O MANY church musicians are struggling these days. In particular, isolation due to Covid-19 has caused great suffering—and many suffer alone. Technology is powerful, and has solved many problems, but addiction to technology is inhuman; and too many of us spend excessive time on the iPhone or tablet. Covid-19 has exacerbated this. Yet, God can bring good out of this crisis. If we work together, I believe we can take this opportunity—working alongside good priests—to hit the “reset button” on church music. Last year, I published an article called Church Music Manifesto (2019). I hope you read it; I think it makes several salient points.
But my 2019 article was too lengthy.
Today, I take the next step. I don’t know whether my idea will work, but I’m going to try. (I’ve thought about this for several years.) I believe any potential coalition must formulate a “mission statement” of some kind. Once it’s complete and polished, we must see how many signatories we can garner. The statement must be written in such a way that many musicians can support it. We especially need priests to sign. It won’t work if very few people add their signatures. Something similar was done by the Cæcilia Society on 12 September 1963:
(Unfortunately, everyone in 1963 ignored their statement.)
Below is what I’ve come up with so far. Is this something you would sign? Do you think it’s terrible? What improvements can be made to it? Please let me know in the Facebook combox (which you can find by scrolling to the bottom of the article).
1. Quality of Music at Mass
Sacred music is a crucial component for creating a peaceful, prayerful environment at Mass. The musical duties require great skill—and it is assumed any choirmaster has spent years studying music. The musical duties also require tremendous preparation: training singers, planning repertoire, studying the liturgical feasts, sorting choir binders, and so forth. The choirmaster must also assist in the formatting and production of the congregational Order of Worship, the required “volume level” testing, and much else. Additionally, the choirmaster must practice admirable interpersonal skills: communication with musicians during the week is crucial. Needless to say, the choirmaster must always arrive earlier than the singers, dressed appropriately.
The Proprium Missae—in some form—should be sung at every liturgical celebration. At a minimum, the prescribed antiphons for Entrance, Offertory, and Communion should be chanted (a simple psalm tone is fine) which can be completed in a matter of seconds (e.g. while the priest incenses the altar at the beginning of Mass). The language and melodies chosen will necessarily depend upon individual circumstances. Once adopted, it’s important never to skip these antiphons; doing so would confuse the congregation.
The sacred liturgy is very ancient, but we live at a particular moment in history and should have respect for what the congregational can reasonably be expected to experience with delight. Speaking in general terms, there ought to be some variety in the music at Mass: (a) Some pieces with organ accompaniment, others a cappella; (b) Some pieces sung by congregation, certain pieces sung only by the choir, with others sung “solo” by cantor, deacon, or priest; (c) Certain pieces should not be repeated too much, while others should be repeated with great frequency—but even when a piece is repeated frequently, it can be presented in different ways: descants, different harmonies, and so on; (d) Quite often, pieces—or individual stanzas—should be sung alternating between male voices and female voices; (e) Certain texts can be repeated, such as the O Salutaris, married to “seasonal” tunes; (f) Speaking broadly, musicians should attempt to include diverse musical styles—Baroque, Classical, Contemporary, Romantic, Medieval, Renaissance, and so forth—which can be challenging considering that musicians frequently “specialize” in a particular period.
The question of language is a delicate one, and rigid pronouncements are inappropriate. For the Extraordinary Form, the general practice is Latin only—although in preconciliar times, vernacular hymnody was sung throughout Low Mass (and during High Mass in Germanophone countries). For the Ordinary Form, the Second Vatican Council mandated a mixture of Latin and vernacular, but such a thing did not become usual. One possible solution would be having the Canon and Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, with vernacular for the rest. Some find it aesthetically jarring to have Mass completely in English with music completely in Latin. In some places, a fully vernacular Mass (in spite of what Vatican II mandated) might be all that’s possible—in which case dignified vernacular music should be used. Much excellent sacred music is currently available for Anglophones, composed in free rhythm following the eight church modes.
5. Hymn Melodies
Strong congregational singing is achieved when the choirmaster employs hymns consistently—giving people in the pews an opportunity to “pick up” the tune—and also has the organist play those hymn tunes before Mass (“prelude”), during Mass as interludes, and in the style of “chorale” preludes. The same text can be used for multiple tunes, and vice versa—which is another way to help the congregation learn melodies. There are two primary elements that will achieve strong singing from the congregation: (1) A strong choir—not a collection of soloists—leading the hymns; (2) The tunes must be excellent (“sturdy”), composed according to sound principles. A guaranteed way to kill congregational singing is forcing people in the pews to sing too much; the Mass responses, a few acclamations, and a hymn (including all the verses) is plenty of singing, if it be done well.
6. Hymn Texts
Generally speaking, an excellent Catholic hymn is to be preferred to an excellent Protestant hymn—although we do not assert that Protestant hymnody can never be used. Choirmasters should guard against exclusive use of texts from the 19th century. Generally speaking, the choirmaster should limit the amount of hymn texts that are predominantly sentimental, especially if they were written by non-Catholics. The preferred texts should be direct quotations from Sacred Scripture (which we find in the Proprium Missae) and the ancient Roman Catholic hymn texts celebrated in the Church over the last millennium: Veni Creator Spiritus, Urbs Jerusalem Beata, Stabat Mater Dolorosa, Veni Redemptor Gentium, Verbum Supernum Prodiens, Ad Cenam Agni Providi, Pange Lingua Gloriosi, and so forth. The literary quality of vernacular hymnody should employ an elevated register; we must banish whatever is puerile, predictable, or colloquial.
7. Copyright on Official Church Texts
No serious progress can be made regarding compositions in the vernacular until the the liturgical establishment and its profiteers resolve—once and for all—to stop treating the indulgenced prayers of the Mass as a cash cow. Currently, the different prayers and readings of the Mass are “owned” by various entities, and each one demands royalty payments whenever Catholics pray the official texts. This is done in spite of the fact that much of this material has long been in the public domain, and in spite of Canon Law (which forbids the sale of indulgenced texts). To give just one example, the antiphons of the Responsorial Psalm are owned by one company, while the psalm sections are owned by another company. Even when a company “grants permission” to the composer to set a ritual text, the company still claims ultimate ownership; e.g. if the composer later on decides to produce a YouTube version, litigation might ensue. If they sincerely care about the state of liturgy in the United States, the bishops must step forward as soon as possible to fix this problem. (For more on this, cf. “Pay to Pray: The Church’s Simony Problem”.) Moreover, serious composers will only compose music if they know for certain there will not be constant changes to the official translations for the Mass.
8. Basic Skills
A musician who is hired as a choirmaster should know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, what sounds good objectively speaking. For instance, is the organ too loud or too soft? Is the organist trying so hard to play the pedal notes that the tempo is slowed down excessively? Are the Tenors too loud, while the Basses are inaudible? Are the Sopranos blending properly, and are the Altos singing the correct notes in tune? Does the choir produce a pleasant choral sound, or does it sound like ten different soloists (“ringers”) trying to compete with one another? Are the Basses capable of producing sound for the low notes, or is the arrangement poor? Are the singers using proper choral vowels? We are not speaking of subjective questions such as: “Who played Chopin mazurkas better: Ignaz Friedman or Alfred Cortot?” We are speaking of basic competency when it comes to eliciting pleasant, beautiful, prayerful choral music.
9. Vacation & Moral Life
Because the choirmaster is an artist, there are unique physical and psychological stresses which must be overcome. The priest must be sensitive to these realities, and must insist that choirmasters have vacation time, as well as weekly time to be spent with the spouse and children. Furthermore, the priest must be sensitive to the fact that choirmasters work on inconvenient days (weekends, holidays, etc.) when it comes to raising a family. Needless to say, the Catholic choirmaster must accept the teachings of the Church and avoid living a public life in opposition to Church teaching—because that would lead to scandal. At the same time, all of us are sinners; the choirmaster should go to confession and strive each day to live a more holy life.
Without the support of the priest, the choirmaster can do very little. The priest must find a way to communicate effectively with the choirmaster, always being sensitive to the fact that musicians may well possess the proverbial “artistic temperament.” That means he should be thoughtful and careful in the way he provides “constructive criticism”—because a poorly phrased comment can cause great anguish, perhaps inadvertently. The priest also must realize it will normally take a year or two for the choir to begin to sound really good; building a choir is no easy task in today’s environment. So the priest must realize that patience is required.