AXI DRIVERS. In September of 1914, a year after Abbat Pothier finished his role as president of the Vatican Commission on Gregorian Chant established by POPE SAINT PIUS X, approximately 570,000 men died during a WW1 battle at the Marne River. Many of the French and British soldiers arrived from Paris by means of taxi cab drivers (!) carrying five soldiers (four in the back, one seated next to the driver). Only the back lights of the taxis were lit, and drivers were instructed to follow the lights of the taxi ahead. Most of the taxis were demobilized on 8 September, but some remained longer to carry the wounded and refugees. The taxis—following city regulations—dutifully ran their meters. Carrying soldiers by means of taxi cabs? This was an unorthodox technique.
Unorthodox Actions • Sometimes it’s necessary to break from what’s mainstream. Everything I’ve tried to contribute to Corpus Christi Watershed has been done for one reason: viz. I believe the “status quo” at Ordinary Form Masses is completely unacceptable. When it comes to the Holy Mass, do we really believe the SECOND PERSON OF THE BLESSED TRINITY becomes present on our altars? Do we take to heart the powerful words of Monsignor Knox? I’ve matured over the last 25 years, to be sure. Nevertheless, I still (ardently) believe what I argued back then: If we really believe what we say we believe, we would not tolerate goofy, silly, secular music at the Holy Mass. Below is an example of the type of music they sang 1 at our rich, suburban parish when I was growing up in the 1990s:
A Way Forward? • If the status quo is unacceptable, the question becomes: What can we do about it? In a moment, I’ll discuss the crusade I’m dreaming of. First, I’d like to share with you a “Choral Warm-Up” I’ve been using with the choir I direct, in which 100% of the members are volunteers recruited from the pews. Very few can read music. Many had no musical training whatsoever (!) before I recruited them. This exercise attempts to teach them the “SSS” technique:
The “SSS” Technique • In my article dated 16 October 2023, I mentioned how I’ve published hundreds of articles over the years. The time is ripe to pursue a better way of organizing them. Therefore, I’ve decided to begin a new section of the website called: Tricks of the Conscientious Choirmaster. The “SSS” technique is used by all competent choral singers, especially leading to a suspension (or dissonance that gets resolved). The singer begins softly and then adds a “hairpin” (crescendo). SSS = Start Soft (then) Swell. Several of my choir members helped make that rehearsal video. When I sent it to a famous director who’s run choral programs all over the world, he wrote: “Jeff, you nailed it! Allowing growth/energy into the phrase and tapering at phrase end. The sung example you sent was just lovely. Be sure to use the imagery of pulling/stretching a rubber band. Your singers had the ebb and flow. Great job!” During rehearsal a few nights ago, our volunteer parish choir attempted this “Choral Warm-Up” for the first time. Click here if you wish to hear a ‘live’ version of our first attempt. It will get better the more we sing it.
Did Morley Copy Nanino? • In 2004, I produced a CD (Compact Disc) containing choral music by Palestrina, Croce, Victoria, Gabrieli, Marenzio, Uttendal, Quignard, Costantini, Zoilo, Hassler, Lassus, Ravanello, Allegri, Viadana, Monteverdi, and others. Included on that CD was a magnificent psalm setting by GIOVANNI BERNARDINO NANINO (d. 1623) called “Laudáte Púeri Dóminum.” One of the movements—viz. “Quis Sicut Dóminus Deus Noster”—sounds incredibly similar to the piece by Morley. Listen to this excerpt (specifically marker 0:24) and see whether you agree:
For the record (pardon the pun), that recording was produced before the advent of “pitch correction” software. Perhaps it shows!
Back To Taxi Cabs • Earlier, I spoke of the “unorthodox” approach of placing soldiers in taxi cabs. To read history is to understand that truth is stranger than fiction. Consider Ulysses S. Grant, who failed at every pursuit he ever tried. Because of his various failures, Grant ended up working as a clerk in his father’s leather business. He served in a lowly position under his (much younger) brother, Orvil Lynch Grant. But within the space of one year (!) Grant found himself serving as a general overseeing the BATTLE OF SHILOH (where casualties numbered 24,000). How does one go from being a store clerk—desperately trying to sell hats to women—to overseeing such carnage? The truth is stranger than fiction.
A New Crusade? • The status quo at Ordinary Form Masses is completely unacceptable. What can be done? For decades, some have chosen to complain. “Church musicians aren’t paid enough,” they exclaim over and over again. My friends, that “complaining” approach has gotten us nowhere. So perhaps it’s time we try something unorthodox. Isn’t it time for a new crusade? Perhaps we should start asking why it is that so many priests have contempt for authentic church music. Isn’t it possible that some hate sacred music because they’ve heard it performed badly? Isn’t it possible that too many music directors fail to utilize appropriate musical diversity at Mass? How many priests have ever (in their entire life) heard a decent choir sing? I’m not speaking of a choir on a recording; I mean in real life. Are we sometimes guilty of singing polyphony designed for a choir with just one singer on each part? After all, that’s not a choral sound: that’s a quartet of soloists. Such an approach can ruin pieces conceived for a choir, because a ravishing choral sound depends on many voices “aiming” for a pitch (which each hears properly in their mind, similar to Plato’s famous theory of “ideals”) but actually creating a rich sound by “surrounding” the pitch. An ensemble of soloists can be quite beautiful (and has its proper place, as I’ve said a zillion times on this blog), but it’s not the same as a true choral sound. Many professional ensembles produce recordings with an “ensemble of soloists” rather than a proper choir, because hiring soloists is a lot cheaper than hiring a full choir. By so doing, they harm sacred music. Moreover, aren’t we ourselves sometimes guilty? When we see people who call themselves “experts” pontificating about sacred music online, why don’t we call them out? Why don’t we demand to know how many choirs they’ve conducted in real life? Why don’t we demand to know where they currently work? Why don’t we demand to hear recordings of their choirs? If we did that, 90% of these fake “experts” would stop polluting the forums and social media discussions with terrible advice about church music. We must demand that these self-proclaimed “experts” provide proof they’ve stood in front of a choir in real life. There’s a reason such people are too ashamed to reveal recordings their choirs have made. I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you the reason! Those who have stood in front of a choir in real life know how difficult the choirmaster’s vocation is. I’m reminded of Vladimir Horowitz. When students would come to play at his home, Horowitz would always say: “You don’t need to be nervous to play for me; I’m a very good pianist myself, so I know how difficult it is.” By the way, singing in a choir is not the same thing as directing a choir. Let’s make a commitment to publicly condemn toxic people. Let’s make a commitment to never be jealous of other sacred music programs. Instead, let’s try to learn from directors who show (by their words and deeds) they’re authentic Christians. If we could only banish pomposity, jealousy, and pettiness, we’d learn so much from one another. Years ago, during the Sacred Music Symposium, my colleague ANDREA LEAL taught me how to create text messages by speaking (rather than typing). This knowledge benefited me tremendously! Nobody had ever taken the time to help me—but she did.
Not Unique To Music • The crusade I’m suggesting is basically about honesty. Some are quick to call priests and bishops “uneducated philistines who know nothing about real music.” Yet these same people run music programs which are ghastly. I wish I had a nickel for every musician who complains online about priests being “philistines” yet is too embarrassed to provide a recording of the music they themselves produce at church. It really is, therefore, a crusade for honesty. If someone is too ashamed to provide a recording of how their choir sounds, how can we blame priests for hating it? I had the privilege for several years of studying with the former director of the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome. Whenever a choral director’s name came up, he would ask one question: “What does his choir sound like?” And that really is the only question that matters. Nor is this phenomenon unique to the musical scene. There are priests online who pontificate about every subject in the world, attacking other priests (and even bishops). Yet, these same priests have been removed from their parishes … or never had a parish to begin with! I know several who have been forbidden to preach publicly. I think we can all agree that “tearing down others” on the internet is infinitely easier than accomplishing something meaningful in real life. Our Blessed Savior put it best: Hypocrita, ejice primum trabem de oculo tuo, et tunc videbis ejicere festucam de oculo fratris tui.
1 Decades later, I found out that song was composed by a British man named PAUL INWOOD. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, Mr. Inwood’s understanding of the Mass is woefully inadequate, as evidenced by this screenshot my friend recently shared with me. Once we understand that, the irreverent, goofy, uninspired style of Inwood’s “sacred” compositions makes sense. Agere sequitur esse.