UMAN BEINGS are experts at blaming others. We love to say: “Until priests are willing to pay musicians a decent wage, nothing will improve.” We love to say: “Until priests grasp how hard musicians work—and begin to truly care for us—nothing will improve.” We love to say: “The big publishers have committed atrocities, and nobody is strong enough to oppose them.” I am certainly guilty of (sometimes) falling into such negative thinking.
1. Blaming Others: Catholic priests are not wholly to blame for the current state of Church music. I know choirmasters who believe they “know everything” about sacred music; yet what they actually produce is ghastly. They blame everyone else for failing to love Gregorian chant, which they sing in a slow, heavy, boring manner. They blame others for not appreciating sacred polyphony; yet their choirs sing polyphony with very little finesse, and (too often) with only one singer on each part—which is not optimal.1 One of the biggest obstacles we face is musicians incapable of knowing what sounds good. Some are too lazy (or scared) to make recordings of their choirs singing—but that’s the very best way to improve.
2. Moving Forward: I believe that 99% of Catholic priests have never experienced the power of a decent choir. Hearing a recording is not the same; you must experience a choir singing in real life. And the music must be chosen correctly, similar to what an expert filmmaker does. The filmmaker is brought footage about five hours long; then he proceeds to cut, revise, and rearrange the material until it’s only about two hours long—taking only what is most excellent. The Mass has a certain “flow” to it, and the music must fit perfectly. A good director learns where “bright” music belongs, where “serious” music belongs, where hymns belong, where plainsong belongs, where contemporary motets belong, where accompanied plainsong belongs, where congregational singing belongs, and so forth.
3. Practical Advice: Getting Catholics to sing correctly is excruciatingly hard work. It requires persistence, and knowledge of “how to deal with people.” When we study at the conservatory, we are around hundreds of professional musicians; but when we walk into a Catholic parish, the situation is quite different. You are taking your choir members on a musical and theological journey, and some will not persevere (for various reasons). Be prepared to encounter what might be called “trashy” people, who will promise you the world…yet constantly skip rehearsals, show up late, complain, make demands, and poison the environment with a bad attitude. You must learn to address these situations without becoming bitter or discouraged. Since I was in grade school, I spent hours each day memorizing concert works by Chopin, Schumann, Bach, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Debussy and others—but such studies don’t develop “people skills.”
4. A Key Component: You must never feed your choristers “garbage music.” I am talking about melodies which are goofy, uninspired, kooky, predictable, silly, or written by someone with no musical skills. Also, you must never feed your choristers lyrics which are not theologically sound. The best source of hymnody is the Brébeuf hymnal, because it contains absolutely no garbage. Indeed, no hymnal currently available comes close to the excellence of The Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal (SOPHIA INSTITUTE PRESS, 2018).
5. Lofty Language: You should also make sure to “elevate the occasion” by choosing hymns with elegant language. Consider this English translation of “Aeterna Caeli Gloria” by Monsignor Ronald A. Knox (a renowned theologian and one of the world’s great linguists). It was said that Knox wrote Latin poetry on the level of Virgil himself—but Knox was also a master of Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Italian, and many other languages. The footnote in the Brébeuf hymnal says that the “Star” in the following hymn refers to our Redeemer, JESUS CHRIST:
6. Adding Voices: In that recording, we began with Sopranos, then added Altos, then added Tenors, then added Basses. That is one of the common melodies found in the Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal which I have recommended so frequently. But when the choir does a “less familiar” tune, it’s good to balance it out with a “more familiar” tune—such as the melody below (GOTT VATER SEI GEPRIESEN). In this live recording, we sing the verses in unison and use SATB for the refrain:
7. Variety Variety Variety: Needless to say, we don’t just sing hymns. We sing tons of polyphony, plainsong, contemporary motets, and so forth. We even do a nifty little “drone” piece, based on Gloria IX…and you can hear how that sounds. Below you can hear our attempt—recorded last Sunday—to sing a spectacular KYRIE ELEISON by Father Francisco Guerrero (based on Kyrie IX):
Flaws Are Okay: I’m sure our readers could point out flaws in that recording, but that’s okay. Father Valentine Young used to say: “You can play 1,000 correct notes on the organ and one false note, and some people will talk about the false note.” None of these singers are paid, and several of them struggled to match pitch until they began singing in the choir; I’m so proud of their improvement! What I’d really like to do is bring in an expert conductor like Dr. Alfred Calabrese and have him work with our singers, because Dr. Calabrese somehow helps singers produce the most flowing, musical, beautiful choral lines.
Regarding that KYRIE ELEISON by Father Guerrero, feel free to download the score.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 For instance, the Sistine Chapel is not a large building, but the Sistine Chapel had between 24 and 36 singers during the 16th century. Until you have a minimum of three voices per part, according to Dr. James Daugherty, you don’t have a choral sound—because if there are just two voices on a part, one voice will always dominate the other.