In my small 5 years of priesthood I have never ceased to be amazed at the passions that arise when someone attempts to touch the liturgy. I’m not talking about sacrosanct parts of the liturgy; I’m talking about little things like how the ministers should be organized, where the Mary statue should be placed, or whether or not we should have music rehearsal or not.
It’s good that we are passionate about these things, probably far worse if we didn’t care at all. Change is hard, for all of us.
With that preamble, I want to share some of my thoughts about liturgical music. I’m going to step out into the no man zone and then quickly run back into the bunker. In all seriousness, though, I hope it’ll lead to a wider reflection on our practices on the Parish level in the United States and beyond.
Trying to do too much with poor results instead of doing a little very well.
At my parish we have an early morning Sunday Mass that has no music. People love it, and if it wasn’t for the fact that it was so early in the morning I bet more people would come. I would wager that, if you took away the music as Sunday Mass, making it shorter and more convenient, people would flock to those Masses. Now, I realize that people favor convenience, that this isn’t completely the fault of our choirs; but there is something here that we need to be listening to. Our music is a felt burden. It doesn’t matter if it’s contemporary, classical, a professional choir, or a non professional choir. People are generally not enthused about it. Where are we perhaps misguided.
Why do we have to do everything? This is a question that occurred to me as I was thinking this through. At a typical Sunday Mass we sing approximately 10 different songs. We have the opening song, the Gloria, the Responsorial Psalm, the Alleluia verse, the Offertory song, the Sanctus, the great Amen, the Communion song (sometimes more than one), the closing song, and so on. Now, let’s take a step back and ask ourselves the question, how many of these songs are required by the Liturgy? The answer is none of them. Don’t get me wrong, I fully respect the importance of music in the liturgy. In fact, the entire Mass should be understood as music and poetry and therefore should be sung, if possible. What I want to emphasis is that it would be better to sing one song well that to sing 10 songs in an average manner.
Take the example of these girls singing the National anthem in 4 part harmony. It moves you, touches the heart. You remember this song, post it on Facebook, tell other people about it. So, let me ask you, when was the last time you found a Church choir to be Facebook worthy?
Now there are several reasons I believe we fail, and I’ll talk about those other points as we go along; but the central point that I want to stress here is that these 5 girls, who are not paid professionals, who have the same talent that most parishes have; spent time and effort in crafting this song to perfection. We, on the other hand, with a group of volunteers, spend one hour a week trying to practice 10 different songs every week.
Yes, we need to sing at Mass, but maybe we’re trying to much because of a felt need to do it all. I would rather we shut down the choir so that they can sing at least one song with beautiful perfection than have them keep trying to do an Ok job with 10 songs every weekend. I would have them take their time and perfect the pieces; build up a repertoire of beautifully crafted pieces, starting with the parts of the Mass, even if it meant that they only sang one piece of music at Mass once a week or once a month for a period of time. Sometimes you just have to stop everything and take your time instead of doing things for the sake of doing them.
Related to this is the fact that the primacy of singing at Mass needs to be given to the parts of the Mass. The opening song, the Communion hymn, and the closing song are completely optional (and some liturgists would argue that they shouldn’t even be there). Therefore, a choir should really be perfecting the ordinary responses of the Mass.
Harmony of themes
Ok, so here is where I’m going to get in trouble. Let’s talk contemporary Christian music at Mass. Let’s talk about guitars, drums, and up beat rhythms. First of all, I like contemporary Christian music, some of them have some very inspiring messages and tunes. My problem is that, during the Mass, contemporary music is often trying to move us one direction and the liturgy is trying to take us in another and there is a disconnect; a disharmony. It’s like having a rock band breaking in during the classical presentation of swan lake with ballerinas dancing on stage. Neither is necessarily bad, they are just not always in sync. One is a controlled, very precise choreography calling us to be still and quiet in order to appreciate what we are seeing and the other is calling us to get up on our feet and throw up our hands. This is the disconnect that often happens when we put contemporary music in the Mass. One wants us to get on our feet and jump up and down while the classical, reserved setting of the Mass is calling us to stop and be reflective. Here we are, sitting in our pews, with a posture that is reserved and reflective listening to the call of the drums and the guitars which is screaming, “GET UP And Dance!” but no one is responding because the liturgy was telling them something different.
You see, its not that contemporary music is bad and traditional music is good; its that the liturgy is a classical poetry with a reserved spirit that contemporary music is sometimes not in harmony with. I want to get up and respond to the music, but the liturgy is telling me to do something else. Contemporary music is saying “Stand up” and the liturgy is saying “sit down and be still;” and because of this neither of them gets fully respected.
That being said, this integration can be done well; but only if we are consciously aware of the disconnect. There are many types of contemporary music that is more reflective. Even more, though, one might take inspiration from the African cultures and how they incorporate a more responsive music and dance into the classical liturgy without conflicting with the reserved themes of the liturgy.
The Primacy of The Voice; Chant and Polyphony; Even In Contemporary Music.
Instruments are so often a crutch that church choirs use. Choirs are too dependent on musical instruments and therefore they are never forced to perfect themselves. The choir should be able to sing every song it presents in 4 part harmony without any instrumentation. However, instruments are often louder than the choir, they cover up the fact that they haven’t perfected the harmonies very well, and they unconsciously give us permission not to perfect the presentation.
This even applies to contemporary music. Take for example the version of Ave Maria from the movie Sister Act. It’s contemporary, it’s lively, its definitely in disharmony with the rest of the liturgy; but notice how little the piano is used, how you can hear all the voices and harmonies. You don’t need a guitar or drums to do lively, and, in fact, they sometimes get in the way.
If I was in charge of the choir I would remove all the instruments and require the choir to sing without them until they had completely mastered the skill. I would have them master polyphony and Chant. Then, and only then, would I consider bringing back the instruments in a limited accompaniment.
The Congregation Is The Choir
Sometimes I just want to catch the congregation off guard and tell the choir to stop singing just to see if the congregation would keep going. Acts 4:31 says, “As they prayed, the place where they gathered shook.” The congregation should be singing in such a way that it drowns out the choir. The choir should be guiding and calling forth from the people their response, not replacing it. However, here I want to make a caveat. We need to distinguish between singing that is meant to be sung together and singing that is meant to be listened to. It really has to be either or and we have to treat them separately. If our goal is to have people sing they need to be familiar with the song. But more than a familiarity, it has to be part of their tradition stirring up heart felt memories. They must know it like the back of their hand. However, if they spend half the song trying to figure out the tune then you will get very little participation, even from those who are trying.
This is where we sometimes are misdirected. There are tunes that only the choir sings either because they are novel or complex. These songs are meant to be listened to in order to assist in reflection. However, if we are inviting the community to sing the opening song, then they better be very familiar with it. Not that we can’t introduce new songs, but we need to realize that we need to play it over and over again until it is truly a part of the living tradition. What music directors sometimes do is over emphasis the fact that the opening songs need to match the themes of that days liturgy and so every week is a different song. This means that people end up not singing because they don’t know these songs and they are not inspired by them because they are not part of their living tradition.
Being In The Choir Is a Vocation That Needs Discernment
To put it simply, if you can’t sing you shouldn’t be in the choir. Not everyone can sing, but even more, the choir ministry is only the leader of the choir, which is the congregation. No one is stopping anyone from singing, but the choir should be the best singers we have. Just because someone volunteers doesn’t mean they should be in the choir. This is a vocation of service that needs discernment, and a healthy choir is one that can be critical with each other even to the point of saying, “We don’t think this is your form of ministry.”
Pay Attention To The Tempo and Rhythm Of The Mass
Setting a good pace to the liturgy is not necessarily disrespectful. Adding speed and quickness can communicate energy and responsiveness while slower paces can communicate lethargy and lack of interest. We use the words “Praise the Lord!” but we say it like “praise the lord.” I’m not promoting shouting or over exaggerated expressions. That is not the fine art of the Liturgy. The talent is in expressing importance without breaking the pattern.
One area where choirs are not attentive to the rhythm of the Mass is in the timing of the responses. Take for example the timing of the Sanctus. The Sanctus follows immediately after the Preface is proclaimed. The text of the Preface concludes with the exhortation “And so, with all the Angels and Saints, we praise you, and without end we acclaim…” Notice that the text is calling us to respond in exhortation immediately, with everything we have. However, this momentum that the preface built up to is often thwarted by choirs because they start the “Holy, Holy, Holy” with a long instrumental intro. The preface is already the intro, the Sanctus needs to start immediately with gusto!
Another good example is the pace of the Gloria. Can choirs please stop dragging out the Gloria. It needs speed and power. Please stop watering it down with refrains and instrumental introductions and interludes.
Prayerfulness does not mean slow tempo. Sometimes we need speed and sometimes we need to draw things out.
The Mass Is A Song
Art is prayer and prayer is art. In so far as art is a prayer is in so far as it is an art. The Mass is a song, and the entire liturgy should be sung, if possible and suitable. It is a poem, a choreographed presentation. Every movement is intentional and expressive. However, the art of the Mass is the celebration of what is truly present; the Body and Blood of Christ; no amount of human art can make God any more or less present.
The whole Mass should be sung, and the priests and the people of God should be disposed to do so well. It should have a good pace so that the parts go into each other seamlessly. It should have the nature of a ballet. No one stops a ballet to hand out things or make announcements. Often times adding more things to the Mass is an expression that there is a deficiency in the way we are celebrating Mass, we do not trust the liturgy. Singing the Mass does not take that long; what does take so long are all the little extra things that break the flow.
Its not that the Roman Liturgy of Vatican II has failed, its that the Liturgy of Vatican II has never been tried.
So, in conclusion, can we give our permission to do less in order to do it better and be in harmony with the tempo and movement of the liturgy, to sing with all our voices, and make a gift of joyful praise.
Those are some of my thought about Liturgical Music; I’m sure you have your own, and I would love to hear about them in the comments.
St. Cecilia: pray for us