O CONTRIBUTORS at CCWatershed, the question has been posed: “What are your thoughts on repeating repertoire?” This is a big topic, bigger than it might seem at first. It’s more than merely a discussion of whether or how often we sing the same motets, hymns or acclamations, although that is important and we can talk about that later. The word ‘repetition’ is an interesting one. The notion of it can be traced to antiquity.
What Is Repetition?
From the time of Socrates, this has been an interesting philosophical topic. For Plato (Meno), repetition means a recollection of already existing knowledge, a sort of inborn knowledge. Modern philosophers, too, have spoken extensively about repetition. Taken in this light, we could say that repeating music leads to knowledge, both existing and new. For isn’t the knowledge we have of a piece of music based on our recollections or remembrances of it? We remember the last time we sang it, we recall the rehearsals leading up to it, we recall things we worked especially hard on. We recall what it felt like to sing it well or not so well, or what the occasion for singing it was. We remember if we felt good or bad about the way it was sung and what we learned from the experience. We remember the meaning of the words and the emotions attached to them. All of these things contribute to our ‘existing knowledge’ of it, so that when we repeat it we bring these recollections to bear, with the hope of creating a ‘repetition’ that is better than the our previous recollections of it. Thus, we create a new recollection and new knowledge.
Is Repetition Even Possible?
If we think about the visual arts, painting, sculpture, architecture, and the like, we know that copies are always inferior to the original. When I was in college it was cool to hang prints of famous paintings on our dorm walls. One of the most popular prints was Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory.” (That’s the one with the melting clocks, and I had one!), It looked like Dalí but you knew it wasn’t the real thing. Think of the cheap little Eiffel Towers street vendors sell all over Paris, or even expert forgeries of famous paintings. They are never as good as the original. Those kinds of repetitions don’t add up. They might look pretty good, but if you really compare them to the original, you can see the difference.
The performing arts are different, though. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (Difference and Repetition, 1968) said that “repetition allows for reinvention.” When we ‘repeat’ music we actually aren’t trying to create an exact duplicate. In fact, we can’t. Musical notation is merely a roadmap, a shorthand set of directions meant to convey the composer’s intentions. We know that as we progress through music history musical notation becomes more exact. Composers added detailed directions and markings to their music in order to give performers a more complete idea of what they wanted the music to sound like. But no matter how carefully we try to comply with the written notation, we bring a new set of circumstances and new ideas to each performance, so we actually are creating a new original. Unlike a copied painting or sculpture, the performance becomes a new original. In this respect, repetition is impossible in the performing arts.
Repetition and the Liturgy
Within the Liturgy itself there are many points of repetition. One could argue that the structure of the liturgy itself places great value on repetition. The Ordinary texts (Kyrie, Gloria, etc…) do not change except in penitential seasons. At each Mass they are repeated. Prescribed texts within a particular liturgy are sometimes repeated so as to be heard again. For instance, the Communion Proper is quite often a portion of the Gospel. Readings are repeated on an annual basis, or in the case of the new Lectionary, on a three-year cycle. Each year, during the last weeks of Lent, the Church repeats the same readings for the Candidates for Confirmation (RCIA); the parables of the woman at the well (John 4:5-52), the man born blind (John 9:1-41), and the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). For that matter, the Passion according to John is repeated every Good Friday. So the Church places great value on repetition. If faith truly comes from hearing, then, the Church knows the value and recollected knowledge gained from repetition.
The Value of Repeating Music
Art is the way humans communicate with each other on the highest possible intellectual level. Music, writing, painting, dance, what have you, – artistic expression is communication. If we believe that art communicates something important, we should want to repeat it. We go to museums to see the painting again, we re-read books, and we never tire of listening to our favorite works of Bach, Beethoven, Byrd, etc…because they all communicate something of value.If we value our musical choices as attached to the liturgy, such as they are, then repeating them has great value.
There are many practical considerations for repeating music in the service of the liturgy. One consideration has to do with what the faithful hear; weekly, seasonally, and yearly. Another has to do with the care and feeding of a choir. Issues such as achieving excellence, learning new repertoire, building confidence, and even boredom, these all are part of the question of whether and when to repeat music.
It seems advantageous to have a repertoire of hymns and acclamations that people can recognize, while at the same time carefully expanding their repertoire.Hymns and hymn tunes in the Novus Ordo, but also in the Tridentine Mass, are very often associated with liturgical seasons. By their hearing, or, by their ‘recollection of existing knowledge,’ the people are inserted into a season or even a particular day. For instance, “Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days” might signal that Lent has begun, bringing forth a set of remembrances and emotions. Faith comes from hearing. Singing the Reproaches on any day but Good Friday would seem completely out of place, and it is. (This is a ridiculous example, but it illustrates the point). Conversely, a community that is used to hearing the Reproaches sung during the Veneration comes to expect it, and would miss it if it were not sung. Some parishes have the luxury of singing full choral masses on most Sundays of the year. For those that do not, a ‘cycle’ of various settings which repeat by season could be a way to engage the community in the principle of ‘actuoso participatio.’ Repetition and the recollected memory of the faithful is both knowledge and faith.
I can really only speak from personal experience working with a parish choir. We repeat music fairly regularly, while at the same time always expanding our repertoire. It is good for the choir to have a healthy repertoire of music that, over the years, almost never needs rehearsal. This comes with a strong caveat for choir conductors, though. It is the conductor’s job to always find ways to perfect these pieces with each reading of them. They cannot become mere ‘forgeries.’ One or two simple things, like better diction, or a better crescendo, or a slightly different tempo, keeps these pieces alive, fresh, communicative, and bursting with value.
Repeating repertoire actually leads to expanding the choir’s repertoire. This may sound counterintuitive, but when we are learning new music, especially something difficult, I will try to plan much easier music with it or near it so that we can spend more rehearsal time on the new piece. This also makes it easier on Sunday. If we have a very difficult new piece the choir will probably be a bit nervous. To help them, I will plan to do something like Elgar’s “Ave verum Corpus” on the same day. We can sing that piece in our sleep. This is simply a matter of being organized. It takes a little more time to think through but in the end it’s worth it.
I have made the mistake in the past of scheduling a whole set of new pieces for three of four weeks in a row. That usually does not go well. Give the choir a break. It’s stressful to always sing something new. Spread out the new pieces so that when it comes time to sing them for the first time it goes well, the choir feels good about it, and you will want to repeat it someday. After a while, these new pieces become part of your standing repertoire.
There’s an old axiom that says something like, “even though we’ve sung this piece fifty times, there’s someone out there who might be hearing it for the first time.” What I tell my choir is, “there’s someone out there who might be hearing it for the last time.” That usually strikes a chord.
Repeat things of value, repeat things that communicate knowledge, truth, and faith, and utilize the benefits of repetition to create a new original for your choirs and your communities.