Choral harmonies for congregational music
I think most of us around here would agree that congregational singing, per se, is a good thing that ought to be cultivated. Let’s assume, for the sake of this discussion, that the practice of replacing the processional propers of the Mass (i.e. introit, offertory, communion) with congregational songs from Breaking Bread, Gather, et al is legit.
If we are to ask the congregation to sing, we might as well facilitate that as much as possible. Besides choosing congregation-friendly melodies (e.g. “I Received the Living God” or “Christ, Be Our Light”), the music ministry should support the congregation’s singing as much as possible. Right?
And into this swirling vortex of liturgical astuteness, I now posit the question of choral harmonies when the congregation sings.
In a standard four-part chorale, the congregation’s melody is in the soprano voice. This part, however, is NOT a true soprano part! It is a congregational part whose upper range generally should not go above D, with an occasional E-flat maybe. Thus, the “soprano” part is, instead, more like a “medium low” part. (And in some instances, even is more like an alto part - e.g. “One Bread, One Body”!)
Since the melody in the soprano voice sits lower than a real soprano part, this pushes the alto part down even lower than a typical choral alto line. Likewise, the tenor and bass parts are pushed down. I don’t know that that is so problematic for tenors, but for basses it can be a real issue. LOBE DEN HERREN, for example, depending on what key you’re singing, has all kinds of low Fs and Gs.
Now, low notes are not a problem in and of themselves. They often create a wonderful effect in choral music or even in solo music. But as any good composer for the voice knows, not as much sound comes out down there, so music that uses the low range of the voice tend to be quiet. Accompaniment is often thinned, with piano markings in orchestration.
This explains why a choir singing a 4-part congregational chorale, like LOBE DEN HERREN, will usually be quieter than when singing in unison: the altos and basses are usually singing in the part of their ranges where not as much sound comes out. This can create vocal problems, though, with an organ blaring (as it should!) to support the congregation’s singing.
If you’ve ever been to (or sung in) a performance of the Berlioz Requiem, you know the incredible “wall of sound” created when multiple hundreds of voices sing together. Shouldn’t this same thing happen in the Mass, though? Heck, my parish’s new church will hold almost 1,500 - can you imagine the sound if all of those people actually sang?? It would be stupendous. It would probably change lives.
And, it would completely drown out the choir’s pretty harmonies.
We live in a music-absorbing culture rather than a music-producing one. People are more accustomed to hearing music than to making it. A problem that I see with choral harmonies for congregational music is that it gives the congregation an incentive not to sing: if they sing, they won’t hear the choir harmonies.
Another thing to observe is that the sopranos must sit by in boredom while the other voices learn their harmony parts in rehearsal.
For these reasons, I personally would rather see a choir sing in unison whenever the congregation is expected to sing. It supports the congregation better, is better for everyone’s voices, and it won’t have you spending valuable rehearsal time on music for which you ostensibly hope the congregation will sing strongly such that they only hear the organ. It leaves you with more time for rehearing song that only the choir sings.
But, in most parishes, those kinds of songs are limited to the offertory; whereas the liturgy itself gives the choir much more freedom to sing its own part, the implementation effectively cripples that “duet” between choir and congregation.
So, my own choir members have not all taken well to my suggestion that they sing unison whenever the congregation sings, since this effectively relegates them to singing only offertories as the choir. My compromise, then:
1) New congregational music: All unison, all the time.
2) Familiar strophic hymns, which we use almost universally for entrance and recessional, are sung unison for the first and last verses. Middle verse harmonies are sung ad libitum and generally are not rehearsed.
3) Familiar responsorial songs, which we use regularly for communion, are sung unison on the first refrain and verse, with choral parts on refrains thereafter. These refrains we probably will rehearse; I figure it won’t take much time, and I see many congregants who, though they sing at other moments of the Mass, do not sing at communion, esp. after receiving.
In addition, I think we will try singing the Alleluia verse with the entire choir, in parts. (I continue to hope, too, that we can eventually try a short eucharistic motet at communion.)