WAS TALKING with some friends recently about how the musical standards in parish churches nowadays are so low. My friends, who are trained classical musicians, all agreed with me. First of all, many “cheap” pieces are composed for liturgical use; secondly, most of the musicians just don’t play or sing musically or artistically in the liturgy. And the congregation just seems to be satisfied with the mediocre music. You probably have heard of explanations like these when you questioned about the situation of church music nowadays: “the choir is not performing, but praying at Mass”, “the singers are all volunteers and we can’t expect them to sing like professional choirs”, or “the choir is very passionate in singing and they are doing their best, having good hearts is enough”; “and therefore, the quality of the music is not important”.
The musical standards in the liturgy should be higher than ordinary performances! In secular performances, music is played mainly for the enjoyment of men. But in the liturgy, we praise God with music. It is only logical that liturgical music, which should be sacramental, should be held with higher standards than other music.
Orchestral Masses were originally written for prayer and for the glorification of God. However, because of human weaknesses, both on the ends of the musicians and those who listens to them in the pews, they tends to become performances like many other secular pieces. I agree that musicians should not think of themselves as ordinary performers: they should not be considered as the center of attention in the liturgy. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot have professional church music.
A friend of mine, speaking from a secular music performer’s perspective, pointed out that many church choir members think that there is a lack of awareness of liturgical music and church musicians are generally underappreciated. For example, no one is going to notice the choir singing the beautiful motet because people are busy getting in line for communion. Although his observation lacks consideration on the spiritual aspect of liturgical singing, that music is the “handmaid of the liturgy” and should be theocentric, the observation does have certain truth in it. It makes many singers think that it is fine to sing “okay” in the Mass and there is no need to pursue better music.
As church musicians, we are called to make the best music even when we are underappreciated or go unnoticed. Our duty is to raise the standards of church music to a level that is even higher than secular performances in concert halls and opera houses. It might take a long time and lots of effort to accomplish that, but we can at least challenge ourselves to sing better each week.
Y CHOIR, Vox Antiqua, and I believe that we are fulfilling our roles as church musicians by providing high quality music in the liturgy. Singing well is the way we pray and express our love for God. There is no conflict between singing professionally and praying wholeheartedly.
This was recorded live by a cellphone during Mass on the Solemnity of Pentecost. The gorgeous motet by Thomas Tallis was sung during communion. Coincidentally, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex also chose it as an anthem in their wedding on the same day.
Soli Deo Gloria!