NE OF THE GREATEST Church musicians used to speak of those “who know what the butter costs.” When I was younger, I didn’t understand what he meant: Why on earth does the cost of butter matter? But now that I’ve been a choirmaster for twenty years, I understand perfectly what it means—and why he used it. I think he could have added another phrase to his arsenal: Silence stings.
Silence Stings: Nothing is more frustrating than being ignored, especially when we discover an injustice demanding an explanation. Sadly, it reminds me of certain leaders in the Catholic Church who say publicly: “My mission is transparency; I will gladly engage anybody in dialogue, even the most marginalized.” Those are nice words … but if you try and get an appointment with such a leader, you’ll quickly discover that no such meeting will ever take place.
A Pressing Question: I would love to publicly debate those who edit Catholic hymnals. I desperately want to ask them: Why do you keep printing hymnals according to 18th-century technology? Do they know what it’s like to be a choirmaster? Do they realize the enormous physical and psychological obstacles we face already? How is it possible that the Brébeuf hymnal was the first project to address these basic issues in a satisfactory way? Why do Catholic hymnals continue to delete verses and use the “ugly stack” method (see below)? Why will nobody answer my questions?
Deleting Verses: Most Catholic hymnals truncate hymns by deleting verses! This is very annoying because if a hymn only has 2-3 verses, it won’t cover the liturgical action it needs to, such as Holy Communion. Even the “best” Catholic hymnals—with only a few exceptions—normally delete 50% of the verses. For example, look at this page from the New Saint Basil; that hymn is supposed to have seven verses!
Note: The Brébeuf hymnal does not delete verses; it gives you all the verses!
The “Ugly Stack” Method: Most hymnals, if they do include all the verses, put the final stanzas at the bottom, like this. That’s terrible, because it is more likely choirs will sing the ending verses in SATB harmony; whereas it’s unlikely they’ll begin with SATB harmony and switch to unison for the rest. But if the stanzas are at the bottom, SATB is out of the question (with the possible exception of very short hymns, such as 66.86 meter). Even worse is the English method, which puts the music on a different page from the lyrics. Other hymnals adopt the “Ugly Stacked” format, which squeezes all the verses between the staves—but that makes it difficult: difficult to savor the poetry and difficult to match the notes with the words.
Note: By carefully writing out each verse, the Brébeuf hymnal solved these problems in a marvelous way. Organists and choir members love this!
What Does All This Mean? Let me give you an example from real life. The other day, my choir sang for more than two hours: Solemn Vespers, Solemn Mass with full polyphony and Gregorian chant, and a Procession. More than 90% of my choir members struggle with reading music, but we didn’t have time to rehearse the hymn. So what did we do? We had the Sopranos sing first, then the Altos, then the Tenors, then the Basses—as shown in this live recording:
It came out absolutely gorgeous; and it’s all thanks to the brilliant way the Brébeuf hymnal formats the music.
You can hear a “studio” recording here:
Rehearsal videos for each individual voice await you at #783.
My Final Question: Why don’t more volunteer take advantage of these rehearsal videos? They save precious time during rehearsals.