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.)

11 Comments:

At Monday, October 29, 2007 4:43:00 PM, Anonymous pdt said...

Cantor –

You’ve hit on several hot buttons with your current and referenced post. In general principle I detest solos during the Mass. While some that I have heard have been wonderful, far too often I have seen them devolve into performance more than prayer. I have heard wonderful singing that would elicit a standing ovation in a presentation of Les Miserables but had no place in a sanctuary. At the same time I have seen choirs wracked with internal dissent as the prima donnas and divas duke it out over who should be singing what and when. It’s simply not a healthy environment.

I am perhaps a bit two faced here, because as a cantor I’ve been asked to sing the 12:15 Christmas Mass (overflow for the midnight Mass) and to prepare a solo for a prelude. The music director knows me well enough not to have been shocked when I agreed, with the understanding that I will not sing O Holy Night or its ilk, but rather Dominus Dixit.

Yet I read in your comments an even greater problem – is there a need for a choir at all in your new order? If the congregation or celebrant is to be singing everything, what need is there for a choir? The choir become nothing more than an extension of the congregation that volunteers an extra two hours of rehearsal a week. Why keep them as a group? It would be better to disperse them among the congregation and provide kindling for the congregational singing.

You’re right about modern music often being too difficult for the average person. It seems that there is an unwritten code that calls for at least two time signature changes along the way, and an extra two points for a key signature change. Since we’re rid of that pesky four-part choir, let’s dumb it down for the congregation and write everything in the key of ‘C’. Give the organist a book with the actual music. Nobody will be the wiser.

Oh sure, people with perfect pitch would notice. But they and all the other real musicians will be down the street at the Episcopal church using the musical talent they were given to give praise to the God who gave it to them.

 
At Monday, October 29, 2007 7:31:00 PM, Anonymous Michael O'Connor said...

I've never understood why so many people advocate only congregational singing. I guess some are afraid that people can't actively participate if they are not physically doing something. The documents of the Church spell out the roles of the priest, choir, cantor, and congregation. All have their parts to play and all just want to know what is expected of them. The cantor's role expands, however, in the absence of a choir. The congregation, for example, cannot realistically be expected to sing any of the sequences (in their original texts and melodies) without help or even with it. I've seen so many Easters pass with a mumbled version of the glorious Victimae paschali laudes just because some liturgist was afraid to a cantor or choir would "take away" the prayer from the people. Nonesense.

 
At Monday, October 29, 2007 7:57:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

pdt wrote:
Yet I read in your comments an even greater problem – is there a need for a choir at all in your new order?

Whoa there, Wilbur! Read the archives of this blog before you jump to a conclusion that I am at all opposed to the use of choirs (i.e. singing CHORAL music, without the congregation) in the liturgy.

You’re right about modern music often being too difficult for the average person. It seems that there is an unwritten code that calls for at least two time signature changes along the way, and an extra two points for a key signature change. Since we’re rid of that pesky four-part choir, let’s dumb it down for the congregation and write everything in the key of ‘C’. Give the organist a book with the actual music. Nobody will be the wiser.

Actually, I think the situation you describe is the exception rather than the rule. Stuff that I see coming out now is very accessible for a congregation. Ironically, “Be Not Afraid” and “On Eagle’s Wings” might not be published if they were newly written today.

 
At Monday, October 29, 2007 8:13:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

Michael O’Connor wrote:
I've never understood why so many people advocate only congregational singing. I guess some are afraid that people can't actively participate if they are not physically doing something. The documents of the Church spell out the roles of the priest, choir, cantor, and congregation. All have their parts to play and all just want to know what is expected of them. The cantor's role expands, however, in the absence of a choir. The congregation, for example, cannot realistically be expected to sing any of the sequences (in their original texts and melodies) without help or even with it. I've seen so many Easters pass with a mumbled version of the glorious Victimae paschali laudes just because some liturgist was afraid to a cantor or choir would "take away" the prayer from the people. Nonesense.

Actually, OCP has done a nice job of making Veni Sancte Spiritus accessible for a congregation by setting it to ODE TO JOY. Not that that’s that necessary; Veni is the easiest of the sequences, IMO, and could be sung by an enthusiastic congregation.

And I’m not sure I agree about the cantor’s role expanding in the absence of a choir - ok, maybe a bit insofar as that the choir can sing the Alleluia verse, but if Lutherans and Anglicans have had strong congregational singing traditions for how many years with no cantor, why do we feel it’s a necessity for us?

 
At Monday, October 29, 2007 9:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments about "soloistic" music. It's just too difficult. Come on, triplets, time changes, GRACE NOTES?! Is this a congregational piece or a Messiaen composition?

Also, the contemporary/soloistic music requires a different way of singing. Ever tried singing any of that stuff like you'd sing a normal hymn? I remember being at a chapel service at an evangelical college, my first run in with CCM, and singing their melodies in a full bass voice, holding all notes to their full value and enunciating the syllables with proper vocal diction - it was horrible. Something about that music requires a weak, nasal, falsetto (and dare I say non-committed?) sound. It may be splitting hairs, but I think that kind of singing isn't quite right for church. At the school May Crowning, a guitarist came in and sang this horrible "gospel acclamation" which prompted the same weak folkish singing from the children. I had to think, the sound of those kids gave ME the impression that those words they were singing weren't important. Contrast this to their singing on something like "All Creatures of Our God and King" and you see the difference in attitude it gives the music.

-Gavin

 
At Tuesday, October 30, 2007 7:04:00 PM, Anonymous Michael O'Connor said...

Cantor,

Sorry. I didn't mean to imply that the cantor's role should increase. Just that, w/o a choir, the cantor is obliged in most places to fulfill that role too. I completely agree. I would have a choir at every Mass and ask one fine singer to sing the psalm verses and GA. It's at those Masses w/o choir where questions arise. Lately I've attended Masses where cantor sings the hymns and the congregation sits and listens. I don't think they planned it that way, but that's what has happened.

 
At Wednesday, October 31, 2007 2:22:00 AM, Blogger Cantor said...

Michael,

I think the GIRM’s discussion of a cantor might center more around the idea of a cantor singing the Proper by himself/herself.

The Germans have this right. Singing “Praise to the Lord” without a cantor ain’t rocket science; moreover, having a reasonably well-trained amplified voice in everyone’s ears discourages congregational singing by always “showcasing” a practiced voice for the congregation, who then feel “inadequate”.

 
At Wednesday, October 31, 2007 12:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"having a reasonably well-trained amplified voice in everyone’s ears discourages congregational singing by always 'showcasing' a practiced voice for the congregation, who then feel 'inadequate'."

It's not just that--- psychologically, it sets up a feeling of "unfair competition," that ultimately can lead to the non- mic'ed sub-consciously dogging it.
If you've even done (non-church) vocal performance, (e.g., musical theater,) where only some performers are mic'ed, you've experienced this.
And sometimes in Church, wiht less gifted "song leaders" the lesser effort required of, and so eventually put out by, the singer with the artificial aids, (the breathy crooning, the lazy support, the alck of frontal placement) is mimicked by the congregation, ultimately leading to feeble, effete congregational singing.

(Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

 
At Wednesday, October 31, 2007 12:41:00 PM, Anonymous pdt said...

Okay, Mr. Ed (to maintain our hermeneutic of continuity) -

If propers are to be sung by cantors/soloists, ordinary to be sung by all, and processions (introit, offertory, communion) by all, then the only places I see in your plan for full choir are the one-line Alleluia and Music to Accompany the Race to the Parking Lot.

Yet you do profess to learning some beautiful music. When does your choir get to sing it?

 
At Wednesday, October 31, 2007 8:50:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

pdt,

Choirs should sing by themselves the proper and, as deemed appropriate, parts of the Ordinary. Cantors only sing the proper the absence of a choir.

 
At Wednesday, October 31, 2007 8:50:00 PM, Blogger Cantor said...

...that is, “in the absence of a choir”

 

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