N RECENT MONTHS, I have had opportunity to direct music for a number of liturgies at two USCCB conferences in Boston. In my previous post, Reason for Encouragement, I described how a diverse congregation from all over the country sang quite robustly not only the ICEL Chants but also settings of the propers by Adam Bartlett. Considering the musical experience in their home parishes was likely quite varied, I found this development most encouraging.
With that encounter under our belt, a similar approach was taken for the next conference. Realize, that most of these liturgies took place in hotel ballrooms with horrendous acoustics, and little to remind one of a sacred space. (One half expects to see a tip jar on the piano and a cash bar nearby.) Remember too, that incense is a problem as it is likely to set off the fire alarms, and special permits are needed even for the candles on the altar. However, chant and new chant-based music is the one element of the environment that truly says, “We are in a sacred space.” That we could do!
So, once again, this new group of Diocesan leaders that came as far away as Alaska, easily sang Adam Barlett’s settings from his Lumen Christi Missal. Likewise, the ICEL Chants were no obstacle, even when the cantor accidentally sang one in Latin! No one skipped a beat.
Also sung were psalm settings by Jeff Ostrowski from the Chabanel Responsorial Psalms collection, psalms by yours truly, and a beautiful Gospel Acclamation from Royce Nickel from the St. Charles Garnier Gospel Acclamations collection. Additionally, we sang settings of the introit (as a prelude) from the Simple English Propers and from the Graduale Romanum. I find singing chant as a prelude to be another useful tool to introduce the propers, as well as a way set a prayerful tone before mass. (N.B.: ALL of the above music is downloadable for FREE!)
I’m taking away a few observations from these conferences. For starters, that Adam Bartlett’s antiphons are so singable, speaks to the quality of the compositions, not only in melody, but in the natural clarity of phrasing the texts. Each phrase intuitively follows the next as it should. Furthermore, cantor Marc DeMille, whose exquisite diction, phrasing, and humility of character, expressed those works in such a way that the congregation grasped the music almost immediately. It certainly helps to have someone who not only has a beautiful voice, but understands sacred liturgy and chant intimately. These characteristics Mr. DeMille possesses in abundance. Finally, that all of this chant could work in a hotel ballroom means this music travels well and will likely work most anywhere, even in less than ideal conditions.
Adam Bartlett has also suggested that what makes an antiphon singable, sometimes is more attributed to its length, not just its simplicity of melody. In other words, even a very simple melody for a very long antiphon, may discourage a congregation to sing. However, I must say these were moderately lengthy, and they still worked beautifully.
LSO NOTABLE in this conference was a mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross with music lead by John Robinson and the St. Paul Choir School, Harvard Square who sang beautiful settings by Gary Davidson (Hardwicke Mass), Handel, Arthur Wills, and Kenneth Leighton. That bishops and diocesan leaders from all over the country were exposed to such music and responded so positively, is indeed reason for encouragement. One hopes that more seeds have been planted to further the cause of sacred music. As Director of the Office of Divine Worship, Fr. Jonathan Gaspar’s influence on the quality of the sacred music at these conferences is unmistakable. He has set the bar high, and one hopes this mindset will spread—that beautiful liturgy uplifts the faithful so that they may do God’s work.
One day after mass, a woman told me how wonderful it is to sing the scriptures while receiving communion. I doubt she knows at all what the propers of the mass are. However, I find her observation intriguing. She demonstrated that it is far easier to connect the texts of the propers to the mass itself than potentially a hymn or song. The propers beautifully reinforce God’s word.
The power of chant and the propers is no fluke. Try it!