LTHOUGH THERE WAS A DEFINITE PROHIBITION against mixed choirs of men and women in effect from 1897 to 1955, women and girls were permitted (and encouraged) to sing as part of the congregation and, in certain cases, alone: 1. for a grave reason and with the knowledge of the Ordinary, 2. in convents, or 3. in schools for girls; in the latter case, the participation of non-Catholic girls was also tolerated. I am unaware of any prohibition from any period in history against nuns or other women religious singing the Ordinary and Proper of the Mass alone in their own chapels or in other churches where they chant the Divine Office. In Hayburn’s Papal Legislation on Sacred Music, some might be shocked to read the following:
Through the Vicar-General of the Diocese Nullius of Terlizzi or Ciovinazzo, it has been made known that the nuns of the Monastery of St. Claire of the abovementioned land, have dared, during the recent past, to sing the Turba section of the Passion of Our Lord, on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday of Holy Week, according to the custom of the Collegiate Chapters of Collegiate Churches, and of other churches, both secular and regular, during the solemn Masses celebrated in these same churches.
From the Congregation of Sacred Rites it is humbly asked now to declare whether the abovementioned practices are licit to these nuns, and if the answer is negative, to mention what penalty should be mentioned as punishment.
The same Congregation of Sacred Rites has answered: Such practice is prohibited under the penalty of suspension, and in the future it is not to be permitted. (S.R.C. decree no. 2169 , June 17, 1706, cited on p. 425)
The singing of the Passion is traditionally the prerogative of three deacons, who sing the Chronista (Chronicler, also called Evangelist or Narrator), Synagoga (Synagogue), and Christus (Christ) parts, respectively. The custom mentioned above of singing the Turba section of the Passion refers to the parts pertaining to the crowd (turba) of multiple voices speaking at once. To this day, in many cathedrals abroad, it is not uncommon on great feasts for many canons, all of them priests, to assist in the choir stalls at the Capitular Mass. A similar situation obtains in monasteries, seminaries, and churches served by men’s religious orders, where the priests are joined by brothers and seminarians. Elsewhere, a lay choir or schola cantorum fulfills the same role.
What should we make of the prohibition against nuns taking part in the singing of the Passion in the choir of their own convent chapel under threat of suspension? Is the singing of the crowd parts forbidden only to women, lay people in general, or anyone below the rank of deacon? Eminent rubricists state that the crowd parts may be sung by the choir, without specifying whether the choir referred to is clerical or lay, all male or mixed, in or out of the sanctuary. I am of the opinion that, in light of the decree quoted above, women are not to participate in the singing of the turba parts for the traditional Latin liturgy unless there is a local custom of congregational singing of those parts (which is not foreseen by the rubrics). I would, however, be delighted to know of any legislation to the contrary. I cannot say with certainty that it is permissible for laymen or even deacons or priests outside of the sanctuary or chancel to sing those parts, only that I’m unaware of any definite prohibition against the practice.
Regarding Tracts • The other dubium I want to address concerns the singing of tracts, which, just like the Passions, are a liturgical proclamation of a scriptural text. The rubrics simply say that “the Tract is sung, its Versicles being chanted alternately by the two sides of the choir answering each other, or else by the cantors and the full choir.” Someone in my parish is of the opinion that the part of the tract before the first double bar line is not a versicle (but what is it?) and that the correct procedure is for the full schola to come in at the star after the intonation then begin the alternation at the double bar line, which I’m told is the practice at the FSSP’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary. In Psallite Sapienter, B. Andrew Mills says that only the first half choir comes in at the star (no. 96), which is consistent with the procedure for other chants that are sung in alternation. Furthermore, the tract is considered the example of direct (i.e., non-antiphonal, non-responsorial) psalmody in the Roman rite and probably received its name at a time when it was the only psalm sung liturgically in uno tractu, straight through without antiphon or response. (Let us recall that the gradual was originally a responsorial chant and may still be sung in that manner according to the rubrics.)
It is easy enough to determine the custom of various churches and monasteries by listening to their recordings. Cantori Gregoriani, St. Ottilien, and Schola Nova Gregoriana have the full schola sing from the beginning of the chant. Heiligenkreuz and Solesmes have the full schola sing from the intonation star. Fontgombault and Münsterschwarzach have the full schola sing from the first double bar line. The recordings from Triors are inconsistent. For most of the other scholas, I listened to only a single tract track (see what I did there?), so it is quite possible that they don’t always follow the same procedure in every tract, and why should they? I think this is merely a matter of custom, preference, or practicality, with no right or wrong way to do it.