UMAN BEINGS are experts when it comes to blaming others. What a contrast against someone like Saint John Vianney (d. 1859) who, when he saw others committing sin would retire to his room and scourge himself—using a little whip with sharp spikes—in order to offer sacrifice for the sinner’s conversion. If we’re honest, we must admit that our “default” is to blame others. For instance, how many times have you heard church musicians and organists blame others? They might say: “I can’t form a choir because the philistines in this parish don’t appreciate good music.” Or they might ask: “What’s the point in trying to start a choir when people in this parish lack sophistication and can’t read music?” I believe anyone can be taught to sing authentic church music.1 As Zechariah Goh once told me: “There is no student who cannot learn; only a teacher who cannot teach.” We will discuss techniques for recruiting choir members at this year’s Sacred Music Symposium.
Ear Assault! • When I was studying at the conservatory circa 2003, a professor of Music Theory invited me to attend Mass where he was organist. At that point, he’d served as organist at that church for about ten years. He promised he would play my favorite piece (Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor) after Mass was over. However, after Mass began, I made up some excuse to leave the building—my ears couldn’t take it. He played the organ so loud. On another occasion, he told me his choirmaster told him to play softer, but he refused because “if I play softer, the congregation starts singing softer.” Such a justification was bizarre because nobody in the church was singing! What was going through this man’s mind? He wasn’t an idiot; indeed, he was probably the world’s expert when it came to figured bass realization. Nonetheless, the volume he used on that pipe organ was excessive, reprehensible, scandalous, and headache-inducing. Yet this same person looked down on people who didn’t appreciate classical music!
“Prímum Non Nocére” • Doctors must take the Hippocratic Oath, which says: “First, do no harm.” This is the self-same motto one is to adopt when one studies musica ficta in Renaissance polyphony. I would suggest that the Conscientious Choirmaster should also strive to “do no harm.” In other words, sacred music is supposed to be beautiful. It should attract people, not drive them away. The professor of Music Theory I mentioned was doing great harm. I would certainly never attend Mass at such a place. Never forget: hearing loss is irreparable.
Musical Diversity • I have often harped (pardon the pun!) on the idea that musical diversity is a marvelous way to keep your congregation happy—and to attract singers, by the way. [N.B. Some will call me a ‘barbarian’ for what I’m about to say.] It would be wrong, in my judgment, to program THE TOURNAI MASS for your normal Sunday Mass. It’s quite beautiful, but I would argue that its length makes it a stumbling block for the ‘average’ Catholic in the pews. I also believe it would be wrong to program, for example, Ernst Krenek’s MISSA DUODECIM TONORUM for a Sunday Mass. Again, we must follow the “do no harm” maxim.
Examples from Last Thursday • I would like to take this opportunity to present what I consider a “musically diverse” Mass. The following examples were all recorded live by our parish choir—which consists 100% of volunteers. The Mass took place on Thursday, 2 February 2023. The Introit is an example of Gregorian Chant, sung by ladies (and a soloist) accompanied on the organ using the NOH. Here’s an excerpt:
The KYRIE ELEYSON was a ‘tuneful’ piece based on the Ave Maris Stella by Father Tomás Luis de Victoria (d. 1611), mixed with plainsong. Here’s an excerpt:
The GLORIA is a very ‘cerebral’ (yet passionate) five-voice composition by Father Cristóbal de Morales (d. 1553), which also is based on the Ave Maris Stella. In a stupefying way, Father Morales makes a perfect canon between the Alto and Tenor. Here’s an excerpt:
Before the Gospel, we sang a piece from the Baroque. Specifically, it was a splendidly bright SATB ALLELUIA by Johann Sebastian Bach (d. 1750). Here’s an excerpt:
The Offertory was sung in plainchant—without accompaniment—by men. Here’s an excerpt:
In the contemporary idiom, the SANCTUS was by Father Antonin Lhoumeau (d. 1920), based on the Editio Vaticana Sanctus XIII. Here’s an excerpt:
The AGNUS DEI, written by Father Francisco Guerrero (d. 1599), is based on the Mode III psalm tone. Here’s an excerpt:
For the Communion, alternating SATB with women in unison, we sang #792 from the Brébeuf Catholic Hymnal. That’s a hymn to Saint Joseph, whose text was written by Father Christopher Phillips, a contemporary poet:
Finally, for a recessional hymn, we did one of the 19th-century “greatest hits,” which is #802 in the Brébeuf Catholic Hymnal. Here’s an excerpt:
Something that works very well for a recessional is a last verse harmonization or soprano descant. We often use such items. In the Brébeuf Catholic Hymnal (at the very bottom of the page) one will notice the “Last Verse” page numbers are provided from the books by Richard Lloyd and Noel Rawsthorne. This is quite convenient!
Conclusion • I don’t claim that what we did on Thursday was perfect—not at all. However, I posted it here to (hopefully) give readers some ideas about repertoire. Needless to say, what I have shown here is not everything we did. In particular, there were solo pieces played on the pipe organ using ‘colorful’ stops. By the way, we usually sing music by Kevin Allen, but it just so happens that we did not sing any of his music on Thursday. Kevin Allen is one of the most acclaimed “contemporary” composers of sacred music, and my singers absolutely love his compositions.
1 The only exception, in my opinion, is an adult who’s tone-deaf, which means that person cannot match pitch. In my view, it is almost impossible to “cure” an adult who is tone-deaf.