VERY YEAR at the Sacred Music Symposium, we talk about the best way to introduce sacred polyphony into the Ordinary Form. I always say the same thing, but it’s so important I don’t mind repeating it constantly. I tell the participants the best way to introduce polyphony is to “sneak” it in, using short choral extensions. Furthermore, I insist that the music must be sung very well: perfect balance, perfect blend, and so forth. This is possible when brief choral extensions are added; but it’s quite impossible if you attempt a 25-minute polyphonic Credo your first day on the job.
We use a polyphonic “choral extension” each Sunday here in Los Angeles for the Extraordinary Form. After a while, they start sounding pretty amazing—because we sing them week after week.
Here’s a “brand new” adaptation from a Guerrero Magnificat:
I will continue to write articles explaining how to “sneak” polyphony back into Mass, where it belongs. For the time being, if you don’t understand what I mean, please try these:
A word to the wise: When you’re planning how to sneak it in, remember the Soprano section begins on G-Natural but ends on G-Sharp.
WE CHOIR DIRECTORS OFTEN SUFFER from a “fatal flaw.” Too many in our profession fail to make recordings of their choirs, to make sure they are producing something beautiful. They assume the results are nice, but never take the time to verify this. I know of a choirmaster in the USA who has paid singers each week and attempts complicated polyphony at the cathedral where he serves. He often tells everyone how “amazing” and “incredible” he is on the internet. Yet the attendance at his cathedral is quite sparse, and about half the pews remain empty on Sunday morning. Moreover, he doesn’t have enough singers for the complex polyphony he attempts, so it ends up sounding like a bunch of soloists—whereas the goal ought to be a nice, full, glorious choral sound. 1 How can this be correct? Shouldn’t sacred music attract people to church? Why are there so many empty pews? Wouldn’t it be better for this director to recruit more people from the parish (even though they aren’t paid singers) so the choral sound improves? Would it not be better for this director to choose “simpler” music—such as the Alleluia above—which he can present in a truly excellent way? In my humble opinion, that would be logical.
Consider another example. Years ago, I was chosen to be a professor at a huge Catholic church music conference. One of my colleagues was directing a very complicated polyphonic setting of the CREDO, and worked on it all week. But during the final Mass, the piece fell apart, and he had to stop in the middle of the piece—which shocked me. Then they started over and were (finally) able to get through it. I was left perplexed, thinking to myself: “I thought we were supposed to be giving these attendees music they can take home with them; but even with tons of professional musicians, they couldn’t get through the piece and had to stop in the middle of Mass. This makes no sense.”
Maybe I’m crazy, but I believe church music should be presented with excellence. Moreover, I believe beautiful music attracts people, and that’s a good thing! The “secret ingredient” is often using music which is not extremely complex.
The Alleluia above my look simple on paper—but wait until you hear it sung by a large, beautiful choir!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Don’t forget: Big voices must “back off” and weak voices must “step up.” That’s how you get a choral blend worth dying for!