conservatory of St Cecilia.
Darby’s first stay at The Lay Centre was in autumn 2014, while in Rome to conduct research for her doctorate in musicology at Manchester University. The topic of her research is “The Music of the Roman Oratory, from 1565 to 1625.”