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.
I see four distinct liturgical roles for the choir, though these sometimes overlap a bit.
- Solo singing: choir alone when the congregation is not singing.
1a. Solo Free-standing.
1.b. Solo Dialogical– in alternation with singing congregation.
- Congregational singing: simply as members of the congregation.
- Stimulator: as a hyper-ready portion of the congregation that sings confidently to stimulate the rest of the congregation to sing.
- 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.
(Featured image: National Catholic Youth Choir at Saint John’s Abbey and University)