RESH OUT OF COLLEGE, I was working on home construction when our Foreman was approached by somebody looking for work, who began loquaciously explaining how much he knew about carpentry. The Foreman cut him off: “Don’t tell me what you know; grab a hammer and show me.” Talk is cheap. When it comes to directing choirs, this adage is particularly apt. As we discussed in Keeping Choir Members Happy, a choirmaster who doesn’t spend zillions of hours preparing will soon have no choir. The choristers will “sense” if the choirmaster is disorganized, unqualified, negligent, or boring…and many will stop coming back. Anybody can talk about choral music, but demonstrating how one’s choir actually sounds in real life is the only test that counts!
Preparation Is Crucial: The choirmaster is kept on his toes by the choir members themselves. I say again: if choir members begin to feel their time is being wasted, they’ll stop showing up for rehearsals. If you fail to carefully plan your rehearsal, you’ll be eaten alive by the choir members…and rightfully so! A good choirmaster always has plenty of exciting, powerful, fun music to rehearse—as well as a PLAN A, PLAN B, PLAN C … and even a PLAN D.
The Foundation: At the parish where I serve as choirmaster, we do tons of Renaissance polyphony. For example, this brief excerpt was recorded last Sunday. [It’s part of the “Kyrie Eleyson” from a Mass by Father Guerrero we’re in the process of learning: Missa de Beata Virgine.] We also do enormous amounts of plainsong, as well as many other styles of music, which I discussed in a recent article about diversity. Such a foundation is essential.
This Will Save Church Music: But those who stand in front of a choir in real life realize that sacred music is not limited to plainsong or Renaissance music. Something very useful would be a collection of simple, powerful, elegant, theologically correct hymns which are fully Roman Catholic. Until the appearance of the Brébeuf hymnal, such a book was not available. Dr. Theodore Marier’s hymnal had been out of print for forty years; and the New Westminster Hymnal had been out of print for seventy years! Simple hymns teach volunteer choirs how to listen to one another and how to blend into a beautiful choral sound. The following video was recorded LIVE last Sunday. It is the Eucharistic hymn “Adóro Te Devóte Latens Déitas” translated by Most Reverend Edward Gilpin Bagshawe, the Roman Catholic bishop of Nottingham. It’s not perfect, but each time we sing this hymn it will improve:
Ladies Only: There are about six hundred billion different things you can do with a decent hymn tune. For instance, it can be sung a cappella. It can be sung in unison with organ. It can be sung SATB with organ. The final verse can be transposed. It can be sung with organ interludes between each stanza. It can be sung with only male voices, only female voices, or alternating. The final verse can have a Soprano descant. The possibilities are endless. Below is a live recording wherein the Soprano voices begin before Alto voices are added at the second stanza. We sing the Latin version (since we are at the Extraordinary Form) but the Brébeuf hymnal also includes a version in English:
Truly Catholic Hymns: There is something you might notice about the previous two hymns: They are Roman Catholic texts translated by Roman Catholic clergy. That is what makes the Brébeuf hymnal so amazing: it doesn’t mimic or “build upon” Protestant hymnals. It is Catholic to the core. The next hymn—which singers love to sing—is no different. It is a 10th-century Roman Catholic hymn translated by Monsignor Ronald Knox. We have mentioned it before, but now I am providing a live recording from yesterday’s Mass (27 June 2021). Please remember this is a 100% volunteer choir:
They Fell In Love: Choir members love singing that hymn. And why shouldn’t they? It has an awesome tune with fabulous harmonies. The text by Monsignor Ronald Knox contains splendid lines such as this:
“Boundless thy praise be,
whom no limit boundeth, |
God in three Persons,
high in heaven living, |
homage and thanksgiving |
Talk Is Cheap: Since 2019, a certain musician has ruthlessly attacked the Brébeuf hymnal by means of invective, calumny, and false statements. It was suggested that I should “reply publicly” to this man—but I declined, because that would elevate his scandalmongering. It turns out this guy currently serves as “assistant accompanist” for a Protestant place of worship! But on the internet, fake names are common—so most won’t realize he’s totally unqualified to speak about the Catholic liturgy. What chutzpah this man has to publicly calumniate the Brébeuf hymnal when he doesn’t even direct a choir! What cheek he has to pontificate on Catholic hymnals when he doesn’t even direct music in a Catholic church!
A Special Bond: If you have ever stood in front of a choir in real life, you have a special bond with other choirmasters. Only we know how extremely difficult it is to direct choirs; there’s never enough rehearsal time! The very first words spoken to me by the best choral teacher I ever had were as follows: “Only two people at a school must publicly show their results: The coach and the choir director. All the other teachers can goof around safely behind closed doors in their classrooms—but the coach and the choirmaster must show their work in public. Not easy!”