Wednesday, August 31, 2005

on church choirs

The musical demands of the Mass are heavy. If the average church choir relies on pounding keys on the piano to get the choristers to learn new music, then with the limited rehearsal time, such a choir can't go beyond the usual five hymns (and recycling them!), and the occasional change in musical setting of the simple stuff, like the Alleluia. I have seen it first hand for myself. Choirs end up singing the same ordinaries year after year, regardless of the season or the occasion.

So the solution is to ask the choristers to develop some music-reading ability. I don't think this is an unreasonable demand - the altar servers train hard to learn the proper postures and procedures, the lectors ensure they read well, placing the proper stresses on the words, and know what they are reading about, so the musicians should be able to read music. A reasonable level is to be able to handle music with one modulation ie. change in key.

Of course we will not expect everyone to be able to read fluently - but those who are better than others will pull up the standard of the reading, and save the time previously used for pounding keys. The time can then be better used for more challenging music, and time can be reserved for sung prayer too - which will then contribute to the growth, both musically and spiritually, of the choir.


At 9:09 AM, Blogger Justin said...

The practice of changing ordinaries every week is, while perfectly acceptable for semi-professional choirs, should be discouraged for the average parish choir - which if one is in the Brunei/Malaysia/S'pore region tend to be composed of about 20 women and 3-5 men. I think rather these choirs should have a core repertoire of fixed plainsong masses, sung in unison or antiphonally and chosen based on liturgical season. Missa de Angelis (VII) and Missa Orbis Factor (XI) for Ordinary Time, Missa cum Jubilo (IX) for Feasts of the BVM, Missa XVIII for Lent and Avent, and Missa Lux et Origo for Eastertide. Credo I and III should also be learnt. Once the choir has got familiar with the ordinary, it then becomes easier to learn simple chants such as the Asperges, Vidi Aquam, Advent and Lent Prose. Realistically speaking chanting the propers - i.e. Introit, Gradual, Tract, Offertorium, and Communio are beyond the reach of most choirs. I see no problem replacing the Gradual with a Responsorial Psalm set to Anglicant chant or the Gelineau Psalm Tones for the Grail Psalter both relatively easy to sing and without the elaborate melisma of the Gradual. Similarly the Tract can be replaced with a simple three-fold Alleluia and using a simple chant - pick one from the Liber - for the Acclamation itself, and this can be repeated week after week.

None of this "memorising" of the ordinary, etc. can replace actual sight-singing, but unless the make-up of choirs themselves change bringing about more equal balance among the voices, four or six-part harmony will not work.

At 10:35 AM, Blogger Norman said...

splendid advice, Justin :). For the propers, perhaps the "By Flowing Waters" (an English translation of the Graduale Simplex) could be used, nothing difficult in there.

Also agree about the balance of voices issue. However, I wasn't having four-part harmony in mind - I would be happy if the choirs achieved a good unison tone, something which most still don't have.

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Justin said...


Thanks for introducing me to By Flowing Waters, I had not heard of it and it has spurred me to check it out. It sounds interesting enough that I just placed an order for it from Amazon - 6 quid is not bad for an almost new copy!

I do think you have got the right idea for the most part, by using translations of the propers. Many Catholics including quite a few priests actually like the soppy, pop songs written by the likes of Haugen that passes as music offered to God in our solemn sacrifice of praise.

Because of the many years of mis-information, a radical turn towards an entire Latin repertoire could well backfire. In this case a softly-softly approach might bring about more lasting changes. Using English translations of the chant, the music of Dom Gregory Murray, and "borrowing" some traditional hymns from the Anglican and English Catholic repertoire, while not ideal could help ease the congregation into getting used to what sacred music should sound like.

Mass settings should be slightly easier - most Catholics are at least familiar with the Missa VII (de Angelis). Unfortunately there are some who would discourage the use of Latin at all. There are good Mass settings of the vernacular suitable for unison singing out there I am sure (I just haven't heard them yet). I think we have to do our best to pick one that does not have a Responsorial Gloria - this is quite unacceptable. Skimming through Cantica Nova's online catalogue, I see two Mass settings without the dreaded Refrain and one is in Latin and one is in English and composed by the conductor of a choir who sings at a weekly TLM - that should be interesting. Heritage Mass by Owen Allstot also does not have a responsorial Gloria and has an added bonus of sounding "churchy".

None of these can compare in beauty to an entirely sung Mass with propers and ordinary from the Graduale Romanum, but I think that this approach has a greater chance of getting the ordinary layman to accept the so-called "reform of the reform." The Oxford Movement, who re-introduced liturgy and an idea of "catholic-ness" in the Anglican Church after centuries of destruction,iconoclasm, and fear of "Papist control" realized they needed the grass-roots on their side. We would do well to learn from their experience.

At 12:52 AM, Blogger Norman said...

Justin, you have given me much to think about! :)


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