Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Pes’s plan for preventing popular singing

(Title changed from “popular participation” to reflect better the idea that singing and participation are not necessarily coincidental.)

Copied from TNLM:

1. Do not distribute anything with musical notation because most people can't read music. When you have an illiterate group of people, the last thing you want is for them to learn from seeing examples.

You’d be amazed (or, maybe not) how many people seem not just uninterested in learning to read music, but unwilling. It boggles me.

2. Do not distribute the words to any song not found in the missal or missalette. If the cantor sings a different responsorial psalm or text than that given in the missal/missalette, by no means should you provide it.

Actually, I have found responsorial psalms not to need musical notation or even words for the congregation. I would prefer to give it to them, but we don’t have a reprint license or the infrastructure for having weekly worship aids. And our hymnals don’t have music for the responses.

3. Have the cantor and choir seize responsibility for singing as much as they can that is licit.

Enh, I’m not sure this is that much of a problem. We expect congregations to sing too much, IMO.

4. If the cantor is female, pitch the melody to suit her range, not the congregation's. Especially if she is a soprano.

Time and time again, I find that male cantors are more effective in stimulating popular song, and their words are clearer for people to understand.

5. The cantor should sing as operatically as possible, so as to suggest that anything less than operatic is of lesser quality.

Being a classically-trained singer myself, I take some offense at this. :)

There is, of course, good operatic singing and bad operatic singing. Lamentably, we hear far too much of the latter, even on recordings.

6. Have the cantor hound the congregation into singing with histrionic gestures, thereby a) distracting focus from the liturgical action, and b) belittling the majority of faithful Catholic regularly-attending worshippers.

Gestures and cues need not be over the top. Just raising the arm does the job nicely. As I explain to my cantors, it should be seen as going along with a breath. Just as in choirs, if you encourage good breathing, better singing results.

7. Select melodies that are:
a) catchy and trite, so more than half the congregation will feel foolish for singing them, or

Catchy and trite are not the same thing. ENGELBERG is, to me, very catchy, but far from trite.

b) virtuosic in intervallic and/or rhythmic complexity, so that after a few bars 98% congregation will feel inadequate to the task, or

True enough - this infects much of the pop-ish stuff they put in hymnals. At the same time, a few guys, like Proulx, do a fine job of creating music that is contemporary, singable, and elegant.

c) blatant parodies (in the technical sense) of popular melodies, so that all the congregational (particularly the young's) focus will be consternation at the similarity, or

Maybe not “consternation”, but yeah. I do think a lot of people just don’t want to be reminded that they’re in church.

d) simply unknown to most of them.

Unknown melodies are part-and-parcel of music in the Church, I think. Yes, there should be a common repertoire, but we need not to emphasize it at the expense of the Mass Proper.

8. Have the musical choices at Mass careen wildly from genre to genre. When the congregation expects chant, pelt them with polyphony. When they expect contemplative beauty, shake them up with something contemporary. Nothing so effectively confuses and confounds as pastiche.

I’m not sure I agree with people who say a variety of styles in the same liturgy is problematic. I can see the argument, but I think counter-examples can easily be found.

9. Deploy unusual choices of instrumentation, such as guitars, bass guitars, synthesizers, drums, and of course obscure varities of percussion. The novelty and incongruity of this will strike many in the congregation as worth more notice than the words being sung.

Novelty only lasts for a short time. The first time we had timpani in our church, the people sang heartily.

10. Above all, deploy maximum volume. Cantors, especially if they have operatic voices, should belt lustily into a microphone. Choirs should always be amplified, no matter what their position. Organs, naturally, should "lead" congregational singing by effectively drowning it out.

Tom Day’s article in the latest Pastoral Music elaborates on this point. Good read.

Oh, and everything should be in 6/8.

The following all use compound meter (i.e. 3/8, 6/8, 12/8) and are sung very well in most parishes:

Glory and Praise to Our God
Mass of Light
Mass of Creation
Celtic Alleluia
Like a Shepherd
Silent Night
Away in a Manger (not one of my faves, but it gets sung)
Sing to the Mountains
VICTORY (The Strife is O’er)
Canticle of the Sun

The list goes on and on .... 6/8 appears tried and proven for congregational singing, just as much as 4/4.


At Thursday, August 31, 2006 9:52:00 AM, Anonymous Pes said...

Cantor, as always, you make the thoughtful reply of experience.

One last bit:

"I’m not sure I agree with people who say a variety of styles in the same liturgy is problematic. I can see the argument, but I think counter-examples can easily be found."

Could you elaborate? In my opinion: there's variety, and then there's variety. The operative standard should be musical coherence because the Mass itself is coherent. The Mass also has long-established simplex tones integral to dialogues and prayers. These establish an overall tone which can be described fairly as chaste and serious.

Even within this given coherence, there is variety enough, and this variety can serve the purpose of coherence. The simplex tones can be placed at different pitches -- ascending stepwise, say -- so that by the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest is intoning things a few whole steps higher, creating a subtle kind of tension. Then by the "Ite, missa est," the pitches can descend. In this way, the Mass has a kind of overall cantus firmus, the steps of which vary. So there is one kind of variety.

Within this framework can exist the other Ordinary chants and the Propers. This is where more perceptible forms of variety entire. As we know, the settings of the eighteen Masses in the Graduale all have different characters to illustrate the tenor of various seasons and feasts. So there is variety there. And even within those settings, modal variety exists. One can't help notice how many of these settings are made coherent by rhythmic or melodic motif, even if their constituent chants are in different modes. So again, there is variety and coherence, serving each other.

As for the Propers, there is variety by definition. Personally, I find the chant Propers to be rather difficult. They are serious pieces of music and often require very large lungs (the monks of Metz must have been amazing). They do, however, represent our aspiration. Meanwhile, we can begin to consider polyphony and "other suitable liturgical songs approved by the bishop."

It seems to me that these choices should, we can all agree, never be capricious. Alas, in my thirty years of experience at Mass, I've heard a great deal of variation in the amount of aesthetic care taken in their selection. I know there are many practical considerations, and you know these better than I, first-hand. But what I cannot fathom is the wisdom in putatively "pastoral" rationales for certain aesthetic choices which inject very pointed, and stridently obvious, forms of variety into the musical texture of Mass.

For instance, when the priest intones the Mysterium Fidei in the old simplex tone, and the music director strikes up a contemporary setting of a three-fold Amen (which, of course with the cantor having to demonstrate the thing in advance, despite our having heard it at least 52 times previously), what does this show? It shows disjunction. It foregrounds difference and modernity. It is jarring.

I've heard directors defend such a choice by saying, "Well, the people have their music, and they should be free to offer it." This is specious logic. The people sing what they are led to sing, and there is no singular "music of the people," anyway. Moreover, they are unified by the action of Christ, not by some secular force before they enter the nave. So to my mind, trying to defend the introduction of sharp differences in musical genre by making vague ecclesiological claims is unwise. (I'm not saying you're doing that, of course.)

Another example. During communion, the most common approach is to have the cantor and choir sing something, and then have the congregation sing something different if more time is needed. I kid you not, but I once heard Durufle's "Ubi Caritas" motet (nicely done) followed by one of Marty Haugen's more insipid tunes from Gather. What on earth is the point of that kind of collision when the obvious and more coherent alternative was to use more of the twelve verses of "Ubi." Or of course follow Durufle's setting with "Ecce Panis," or any other Eucharistic chant. Again, injecting something contemporary is to create variety at the expense of coherence.

I've tried to stay concrete, but there are many speculative points to consider in all this. Does persistent musical variety create the impression that the Mass is infinitely manipulable? You've heard the Chinese proverb, "When someone is pointing at the moon, only the fool looks at the finger." Does musical variety draw attention to itself, away from the liturgical action? Does it frustrate participatio actuosa? Is it veering too far in the direction of "inculturation"? Does it permit too much of the profane (lit. "outside the temple") into the sacred? Does it force chant out of its rightful first place? Does it make the Mass "postmodern"? In sum, does it fracture and deconstruct more than it gathers and coheres?

I think you'll agree these aren't trivial questions, and I'm quite sure you don't think they are. So I'm interested in your counter-examples and perspective.

At Thursday, August 31, 2006 5:24:00 PM, Anonymous Michael O'Connor said...

Isn't "First Noel" in 3/4?


At Thursday, August 31, 2006 9:06:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...


Let’s say the following music plan:

Entrance: “Faith Of Our Fathers” (organ)
Gloria: de Angelis, unaccompanied
Resp. Psalm: from Guimont (piano/guitar)
Alleluia: the short one we all know
Offertory: Haas “We Have Been Told” (piano/guitar)
Sanctus etc.: Jubilate Deo
Communion: polyphonic proper text
Thanksgiving: Haugen Ps. 25

The above certainly is a smorgasbord, but I don’t think anything would be untoward in it. Maybe, though, I’m just so used to *so* many different kinds of music at Mass that if it’s not Penderecki, it all sounds the same anymore. :)

Note that I purposely chose what I think are two of the nicer Haugen and Haas tunes. Haugen “O Taste and See” is a stylistic dissonance not just with the music around it, but with the liturgy itself, while his Ps. 25 is quite pretty and, I feel, consistent with a sacred ritual action.

Now, if we are to have 2 communion songs (a practice I think more and more should be reprobated), then yes, smashing Duruflé and bad Haugen together is a faux pas. But in the case of the plan above, the stylistic contrast actually serves a liturgical function, to delineate the Proper communion chant/song from the Thanksgiving hymn/song.

As to the chant Propers, they are generally stylistically unified across the board: I disagree, there’s really not too much stylistic variety there. But, stylistic variety is not necessarily a liturgical virtue, and an all-Gregorian Mass certainly has its virtues.

You might look at Hurd’s Mass of Glory: the doxology to the Eucharistic Prayer has a nice transition between the chant and the acclamation. That really is a well-done setting; if we assume (and granted, it’s a big assumption!) that slow-blues-y music is suited for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, then Hurd has done a great job.

At Friday, September 01, 2006 8:23:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...

First Noel - yeah, ok, that one, I was thinking at the time that it’s in a slow 1, but you’re probably right.

At Friday, September 01, 2006 11:51:00 AM, Anonymous Pes said...


I'm not sure how to reply. I don't know all the pieces you suggest. I do now there are clear givens and clear standards for music at Mass, and so the options for music in my opinion don't require a "smorgasbord." It's not a blank slate every week. No one needs to work that hard, and Benedict XVI is very convincing on this point for deeper reasons.

Let me turn the question back to you: why would you feel compelled to turn to anything other than the tone- and content-setting Proper text for the Entrance? And why go to Haas at the Offertory and inject new orchestration? What's the rationale, there?

I think turning to something contemporary at Thanksgiving (if the pastor asks for it) is okay, but only after a healthy sacred silence i.e. enough time to say the Angelus. Frankly, I'd rather hear a psalmist sing something quiet and chaste and utterly orthodox, such as the "Ecce Panis," even in translation.

The traditional place for religious songs is after the dismissal. If people want to stay to sing songs from "Gather," and the pastor says OK, go for it. Frankly, I think parish halls could be filled with luncheons and music every Sunday. Back in my parents' day, they were. With accordions, even.

At Friday, September 01, 2006 12:14:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

Let me turn the question back to you: why would you feel compelled to turn to anything other than the tone- and content-setting Proper text for the Entrance? And why go to Haas at the Offertory and inject new orchestration? What's the rationale, there?

The proper texts present difficulties given the contemporary reality that congregations expect to sing the Introit. Not saying we have to maintain that status quo, but we do at least need to accommodate it in whatever change is implemented. Tietze’s introit hymns are an interesting compromise; I’ve worked out a couple such things for myself, too.

As to the Offertory, maybe I’ve got a good guitarist (a rarity!) who wants to play. I don’t like to turn people away. And Offertory strikes me as a time when one wants softer music than maybe at the Entrance.

Check out Haugen Ps. 25 - it’s quite chaste and subdued. The choral harmony on the refrain is pretty. The Haas has a similar character.

At Friday, September 01, 2006 12:15:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

Pes, if you don’t know Haas “We Have Been Told”, then you are probably not familiar with a *lot* of the music most American parishes are singing these days.

At Friday, September 01, 2006 12:41:00 PM, Anonymous Pes said...

Cantor, you may be right about that. I do tend to stay away from certain parishes!

Don't get me wrong, my ears are open. I'll check out Tietze and the other pieces you recommend.

I'll have to read and think more about Offertory. My impression is that it occupies a non-obvious, ambiguous place, muscially speaking. Can you elaborate on what you think about its music, given and potential?

What guitarist wouldn't be satisfied with playing preludes or postludes? Or leading luncheon ensembles?

At Friday, September 01, 2006 12:49:00 PM, Anonymous Pes said...

"Not saying we have to maintain that status quo, but we do at least need to accommodate it in whatever change is implemented."

"Accommodate" isn't the word I'd use, but I think I know what you mean, and I agree. I'm working to put the stress on information and education more than persuasion, actually. A large part of the problem is that most Roman Catholics under 40 know very little of their liturgical heritage, much less the compositional, performing, and listening skills required to keep that heritage alive, through the generations.

Personally, I would consider it a great and grievous loss for another generation to go by without training in chant and polyphony. That would represent a serious loss of cultural memory and skill. Ours would be a lesser culture than our forefathers'. They weren't perfect, but at least they tried. I know they did in my parents' little parish.

At Friday, September 01, 2006 1:46:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

I'll have to read and think more about Offertory. My impression is that it occupies a non-obvious, ambiguous place, muscially speaking. Can you elaborate on what you think about its music, given and potential?

It’s a good time for congregational singing because people aren’t processing like at Communion; at the same time, they’re seated, and there’s been plenty of activity leading up to it, so it’s not as good as at the Entrance or the end of the Mass. It’s unfortunate, in a way, that congregational singing at Communion is more often attempted, while choral stuff can go at Offertory; it kinda oughta be the other way around.

What guitarist wouldn't be satisfied with playing preludes or postludes? Or leading luncheon ensembles?

One who’s been playing at Mass for the last 20 years, maybe?

A large part of the problem is that most Roman Catholics under 40 know very little of their liturgical heritage, much less the compositional, performing, and listening skills required to keep that heritage alive, through the generations.

If Thomas Day’s accounts are accurate, it would seem *Americans* know little of their musical/liturgical heritage. Part of the problem is that we all agree that most of the 19th century yielded little that is good for liturgy; Rheinberger & Co. are exceptions to the rule, and they’re not “great” composers like Wagner, Brahms, or Schubert. The 20th century gave us Yon and so forth - no one really seems to miss that stuff, either.

We all need to level with ourselves and realize we are basically modern-day Cæcilians, and that the movement of the 19th century did not come to fruition - or else Glory & Praise couldn’t have happened.

Ours would be a lesser culture than our forefathers'. They weren't perfect, but at least they tried. I know they did in my parents' little parish.

And in lots of places, it was tried. We have parishioners here who remember being learning to read the neumes in Catholic grade school. In most places, it doesn’t seem to have been a success - either it was too hard, or what not, but “Abba, Father” presented an attractive alternative, which couldn’t have happened if the Cæcilians’ work had had the desired outcome.

At Friday, September 01, 2006 3:42:00 PM, Anonymous Pes said...

Well, I've only read about the Caecilian movement in Fr. Schuler's history over at CMAA (itself a Caecilian renovation). Looks like the story was more complicated.

Circumstances are different now. New generation. New technologies. Different thesis/antithesis, culturally speaking.

I agree with those who say young people are looking for something to take seriously, and that includes the music of Mass.

At the same time, I don't think "Romanitas" will be the draw. I don't even think "catchy melodies" will be, either. That's just not substantial enough. You know what moves the young people I talk to? Arvo Part. Tavener. Deep, Eastern isons. In short, music that is defamiliarizing, of serious space and depth, something they can acknowledge as beautiful but *beyond* them. In short, the terrifying sublime.

The "song" format is dead, even in youth pop. (Pre-teen pop still works it of course.) Few of them can stand the sight of an adult trying to sing "songs" in a style so patently calculated to market to "the young." They find it patronising, and I don't blame them.

Cantor, the Mass has to savor of salt. We have to have our senses re-oriented, not reinforced. We have to be taken out of clock time, out of secular musical form, out of the marketplace. It is so important in my view to have the experience of walking on holy ground, in holy fear, in a space that transcends us.

That is the highest musical calling, and it's just painful to see how less bold, how less sensory, how pallid our Masses have become this past generation. We are Roman Catholics! Our forefathers made people scared to be sinful! God was THERE, the candles made the light dance, the place didn't smell like home, the eyes of the saints were upon us, the sun slanted through the stained glass in a glory. We are the heirs of Byzantium!

The minimalist woodsy St. Louis camp is a genial form of iconoclasm. Let the Protestants have it!

At Saturday, September 02, 2006 1:59:00 PM, Anonymous Cantor said...

This is all fine and good, but I am today making music with volunteer musicians - one is a 50-something guitarist who can’t strum eighth notes without swinging and who silently grumbles about psalm-tone psalms, and the other is a septuaginarian tenor who, while 30 years ago he’d have been awesome, anymore he can’t sing anything other than melody, and he has trouble reading to sing the resp. psalm.

The parish choir isn’t much better - just to do *simple* 4-part polyphony is a real stretch. The most that can be said is that it’s a balanced ensemble full of good-natured people.

I like Tavener (when I don’t have to sing bass!) and some Pärt, but it just ain’t happening without more professional-grade musicians than just me. Heck, I’m a singer, not an organist, and look how I’m making my living!

At Sunday, September 03, 2006 9:37:00 AM, Anonymous Pes said...

I've been in those choirs, Cantor. I know what you're saying. Do they find singing any polyphony satisfying? It's hard to imagine the negative. If they do, perhaps you can start them singing simple cadences in rehearsal. Then have them sing 6/4 chords to prolong dominant harmony. Then get the bass to work a little harder and take them through progressions with descending thirds. Etc.

I wonder whether it would be useful to write a progressively "tutorial" Mass, composed of smooth four-part harmonies, which would lead choirs through basic harmonic progressions and yet be worshipful, not academic.

The tenor will appreciate having a key harmonic role that's still simple. With a little work, you could map the progressions on the guitar so the guitarist could begin to read classically and appreciate more than cowboy-chord voicings.

I respect your challenges, Cantor.

At Monday, September 04, 2006 7:54:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

The choir finds polyphony satisfying, but it’s very hard to cull it together. I’m lucky enough to have a somewhat balanced ensemble. The most talented musicians in the parish are usually in the pews, in other ministries, or are in music but refuse to sing in the choir.

We’re doing good stuff, but that’s only one Mass of three. We have Gather Comprehensive (70% Haugen-ish, 30% organ-friendly), so the selection of congregational hymns is paltry; worse yet, my predecessor planned hardly any of the chorale-type hymns.

Haugen/Haas has more than cowboy-chord voicings - have a look at Haugen Ps. 66 or Haas Ps. 51.

Part of my problem is that I’ve spent enough time around college-age people, professional and volunteer, that encountering 50-year-olds who can’t sustain a pitch is a whole different problem than I’ve been trained to deal with.

At Tuesday, September 05, 2006 10:26:00 AM, Anonymous Pes said...


How much does it cost for a parish your size to purchase a new set of hymnals? The Adoremus hymnal, for example. Or, if it ever gets reprinted, Dr. Marier's Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Canticles? Has your parish ever surveyed its congregation to determine the most convenient time for choir practice? It sounds like you could use fresh singers. Not replacements, necessarily, but simply more vocal material to work with.

At Tuesday, September 05, 2006 11:11:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...


I have to be careful not to let on too much of the details of my parish (since PT and I need anonymity in the blogosphere).

When a parish moves to a new hymnal, usually they need to preserve the existing corpus of familiar music as best as possible. (In which case, the parish’s erstwhile move from OCP to Gather Comp is questionable.) Adoremus would be a very bad move in that regard; a logical step beyond Gather Comp might be Ritual Song or Gather Comp 2.

We also have Spirit & Song, which is its own can of worms.

Any substantial shift in our parish would threaten to scare away people who are attached to, say, Spirit & Song. There are too many other parishes around for us to be able to do that.

Culturally, the parish has traditionally been a vacuum. The church building is from the 1950s - very efficiency-oriented, and then they had the ravages of post-V2 on top of that. It’s carpeted, with a V-shaped ceiling made of wooden planks. I don’t think their choir had sung a note of polyphony before I got here; it’s mostly been stuff like SATB arrangements of “In This Very Room”.

Needless to say, I am feeling that my days here should be numbered, for my own sanity’s sake.

We could definitely use more singers (and, really, more parishioners). If I could move to the choir loft, that would help, since people wouldn’t feel “on display”. That may happen, but I would need a regular rotation of cantors, which isn’t the reality.

And even making the choir better only improves one of the weekend Masses. Then I would still have others, where the musicians pretty well forbid me to play the organ, with which to contend.

At Wednesday, September 06, 2006 12:04:00 PM, Anonymous Pes said...

Those are remarkable challenges. I had no idea. I can well understand the centripetal power of a hymnal: familiarity is a powerfully conservative force. But it's amazing to think that congregations *form* around hymnals.

I'm beginning to see how money/collections is a potent influence as well. Lose parishioners, you lose collections. Music could eventually force a parish to close if the numbers fall far enough.

At Wednesday, September 06, 2006 8:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cantor, I've been engaged in a running battle with my choir director as to the volume of the organ -- she always says it's too loud, and is either unable or unwilling to listen to my explanations of how the organ should be used to support congregational singing. Like you, I feel that my days are numbered as organist because I've been there 20 years, and the choir directory is, to put it mildly, more interested in socializing than in discovering new material for the choir to sing. Likewise, we have elderly members who are unable to attend weekly rehearsal, but always show up on Sundays -- which limits our ability to explore challenging material. So, yes, I think that this year will be my last. I almost resigned last year, but being a glutton for punishment have decided to hang in for another session -- I had hearing problems which have since been cleared up, so it will be interesting to see if things improve this year. If they don't, then I'm outta there in June.

At Wednesday, September 06, 2006 9:50:00 PM, Blogger Brian Michael Page said...

I took the liberty of turning your dialogue into a trialogue. Actually, I just added my own fitty cent worth. ;)


At Saturday, September 16, 2006 11:18:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

10. ...Organs, naturally, should "lead" congregational singing by effectively drowning it out.

Oh, yes. I once dropped out of a Catholic choir when the college trained organist (perhaps at the choir director's orders) crescendoed through every hymn. I suffered through this for several weeks until one Sunday, she played the last verse of SLANE so loud that I could not hear the opera trained soprano next to me.

I hold a degree in organ performance and am a music director -which is why I choose not to sign my name. From experience, I've learned that one thing that Catholics hate is to be blown out of the church, unless they are really singing. Now, if they are singing GROSSER GOTT, you NEED to pull out all the stops.


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