Earlier this summer, a group of people from our region spent ten days on a singing tour of Italy, leading the music at Mass in some splendid church settings in Rome and Umbria. The group consisted of a mixed choir of sixteen plus a number of spouses, mostly from St Mary’s Hexham, though with some much-valued help from singers from other churches around the Diocese.

The trip was part-holiday, part-pilgrimage and part-musical boot-camp, a chance to work hard at some liturgical repertoire that wouldn’t normally be practical in our normal parish settings. This included choral works and Mass settings by English and Continental composers, along with some chant, and even a 4-part responsorial psalm and gospel acclamation in Italian!

The first Sunday Mass was in Rome at S. Maria in Vallicella, the Oratorian church, where the singers were warmly welcomed by the clergy and a very appreciative congregation. The following day saw a trip south to Monte Cassino Abbey, with an informal concert of acappella music in the Abbey crypt followed by a visit to the WW2 commonwealth cemetery, a very poignant event as quite a number of the group’s forebears had lived through the dreadful fighting at Cassino. Later in the week the group made their way to Assisi, where the choir sung at Mass in the Basilica of St Francis. Despite it being a midweek Mass, the place was packed; it was an intense and special moment for both singers and congregation alike. Finally, the choir led the music at Mass back in Rome on Pentecost Sunday, in the basilica of St Paul’s Outside the Walls, a stupendous setting and terrifying for a small choir like ours to sing in! Mass opened with Charpentier’s exuberant Veni Creator Spiritus as the introit, and included James Macmillan’s powerful Factus est Repente as the communion antiphon.

The trip was also a holiday and the group was blessed with some glorious weather and some equally glorious accommodation; much of the week was spent in a private villa complex (with its own infinity pool!) in rural Umbria. A wonderful time of relaxation, making friends, sightseeing and a fair deal of competitive group cooking. And, of course, choir practices in an unforgettable setting.

The Hexham contingent were delighted to be able to meet up in Rome with Fr Chris Warren, lately parish priest at St Mary’s and now vicerector of the Venerable English College. The restaurants and bars around the VEC did a roaring trade (we suspect he’s on commission) and the choir were thrilled to be able to rehearse in the college’s wonderful chapel, a very special venue indeed.

All agreed that the tour was a wonderful experience on so many levels and would to the same again in a heartbeat. Pauline Keavey, from St Edwards in Whitley Bay, said of the trip:

…a wonderful combination of place and music enjoyed in the company of lovely people. The organisers did a fantastic job in arranging every part of the holiday. We sang in some fantastic venues, the Abbey at Monte Cassino was particularly moving for me with the combination of music and history. Top of the list in our
accommodation was our stay at a villa complex near Todi. Beautiful views over the Umbrian hills and our own private swimming pool! Everyone is hoping that the experience can be repeated in the not too distant future!

Will there be singing tours like this again in the future? We do hope so, watch this space!