OT LONG AGO, a notification from an internet forum popped up. The poster listed musical selections for an upcoming feast filled with typical, hackneyed, run-of-the-mill Protestant hymns paired with an ‘unobjectionable’ (but rather insipid) Mass setting. The poster then lamented: “What’s wrong with Catholics? Why can’t we do simple stuff everybody knows all the time?” I found such a post reprehensible for a variety of reasons. For instance, mindlessly repeating the same pieces—from cradle to grave—has never been the tradition of the Church. That’s why the official GRADUALE ROMANUM published under Pope Saint Pius X provides more than twenty (20) different plainsong settings of the Mass Ordinary.1
Salary For Church Musicians • Another reason I found the poster’s assertions offensive is because what he’s pleading for is precisely what is already done in most parishes! One reason this unfortunate situation prevails (in my humble opinion) is because Catholic churches frequently offer choirmasters a meager, pitiful, unjust salary. So musicians “dart around” from parish to parish, seldom lasting very long. After all, it would be virtually impossible to implement an outstanding choral program—such as what is found in the Brébeuf Catholic Hymnal—if one constantly “hops” from parish to parish.
The Blame Game • I do not for one instant excuse, condone, justify, or minimize the sinful harm done to underpaid choirmasters. On the other hand, for half a century we’ve been complaining that Catholic musicians are shamefully underpaid. Has anything good resulted? Would it not be better (and more pleasing to God) for us to consider what can be done to change the situation?
Possible Solution #1 • If we’re honest, we must admit that blaming others is 100x easier than examining our own consciences. Numerous times on this blog I’ve suggested that most Catholic priests have never heard a real choir sing. The minimum choral sound is no fewer than three singers on each part. [According to Dr. James Daugherty, if there are only two singers, one voice will always dominate the other.] A QUARTET, where one voice sings each part, can do beautiful things—but it’s not a choral sound. One has not a true choral sound until one has a minimum of three voices per part. I realize fully how much work recruiting singers can be. And it’s often soul-crushing work! I realize fully how much work is required to train volunteer singers from one’s parish. Indeed, we will explore techniques to recruit (and retain) volunteer singers at this year’s Sacred Music Symposium. But I believe there’s nothing as irresistible as a full choir singing well in real life. Once priests experience this, in my humble opinion, they become “hooked.” Then they will be (hopefully) willing to pay their choirmaster a just salary.
Possible Solution #2 • In some ways, I think we choirmasters can be “our own worst enemy.” We are so busy complaining about the horrible state of musical education (which is true) we sometimes fail to perform a “musical examination of conscience.” If priests are not falling in love with authentic sacred music, why is that? Are we presenting the music well? When we sing plainsong, does it sound fresh and bright? Or does it sound plodding, boring, and dirgelike? Do we use a recording device to listen to how our choir is singing? Or—like 95% of choir directors—are we afraid to do that, because we fear what we’ll hear? But if we hate what we’re producing, how can we blame priests for not falling in love with authentic sacred music?
Possible Solution #3 • I understand the normal and healthy desire to select intricate music for Mass, and I certainly have been guilty of programming selections which were (in retrospect) beyond the capability of my choir. Let’s make sure at least some of the music we sing is performed as well as it should be. This might mean taking “simple” hymns from an excellent collection like the Brébeuf Hymnal and making sure they’re sung with perfection. If we don’t help our priests fall in love with sacred music, is it realistic to think the current situation will ever improve? Here’s a hymn I consider “easy” yet gorgeous:
Possible Solution #4 • Sometimes, it’s necessary to “take your pastor where he is.” At this year’s Sacred Music Symposium in June, we will look at the SEQUENCE for Easter Sunday, examining multiple ways it can be sung. Some ways are very simple; some ways are more complicated; some are esoteric. The conscientious choirmaster must choose the best way for his parish—even if it means “pulling back” for the greater good. I realize the great Adrian Fortescue said the Víctimæ Pascháli plainsong should never be replaced, but we live in strange times! We must have tools available to us to help us survive. Below is one option we will explore. Are your ears able to discern how the TENOR LINE takes the melody?
* PDF Download • VICTIMAE PASCHALI (Sequence)
—Melody = Brébeuf Hymn #415 • Harmonies © The Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal.
Possible Solution #5 • Okay, this final item is not so much a “solution” as it is an announcement. At this year’s Sacred Music Symposium, there will be a special presentation by CORRINNE MAY, a ‘platinum’ artist from Singapore. (She kindly agreed to provide the treble voices for the Víctimae Paschali rehearsal video above.) I believe CORRINNE MAY’s will be nothing short of inspiring. In a very short time, she has formed an incredible choir in spite of major obstacles. She will have some words of wisdom for us. I am going to pressure Corrinne to make her presentation available (in written form) after the symposium has ended.
Fabulous Work, Corrinne! • From Singapore, I was recently sent several ‘live’ recordings which, considering it’s a 100% volunteer choir, I believe are fantastic. They sang Brébeuf #706 by the Venerable Bede, which I think you’ll recognize when you listen to this excerpt of Corrinne’s volunteer choir singing. They also sang the “PATER NOSTER” by Canon Jules Van Nuffel, which is not an easy piece! (You can download the score here.) You can listen to the ‘live’ recording of Corrinne’s volunteer choir singing Van Nuffel’s masterpiece, demonstrating they are open to contemporary styles—which I believe is important. Finally, I was sent a ‘live’ recording of Corrinne’s choir singing Brébeuf #729, a Eucharistic hymn by Father Edward Caswall, the famous Oratorian poet, set to the tune of AURELIA. Notice how Corrinne’s choir sings each verse differently, sometimes having ladies only, sometimes having men only, and sometimes having SATB:
* Mp3 Download • “O Jesus Christ, Remember”
—AURELIA TUNE • By Fr. Edward Caswall, Oratorian.
We look forward to hearing your presentation in June, Corrinne!
1 I still remember a conversation I had years ago with an Episcopalian who loved Healey Willan’s “Mary Magdalene” Mass setting. He said he’d sung it since his youth, it was sung every Sunday where he went to church, and he hoped to hear it the day of his death. Whether one likes or dislikes the piece is irrelevant. The point is, it’s an impoverishment to limit so severely the treasury of sacred music (what Vatican II referred to as the “thesaurus musicæ sacræ”) to just a handful of pieces sung ad infinitum. By the way, not everyone has to like everything. For example, Monsignor Francis P. Schmitt famously disliked the LAUDA SION, which I believe to be powerful and beautiful.