N LITURGICAL MUSIC, based as it is on biblical faith, there is, therefore, a clear dominance of the Word; this music is a higher form of proclamation.” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, p.149)
This statement really gets my juices flowing! It makes me passionate about what we do each week in choir rehearsals and Sunday Masses. The texts that we are privileged to sing are truly the focus of our work. How we prepare and present those texts, couched so often within masterfully crafted music, is a crucial element in the success of a liturgical choir or schola. Here are just a few of the things I try to keep in mind when preparing to conduct music for the liturgy:
Look deeply into the text. Often in singing Renaissance polyphony, too many people think of the music as ‘old’ or ‘ancient,’ and end up producing a perfect but antiseptic rendering of the piece. But early music was new once! Remember, Renaissance composers are people too. They had feelings. How does Victoria’s priestly vocation affect how he sets a text? Can Byrd’s status as a persecuted Catholic in reformed England be heard in his music? Study the life of composers. Do they have a special devotion? How does their age at the time of composition affect the piece?
Fall in love with what the choir is singing. Why did you choose this piece? What do you love about it? It could be the texture, the beautiful chord structure, the overall affekt, or just one special phrase. Whatever it is, find it, teach it, and communicate it with heartfelt passion.
Be passionate about diction. Take great care to teach and insist on round, classical vowels, devoid of regional accents and colloquial pronunciations. The most formal approach to diction lends beauty and importance to the text, which is, after all, what we are presenting. If we value beautiful vestments and vessels, expect precise and practiced gestures from liturgical ministers, and insist on art and architecture that speaks to a New Heaven and New Earth, then only our very best efforts at a pronunciation that is elevated from the mundane will suffice for the Holy Mass.
Passion for words and for the work of preparing and presenting liturgical and sacred music is a tremendous engine for achieving the very best results. Again, from The Spirit of the Liturgy, (p.209):
“…the Church as a whole must, for the sake of God, strive for the best, for from the very nature of the liturgy—by an inner necessity—comes a culture that becomes a standard for all secular culture.”