OPE SAINT PIUS X caused enormous confusion in 1903 when he issued his monumental sacred music document, Tra Le Sollecitudini. Specifically, I’m referring to §13, which said women “cannot form part of the choir.” For 50 years, virulent polemics ensued, with some attacking—and others defending—the idea that females were barred from singing at Mass. (In 1938, for example, Bishop Althoff explicitly condemned Illinois nuns who played the organ at Mass!)
Terminology • Believe it or not, there are two “choirs” in each church. The choir loft contains the chorus of lay people—but there’s another choir, located near the sanctuary. The sanctuary consists of two parts: (a) PRESBYTERIUM, where Mass is offered, and (b) CHOIR, where we see choir stalls facing each other. Liturgical books—when they say “choir”—don’t usually mean “people in the choir loft.” Usually, liturgical books are referring to the priests and seminarians in choro in the sanctuary, sitting in choir stalls wearing birettas. By the way, some pipe organs have three keyboards—SWELL, GREAT, and CHOIR—and perhaps an organ expert could explain that nomenclature to me. For the record, when liturgical books mention the pair of cantors who intone the KYRIE ELEYSON “in the middle of the choir” on Holy Saturday, they don’t mean the choir loft; they’re talking about the choir near the sanctuary.1
What Pius X Told Bishops • Catholics couldn’t discern what Pope Saint Pius X meant by his declaration that females “cannot be admitted to form part of the choir.” Which “choir” did he mean? For example, did Pius X really intend to bar ladies from singing the Mass Propers? Nuns had been doing that for centuries! Moreover, when bishops had private audiences with Pius X, he assured them that prohibiting women from singing during Mass was not his intention. On 25 December 1955, Pope Pius XII addressed this issue in §74 of MUSICAE SACRAE: “Where there are not enough choir boys, it is allowed that a group of men and women or girls—located in a place outside the sanctuary set apart for the exclusive use of this group—can sing the liturgical texts at Solemn Mass.”
Females At Our Parish • In our parish, we allow women to sing at Mass—and boy can they sing! [Pardon the pun!] During the month of July, our choir does not sing. (Dr. Calabrese says it’s not healthy for volunteer choirs to sing the entire year without time off.) But during the month of July, women may sing at our 9:00AM Mass if they desire—even though the full choir is on break. Here’s a hymn we sang on a recent Sunday, which is #816 in the Brébeuf hymnal:
Hymn? Or Chant? • The melody in that video is called RAYMBAULT and its metre is 11-10-11-10. Does this sound like a “hymn” to you? Or does it sound more like a plainchant composition? In my opinion, it sounds halfway in between. It reminds me of “Mary The Dawn” from the Saint Pius X Hymnal (1953). That same melody (RAYMBAULT) is used for #816 in The Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal.
What About Men? • The piece above, in my humble opinion, would not sound good sung by men. However, the Brébeuf hymnal contains hundreds of magnificent hymns suitable for men and women. Below an example (whose famous melody is called “EISENACH”). All the Brébeuf harmonizations are superb, but this one is particularly striking. In it, you have long stretches of the Soprano descending by means of stepwise motion—and whilst that’s going on, the Bass will ascend by means of stepwise motion. (And vice-versa.) That technique, which was discussed during Sacred Music Symposium 2022, is partly what makes this hymn so beautiful. No matter how many times the singers have sung it in the past, it never gets old. It’s always a delight:
Sadness: Most readers won’t click on the individual voice parts, and that makes me sad. When we post a “scandalous” liturgical video, we get 40,000 views. I wish we could get as many views for the rehearsal videos—we must revive authentic sacred music!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 In the Extraordinary Form, only clerics and seminarians may assist at Mass in choro wearing surplice and biretta. Laymen can wear a surplice, but never a biretta. If men sing from the sanctuary, they should wear cassock and surplice. (In the Extraordinary Form, women are never allowed to wear a surplice.) The “rood screen” can also be called: choir screen, chancel screen, or jube. The “sanctuary” may also be called the chancel. The “choir” near the sanctuary may also be spelled quire.