AM GRATEFUL for the invitation to contribute to Corpus Christi Watershed. Whether we are professionals or volunteers, and whether we are also involved in classroom teaching, giving private lessons, or the preparation of music for the Divine Office, Holy Hours, devotions, or other services, our work as Catholic church musicians is centered upon the sacrifice of the Mass. One of my professors loved to repeat the adage, “Begin with the end in mind.” With regard to music, it echoes another oft-repeated saying from one of my childhood choral directors: “You will perform the way you practice.” I would like to begin my contributions with some thoughts on the four ends of Mass: adoration, thanksgiving, atonement, and petition, as applied to the church choir. The four ends can be remembered, slightly out of order, with either of the acronyms ACTS (adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, & supplication) or TARP (thanksgiving, adoration, reparation, & petition).
Adoration • Adoration or divine worship is the primary end of the Mass. Let us avoid the temptation to think of sacred music as only a complement or adornment to prayer and worship, but rather remember that most of what we do is liturgy itself. Many Catholics, unaware of the historical development of the liturgy, are surprised to learn that in the traditional Latin Mass, it is the celebrant who duplicates the prayers of the cantors, schola, choir, or congregation, not the other way around. The idea of Low Mass, where the priest alone prays every word of the liturgy himself (except perhaps the server’s responses), did not exist until the Middle Ages. When we sing the Ordinary and Proper of the Mass, we are actually praying the liturgy on behalf of the whole Church, not merely amplifying or elaborating the prayers of the priest.
Our preparation of the music of the Mass is part of our preparation for the Mass itself. As obvious as this ought to be, most of us have known choristers who are devout daily communicants and who regularly pray their devotions and even make Holy Hours, but who are content with a mediocre approach to preparing music for Mass, often reflected in their rehearsal attendance and punctuality—or lack thereof. Even the most talented and idealistic among us work with a notion of “good enough for Mass,” which, honestly expounded, typically amounts to a lower standard than concert performance or a recording to be uploaded to YouTube. Many of us have had the unpleasant experience of attending Masses where some of the musical offerings were arguably no improvement over silence. What is a reasonable expectation? We must strive always to put forth our very best effort with the people and resources available. The Mass is worth it!
Thanksgiving • Thanksgiving is the heart of this little meditation. Eucharist, after all, literally means thanksgiving, and we are now between the Canadian and U.S. Thanksgiving holidays, so it seems especially timely. Would you be astonished to hear someone claim that this is the best time in history to be a Catholic musician? It’s true! When did the cantor, chorister, choirmaster, or organist ever before have so many resources at his disposal? Thanks to modern technology, we not only have air-conditioned churches, better lighting, organs that don’t have to be hand pumped, and Keurig coffee makers, but also countless books, journals, musical scores, recordings, and learning aids available digitally, for free. While many of us serving traditional Latin Mass communities may lament the lack a suitable rehearsal or warm-up space, children and adults without any outside choral experience, or the long commutes of our parishioners, we have so many wonderful resources at our disposal thanks to the internet and people like my colleague, Jeffrey Ostrowski—and we recognize that those long commutes demonstrate the love and devotion our people have for Christ and His Church.
Speaking of modern technology, the photocopier is the unsung hero of organists everywhere. Some of us are old enough to remember when mimeographs (often with purple ink!) were widely in use and the “xerox machine” was a luxury used by schoolteachers only for special print jobs. Now we can buy a brand-new desktop laser printer for less than the cost of dinner for four at Olive Garden. A non-memorized organ recital with a page turner is one thing, but imagine playing a half-hour wedding prelude without an assistant and without any photocopied music, only books marked with Post-it notes. We can easily understand why there are so many published anthologies of organ music for weddings. Perhaps the art of liturgical organ improvisation developed more from sheer practical necessity than from any creative aspirations.
We have a musically demanding liturgy, which is also becoming more and more an in-demand liturgy, thanks be to God. Whether we feel exhausted or invigorated after completing our Sunday responsibilities, we can be thankful for whatever liturgical workload we have and breathe a sigh of relief when reading an account from a time and place where nearly everyone was Catholic and went to Mass every Sunday. Here is a fascinating description of a church musician’s duties in the late 1840s in South Tyrol, now a German-speaking region of northern Italy near the Austrian border:
My Sundays and feast days were very busy days, in these last six years in Brixen. The three churches, in which I was engaged, stood very close together on one side of the so-called Domplatz (cathedral square). In the center was the large and beautiful cathedral; close to it, and in fact, as a part of the design of the front view of the cathedral, was the little church of which I was the organist; at the lower end of the square and probably less than fifty steps from the cathedral was the parochial church. The services in these three churches were, by order of the bishop, so arranged that they never interfered with one another. First I played the organ at the High Mass in the students’ church; after that I rushed over to the parochial church to sing in father’s choir or play the organ for him. Then I had to run to the cathedral to sing in the chancel choir the Matins and Lauds. During the sermon I, with three or four other boys, left the chancel choir, donned the surplice and went into the gallery to sing the High Mass with the mixed choir, accompanied by an orchestra. From seven o’clock in the morning till twelve or even one o’clock there was almost continuous work in church music. In the afternoon was the same routine, though these services did not last as long as in the morning. . . . in those days every singer and musician was expected to read at sight; rehearsals were held only on exceptional occasions. (Leo Kofler, The Art of Breathing as the Basis of Tone-Production; emphasis mine, with some terminology and capitalization slightly revised)
photograph by Friedrich Böhringer (Wikimedia Commons)
Let us make sure our prayers of thanksgiving include our choir members, directors, priests, staff, volunteers, parishioners, colleagues, and teachers, both living and deceased.
Atonement • Atonement is said to be the only theological term of English origin, literally “at-one-ment,” also rendered as propitiation and signifying an appeal to divine mercy for mitigation of punishment justly deserved (Attwater’s Catholic Dictionary). In catechetical lists of the four ends, the words reparation and contrition are also used, although they differ somewhat in meaning. Here it is easier to start by saying what is not included under this heading. Musical mistakes are bound to happen. Things go wrong during Mass that never occurred in weeks of rehearsals. Even at very reverently celebrated Masses, distractions occur that are beyond our control, for instance, a toddler screams, a cell phone rings, or somebody accidentally slams a kneeler at the worst possible moment. Holy Mother Church directs that the singers are to be situated in an area of the church reserved for their exclusive use (Pope Pius XII, Musicae Sacrae, ¶ 74); where that regulation is disregarded, there are sure to be even more distractions. Accidents happen, and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up when they do. Children and newer choir members can be particularly hard on themselves.
The musical transgressions for which we should examine our conscience mostly fall under the topic already discussed above: sufficient preparation. Are we putting in enough individual practice outside of rehearsals or classes? Do we rely on others to pick up the slack when we don’t know our parts as well as we should? Do we keep our folders organized? Most directors can tell stories of singers taking two or three copies of the same piece simply because they didn’t have their music organized and couldn’t find the first copy! Do we transfer concepts from one piece of music to another, such as phrasing, intonation, blend, balance, and diction, without constant reminders from the director? Are we attentive to meter, syllabic stress, and slowing down at the end of a piece or section? Do we always sing with our back straight, breathe properly, count (without tapping or otherwise distracting others!), and watch the director? Do we try to have a good attitude and take correction well? If there are reading, listening, or other homework assignments, are we conscientious about completing them? Do we articulate our opinions when asked, and keep them to ourselves otherwise (or at least not disrupt rehearsal with them)? If we rehearse in the church, are we appropriately respectful of the house of God? Do we avoid unnecessary talking in church, especially when people are praying? Do we help keep the choir areas tidy by picking up after ourselves and not leaving behind bulletins, music lists, water bottles, etc.? For directors: Do we respect our singers’ time by starting and ending rehearsals on schedule and using the rehearsal time efficiently? Are we clear about expectations and goals? In rehearsal, do we speak loudly and clearly enough, without yelling, for everyone in the choir to hear us? Do we keep our temper in check? There are reasons for the existence of stereotypes such as the so-called artistic temperament, the prima donna, the diva, and worse! Do we apologize when we have been too demanding or offended someone?
Petition • Petition, impetration, or supplication is asking God for the fulfillment of our needs and desires, either for ourselves or for others. Do we focus on the “practical” to the neglect of the spiritual? Do we pray regularly for our choir members and directors, by name? For our priests, parish staff, and volunteers? For the general wellbeing of our parish music program? Do we pray together at rehearsals? Conversely, are we presumptuous in asking God, Our Lady, angels, or saints to help us become better singers or musicians without putting forth enough personal effort? Does our practice and preparation correspond to our prayer and piety? I am reminded of a spurious quote, variously attributed to either St. Augustine or St. Ignatius of Loyola: “Pray as though everything depended on God; act as though everything depended on you,” and the prayer of St. Thomas More: “The things, good Lord, that we pray for, give us the grace to labor for.” When the music program has personnel, monetary, or material needs, do we rely solely on the generosity of parishioners and benefactors or also call upon divine assistance, whether it be for new member recruitment, sheet music purchases, instrument maintenance or replacement, physical remodeling, or anything else? Let us remember these intentions also when we fast.
In our contemplation of the four ends of the Mass, if we’ve been singing for church for any length of time, we will immediately recall certain texts that express adoration, thanksgiving, atonement, and petition, then we will probably think of the genius of some of the composers in expressing these and related sentiments musically. I hope this meditation will lead us to further gratitude for the incredible gift of music.
Ending with the Beginning in Mind • In coming weeks, I will write on the topic of the oldest extant Gregorian chant manuscripts—“the beginning”—and what they can teach us about rhythm and articulation. Whether you read this the same day I post it or months or years later, you are at “the end.” I would like to encourage you to study and consider whether your rendition of chant agrees with the oldest sources. How would a tenth-century scribe notate what you sang or conducted? Would the transcription agree with the chant he actually wrote down in his manuscript? Would the neumes depict the conducting gestures? I fear that the majority of present-day performances would fail on both counts. I will address these questions and more as we explore proportional rhythm, historically known as mensuralism, according to the approach of Jan van Biezen, which is largely the same as that of Blackley, Murray, and Vollaerts, all of which represent modern applications of the teaching of the early medieval theorists in light of the oldest manuscript sources.