The idea of going away for spring break is not new. College kids are notorious for booking plane tickets to Cancun or any number of other exotic locations, for the week after midterms in order to recover from the stress of the first half of spring semester. At the University, the idea of going away for spring break in order to accomplish something greater than themselves is also not new.
The University is all about service break trips, but this spring, Villanova Voices and Singers went on a new kind of service trip. The women’s and men’s choirs have been going on international tour for a number of years and this year, they spent their spring break in the Central European cities of Prague, Vienna and Salzburg. Before talking about the specifics of this trip, it’s important to look at the history of Voices/Singers international tours. In an interview with Christine Nass, the Assistant Director of Music Activities and the Director of Villanova Voices, I was able to learn a little about the history of these tours.
These international tours have quite an extensive history. This is Nass’s fifth international tour but she says that the tradition is at least 15 years old, with past locations such as Spain, Brazil, Italy, Costa Rica and Ireland. When asked about the purpose of going on an international tour rather than performing domestically, Nass said that it all goes back to the history of the music being performed. Voices and Singers spend so much time practicing and performing music written by men and women miles and years removed that being able to visit these relevant places adds a deeper emotional connection to the music.
The Voices/Singers crew, of which I am gratefully a part, left for Munich on Friday, Feb. 27. Upon arrival and after some sightseeing, we headed to Prague where our first Mass Participation was held during the English service at an Augustinian Cathedral, St. Thomas Church. It was our following performance, however, that really seemed to set the tone for the rest of the tour.
After performing at the St. Thomas Mass, Voices and Singers performed a benefit concert at St. Salvatore Church. Singing a mix of traditional Czech songs and German hymns, both Voices and Singers connected with the audience. We performed for a sold out audience of men and women who have spent their entire lives in a country far removed from ours. It was incredibly rewarding for them to connect with the music that we sang and it was overwhelmingly special.
The performances only grew more moving as the trip progressed. After St. Salvatore, the choir left Prague and headed to Vienna. Here, we participated in the noon Mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a church that is at the heart of Catholicism in Central Europe. The Mass, though conducted entirely in German, was a very touching experience, as the priest invited the entire choir to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist.
After we left Vienna behind, Voices and Singers loaded the buses and headed to Salzburg. The last leg of the trip was perhaps the most enjoyable as it covered the locations used in the filming of “The Sound of Music.” In Salzburg, we performed in the famed “Wedding Chapel” as pictured in the film. Though this was our last formal performance, we were not done singing yet.
Though we were able to perform in world-renowned cathedrals and churches, it seemed that the favorite performances were of a more informal nature. In between Vienna and Salzburg, the tour made a surprise visit to St. Florian’s Monastery. Here, the Voices/Singers crew really experienced what it means to understand the historical significance behind the music we perform. In the St. Florian Monastery, composer Anton Bruckner is buried. In the catacombs of the monastery, in front of Bruckner’s tomb, the choir performed “Os Justi,” a beautiful Bruckner piece that we have spent months rehearsing. It was a very poignant moment that left many people teary-eyed and with an almost transcendental appreciation for the music we sing.
In addition to this moving and informal performance, other musical highlights included moments such as the Voices’ spontaneous recital of “Favorite Things” on the streets of Salzburg in front of a gathering audience, the Singers’ beautiful impromptu performance in the acoustically haunting marble ball room in Melk Abbey, and the final collaborative Voices/Singers concert of Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus“ in the Salzburg Fortress on the last night of the tour.
Everyone, both musicians and supervisors, experienced something different on this trip. This tour was special to so many people for so many reasons. I think I speak for our entire music family when I say that this trip allowed us to experience music in its purest form. Nass, when asked what her favorite part about international tours was, said that there is something beautiful about the bond formed in situations where music is a commonality. Our tour guide, Daniel, said something to us on our last night in Salzburg that has stayed with me. He said that “as painters paint on canvas, musicians paint on silence.” Throughout the course of the week, 75 artist-musicians were able to experience something beautiful and the significance of the experience was not lost on any of us.