Wednesday, February 28, 2007

choirs and congregational singing

So, I have a question to put to our devoted readers - actually, I suppose more of a scenario and request for commentary.

My new parish choir, capable as they are, has some members who have expressed a desire that I conduct them more often, even on congregational music. My problem with this is two-fold: one, this means I need to keep in sync with an organist and cantor, and it brings into question just who, the cantor or the conductor, is leading the music. The other problem is one of general principle: if the choir is singing as part of the congregation, and the congregation is not conducted, why should the choir be conducted?

What I feel this truly brings into question is the relationship between congregational and choral singing in the Mass.

When I first attended Mass in my new parish (“incognito”, attempting to be seen as just a regular parishioner), what I noticed was that when the choir sang harmonies with congregational music, if I sang confidently and well, I could not hear the choir’s harmonies. So, in order for me to hear the choir’s musical finesse, I had to stop singing.

Does singing harmonies, then, on a song like Haugen’s “Eye Has Not Seen”, undermine the choir’s task of supporting congregational singing, by giving them an incentive not to sing (i.e. to hear the choir’s harmonies)?

So, my first proposal would be that congregational music should contain either no harmonies, or just a soprano descant - something that can be heard and appreciated even when the congregation sings full-blast.

This, however, given our status quo of having the choir sing only offertories without the congregation, risks reducing the choir’s role to one of simply “learn a new anthem each week”. There are worse things, true, but what if we gave back some of the music that, now, is ordinarily given to the congregation, to the choir?


At Thursday, March 01, 2007 10:48:00 AM, Blogger Gavin said...

You've hit on every one of my favorite rant issues. Well, you asked for it:

1. Get rid of the cantor. Well, not you yourself, but you know the person I mean. I know that isn't the answer you were looking for, but it is a point to be made.

2. You should get rid of the cantor in order to reinforce that it is the organist that leads the singing. Not the cantor, not you as a conductor (unless there's a difficult concertato, of course), but the organist. It's not a matter of arrogance or elitism, but the organ is designed to lead the singing. Let it do that, and make sure your choir understands that function.

3. I disagree with your theory about singing in parts. I'm fairly certain that, on the familiar hymns where I have my choir sing in parts, no one can hear them doing it. Part of the reason I still do it is to get the choir used to singing in parts, listening for their part in the organ, and have them used to singing in parts for when there's more members it's just an accepted thing. I haven't found it affects congregational singing at all. My hope, and I suppose yours, would be that if someone can't hear the choir over their own singing they would think "Gee, maybe I should join so that they'll be louder!"

4. In response to your proposal that harmonies not be used in congregational music, I find that a very unfortunate viewpoint. I love to quote Ralph Vaughn Williams: "A man would not go to church wearing his wife's hat, so why would he go to sing his wife's part?" Is 4 part congregational singing EVER going to make a popular appearance in Catholicism? No way. That doesn't mean it isn't worth hearing. For the love of God (literally!), get out your recording of the St. Matthew's Passion and listen to "O Sacred Head"! That should set you straight.

5. I don't see a problem with "learn a new anthem each week". Well, unless you're saying that's too minimal a role. I'm not sure. Still, even that is somewhat beyond what I ask of my choir. Typically I try to have one "independent role" for them in the Mass, but some weeks they're just there to sing the hymns. It's a matter of what your choir's capable of, which I trust you're a good judge of.

5a. I don't think there's much wrong with having the choir just sit in the loft and sing the hymns every now and then. People often wonder why Catholic hymn singing is so bad compared to protestant. The basic reason is quite simple (and circular) : Protestants sing, Catholics don't. Or, to put it better, when you go to a protestant congregation, the singing is quite hefty and you can join in. When I attend a Catholic church, I either squeak by on the hymns or just sit there like everyone else staring blankly at the hymnal. The difference is that the "additional noise", if you will, makes people able to join in. It's a vicious cycle.

Where the choir comes in is that if you have a body of singers who are trained in singing and sing the hymns confidently and correctly, that adds to the "noise" of the hymn, and makes people more able to join in. I find just having a choir means I can eschew the "familiar hymns only" rule and pull anything I like out of the hymnal to sing. And even if the choir's the only ones singing, it still sounds nice.

At Thursday, March 01, 2007 11:21:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...


1, 2) Getting rid of the cantor would be a drastic change, and one that likely would make me very unpopular with the strongest singers I have. I don’t have a problem with having a visual songleader for the congregation, but I am sympathetic to the idea that this person need not, maybe should not, be amplified.

3) I am relectant to have my altos sing those low parts in the hymns. The soprano parts are not soprano parts, but medium-voice, everyone-can-sing-this parts. It’s not good, IMO, for the altos. Perhaps my choir is more capable than yours; they pretty clearly do not need to sing chorales to learn to sing in harmony; they learned the Lotti “Miserere”, half of Farrant “Hide not Thou Thy face”, half of “Lord, for Thy tender mercies’ sake”, and the first couple pages of the Rossini choral Palm Sunday proper, in less than two hours.

4) I wouldn’t say 4-part congregational singing will never make an appearance in Catholic liturgy. But, do you really think those harmonizations of “O sacred head” were meant for congregations - given the cost of music printing/copying, low literacy, and the range of some of those harmonizations in Bach’s day? Heck, our choir full of grad music students two years ago had to work fairly hard on the last few bars of the “In meines Herzens Grunde” chorale in the St. John.

5) Yes, I do think “learn a new anthem each week” is too minimal a role for my group. But, it’s what I have inherited, and any change from that will take a while to be accepted by a parish that already is in transition.

5a) I agree about “noise”, but if the choir is singing in unison, their “noise” is quite a bit more helpful to the congregation.

At Thursday, March 01, 2007 12:35:00 PM, Blogger Gavin said...

1) of course. I've done some thinking about what I would do if I weren't at a parish where my priest had done most of the "hard work" for me already. I think my first act would be to remove the cantors from the congregational parts. Just kind of how I approach things. Still, notice my 2nd point there, which is that you should drill in to you choir that the organ leads. When they understand that, they'll understand why you don't conduct hymns.

3) Of course, you know my response is stop using low hymns :P And I would definitely say your choir is more capable than mine. Still that brings up another reason to have them sing in parts: it's fun! I know, not the best reason to do things in church, but they may enjoy it. I know I have to keep telling my altos NOT to sing in parts during unison music!

4) Where are the hymnals with 4-part writing? Until someone steps up and makes a pew hymnal for Catholics with 4 part writing, it won't make an appearance.

4a) I referred to "O Sacred Head" not as a matter of congregational song but for something beautiful the choir can sing while the congregation sings. It may be difficult to hear, but the subtleties of it being present may impress many in the congregation. Perhaps for an a capella verse?

5a) True. That's part of why I only use parts on familiar hymns.

At Thursday, March 01, 2007 1:04:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

1) Our cantors are instructed, actually, to back off from the mic when it’s music the congregation knows and/or when the choir sings. So, for having amplified songleaders, my parish at least does things well.

3) Fun to sing in parts, yes. I will probably say to my people what I think a lot of directors tell their choirs: sing parts if you want the practice reading or just like to sing them; otherwise, sing the melody.

4) Taizé is 4-part congregational music, though I am not sure how often it is presented as such. I think we have Worship II et al. to blame for the harmony-less congregational hymnals.

4a) An a cappella verse would make sense to have some harmonies, yes. But, a cappella is, if we accept that the organ leads the congregation, a signal to the congregation to stop singing.

5a) But, I would never hear your choir’s harmonies, or at least would not hear them well, unless I stopped singing myself.

At Thursday, March 01, 2007 5:09:00 PM, Blogger Mary Jane said...

My cantors only announce the hymns and then back off. Their only microphone time, so to speak, is during the responsorial psalm and the Gospel acclamation verse.

My choir's limitations are such that I don't want to waste time teaching them the parts to congregational songs, with the exception of Communion processional hymns, which few in the congregation sing except for the refrain. At the same time, I wish we had lots of good descants because I have a couple of able sopranos and descants do "juice up" the last verse. In this respect, I remember fondly the time I spent with the 1980 Episcopal Hymnal (although there were some really awful descants in there too).

I like the idea of using more Taize, but there is very little of it in the Oregon Catholic Press material we use. Don't jump on me about OCP; that's beyond my control right now. Consequently, we would have to produce and distribute the music separately.

As for leading the singing, it's the organ all the way (and not just because I'm the organist as well). Recently, I was at a Mass where the organist didn't lead well. If you don't nail the rhythm and feel in that introduction and first four measures, the congregation will be at sea for the duration.

At Thursday, March 01, 2007 11:48:00 PM, Anonymous moconnor said...

I certainly sympathize with the fact that you are new to the parish and cannot modify the cantor usage. My first thought too was, "why do you have a cantor AND choir at the same mass?" When our choir sings at mass, I only send someone up front to do the psalm and GA (when we don't do the latter as a choir). I think that gives them enough to do w/o leading songs. I've never understood the need for a visible song leader (that's just me though).

At Friday, March 02, 2007 6:49:00 AM, Blogger Mary Jane said...

I think song leaders are a "left over" from the 1960s and 70s. For those old enough to remember (or who've read about it), there was also a provision for a commentator at every Mass to tell people what was happening, a la Howard Cosell doing play-by-play. At least that disappeared, so there's something to be grateful for.

Let us hope that the overpowering song leader continues down the same dodo-like path.

At Sunday, March 04, 2007 12:03:00 PM, Anonymous moconnor said...

I think it's going to be a while before cantors disappear. You can't have a choir at every mass in most places and priests want someone there leading the singing. Too bad many of them don't quite get that the organ can do this just as well if not better. Of course it makes it harder to introduce new music with just an organist playing.

At Sunday, March 04, 2007 2:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think we have Worship II et al. to blame for the harmony-less congregational hymnals"

Canto, sorry to stray off-topic, but are you saying that the original Worship DID have parts?

Also, I ca't recall and I only own the accompaniment edition myself, but I think I've been told Collegville has only one singers edition, that is no separate choir and pew format, hence parts for all.

Can anyone confirm?


(Save the Liturgy, Save the World!)

At Sunday, March 04, 2007 3:51:00 PM, Anonymous Candidate said...

Even in protestant denominations, I don't think that many people (in the pews) sing in parts. However, I can say with confidence that I would not have joined my choir without the opportunity to practice singing harmony to familiar tunes in the 'safe' context of congregational singing. I wonder if not being able to try singing harmony in the congregational hymns is part of the reason Catholic parishes produce such pitifully small choirs. That and 3/4 of the congregation thinks its okay to just stand there like a lump.

At Sunday, March 04, 2007 5:45:00 PM, Blogger ScholarChanter said...

Many "modern" songs, especially from OCP, are not made for 4-part singing. We do not have a strong "lead" organ, and the choir is left to lead the music.

If you have the organ accompanying a 4-part hymn, I wouldn't expect to hear the choral parts from the congregation anyway. If it was piano filling in with arpeggios, then maybe. One solution to the problem of not hearing the parts from the congregation may be re-balancing the choir (have most people sing harmonies), or amplifying the choir enough to drown out the congregation maybe? Or seating all soprano/melody voices in the midst of the congregation so that it feels like more people are singing the melody in the congregation?

One solution I've heard about low alto parts: turn it into a soprano descant.

The cantor should be following the conductor, IMHO. It also depends on whether who can follow whom better. The conductor's role, even if it is not so much shaping phrases, but more just keeping everyone together.

One of the most popular mass ordinary I've sung is antiphonal between choir and the congregation (not available in English). Such that the congregation is not singing just the refrains. hmm. I don't know of anything similar that many of us could use in our parishes.

(Save the Liturgy, Save the World! - Sounds like someone else watches Heroes too! )

At Sunday, March 04, 2007 6:27:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

A few thoughts on various comments:

1) I really do think there is something to be said for a visual cue to the congregation. The person giving that cue need not necessarily be amplified. This would facilitate, for example, a cappella hymn-singing, such as on Good Friday (when, by tradition, instruments are silent).

2) Yes, moconnor, one important function an amplified songleader can serve is teaching new music. Especially those who do not read music can get lost if they are only hearing notes - i.e. from a soloed melody line on the organ.

3) Geri, I have never seen an edition of the original Worship hymnal. I was using Worship II as an example of an early post-V2 American Roman Catholic congregational hymnal.

4) It’s worth observing that the exhortations for congregational singing of the Proper in the 1958 and 1967 sacred music instructions may well have been because of the dichotomy of choral ordinaries and unison plainchant propers.

5) Canditate, my experience in Protestant churches has been that hymns are a free-for-all for the choir: sing parts if you want, or sing the melody. Sing a different part as you please. Pastors (i.e. musical “laypeople”) often choose the hymns, which, I think, means they become a more commonplace affair. But to try to generalize about Protestant hymn-singing practice is probably a bit much, ISTM.

6) Candidate, Protestants probably produce bigger choirs “per capita” for the same reason they tithe more often: most have *chosen* their congregation and agree more strongly with their church’s ideology. Mass attendance is at, what, 25% in the U.S., with what overwhelming percentage of Catholics practicing contraception? And our divorce rate is just as high as the national average.

7) SC, I actually have seen a lot of stuff from OCP that, like with GIA, does have harmonized stuff, but in the choral octavo versions. Keil’s “One Spirit, One Church” is an example.

8) SC, My point with choral harmonies not being heard is that the congregation will not hear them if they are really “bene cantare”-ing. The congregation should blow the pants off the sound from the choir, just by sheer numbers. Re the low alto parts, turning them into descants implies good high A etc. in the volunteer soprano section.

9) SC, I disagree about the cantor following a conductor. Why would you have the choir following a different visual cue than the congregation, when the congregation is singing unrehearsed? The cantor should give a clear, rhythmic cue that both choir and congregation can follow easily.

10) SC, Europeans do the antiphonal Ordinary thing. I am not sure I like it, at least not when it’s, say, Mass VIII, as was the case at Notre Dame in Paris when I was there. I kept saying, “dangit, I know how to sing this, and there is no good reason why I shouldn’t sing the whole thing!”


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