Saturday, July 21, 2007

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.)


At Saturday, July 21, 2007 9:33:00 AM, Blogger Mary Jane said...

I'm with you on this in principle. And I particularly appreciate the contrast between music-producing and music-absorbing cultures. My choir is now singing the Gloria (Alstott) in parts. The melody is very strong, so the congregation can find it if they want. Additionally, I need to keep pushing this choir forward and this was a manageable piece, the weekly usefulness of which would repay the time to teach it. (To avoid soprano boredom - or more generally female boredom because everyone learns faster than the men, I'll have the women sing the men's parts along with them until we're ready to put things together.)

I think you can safely harmonize the Alleluias and Amens without fearing loss of congregational participation. The balancing act between the vision of a singing congregation and the demands of the folks in the choir is exhausting. You have my sympathy and my prayers.

At Saturday, July 21, 2007 10:38:00 AM, Anonymous alice said...

At my parish, I have always thought that people sing better when the choir sings in parts or adds a descant on familiar hymns/songs/Mass parts. On the rare occasion that I am in the congregation, I prefer to sing when the choir sings in parts are sung than when they do not. There is a certain fullness of sound that makes for a far more pleasant experience, IMHO.

That said, your three points make sense to me. The places that seem to be the best for choir music, without the congregation taking offense, are as a prelude, Offertory, and post-Communion. Descants in other places can be a great help with bored sopranos :)

At Saturday, July 21, 2007 11:27:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...


I would love to do the post-communion choral thing, but how do you square that with the GIRM, which only envisions congregational singing at that time?

At Saturday, July 21, 2007 12:05:00 PM, Anonymous Klaus der Große said...

It may be too strict to read paragraph 88 of the US GIRM as forbidding choral music post-communion; it does not seem to forbid what may be called "mood music" while the priest and faithful are praying, even though it does not make explicit mention of it, and does emphasize a communal song of praise.

Why would they not make explicit mention of a choral meditation were it permitted? That I cannot answer. Christian liturgy has a tradition of simultaneous action by two or more portions of the participants, and that tradition is certainly not abrogated in the current rite.

At Saturday, July 21, 2007 12:28:00 PM, Anonymous alice said...

It seems to me that option 4 (paragraph 87) allows for a choral work during the distribution of Holy Communion. If this is done, I can see a congregational hymn being sung, as suggested in paragraph 88. I do not think that paragraph 88 forbids the choir from singing a choral meditation while the priest and congregation pray or while the priest purifies the vessels.

At Saturday, July 21, 2007 12:44:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

Alice and Klaus,

ISTM there are three time periods at hand:

1) During communion

2) During purification (i.e. celebrant not yet in the chair)

3) Celebrant is in the chair

The GIRM clearly gives us options for time period 1. Time period 2 is not mentioned in the GIRM, so I can see here being a good time for an “Ave verum” or some such.

Of time period 3, however, GIRM 88 does explicitly “by the entire congregation”. Had there been a desire to allow choral-only singing, I think that phrase could simply have been left off.


At Saturday, July 21, 2007 5:01:00 PM, Blogger HilbertAstronaut said...

Dear Cantor --

Regarding your original post, there are genres of congregational harmony in which the melody is placed centrally in the harmony rather than in the highest part. See, e.g., shaped-note hymns, faux bourdon.

I also think you're reading the GIRM much too strictly. It seems pastorally undesirable to "force" the congregation to sing after they have received Communion, particularly in parishes with a strong custom of a longer period of meditation after Communion.

At Saturday, July 21, 2007 5:47:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

Hi Hilbert,

I am acquainted with Billings and other practices that place the melody in the middle of the harmonies. But, that is not a practice that Catholics in the United States have adopted; I think it would be more confusing than anything if we tried to use it.

Parishes where “forcing” the congregation to sing is unadvisable should, then, not sing once the priest has reached the presider’s chair.

One way to work around this (heh, here I go, trying to skirt the documents) would be to start the “Ave verum” or what not a minute or so before the end of communion. This would give that minute, plus the purification time, for singing the motet.

At Sunday, July 22, 2007 9:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I disagree with you about pitches. Well, think a half step higher and nothing at all below middle Bb (and that quite rarely). Anyway, that's another argument.

I understand your concerns, but I can't help but think something's missing when hymns are sung in unison. I subscribe to the R. Vaughn Williams view of "a man would not wear his wife's hat to church, so why should he sing her part?" Of course, we all know part singing is a lost effort on Catholic congregations just as congregational singing is almost there. What to do? I don't know, maybe more a capella? If you ever come up with an answer, let me know.


At Thursday, July 26, 2007 3:48:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...


I meant D to D as a generalization. Still, if one considers the modal system, with its general use of one-octave ranges (with “padding”) as being well-suited to the voice, I think there is something to it.

Anyhow. RVW’s logic borders on the absurd - I would imagine he doesn’t intend to be taken at face-value, but I could say, “a man doesn’t wear his wife’s hat, so why sing her words”.

As to how to get Catholics to sing in parts - let’s first just deal with how to get them to sing in unison.

At Saturday, July 28, 2007 1:09:00 PM, Blogger Mike said...

I get the feeling almost no one here has ever been to a Protestant service where the booklets have 4 part harmonies of all the hymns printed right in the congregation's books.

Never mind also that "dumbing down" the music given to the congregation is also a bit of a no-confidence vote on the part of the music leaders (a not-so-subtle one in my opinion).

At Saturday, July 28, 2007 1:13:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...


Most well-known hymn tunes are “dumb” - easy, straightforward melodies with lots of repetition and modest, one-octave ranges.

Even that aside, it is necessary to keep congregational music rhythmically straightforward to facilitate ease of staying together.

At Saturday, July 28, 2007 4:12:00 PM, Blogger Mike said...

you admit it's "dumb" already, yet want to keep it dumber by cutting harmonies altogether? that's the vote of no-confidence I mentioned.

Besides, since when was it the congregations job to sound good? That's the choir's job. The congregation is there to sing and worship. putting it pretty much any other way is the triumph of aesthetics over worship; the cult of beauty wins.

At Saturday, July 28, 2007 4:24:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...


I think the original post gives a number of very good reasons to have the choir sing in unison, not the least of which being better support of the congregation’s singing.

It’s not so much “no-confidence” as putting out as much of a helping hand as possible, especially to someone who is new.

It also could be that, personally, I don’t mind singing the melodies, even in unison. I just like to sing. I don’t mind singing the tenor lines (the bass parts are often uncomfortably low), but it’s not a big deal to me.


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