HE VALUE OF GOOD AND TRUSTED cantors cannot be underestimated. Of inestimable value is not only a cantor with a well-trained voice, but one who sings with prayerful humility. Although at times, the best-trained voice may not be the best-suited singer for proclaiming the Word. (e.g., a wonderful opera singer) Instead, a person with clear diction and pitch delivered with prayerful humility is ideal.
That being said, is the cantor the “leader of song”? It may be surprising that there are a few answers to this question, but it leads towards one ideal.
The role of cantor as “leader of song” will be relegated to history as a late 20th Century Roman Catholic invention. Attend any Protestant service with a strong tradition of hymnody, and the concept of someone standing in the front of the church (amplified by a microphone, and sometimes waving their arms no less) is both foreign and highly unnecessary. In fact, the concept is downright silly. (Additionally, that Roman Catholic hymnals do not include the harmonization for the congregation is another concept foreign to most other denominations.)
My own experience some years ago directing the choir at the Boston Temple, S.D.A Church was a prime example. The congregation sang in parts and as loudly as possible—imperfectly, but with joyful exuberance. The organ could not play loudly enough! During hymns, the choir could not be heard, as they were just singing as part of the congregation. (a light bulb should go off here…) A cantor on a microphone would in fact be distracting and would even discourage the congregation to sing. (another light bulb should be going off…)
The U.S. Bishop’s 2007 Document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship states the following:
31. When the choir is not exercising its particular role, (see no. 30.) it joins the congregation in song. The choir’s role in this case is not to lead congregational singing, but to sing with the congregation, which sings on its own or under the leadership of the organ or other instruments.
So, who or what is the leader of song, especially as when it comes to hymns? The first answer there is usually easy enough: The “leader of song” is the organ—not a cantor or the choir. The organ, when played with solid and balanced principal stops that speak clearly into the nave, is the leader. It is the supporter. It is the conductor. It must breathe with the people. It must breathe with the architecture. Most important to note, here is that the organ is NOT accompanying a choir or a cantor. The organ is accompanying the congregation. It is fitting that an instrument whose sounding board is the ceiling, walls and floor would be accompanying the vast assembly of people, not an individual or isolated group.
But, in an ideal situation, there is yet another answer to this question: Who (or what) is the “Leader of Song?”
Here is a somewhat extreme example: I have been playing for the Jesuit Community at Boston College for many years. With anywhere from 50-70 priests in attendance every week, they are the loudest singing congregation one might ever play for. For a time, they were not only the loudest, they were indeed the slowest.
St. Mary’s Chapel is in many ways ideal for congregational singing. There is no carpeting; nothing but wood and marble. The room and ceiling are intimate enough so the sound comes back to a congregation so they can hear each other, yet large enough for some ambience. Furthermore, it has a gem of a one manual, eight rank Flentrop organ in the gallery. Small, but clear in tone, its principals are balanced, speak clearly into the nave, filling the room.
These Jesuits love to sing. But when they sing, as a group, they will let you know what the tempo will be, which often was slower than I might like. Working with a cantor one day, she told me what tempo she would like. I responded that her tempo was very nice, and we could start that way. However, I warned her that once the refrain began, “they will let you know quite clearly what the new tempo will be.“ And so it was.
So, who is the leader of song in this case?: Incontrovertibly, the congregation.
Of course, the organ is the glue that keeps them together. Over the years I have slowly gotten the Jesuit community used to faster, moderate tempi. However, this example raises an excellent point. When playing hymns, is the organist sensitive to the congregation? Is a slight adjustment in tempo or breathing necessary? This does not imply making sudden or drastic changes. However, it is prudent to have a close ear on the first few stanzas. Do they want to slow down or speed up a little bit? Do they want to breathe more liberally? In other words, using “impeccable artistic taste” may not necessary be the best approach.
The same is true of unaccompanied chants. While introducing the ICEL Chants in 2011, (which were mandatory for a time in the Archdiocese of Boston) the congregations at both St. Cecilia and St. Mary’s Chapel were quick to learn them. However, they often forced the choir to slow down the tempo. (This is a first-class problem I am happy to deal with.) I had to be sensitive to this and make adjustments, lest the congregation be discouraged and give up singing altogether. Then in time, as they became more familiar with the chants, they sang them a touch faster.
So, what is the final answer to the question of “Who is the Leader of Song”? With congregations that have been musically nourished and therefore sing well, the “leader of song” is no one thing or person. Ideally, it is an act of chamber music. We listen to each other. We respond to each other. (To quote the great choral director Brian Jones, “We have two ears but only one mouth. There is a lesson in that!”) Worshiping together, we raise our voices to God—united as one voice.