HAVE WRITTEN BEFORE about the serious need for church musicians to posses vision in order to create and maintain a great music program, so I thought today I would share some visioning ideas with the reader regarding music in the Ordinary Form parish.
The greatest visioning challenge I find is wedding the “objective” desires of the Church to the “subjective” needs of each individual parish and then creating a strategy for implementation. As for the desires of the Church, it would be redundant on this blog to rehash everything She has taught about sacred music over the last century, but in short remember that the Mass should be sung (which means the priest’s parts as well as the congregation’s) Gregorian chant, being the official music of the Latin Rite, should actually be used and not left sitting on a dusty shelf in our secular universities where professors with nothing better to do argue over the use of the ictus and finally, the treasury of sacred music should be used (and not left sitting on a dusty shelf…), and finally, all of this must be integrated into an individual parish within the context of a certain culture and period in time. At this point the faint of heart realize the impossibility of such a task and give up its ghost, but for those of us who love a challenge, let’s dive in.
First, you simply must convince your pastor to sing the Mass (and recourse to the documents is generally of no use in this point). Whether you have to beg, plead or bribe, it doesn’t matter, just get him singing (and don’t tell him your ultimate goal is that he sing the entire Mass, it will only give him a heart attack). If you work for a priest who simply won’t budge or even listen to you, you might want to find another job anyway! More often than not, however, the pastor simply doesn’t feel his voice is good enough and he is probably terrified of singing in front of 400 people. That means it is up to you to encourage him and build him up every chance you get. I generally ask our pastor to add something new to his singing responsibilities every year or two. Currently he (and our vicar) sings the Collect, the Prayer over the Gifts, the Preface Dialogue, the Preface, the Lord’s Prayer and the Prayer after Communion at all Sunday Masses. You will be amazed at what this alone will do to raise the sense of the sacred in your parish.
Secondly, integrate Gregorian chant into your Masses. I personally began with the Kyrie because of the repetitive nature of the chant, but singing the Agnus Dei is another good option. There are also lots of great Gregorian melodies whose texts have been translated into English and make a great introduction to chant for your congregation. The Adorote devote and Attende, Domine are two such hymns that I have found to be very popular with children. We have a youth camp in our archdiocese that annually hosts thousands of young people, and they make it a point to end every night at the camp by singing the Salve Regina. Every child who has attended the camp loves that particular antiphon. I will admit that it is going to be harder for your adults to accept the chant. One thing a number of adults in our parish have come to appreciate (and it took several years for this appreciation to develop) is the quiet and reflective nature of the sung Communio from the Roman Gradual, which several men of the choir sing for about the first 3-5 minutes of the Communion procession, after which the choir leads a congregational hymn.
The one thing I would caution other directors about is the tendency for chant to drag, especially when done a cappella. Not singing chant would be better than chant sung ploddingly. I have been to parishes and even cathedrals where chant is butchered this way and even I have to admit that it becomes a boring distraction. Don’t immediately assume that your parishioners hate chant when they tell you they think it is boring. Record your choir and make sure that your parishioners don’t have a valid point.
Thirdly, integrate a few of the Church’s great choral works into you choir’s repertoire. Even if you arrive at a new parish to take up the post of choir master and you find your choir can’t sing a cappella, start by teaching a simple chant (such as the Adorte) or a 4 part hymn a cappella for them to sing after Communion. These works, too, are part of the Sacred Treasury of music. If you begin in this way, within two years they will be ready to tackle Byrd’s Ave verum corpus and other such liturature.
Finally, one must integrate the Church’s teachings on sacred music into the time and place in which he lives. Merely adapting to the local culture won’t do! Remember that Gregorian chant and 16th century polyphony have a universal appeal and can be used everywhere. At the same time, we need to bring our own cultural offerings to the table. There are a number of fine composers in the English speaking world today as well as a strong tradition of hymnody. While I realize that there are no hymns to speak of in the Roman Rite of the Mass, the reality is that the music director in the Ordinary Form will be using them anyway, so why not look to some of the great English translations of Latin and Greek hymnody, such as Draw Nigh and Take the Body of the Lord. The hymn texts of Kathleen Pluth are great examples of modern American hymn texts, and don’t forget the many wonderful American hymn tunes, such as those from Southern Harmony. Lastly, we need to raise up a new generation of composers. This will only happen if we train our young people in the incredible art of Sacred Music, which is where I will end my ramblings by putting in a plug for the choir school. If your parish already has a school, all you need is a little vision and a capable musician, and you too, can have your very own choir school!