Msgr. Armstrong's legacy will live on

  • November 17, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - Msgr. Thomas Barrett Armstrong, a priest who knew the inner workings of beauty and shared the gift of music with hundreds of students, his city and his church, passed away peacefully at the Cardinal Ambrozic Houses of Providence Nov. 14, just days before his 80th birthday.

Ripples from the former director of music at St. Michael’s Choir School  lifetime of teaching and conducting are preserved everywhere in the musical life of Toronto and Canada, said Lydia Adams, conductor of the Elmer Iseler Singers. 

“I was always running into his work,” Adams said.

From lyric tenor Michael Schade to Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn and to the composing brothers Kola and Kunle Owolabi, Canada’s musical life is littered with men whose first intense musical experience was singing Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony under Msgr. Armstrong.

Msgr. Armstrong spent a total of almost 50 years at the junior and senior choir schools as a student, teacher, music director and chaplain. The choirs he directed performed regularly at St. Michael’s Cathedral, toured around the world, and performed for Popes Paul VI and John Paul II. His example earned him the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice medal in 1987, the Catholic High School Commission’s Award of Merit in 1990, and made him a Prelate of Honour (giving him the title “Monsignor”) in 1992. In 2002 Msgr. Armstrong received the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for his contribution to music in Canada.

Msgr. Armstrong was a scholar of Gregorian chant and Renaissance polyphony trained at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome. He was also a liturgical composer who produced musical settings for all of the psalms as they occur in the cycle of readings. In both respects he was the direct link back to St. Michael’s Choir School founder Msgr. John Edward Ronan.

“He was committed to preserving a heritage of polyphony, which is what the choir school specializes in,” said Harry Hodson who worked at St. Michael’s with Msgr. Armstrong for more than 20 years.

That lifetime spent preserving and promoting the church’s musical heritage began in 1942 when as a 13-year-old he auditioned for the St. Michael’s Choir School by playing boogie-woogie on the piano. He graduated from the school in 1947 and went straight into St. Augustine’s Seminary. Following his 1955 ordination, Cardinal James McGuigan sent him back to the choir school. To round out his musical education, Msgr. Armstrong went on to Rome where he studied under Msgr. Domenico Bartolucci, conductor of the Sistine Chapel Choir, and Solesmes Gregorian chant scholar Dom Cardine. He took licentiate degrees in Gregorian chant and sacred composition from the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in 1958.

Then it was back to St. Michael’s Choir School where he succeeded Ronan as director of music in 1962.

The tradition Msgr. Armstrong passed on to St. Michael’s Choir School students has an incalculable value, said Mark Wood-Salomon, who graduated from the school in 1997.

“He gave his life to the school and to music and to enriching us with the knowledge he had,” said Wood-Salomon.

Msgr. Armstrong’s success as a teacher rested on the twin pillars of respect for the boys and humour, said Hodgson.

“He had a wonderful sense of humour, which is very attractive to young men,” he said. “He was always concerned that he not do anything that would harm or make a boy feel bad. He was scrupulous in his care that youngsters get the best musical education from him.”

Though the musical heritage is obvious, the school’s current artistic director and conductor of senior choirs Jerzy Cichocki is just as intent on preserving Msgr. Armstrong’s tradition of respect for students and humour. Msgr. Armstrong was Cichocki’s mentor dating back to when Cichocki was a boy chorister. The two men could always guess the music the other would program for any given Sunday.

As he prepared music for Msgr. Armstrong’s Nov. 19 funeral at St. Michael’s Cathedral, Cichocki found it difficult to speak about the man who revealed to him what music is to the church.

From a student’s perspective, learning music by performing under a scholar and master musician was bound to get a boy’s attention, said St. Michael’s alumn Andrew MacDonald.

“We picked up on his real passion and love of music. As a result, he got results,” he said. “I’m not sure what his trick was, but ultimately we knew he was trying to accomplish something that was as good as can be. So we tried to co-operate.”

For years the singers Msgr. Armstrong trained infected their parishes and communities with musicality.

“I certainly felt that it was a responsibility for some people in the church to preserve the tradition of good music,” Msgr. Armstrong said in an interview with ShareLife communications director Bill Steinburg in 2006. “I hope I was a good example to the children.”

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