CAN REMEMBER CLEARLY the challenges of being a choir director in the “old days”―by which phrase I refer not to the time before the Council, but to a period as recent as the 1990s. Photocopies of printed music, faint and askew from repeated copying, had to suffice for polyphony; for Latin chant, one might be fortunate to find a used copy of the Liber Usualis; for English chant, the resources were nearly non-existent―one might try to toss off an alleluia verse on a psalm tone, but you couldn’t sing the whole Mass that way.
And then, gradually at first, but with increasing momentum, the first decade of the new millennium brought a host of resources right to our fingertips. The vast and wonderful Choral Public Domain Library emerged for polyphony, and Corpus Christi Watershed launched a new era of free, collaborative, and recognizably sacred music for the vernacular liturgy (such as the Chabanel Psalms). Hymnals notable for doctrinal soundness and traditional aesthetics made a welcome appearance, such as the Adoremus Hymnal, the St. Michael Hymnal, and the Vatican II Hymnal. The Liber Usualis and the Graduale Romanum were made available online, along with a host of other Latin chant books, with the CMAA reprinting many titles as affordable paperbacks; and best of all (from a certain vantage point), English plainchant finally began to come into its own, as Adam Bartlett’s Simple English Propers forged a path forward, Fr. Columba Kelly’s and Fr. Samuel Weber’s elegant settings found a broad audience by means of the internet, and the Third Edition of the Roman Missal appeared, featuring a great emphasis on chanted Mass parts. The floodgates were opened. Catholic musicians finally had a choice among high-quality musical resources for both the Ordinary Form and the Extraordinary Form.
WHO COULD HAVE ANTICIPATED such a Renaissance of music-making in the desert of postmodernity? Yet this was but the first wave, and now we are enjoying a second wave, as various major initiatives for singing the sacred liturgy are being launched: one thinks of the Lumen Christi series, Fr. Weber’s Proper of the Mass, the Ignatius Pew Missal, and the broader agenda of liturgical renewal embodied in the twin books of Corpus Christi Watershed, the St. Edmund Campion Missal & Hymnal and the St. Isaac Jogues Illuminated Missal, Lectionary, and Gradual with its eventual companion hymnal. Such books are establishing the new gold standard for Catholic church music. They make the preparation of music for the liturgy a far more simple, peaceful, prayerful, and satisfying job for the director or singer, because they draw upon the intrinsic structure and strengths of the Roman Rite itself, rather than the endless subjectivity of playing to imaginary audiences. At last we can build up a coherent music program with a consistent approach that takes its bearings from the liturgy, its nature and its inherent requirements. The result is that we can introduce more and more people to the riches of the Church’s public prayer, suitably adorned with the music that belongs to it or is compatible with it.
UT I KNOW THAT I AM ALSO supposed to be giving practical advice in this concluding piece of our series, and this I will do somewhat briefly, as my fellow bloggers have already covered quite a bit of ground in the past week. And besides, all the resources mentioned above come with my endorsement!
While there are so many excellent resources out there to recommend, one book that never leaves my side in the choir loft―regardless of which form of the Roman Rite I am leading music for―is Richard Rice’s Communio. We all know that communion time on Sundays and Holy Days can often take quite some time, that the faithful are seldom in the mood to carry around a hymnal to sing from, that they appreciate a bit of time to meditate after receiving our Lord, and that, consequently, something quietly meditative suits the moment far better than something boisterous, attention-getting, and excessively invasive. The Communio book contains all the Latin plainchant communion antiphons for Sundays and Holy Days, along with the assigned Psalm verses that may be sung, in an alternating fashion (antiphon – verse – antiphon – verse, repeated ad libitum). It suits the liturgical action of the communion procession better than anything else, as we might expect from a repertoire that was created for just such a purpose. Rice has also prepared an edition that, retaining the Latin antiphons, gives the Psalm verses in English. There are times when, or places where, it would seem better to use this edition.
MY OWN LOVE OF THE CHURCH’S liturgy and my immersion in the great sacred music tradition has inspired me to compose many choral works over the past 25 years, striving always to follow the artistic ideals and principles given us by the Church herself. After much hard work selecting, revising, and editing, I published in January 2014 a comprehensive collection of my compositions, under the title Sacred Choral Works, available either in paperback or spiral bound. If you are a choir director, someone involved in repertoire selection, or simply a lover of contemporary choral music, do check out this 236-page volume of Mass settings, motets (including Eucharistic and Marian motets), hymns, carols, antiphons, acclamations, and three complete settings of the Good Friday Reproaches. Most of the pieces are scored for SATB choir, but several are for three equal voices (SSA/SAA or TTB/TBB) or SAB choir. Both Latin and English are well represented; the lengths run from pithy refrains to extended multi-verse pieces; the level of difficulty varies from extremely easy to quite challenging. If I may borrow a phrase from Fr. Weber, my hope is that it has “something for everyone.”
Matthew Curtis of ChoralTracks has recorded nearly every piece, in a manner extremely well suited for reviewing the options and reducing the learning curve for singers; these studio recordings are available on three compact discs. For more information―including the book’s preface and table of contents, several tracks from the CDs, and details on ordering―please visit my composer page.
7-part series: “Important Resources for Liturgical Reform”