Sunday, October 28, 2007

The cult of the soloist

ISTM that there are three kinds of liturgical vocal music: congregational, ministerial, and presidential. The first and last categories are, ideally, characterized by easy melodies conducive to singing by non-specialists. The other kind, ministerial, is harder music that needs someone with more developed singing faculties - or that requires dedicated rehearsal outside of the liturgy.

I can’t recall if I have blogged about this before, but the role of soloists seems to be something of a question mark running through (what I know of) Western liturgical tradition. I believe a consensus is that graduals and Alleluias were often historically sung with soloists on verses, and particularly pieces like the great “Qui habitat” and “Deus, Deus meus” tracts seem more soloistic in nature than not.

We have an abundance now of music that is not well-written for its ostensible purpose of conducing congregational singing. Tom Booth’s “Find Us Ready” is a good example of what I mean. The refrain learns easily enough, but to me, it still bears stylistic traits of solo singing: syncopation and “stop-go phrasing” (e.g. 2-3 quick notes, then 3 beats of rest, then a few quick notes, then rests, ...).

Assuming that one accepts my idea that “Find Us Ready” & Co., aside from any musical judgement, are best considered “soloistic” music, we are basically left comparing such melodies to the melismatic chants of the Proper, in that each kind of melody is best sung by a soloist.

And, in my opinion, there is very little that truly gratifies a choir in singing “Find Us Ready” in a chorale harmonization. (For an explanation, review my post about choral harmonies to congregational music.)

Commentary on an article from WDTPRS

I, like many, many others, frequent the blog of Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, What Does the Prayer Really Say? From time to time, though, I find stuff to which I with Fr. Z would reply with a bit more consternation.

For example, the following excerpt from a recent post on the blog:
Treacy Gibbens switched from attending Sunday Mass at St. Williams Parish in Naples to the Latin liturgy this summer. “There are fewer distractions,” he says. “You can really pray. I love it.”

And what, pray tell, does Mr. Gibbens regard as a distraction? The reading aloud of prayers in which he is to take part himself? How is it a distraction to do this?

Later in the same missive:
“It’s not somewhere where they can play around,” says Jared Kuebler.

“There’s things here that remind you this is something special, outside of your daily life,” he adds. “They notice the difference. They sit quietly and they play quietly.”

And what, exactly, is it about the Ordinary Form that encourages “playing around”?

I am all for having the TLM around - but its advocacy must NOT be for the reasons listed above. If it is so, then the problem is that these people haven’t raised enough of a ruckus about the celebration of the Mass in the Ordinary Form.

How about trying the following:

  1. Sing everything except the homily. Yes, the readings, too.

  2. Vest every liturgical minister (lay or priest) in an alb or “greater”.

  3. Succinct homilies that eschew “theatricality” and, in general, restrain themselves to expounding on the texts of the Mass. (THE HOMILY IS THE LEAST IMPORTANT PART OF THE LITURGY OF THE WORD!)

  4. Use of incense - or at least, something that looks like it (but that won’t bother people’s throats).

  5. No attempts at humor. I love to laugh, but the Mass doesn’t seem the best place for that to happen.

I think these are the easiest things to change in the Mass that will address some of the issues that these advocates of the TLM are raising.

Maybe people should only be granted a TLM if they can describe what it is specifically about the TLM that cannot be done in the Ordinary Form. The Mass I describe above would be difficult to regard as “play time”, and fewer parts of it would likely be regarded as “distractions”.

There is a part of me that wonders if Summorum Pontificum isn’t destined to be a short-lived document: it may come to pass that a solemnly sung Ordinary Form Mass is universally regarded as just hunkey dorey. (sp?) Miss the prayers of the TLM? Fine - there’s no reason those can’t be added, at least as options, to the Ordinary Form. Don’t like the Sign of Peace? First, consider why it was added/restored, and then look into educating people so they don’t turn it into a hug-fest. (And please, let’s consider moving it to before the offertory - the Anglican Use has this right, I think.) Don’t like the general intercessions? They could be made optional - in the meantime, it’s not the worst thing to have them there.

Friday, October 26, 2007

29 OT--Year C

29 OT--Year C

Processional: Tietze Introit

Offertory: Salve Regina (Liszt)

Communion: Domine, Dominus noster w/Viadana fauxbourdon

Recessional: Hail, Holy Queen Enthroned Above

Added two more altos this week, which is exciting; I desperately needed at least one more. Both are fine musicians, one with aspirations of being a liturgical musician post-college.

The Liszt is beautiful, though not without its challenges. We rarely do Romantic music, so it was a learning experience for some of my choristers. It came together nicely for mass.

The chant was fine. I'm very pleased with the progress the group is making with this genre. The pedagogical approach is paying off, it seems, as well as the fact that everyone is singing it every week, as opposed to the every-other week situation I had last year. At rehearsal on Wednesday, they sight-read "Laetabimur" (Communion--30 OT) near flawlessly. Very exciting to see things "click in" with the chant repertory.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


I did two weddings today, both of which were, to me, somewhat remarkable.

The first wedding was a couple apparently in their 30s who wanted things to be “different”. I guess the highlight of their wedding’s different-ness was exchanging wedding vows that they themselves had written. (I imagine that’s licit....heck, the whole wedding rite is replete with liberties to adapt etc.) They were ok - kinda sappy in some parts, but I liked how they ended it with something to the effect of “may God punish me if I ever seek to part from this marriage before death.”

This wedding was also remarkable in that the bride accepted a suggestion from me that she have some Gregorian chant - so, I did the “In te speravi, Domine” offertory, the second of two that the Graduale Romanum gives for wedding Masses. The text is, I think, stunning for weddings: “In You, O Lord, I have trusted; I said: You are my God; my welfare is in your hands.” (Ps. 31:15,16 - Klaus, I hope I translated that acceptably!) What a wonderful sense of surrender to God’s will, a reminder that we are and have nothing except by God’s design. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the same psalm that Jesus quotes in St. Luke’s Gospel as He dies. (And, going a step further - remember 1 Corinthians: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ laid down His life for the Church...”)

The second wedding was a more typical one except rather large for being so - 10 bridesmaids and groomsmen. The couple was about my age, give and take a few years. The bride was of Italian descent and wanted something sung at some point in Italian. She first came to me with a pop-style thingie that I really didn’t think was consistent with the concept of “ritual music”; thankfully I was able to find a simple Italian-language setting of the first couple verses of “Ubi caritas” - nothing musically remarkable, but it’s another text that I wish were sung more at weddings.

And, another remarkable element: the bride and groom were EMHCs. They had had the Cana wedding Gospel passage read, and I thought the symbolism was nice.

This second wedding was also the first one I have played since relocating to my new parish. I’ve been woodshedding for the last couple of weeks - it actually went better than I expected, with no major flubs from me save for a few “emancipated dissonances” in the pedals. ;-) The repertoire: Handel air in F, Jesu Joy, Kanon in D, Trumpet Voluntary, Mass o’ Creation, Schubert Ave, La réjouissance, Marcello Psalm 19. I was nervous, I confess, when the trumpeter told me he needed tempos that I thought were pretty sprightly - at least, they were peppier than I had been practicing!

Friday, October 19, 2007

28 OT--Year C

28 OT--Year C

Processional: The Church's One Foundation (AURELIA)

Offertory: Ave Maris Stella (chant and Anerio)

Communion: Aufer a me

Recessional: The God Whom Earth and Sea and Sky

For Offertory, we sang the chant, vs. 1, followed by the motet, and then the chant, vs. 2. Turned out very well as the choir sang wonderfully. The motet itself is quite a gem: cantus firmus in the sooprano line with some early-Baroque harmonies fit within a "stile antico" framework. The following link will take you to a score (CPDL's version seems to be down), but I used an edition that Cantor whipped up last year.

The Communio was fine, though we've had a couple mis-steps the past two weeks that were absent prior to that. I told the choir that it was God's way of keeping me humble . . . that and pointing out my need to better prepare them before mass.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Contemporary music

I was accused this summer in a personal correspondence of having a "disdain" for contemporary music. In the course of attempting to defend myself, I did realize (and which was confirmed by a colleague/reader of the blog) that if you only know me through my blog-writing, you could easily think that the initial statement was true.

I will admit that I have a much greater love for Palestrina/Lassus than for Haugen/Haas, and I'm very fortunate as to be in a position where I can do the former on a weekly basis. But I don't think I've ever called for the wholesale exclusion of the latter (or added my name to a site like this, which I see as being counter-productive), though I'm not shy about criticizing the shortcomings of the evolution of this music in general, and various flaws in specific pieces.

I like to think of my outlook on Catholic liturgical music as somewhat centrist, an idealist tempered by realism. Though I wouldn't be sad if every parish in the world turned to Gregorian chant and polypony, I'm astute enough to realize that that isn't going to happen anytime soon. Nor do I think it would be to the greater benefit to the Church Militant in this particular age.

I grew up in a pretty nominal Catholic household. We went to Church on Sundays, prayed before meals, and many of my moral values (though not all) were formed by Christian ethics. But to say I was a devout Catholic in high school would be highly inaccurate.

The first time I went to mass in college was pivotal for my life, no question. I remember going in with the attitude, "Well, I'll give this a try." I don't remember much about that mass except that I was enthralled with the music. No, not Byrd, Josquin, chant . . . Haugen. Haas. Joncas (well, OK, not Joncas--I've never liked his music). I joined the choir right after mass. From there, I participated in the various choirs at the Church over the next four years, slowly building my knowledge of the Faith and my relationship with the Lord.

It would be accurate to say that my knowledge, even after graduating, was lacking, especially in areas of liturgy. As I studied more after college and read more writings on the liturgy, my sensibilities definitely shifted, and I am now more firmly entrenched in the world of CMAA as opposed to NPM (my music studies played a role in this shift as well). But I am quick to add that if that first mass had been done by the traditional choir at the church (which I now direct!), there's a good chance that my life would have turned out much differently.

I'm in charge of six ensembles in my current position, ministering to college students with various music styles ranging from Gregorian chant to contemporary Praise and Worship with all the different gradations in between. And honestly, if my pastor approached me tomorrow and asked that I shift all the music to chant/polyphony, I'd fight it wholeheartedly (I don't foresee this happening BTW).

I'm a firm believer in the following:

1) College is a very transitional period in the faith life of a person.

2) Liturgy is vital to helping students retain and build upon their Catholic faith.

3) College students need a musical "entry-point" into the Liturgy.

I'm in this profession because I believe that music is vital to the Holy Mass, and I'm in a college setting because I believe that this is the time that young Catholics are most fully-formed. People are formed not only by the Mass itself, but also by the liturgical environment that we provide for them, including music.

Ideally, if freshman come in and prefer to attend one of the weekend masses with music in a more contemporary vein, hopefully, through adequate liturgical formation (which I don't feel we do enough of currently), they will wind up at the "traditional" mass by the time they graduate. We have to get them in the pews first though.

The problems I struggle with when addressing this issue, though, usually relate to many deficiencies I and many others see in the current repertoire of contemporary "folk" music. I think even the most hardened heart could agree that a lot of this music is trite, syrupy, poorly crafted in general. Where I differ from many in the blogosphere, is that I would like to analyze each piece individually as opposed to throwing everything out just because it was written after 1960 and seems to work with piano accompaniment.

So here's the question: what piece or pieces currently in existence exemplify a "model" for this music? Is there any piece out there (let's think congregational at this point) that has a quality melody, quality text, and just happens to be in the "folk" style?

Thumbing through my Ritualsong hymnal (the only one near me), I find the following to be noteworthy (Disclaimer: By no means do I believe all of the following to be beyond reproach; also, I left out anything I didn't feel was in the "folk" style):

*53 Ps. 25 (To You, O Lord--Haugen)

66 Ps. 33 (Let your mercy be on us--Haugen)

*69 Ps. 34 (The Cry of the Poor--Foley)

*70 Ps. 34 (Taste and See--Haugen)

*127 Ps 95 (If Today--Haas)

135 Ps. 98 (All the Ends of the Earth--Haas/Haugen)

152 Ps. 116 (The Name of God--Haas)

158 Ps. 118 (This is the Day--Haugen)

322, 323, 324 Sanctus/Mem. Accl./Amen (Mass of Creation--Haugen)

330, 331 Kyrie/Gloria (Mass of Light--Haas)

*341, 352 Kyrie/Lamb of God (Mass of Remembrance--Haugen)

*495 My Soul in Stillness Waits (Haugen)

516 Carol at the Manger (Haugen)

541 Tree of Life (Haugen)

555 Return to God (Haugen)

612 Send Us Your Spirit (Haas)

638 Canticle of the Sun (Haugen)

*697 Glory and Praise to Our God (Schutte)

*723 We Walk By Faith (Haugen)

758 Eye Has Not Seen (Haugen)

One more I would add that is not in this hymnal, but I just thought of:

*All the Earth (Deiss)

*Asterisks denote pieces that I think are good models for future compositions in this style. What do they have in common? Sturdy texts, singable melodies, conducive to variety in accompaniment and instrumentation . . . and well, IMO, appropriate for the House of God.

27 OT--Year C

Processional: Introit Hymn (Tietze)

Offertory: Ave Maria (Arcadelt)

Communion: In Salutari w/Viadana fauxbourdon

Recessional: Sing of Mary

Well, I'm always looking for excuses to explore the vast Marian choral repertoire, and the month of October (Month of the Holy Rosary) is a decent one. We'll be doing Marian stuff throughout the next few weeks.

The choir is growing steadily it seems; added another soprano and another bass this past week. In a perfect world where everyone was present for at least one week, this is what I'd have:

6 sopranos
3 altos
2 tenors
9(!) basses

The two tenors seems inadequate, but I have one who is fantastic and can carry the section by himself. I wouldn't be sad if I could add one or two more altos, as 2 of the current ones are not true altos. The nine basses seem to be a blessing, though we have nine very different voices, and making them blend/sing in-tune consistently has been tricky. This is the section with the least experience with choral singing in general.

The Arcadelt went well; I bumped it up a half-step for tuning purposes and the sopranos handled the higher tessitura admirably. It's a lovely piece . . . clearly, it seems that Biebl had it somewhat in mind when composing his own setting of the text. Turns out this piece originally had a madrigal text to it . . . hmm.

The chant was fine, despite a couple conducting blunders on my part. Keeps me humble.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

an AWESOME Psalm 100!

Charles Wood “Jubilate” in A-flat

Based on OLD HUNDREDTH, has lots of unison, and
has this super-cool quasi-ostinato walking bass line. Easy ranges and
lots of unison - any mixed choir should handle it well. Psalm 100 w/
doxology, BCP translation.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

26 OT--Year C

26 OT--Year C

Processional: Alleluia! Sing to Jesus (HYFRYDOL)

Psalm: Gelineau (I'm going to stop including this one; we always do Gelineau)

Offertory: Super Flumina Babylonis (Lassus)

Communion: Memento verbi w/Viadana fauxbourdon

Recessional: Praise, My Soul (LAUDA ANIMA)

I didn't like the Tietze Introit melody for this week (and couldn't find a better tune to put with the text) so I scrapped it. Happens occasionally and probably the only person that minds much is me.

We had some growing pains with the Lassus. It was a challenge last year and a challenge this year; I wish this Proper fell a bit later in the year because I love this setting; I finally have to cave and ask our organist to double the parts because we were having some intonation issues that I just couldn't fix 100 percent in the brief rehearsal time we had with it. The choir seemed to have the hardest time with the rhythm; this is renaissance polyphony at its best and some of the entrances were tricky (especially since they are still adjusting to these editions that use the half-note as the pulse). In fact, on the last page I had to put the altos back on track when they entered a beat late (my fault) and then the basses did the same, though they corrected after a couple measures (also my fault as I was trying to fix the altos during their entrance). All in all, it came off pretty well, though we did need the organ to double and I wish I could have had one more week to rehearse it.

Memento was a nice introduction to the phrygian mode; it has a very "major" feel to it at the beginning and then eases its way nicely into mode 4. To get a sense of the mode, I actually had them sing the end first and worked my way backwards . . . not during mass, of course. Again, they are really doing a nice job with the chant; they're making some nice strides and it's seeming to click a little quicker than it did last year.