The Role of the Choir in Catholic Liturgy

I have some thoughts about the “traditional choir” in Catholic liturgy. I know the term is imprecise, but I’m going to go with it. I’m coming from my background as an organist, Gregorian chant scholar, and devotee of the Church’s heritage of sacred choral music, and I own that limitation.

This post is about what Sacrosanctum Concilium said in article 114 that “Choirs must be diligently promoted, especially in cathedral churches…” I have in mind the type of choir that sings solo anthems, accompanied usually by organ but sometime by piano or unaccompanied, with literature generally from the “treasury of sacred music” (no, I’m not going to define that here), and usually with SATB voice parts. Such choirs sometimes also sing global music in various styles and languages, which is all to the good.

Four roles

I see four distinct liturgical roles for the choir, though these sometimes overlap a bit.

  1. Solo singing: choir alone when the congregation is not singing.
    1a. Solo Free-standing.
         1.b. Solo Dialogical– in alternation with singing congregation.
  2. Congregational singing: simply as members of the congregation.
  3. Stimulator: as a hyper-ready portion of the congregation that sings confidently to stimulate the rest of the congregation to sing.
  4. Simultaneous enhancement: choral elaboration (harmonies, descants) while the congregation is also singing.

Some examples of each of these four:

1a. Solo Free-standing: Palestrina, Bach, Rutter, etc. – anthems or motets sung e.g. as prelude, at preparation of the offerings and altar, during or after communion, or as a postlude.

1b (Solo Dialogical): Responsorial psalm verses sung in parts in alternation with congregational refrain; one stanza of a congregational strophic hymn sung by choir alone in parts when congregation sings the rest of the stanzas.

2 (Congregational): Congregational opening hymn led by pipe organ, choir members pick up the hymnal and, just like everyone else, sing in unison without having rehearsed the hymn, following the organ and not needing a conductor.

3 (Stimulator). Like #2 except the hymn is not well-known, or is a bit difficult, or the congregation for whatever reason probably won’t sing it well, so the choir rehearses it ahead of time and is prepared to sing it confidently so it goes over well.

4 (Enhancement). Congregational hymns and all the Mass parts are sung by congregation, while the choir sings the same music in parts, generally doubling the organ harmonies.

More solos for great impact

To lay my cards on the table: I think choirs need to do more of #1 and less of #3 and #4. Yes, you read that right. I think choirs need to focus more on their solo choral singing and less on leading the congregation and enhancing the congregation’s singing with harmonies.

Why? Greater impact. Rehearsal time is limited; it is better spent on the music in which the choir has the greatest impact upon the liturgy. In fact I think this is what choirs are mostly for: to provide choral music as a unique gift that the rest of the congregation is not meant to offer.

Consider this hypothetical scenario, an example of what I find problematic: the choir spends its rehearsal time on 6 or 8 or 10 pieces of music, most all of them in harmony. It’s pretty much all the music of the Sunday liturgy – the hymns, the Mass parts, the responsorial psalm refrain and the communion antiphon. The choir is there to, you know, lead the congregation, not to, you know, perform. Vatican II and all that. So the sopranos sing the congregational melody line and the other choir parts fill in with harmonies at lower pitches.

What happens in this scenario? Either the congregation really sings well – which we all want – and nobody hears the choir harmonies. It was a waste of rehearsal time and, let us be honest, for God’s ears only. Or – in cases where the congregation doesn’t sing well, perhaps because their repertoire changes too much, the choir ends up singing the congregation’s music for the congregation. What started as a good intention to lead congregational singing (Vatican II!) ends up as a musical program as choral-dominated as any Latin High Mass before Vatican II. The congregation mostly sits it out and listens to it all.

Sometimes in the above scenario the conductor, in full view of the congregation, ignores the congregation, perhaps with his or her back to them, while conducting the choir which is singing the congregation’s music. Hardly wonder they don’t sing – the conductor’s body language is suggesting that this “congregational” music is really for the choir.

A better way

I think the following hypothetical scenario would be a better way.

  • The choir rehearsal focuses on a solo anthem or motet (1a), perhaps for 30 or 40 minutes, and polishes it up well. The piece, sung at, say, preparation of the offerings, really shines.
  • The choir rehearsal also focuses on the responsorial psalm verses, gospel acclamation verse, and communion antiphon verses (1b), which are chanted in parts. Because the tones are repeated over time, the choir doesn’t need a lot of time to fit the words to the harmonies. The conductor really drills the few tricky lines (what to do with that comma, or that semicolon?) so that the rendition is confident and convincing. The choir sings in unison on the congregational part.
  • The choir rehearses one stanza of one of the congregational hymns, so as to sing this one stanza alone in SATB (1b) at the liturgy. This doesn’t take a lot of time because it’s the standard harmonization from the hymnal. But the conductor drills it a bit because the choir, unlike the congregation, can do dramatic things with inner punctuation and phrasing for dramatic effect. On the non-choir stanzas, the choir sings in unison.
  • Finally, about five minutes are spent on the congregational opening hymn (3) which is being sung in unison. “We’ve been doing this hymn but the congregation isn’t yet confident on it,” the conductor says. “I want you to sing it out confidently while processing in to set a good example for them. Let’s just sing it through once or twice. I don’t need refinement or good vowels or dynamic variety – I just need volume to help carry it.”
  • Perhaps the sopranos might spend a few minutes of rehearsal time running a descant (4) for the final stanza of one of the hymns or for the
  • The choir sings everything else in the liturgy – the vast majority of the music – in unison with the congregation, with no rehearsal of it and no one conducting them (2).

Note what the choir is not spending rehearsal time on in this scenario: congregational Mass parts in harmony, congregational refrains in harmony, congregational hymns sung in harmony while the congregation sings.

As I see it, in the above scenario the congregation gets more bang for the buck – they get to hear more choral music that is polished and done well for their edification. And the choir members have a more rewarding experience of offering artistic music.

Liturgical music is fundamentally congregational

In my favored scenario, the choir’s focus on choral performance does not make the liturgy more chorally dominant, it actually respects the fundamentally congregational focus of most music. It respect that the most important sung portions of the liturgy are to be sung by the congregation. The choir doesn’t spend time rehearsing most of the liturgy’s music precisely because most of the music is congregational. The choir just joins in on it.

In my favored scenario, the congregational foundation of the liturgical music means that the choir focuses on fewer elements because the choir’s role is secondary to the congregation. But on those fewer secondary elements, the choir does a better job singing them because they are the choir’s unique contribution to the liturgy. The more important parts of the liturgy tend to be sung by the congregation. The parts sung by the choir, as wonderful as they are, tend to be the secondary parts of the liturgy.

So then, the artistic soul who is leading the choir and directing the music probably starts with #1 in terms of her or his interest and passion. We musicians are like that and that’s OK. But #1 is not what is most liturgically important, and for liturgical reasons, leaders and conductors need to have a commitment to congregational singing which is all-consuming.

As I noted at the outset, my model come from the limitations of my particular cultural and theological context. I’m aware that situations wondrously vary– the size of the choir in proportion to the congregation, the location of the choir, the acoustics, the congregation’s history of singing, the choir’s traditions, and so forth. Such particularities affect the application of the model.

Over to you

What do you think? Does the model work? What are there exceptions? Does the model apply to other types of choirs and musical ensembles?

And this: what would this model mean for composers and publishers?

I welcome your comments.

awr

(Featured image: National Catholic Youth Choir at Saint John’s Abbey and University)

 

 

25 comments

  1. Rather than:

    1. Solo singing: choir alone when the congregation is not singing.
    1a. Solo Free-standing.
    1.b. Solo Dialogical– in alternation with singing congregation.
    2. Congregational singing: simply as members of the congregation.
    3. Stimulator: as a hyper-ready portion of the congregation that sings confidently to stimulate the rest of the congregation to sing.
    4. Simultaneous enhancement: choral elaboration (harmonies, descants) while the congregation is also singing.

    I would put the order of priorities as
    2., 3., 4., 1.

    The reason? We have spent years trying to show choirs that their role is about ministry, not about enjoying doing pieces of music well. Until they truly know and believe that their primary ministerial role is to enable the sung prayer of the assembly and beautify the singing of the assembly, the danger of using the liturgy as a vehicle for showing off musical skills will be ever-present. Saying that “the congregation gets more bang for the buck – they get to hear more choral music that is polished and done well for their edification” is precisely what the choir’s role is not about. That’s just entertainment. Musical cabaret at best, making a god out of music at worst. Ministry is different. It’s about solidying the sung prayer of the entire community.

    Our cathedral choir at the presentation of the gifts mostly sings motets which the assembly cannot join in with, but every so often they will be asked to sing a hymn from the book that the assembly does not know, maybe because the text is one that the assembly really needs to hear or which really brings out the meaning of the scriptures of the day. They will sing both in unison and in harmony, and thus help the assembly to assimilate the hymn. It’s just as valuable as singing a complicated motet.

    And I agree with you about choir conductors who turn their back to the people when their music is being sung. They need a course of corrective treatment!

  2. Thank you; this is very well said.
    Insisting that the congregation must sing absolutely everything, and that the choir’s main role is to support them, can come at the expense of experiencing real beauty only capable of being expressed by those who devote their skill and time to preparing it. The best way to build strong congregational singing is to teach them how to sing and to read music, which customarily happens in strong choir programs. If the reading skills in the choir are solid, they won’t need to spend much time rehearsing the congregational music, largely consisting of hymns they have seen before, and a consistent Mass Ordinary.

    A small percentage of children’s choir members may grow up to specialize in music or even to sing in an adult choir, but a large percentage will be able to sing from a hymnal. This means that the roles of the choir and congregation are certainly not opposed, and even more than complementary – both are actually enriched. So if you want strong congregational singing, strengthen your children’s choral program, especially in parish schools.

    1. Since the choir is drawn from among the congregation, anything that improves their singing technique and reading ability contributes over the long term to #2. Especially the case if the choir has an off-season when they all disperse among the congregation, or when performing an unknown hymn that the congregation could eventually (in principle, at least) learn. “Repertoire” can likewise be helpful if chosen wittily, with an eye toward development.

      When the choir is restricted to 2, 3, and 4, we often suffer from the perverse expectation that any member of the congregation who sings well should be in the choir, i.e. sequester themselves in a distant loft where their voices can be duly covered up by the organ. IOW, if they’re going to be spatially separated from the assembly, they need to be developing strong voices. A “shill” choir that meets to practice the congregational music but sits incognito among the assembly would in many cases be more effective in the short term.

      If I ever worked in a place where clergy absolutely prohibited #1 (not that unusual), probably I would discharge the choir into the assembly accordingly, and focus on developing school choirs and whoever wants to sing something for vespers next week. No point in propping up the Potemkin Singers hundreds of feet away from the assembly.

  3. I like what you propose, Anthony. I would only add that an essential element of any choir rehearsal is prayer and shared reflection on either the Scriptures of the liturgy for which they are preparing, especially the responsorial psalm, or on the text of one of the anthems or antiphons they are rehearsing. With less time spent on rehearsing the music that rightfully belongs to the entire assembly, they should have more time to do some intentional spiritual preparation together. It’s something that I’ve found is lacking in many choral rehearsals but so many music ministers crave when they experience it.

  4. I disagree with the above comments trying to enforce the choir to pray or manipulate emotions so that everyone feels a sense of ministry. This is the Boomer take on service. And leads people to thinking that feeling prayerful and ministerial is the goal and neglects the mechanics of dilligent work on musicianship . This attitude in the RC church has led to most of our cathedrals in the US being about the same level as a bigger parish as far as excellence in execution and musical choices. No one is totally at the same place in their faith but in by being faithful to giving their time and talent for a choir they are serving the church . I’m sick of this attitude against professional musicians that if you are too good it must not be prayer you are performing. No one can know the heart but God.

    1. Wow! I can only feel disappointed that you, Nori, see prayer and time spent in caring for one another as a choir leads to poor musical quality and outcomes. Yes, I am at the end of the boomer generation, but the eight choirs of my parish seem to manage both relatively well. Yes, we are a large parish, though diminishing as most are in our area. We still attract young musicians and my two choirs of elementary aged children really do care about each other in prayer and do add much to the musical life of our parish. I think the task of the music director is to make sure the choir’s best efforts are put forth for the glory of God in Mass and liturgical gatherings and that we take the time with them to model prayer and concern for one another and the greater world. How sad that you cannot seek a balance.

      I love the way so many have discussed the roles of choir set out–Thanks to all for some good ideas.

  5. “11. Within the gathered assembly, the role of the congregation is especially important. “The full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else, for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit.”
    -From “Sing to the Lord”

    Music in liturgy has many different faces, and they are all good. But clearly, in terms of sheer priorities, those things that encourage congregational participation have a higher priority in the estimation of the USCCB. I have come to believe that as well.

  6. Of course it is perfectly possible to have a sung Mass with no choir at all.
    I suspect this may be the more usual model this side of the pond.
    But that is probably a different discussion.

  7. Perhaps a few further comments/clarifications.

    I did not say, as Jeffrey implied, that choirs should be prevented from singing solo. It is all about balance and priorities. But the primary role of the choir can never be to sing on its own. That route leads to spiritual concerts with incidental liturgy. I believe that getting the balance right actually enhances not only the choir’s ministerial role but its agency in providing the experience of beauty that Doug so rightly calls for, by setting this in its proper context.

    Nor did I say that choirs should not be striving for excellence. Of course they should. When I was at Clifton Cathedral with Christopher Walker, we did Gabrieli doible-choir motets and the best congregational music in the same celebration, all of it to a very high standard. The point about excellence is that it should touch everything. In the same way that organists need to be prepared to work at hymn playing to bring it as close to perfection as possible, so choirs should be giving the same attention to the music of the people, rather than dismissing that music as elementary and not worthy of much time being spent on it.

    Of course, it all depends on what music you offer to the people. Too often it is mediocre, the assumption being that the people cannot manage much. We need to challenge that mindset.

    I also want to agree strongly with what Diana said about prayer and scriptural reflection in common as an essential part of any choir rehearsal. Yes, some who are only interested in singing do find it irksome, but the part that this can play in integrating the choir into its ministerial role is incalculable. I have known agnostic singers who have been brought to faith by this route, not simply by singing glorious music.

    1. I believe that emphasizing offering excellence of our best of gifts as something owed to God (and to one another as ikons of God) in all liturgical actions of priests, ministers and congregants is the proper place to begin. Not with the kind of conversation that sounds frozen in 1980s pastoral music workshops, or 1950s organ guild meetings.

      It can be hard to emphasize that offering when one starts from what one has normally done and justifying it as sufficient . . . because the pastor, ministers and/or congregation won’t support certain kinds of change because of [insert myriad reasons here].

    2. Well Mr. Paul, since you asked, I had not your situation or opinions in mind, only those I know where choirs are prohibited or strongly discouraged from ever singing solo. I thought it worth saying because I have had contact with people in positions of petty power who are of that opinion. I certainly acknowledge congregational singing as the core of the vocation of liturgical musicians, and often remind myself to go easy on the fondant for that reason..

  8. Thumbs up on the aspiration to excellence. It can be a challenge. In my parish, I’ve declined to “put all my eggs in one basket,” opting instead for choirs of various sizes and no liturgies with only a cantor. A few confident voices can match the average large choir. When my singers are confident and alert, they improve. Still, it would be nice to have a large choir again. Or now and then. Consider a brutally honest assessment from a community: plan a concert and note the attendance compared to Mass. I suspect I would draw people. The same ones who frequently praise our singers and music. But maybe not many more.

  9. I agree, Fr. Anthony, with your proposed prioritization of time and energy in preparing the choir for service within the larger eucharistic assembly. My perspective is similarly biased by assumptions like ritual relationships bound by a “level acoustical playing field” and musical idioms appropriate to the physical scale and natural acoustics of the ritual space. From this point of view, your (and my) restraint in fussing about with choral enhancements of music for the whole assembly ultimately honors the nature of the “broad brush” song of a full liturgical assembly. Ralph Vaughan Williams advised the same in his preface of the 1906 English Hymnal when he admonished choirs to sing congregational hymns in unison. (That’s not to say that Richard Proulx didn’t have a wonderful idea in creating polyphonic choral “clouds” around unison congregational singing, or David Willocks didn’t succeed in pitting SATB voices against a unison Christmas carol in brilliant 5-voice counterpoint!)

    I think I’d like to propose that the reason your model is correct is that the role of the LAY choir is not primarily ministerial at all. It is apostolic, a witness. When I arrived at my current suburban parish, the small choir spent most of its energy on what you labeled #3 and #4, to little effect and usually to the confusion of the rest of the assembly. Having come from a different practice, I launched directly into the model you described, and all hell broke loose. “The choir is performing!” “The choir is taking away my song!” (Sorry, I didn’t realize anyone was singing!) What I realized was the that even if I was able to properly form the choir members in their ministerial role, the lack of the ability of the members of the liturgical assembly to unite heart and mind with the voice of another made it impossible for the choir to assume a ministerial or “priestly” role. But if the dialogical (or as Richard Proulx put it, “quintalogical”) forms of the liturgy are not enacted in such away that there is both…

  10. …activity and receptivity, how will the members of the assembly be able to “actually” participate in the liturgy, uniting heart and mind with the prayers of the priest-celebrant, with the kerygma of deacon and lector, with the healing acts of ministers of hospitality…and with the kenosis of the High Priest as an offering to the Father in the Spirit for the life of the world? I and the choir had to retreat to figure all of this out. So for a whole year, the choir never sang anything alone at Mass. Rather, we began to introduce dialogical elements between the cantor and assembly in which the cantor did not sing with the assembly. The choir provided the support, and this began the journey toward the differentiation of roles.

    In the meantime, I had to find something to do with the choir in rehearsal. Yes, we could practice hymns in unison, but I couldn’t retain members doing that alone. So we set out learning how to sing everything: Gregorian chant, polyphony, world music, Taize, Iona, and on an on. We learned music that reflected the marks of the Church: One, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We sang for Mass on Sundays, but the heart of our liturgical prayer became the Liturgy of the Hours. Whenever the choir gathered, we chanted (and still do) the Divine Office: Compline at the end of Thursday evening rehearsal for the adults, Lauds on each morning for the choristers, and Lauds for the full choir on Sunday before Mass.

    All this was going on before anything changed at Mass. What happened? The choir members became imbued with an authentic liturgical spirituality. Antiphonal chanting of psalmody taught us to both take up the proclamation and to be receptive, uniting heart and mind to the voice of the other. Our way of praying together came to rest on the pillars of praise and intercession, and we became collectively aware of being one with Jesus in worship of the Father, through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.
    In the second year, we began to expand the dialogical…

  11. beyond cantor and assembly, to include the choir, which slowly expanded the capacity of the members of the assembly to unite heart and mind with the voice of the choir. Then the choir started singing proper antiphons in English, later in Latin from the Graduale Romanum (with printed translations) or the Graduale Simplex. When the choir began singing anthems and motets in the liturgy, we took care to print texts and translations in course with other liturgical texts so that they became perceived as integral to the liturgical celebration. Our choir consists of both children and adults, which seems to open hearts to repertoire that may be unfamiliar, but we take care to repeat choral repertoire a lot. People like what they know, and prayer seems to happen easily when things are “in our bones.” When the Byrd “Ave verum corpus,” the Gjeilo “Ubi caritas,” or the Rutter “For the Beauty of the Earth” are in the bones of children and adults of all ages, those special offerings of by the choir really become offerings of the whole assembly.

    The point I think I’m trying to make is that I think the roots of the LAY choir do not lie in the clerical choir, but…are you ready for this?…in the monastic choir! If we think of the lay choir as simply a community of disciples within the larger community of the church committed to common life and work and prayer “in choir,” the choir ministers simply be being, by mirroring to the whole Church its own identity, its own destiny. After all, the only apostolate of the Church on earth that continues in heaven is singing the praise of God “in choir.” In the choir, everyone finds their voice, and everyone loses their voice. The choral experience is one of utter mutuality. The schola cantorum is a school of discipleship in this apostolate. For me, this the meaning of that beautiful phrase in the Snowbird Statement about the choir being the “joyful attendant of the people of God along its pilgrim way, and a sign of its heavenly home.” #1 is absolutely a…

  12. priority for the being of the choir. #2 is absolutely a pastoral, ministerial priority, emanating from the nature of the liturgy itself. #0 is perhaps a priori – the Divine Office – in which music is not only integral to the rite and serves the rite, but in which choral praise constitutes the rite.

    (Sorry for the long response. There is almost nothing I care about more than this.)

  13. Another thought: the priorities depend on the community and its resources and leadership. I suspect those of us posting are part of the 5% of parishes that have professional directors and a commitment to liturgy. Most parishes do not, and never have had the level of musicianship found in monasteries, schools, large parishes, and the occasional cathedral. Maybe Fr Ruff speaks for the extraordinary opportunity of blended abbey and school. If it works, meaning the Gospel is preached, the seekers are drawn in, and believers transformed into disciples, then who am I to judge?

    I have singers and musicians who struggle to learn music. Even songs and hymns they’ve sung for years need reinforcement. I use well-known pieces to reinforce other ideas: breathing, diction, and prayer–maybe things that other directors take for granted or need not bother with at all.

    Then we have the issue of new members. How quickly does it take an experienced but new singer to get up to speed on the repertoire? And if we’re not getting new people, isn’t that another problem?

    Bottom line: the role of the choir depends on the local faith community. Relativism: there you have it.

  14. A controversial take on a thorny conundrum—and I think it’s brilliant. I hope we all understand that behind this perspective is a desire to strengthen the assembly’s song, not weaken it?

    We say that the assembly is the primary choir of the liturgy, but do we really mean it? Physically separating and raising up the “official” music ministers, and projecting in sound and sight the impression that they are the ones whose singing guides and drives the voices of everyone in the room at all times, creates an imbalance that I believe lies at the heart of our decades-long challenge in helping the people of God find their own singing voices. (To be fair…there’s a lot of space at that heart for many other contributing factors.)

    If the assembly music is solid and familiar to all, it won’t need much rehearsal, and a choir can spend its rehearsal time on the pieces they are preparing to offer on their own—not because those are the liturgical “priority,” but because that music is more difficult and needs rehearsal, whereas the hymns, psalm refrains, service music, etc., don’t. I worked for many years at a parish that did music this way, and it was beautiful and life-giving. If the congregational music is difficult enough that it takes the choir an hour or two a week to learn it, it’s probably too hard for the assembly; if the choral embellishments are complex enough that they need THAT much time to learn, they stand a good chance of being complex enough to confuse the people’s singing.

    I ministered in another parish that insisted on heavily amplified cantors, lots of choral harmonies, and a choir with ever-excellent presentation of all the music throughout the liturgy. While the assembly there did generally sing quite well, I often heard that people felt left out, confused, or unsure when they were “supposed” to sing, because the choir’s presence was constantly so presentational that it sent mixed messages.

    In any case: —I think it’s an important conversation to have, and I’m grateful to Anthony for raising it.

  15. I’ve been a parish priest for nearly 50 years and my priority has always been to draw the assembly into the praise of God. I am grateful to have been schooled at a Benedictine seminary where there were rich musical resources. In addition to organ there was also piano, bass, flutes, and acoustical guitars. Because of this exposure I never did settle for “the guitar Mass” as the only alternative to organ accompaniment. So with rich accompaniment, my personal love for singing, and an accessible repertoire, the assembly gladly entered the song. I’ve always maintained that parish choirs exist to enhance the singing of the assembly and to sing more difficult pieces of music to minister to the people. My music director told me recently that at choir rehearsal they go over all the songs and music for the upcoming Sunday. I responded that I saw no need for that and that perhaps they should make better use of the time to rehearse special musical pieces. He’s fairly new at the job and just looked a little puzzled. We will visit some more about this.
    This has been a great topic.

  16. I must admit that I am not really blessed musically, but as I priest ordained 55 years ago during the council years I am very concerned about the congregation joining in the singing. With this in mind this discussion moved to go to an article by Father John Zupez, S.J. in America (May 8, 2019). “How to get more people to sing at Mass: Stop adding new hymns”

    After quoting from No 114 of Sacrosanctum Concilium that “whenever the sacred action is to be celebrated with song, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs” Father Zupez recalls the “full-voiced singing of Holy God” from years past.
    .
    His article which can be found by going to America is worth considering in the light of this discussion.

    Father Dave Riley

    daveriley1022@hotmail.com

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