About this blogger:
A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he resides with his wife and children.
Connect on Facebook:
Connect on Twitter:
The People’s Hymnal suffers from a too literal and awkward translation. And even in the lovely Slovak “Memorare” in The Saint Gregory Hymnal we are still asked to sing “that anyone who sought thee, or made to thee his moan.” Why not “groan” or “bone” or even “phone?” The only thing necessary, it seems, is that it rhyme with “known.”
— Mons. Francis P. Schmitt (1958)

“Your Choirmaster” • What Nobody Realizes
published 7 February 2019 by Jeff Ostrowski

85483-Notre-Dame-CANADA-FLT VERY SUNDAY for the last four years, it has been my strong intention to create a blog post dealing with something I call “the insane crunch.” I’m referring to the beginning of Mass in the Extraordinary Form. The article I’ve been planning would meticulously enumerate the stressful items that must be accomplished by the choirmaster during the first five minutes, a period of time when I enter into a “different state of consciousness.”

But—like a dream at daybreak—by the time I get home on Sunday night, I can no longer remember everything that happened. Therefore, the article never gets written. You see, on Sundays I play and direct four (4) Sunday Masses, Solemn Vespers, and choir rehearsals. After that, I’m usually exhausted! Anyhow, I’m determined to attempt such an article, even though today is not Sunday.

The “insane crunch” is made up of the following:

(1) Making sure choir members are in place

(2) Organ or Hymn at beginning of Mass

…immediately followed by:
|(3) Asperges Intonation, Plainsong, and Polyphonic extension

…immediately followed by:
|(4) Responses that occur after the Asperges.

…immediately followed by:
|(5) Introit, sung in plainsong.

…immediately followed by:
|(6) Polyphonic Kyrie

…immediately followed by:
|(7) Go to organ; give priest his pitches

…immediately followed by:
|(8) Polyphonic Gloria

Every Sunday, I’m utterly amazed at how much effort it takes to successfully pull off the “insane crunch.” One cannot stop or catch one’s breath: each piece follows immediately. The choirmaster soon learns that he must do everything himself, without any assistance from anyone. For instance, certain tasks are supposed to be delegated to the altar servers or ushers; but unless you take care of them, these tasks often won’t be done properly. Also, be prepared to handle “surprises”—such as somebody messing with the lights, somebody having a mental breakdown or crisis, somebody trying to give you messages or gifts as Mass is starting, somebody messing with the air conditioning, somebody turning off the electricity to your organ console, and so forth. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve asked the Master of Ceremonies to (please) warn me if the priest is going to start early—but somehow they always forget, even when the priest randomly begins Mass ten minutes early. Such “surprises” happen so frequently, one must learn to expect them and plan for them.

The choirmaster must always have the starting pitches memorized for each piece; especially for the GLORIA, which must be given to the priest as soon as the KYRIE ends. And one must memorize the organ stops and volume levels in advance; there will be absolutely no time for experimentation once Mass begins. I serve as choirmaster and organist, and I find organ registration to be quite a complicated task. Furthermore, choir members must know which book comes next, on which page—and they must be ready.

Every second of your Pre-Mass Rehearsal must be planned: (1) this many minutes on choral vowels; (2) this many minutes on opening prayer and attendance; (3) this many minutes on explaining last minute changes; (4) this many minutes on warming up the choir; (5) this many minutes on such-and-such a tricky spot; and so forth. The choirmaster must have a plan to deal with the “special” singers; the ones who are undergoing personal problems or whose mannerisms are problematic. Your singers will always beg you to rehearse every piece, but you must not give in. Before you know it—in no time at all—Mass will begin, and the rehearsal will be over! Always stick to your plan. By the way, you must anticipate the fact that some people will be late to rehearsal. When all is said and done, one must sometimes remember to do basic tasks, such as “play the right notes” (yes, I realize that sounds absurd). Choirmasters should decide upon their intentions (i.e. their prayer intentions) in advance, because so much requires their attention during Mass.

With everything going on, how will art survive? That is why the choirmaster must plan throughout the week for Sunday.

OR DECADES it was thought that malice (and cowardice on the part of Church leaders) was how we ended up with the church music situation we currently have. However, I am starting to wonder if that misses the mark. Perhaps it was laziness? The reality is, directing a church choir is very difficult, and filled with stress. Moreover, we are basically creating everything from scratch, because so much was abandoned in the 1960s. I have in mind stuff like the Goupil Gradual, Lalemant Polyphonic books, Organ accompaniments, thousands of NOH scans, and so forth. In other words, was church music was rejected because the job of a choirmaster is so difficult?

Some might ask: “Why worry so much about the music at Mass?”

Well, believe it or not, the Traditional Mass is almost nothing but music. There is virtually no silence at all. Here’s how it works each Sunday:

The bell is rung.|
Then, immediately, the Processional is sung/played.|
Then, immediately, the Asperges is intoned and sung.|
Then, immediately, the dialogue after the Asperges is sung.|
Then, immediately, the Introit is sung.|
Then, immediately, the Kyrie is sung.|
Then, immediately, the Gloria is intoned and sung.|
Then, immediately, the Collect is sung.|
Then, immediately, the Epistle is sung.|
Then, immediately, the Gradual & Alleluia are sung.|
Then, immediately, the Gospel is sung.|
Then, immediately, the organist plays until the priest preaches.|
After the Homily, the Credo is sung.|
Then, immediately, the priest sings “Dominus Vobiscum.”|
Then, immediately, the Offertory Antiphon is sung.|
Then, immediately, organ is played until the Preface Dialogue is sung.|
Then, immediately, the Preface is sung.|
Then, immediately, the Sanctus & Hosanna are sung.|
A few seconds of silence for the Consecration.|
Then, immediately, the Benedictus & Hosanna are sung.|
Then, immediately, the “Per Ipsum” and Pater Noster are sung.|
A few seconds of silence before priest sings “Per omnia, etc.”|
Then, immediately, the Agnus Dei is sung.|
A few seconds of silence before the priest says “Ecce, Agnus Dei.”|
Then, immediately, the Communion antiphon is sung.|
Then, immediately, a motet or hymn is sung.|
Then, immediately, the organ is played.|
Then, immediately, the Post-Communion is sung.|
Then, after a few seconds of silence, the “Ite Missa Est” is sung.|
Then, immediately, the organ plays softly during the Last Gospel.|
Then, immediately, the Recessional is sung.|

Do you see why music is important?

That’s why I feel that anyone who claims to care about LITURGY has an obligation to do something positive in support of authentic church music. Too many “internet experts” spend hours writing daily articles about liturgical abuses—yet won’t lift a finger in real life to change the situation. Indeed, too many “internet experts” intentionally write articles which foster anger and disagreement. They watch the combox and rejoice when they observe Catholics fighting; and then they start thinking about what their next “controversial” article will be. Often, the arguments are over minor points, without a realization that music like this is far too common at Catholic churches and receives no reprimand from the local bishop.

Faced with so many obstacles, do we despair? Do we give up?

Consider the following prayer, which my family says every day. This prayer was translated from the Italian by a great church musician. It was written by Cardinal Merry del Val:

85467 Merry Del Val DAILY PRAYER

Do you see the part where it specifically asks for humiliation? Do you see how it asks for suffering? Do you see where it asks for poverty? If you are a choirmaster, you will have all three!