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Don Whelan - a half-century of service

This month, prominent Christchurch musician Don Whelan (who, for many years, was Canterbury Regional Coordinator of The Big Sing) marks 50 years as Director of Music for the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. Ken Joblin, Bass Section Leader of the CBS Choir and Orchestra, has written a tribute to Don highlighting some of his many achievements and putting some fascinating context around his appointment to the role in 1969.

In so many ways, 1969 was a momentous year for the world and even for the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch. In that year, devotees of pop culture gathered at Woodstock. The world celebrated man’s first steps on the moon. The war in Vietnam was well under way. New Zealand’s prosperity and stability under Kiwi Keith was coming to an end. As we concluded the 1960s, in many ways, and with escalating speed, the world was returning to the formless void of Genesis. There was much chaos in the world and in the Church as the decisions of the Second Vatican Council were first being interpreted and often clunkily implemented. With post-Conciliar zeal, Bishop Brian Ashby of Christchurch spearheaded these changes.

Into this context of chaos and opportunity came young Catholic Christchurch teacher, Don Whelan. Don really came to music while at teachers College in Dunedin where he began to experience the beauty of sacred choral music. As a new teacher, he came to Christchurch and with his wife Beris became involved in the life of their local parish church, Christ The King, Burnside. He began working with Dutch immigrant singers there, who knew the art of singing in parts, as they came from a choral culture. A product of the Catholic Youth Movement, Don helped the progressive Burnside parish to come to grips with the Second Vatican Council, becoming an organist, training and organising cantors, and serving on its new parish council.

It is here that we come to 1969.

Our beautiful Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament (CBS) was in need of an organist so that, just before Easter of that year, Don took up this role. In their infinite wisdom, the Cathedral authorities made it very clear to Don that he was to be an organist, simply playing hymns for Mass. The unsophisticated understanding of full, conscious and active participation being rigorously applied in the wake of the Second Vatican Council meant the laity must do everything. Choirs were seen as an elitist activity, robbing the people of what now rightly belonged to them. But a week before his arrival, the clergy took the trouble of throwing out the choir’s existing library, making Don’s establishment of a choir a remote possibility.

Don rightly saw that a beautiful cathedral would be much more so with the Church’s sacred music resounding from within its walls. So began a choral counter-reformation. While many became dedicated followers of fashion and began an odyssey which blurred the distinction between sacred and secular music, the timeless beauty of our sacred music was being heard in New Zealand’s finest Catholic cathedral. As Don was opening the doors of the Church’s treasury of Sacred music and seeing the beauty to be found within, he began sharing this beauty with the parishioners of and visitors to our Cathedral.

A Cathedral Choir and Orchestra began to take shape and our cathedral became a place for the musical community of Christchurch to enjoy timeless beauty with us in architect Francis Petre’s fine acoustic. Don and the cathedral soon became synonymous.

At the same time, Don and Beris’s young family was taking shape and musical talent was being fostered there as well. We know that for many years, family activity has had to fit around the Church’s liturgical calendar, that Don’s musical vocation has made many demands on family life and that in Beris, Don has by-and-large been able to maintain an equilibrium which his drive and vision might not have otherwise allowed. Many people have benefitted from this family sacrifice which may not have been acknowledged as much as it ought. In the late 1970’s, the family moved to the UK to allow Don to deepen his own formation in sacred music. Perhaps too, this offered the family opportunities to counter-balance the sacrifices required by a maniacal genius.

The 1980s saw our CBS Choir and Orchestra develop into quite a musical force, with some Australasian touring along with a developing Sunday repertoire. A stylistic pattern was well-established with a four-week cycle: week 1 Orchestral, week 2 Contemporary Choral, week 3 Polyphonic and week 4 Plainsong. This often ambitious liturgical programme has been the envy of church directors of music around the world and compares very well with the finest European cathedral traditions. Choral set pieces of the Bach St John Passion on Good Friday and Handel’s Messiah in December were also supplemented by a cycle of Haydn Masses which were too long for liturgical performance. Holy Week and Easter became a time of intense choral activity and liturgical beauty with Liszt’s Via Crucis on Good Friday and Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Handel’s Worthy is the Lamb featuring each year on Easter Day. At that time, CBS was really Christchurch’s youth choir, with a number of highly talented singers and musicians cutting their teeth in the CBS stable. Many singers were given opportunities to perform with an orchestra which they might not have otherwise had. CBS was becoming a family, with the choir and orchestra making musical contributions at weddings and funerals. The history of the CBS movement really became intertwined with that of the diocese, with CBS involvement at key moments in diocesan life. Perhaps the most notable was Pope St John Paul II’s visit to Christchurch and to our cathedral in November 1986.

A curious event took place in the mid-1980’s. Members of the visiting Australian rock band Midnight Oil ran into long-time CBS Choir groupie, The Wizard of New Zealand, in Cathedral Square. They lamented their lack of a suitable support act for their concerts in the then Theatre Royal. Of course the CBS Choir was readily suggested: the Oils were keen and the invitation promptly passed to Don who accepted with alacrity and at very short notice. Thus it came to pass that “A Sound Came From Heaven” and other choir standards floated over the stunned patrons.

On the first night the reaction from below was “What’s this sh**man?” but after lead singer Peter Garrett explained the choir was there by special invitation, the response warmed up considerably. It was a truly unique occasion, reflecting a choral director who thinks outside convention.

Don is indefatigable, an inveterate traveller, a magnificent tour organiser and a generous guide. As a consequence, many singers, musicians and supporters have toured Europe, Asia the Americas, the UK,Ireland and Australia as well as around New Zealand. These tours have created a wonderfully social choir with lifelong friendships, some marriages, and lasting memories.

It is impossible, in this article, to list all the highlights from the many tours, but just a few are: the first concerts of the year in Venice (on two separate tours, including the first concert of this Millennium), Gabrielli in San Marco, Masses in Notre Dame, Il Duomo (Milan) and of course the very beautiful and acoustically magnificent Westminster Cathedral. Performances of Messiah took place in Cairo, Jerusalem and Istanbul, where people freely came and went and came back and stayed. On Christmas Day 1994, CBS performed the first orchestral mass in St Vitus’ Cathedral Prague since the Russian takeover in 1968. Other highlights: scaling the heights of Machu Picchu; the splendour of the Iguazu Falls, the sights of Warsaw, Vienna, St Petersburg, Moscow, Gallipoli etc. Perhaps one of the lasting and most treasured travel memories will be from the most recenttour to the UK and Ireland. As we gently travelled around the emerald isle, Don treated the tour group to readings of the wonderful poet WB Yeats, whose grave we visited.

Touring also creates unexpected experiences, such as trundling timpani over the cobbles of old city streets and the need to find an electrician on New Year’s Day in Venice after having blown all the fuses in the church.

With the after-effects of the Canterbury earthquakes dominating life in Christchurch in the last decade, Don provided much needed stability and hope through the Church’s sacred music. We sang Mass in the Samoan hall next to our Cathedral after the 4 September earthquake with Haydn’s Little Organ Mass and the words of “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind: inviting the Lord to “Breathe through the earthquake wind, and fire, o still small voice of calm.” The liturgical and concert programmes continued in St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral. Through Don’s work, the musical community of Christchurch is regularly brought together. With Don, there are never problems, only solutions,and obstacles which would defeat many are tenaciously and single-mindedly overcome.

Don has been honoured for his work by the Vatican and the Royal School of Church Music. In drawing together this article, we do likewise. In the work of Don Whelan, the lives of many in New Zealand and beyond our shores have been touched at a profound level. It is unlikely that we will again see a fifty year commitment to sacred music on the level Don has achieved. We are forever grateful to Don, Beris and their family for allowing us to be part of the CBS movement. We know that through the music made under Don’s direction, our voices have joined those of the angels and saints and that as our sound leaves the church on earth, it is heard in our heavenly home.

Ken Joblin
Bass Section Leader
CBS Choir and Orchestra