Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Prayer Vigil for the Pope

Damian Thompson reports on the sabotage of the September 18 prayer Vigil for the Pope on his visit to the UK will consist mostly of pseudo-folk music from the 1970s and 80s. The detailed program is listed here, but what I really do not understand is why it is necessary to trot out huge forces of instruments and singers for such a thing.

This is mostly unison music that most Catholics could rattle off in their sleep. It isn't really choral music at all. It's just a series of small tunes, best performed with a guitar, sitting on a stone by the fireside at a youth encounter thirty years ago.

Talk about over-egging the pudding: "The choir will consist of 160 singers from nearly all the dioceses in England and Wales. Together with 50 singers and 50 musicians from the New English Orchestra, you will provide the majority of the accompaniment to the Vigil. You will also be on stage (under cover should it rain) and in close proximity to the Holy Father. It should be an experience to cherish for many years."

Oh, there is one grand piece: Hallelujah Chorus by Handel. This is also something that I do not understand. There are many good things to say about this piece and they would all be easier to say if this piece hadn't become the world's most notorious musical cliche, second only to the opening notes of Beethoven's 5th.

But even if we consider the intended purpose of the piece, it is a composition for religious theater, by a Protestant for Protestants. This doesn't mean that it is bad, or something that should be banned from Catholic circles, but there is a downside for any community that cannot define itself with its own magnificent forms of cultural expression but instead relies on rehashing other people's traditions. It is not necessary to make Handel central when you have a Catholic musical tradition inclusive of Tallis and Byrd.

I have detected a trend for Catholic gatherings of this sort to use the Hallelujah Chorus as a signaling device, as if you suggest "Lest you think that we only sing small ditties about journeys of love, here's a big classical piece just to show you what we could do if we wanted to."


Liam said...

Maybe they could use the Mozart setting (K. 572) of the chorus? There are some (but far from all) parts of the Messiah that did gain from Mozart's re-setting (For Unto Us a Son Is Born, for example).

As for me, I do find the use of the chorus in liturgical contexts to be hackneyed and something to be avoided.

Chironomo said...

The Hallelujah Chorus is what people who should be singing better music sing when they want you to know that they could sing better music if they weren't singing such pathetic music.

I would suggest it might be easier to just sing the better music to begin with and skip the pretention.

Liam said...

It also has the distinct disadvantage of being one of the few pieces in the choral repertoire that many people have heard good recordings of, and amateur choirs often lack the primo choral singers (especially a good pack of well-blending Tenor I's - 'cuz Handel choral tenor parts are for good Tenor I's only) to carry it off as well.

More to the point, it's not music that benefits from being sung in the open air. For that matter, more elaborate chant (as opposed to plainsong) and polyphony don't fare too well in a non-acoustic "space" such as that. This is one of those occasions when metrical hymnody will tend to be the best choice.

I am not a fan of massive outdoor Masses. Hey, I am not even a fan of Masses in gigantic interior spaces.

Adam Bartlett said...

From Thompson's article:

"How very, very “groovy” for the young people attending the event to hear sacred music with a “contemporary swing” to it. Who knows, perhaps it will set the Holy Father’s red shoes tapping so much that he will jump off his podium and “get on down” with the kids!"

The really sad part about this is that everyone under the age of 40 would view this music practically as "oldies". It's the people who were in ther 20's in the 70's (now in their 60's) who call this music "contemporary". They all have grey hair now and are in their retirement age. They are grandparents and old fogies. If there are actual youth at this event they will be undoubtedly turned off, at best completely uninspired by the music.

Liam said...

I get the rhetorical device of former hippies/groovesters=new old fogies.

The problem is that, as an overall generalization, I don't think it's truthful. It might be in certain communities, but far from all.

I've seen a lot of young people who, when offered a choice between contemporary Catholic liturgical repertoire and the repertoire championed here, have chosen the former over the latter. They are not small in number. And there are former hippies who've chosen the latter. And I am far from alone in this observation.

The general battle of generations device is hoary and disserves the purposes to which it is put.

If however, one wishes to propose the more limited argument that we should not assume that an overwhelming majority of young people necessarily prefer a contemporary idiom in liturgical music and praxis, I am 100% behind that one.

Todd said...

"This is mostly unison music ..."

Sorry; didn't see that in your links. Most everything listed has choral and instrumental parts, a bit more advanced than sing-around-the-campfire. I saw "One Bread One Body" on the rep list. The original SLJ recording was 4-part choir and organ with guitar.

I suspect this is Damian blowing a lot of hot air over not too much. If he's worrying about getting blamed, he could hightail it to the Faeroe Islands for the week. Or make it a decade if he wishes. Whatever.

That said, I'm in agreement with others above on the Handel. Thumbs up too on Tallis and Bird. Heck, with that big a choir, and if they really wanted to do a showstopping chestnut, they've got four voices on each part of Spem In Alium.

Adam Bartlett said...

"Most everything listed has choral and instrumental parts, a bit more advanced than sing-around-the-campfire. I saw "One Bread One Body" on the rep list. The original SLJ recording was 4-part choir and organ with guitar."

Well, here's "Puff the Magic Dragon" with what looks like about a 160 voice choir and even full orchestra!

Perhaps not how it would be sung around the campfire, but definitely still "Puff"...

Jeffrey Tucker said...

Up with Spem!

Adam, thank you for that inspiring link!

I have a difficult time comprehending the meaning of this 60s "folk" material. I even tried to watch that movie spoof on the genre and I didn't get any of the jokes. I guess you had to be there? Not sure.

Todd said...

"I have a difficult time comprehending the meaning of this 60s 'folk' material."

Me too. It looks like mostly 80's and 90's to me. I don't really see the relevance of a children's song, either. You can argue that it works best accompanied by guitar, but you can also make the same case for Buddhist and Hindu chant being primarily a voice-driven genre. Will you abandon or criticize vocal music in general because non-Christians employ it? I don't think so.

I also have to confess being mystified at the selective bile toward small-scale music on this site. To present plainsong, you just need one voice in tune. By numbers alone, a singer-guitar combination (two or one) is a lot closer in scale to chant than chorus and orchestra.

Unlike Damian, I have no problem with a program like this. "One BRead One Body" at least has roots in the New Testament and the Didache and is an intelligently composed piece of music, pretty effective on just about any scale. Certainly more versatile than the Handel.

Jeffrey Tucker said...

Todd, you have a good point about small vs. large music. If I'm all about chant, why object to simple unison pieces and praise only large scale polyphony? I think the answer has to do with scalability. I've sung Palestrina with 4 singers and with 250, and for reasons I can't really explain, it does well in both settings. Same with chant. I wish I were more of an expert to know why this works. Meanwhile, the heavied-up tunes on demo CDs from Catholic publishers often sound ridiculous to me.

Todd said...

Thanks, Jeffrey. I also heard a presentation of The Messiah with just sixteen voices, including the soloists. It was my favorite of the various renditions I've seen and heard. Two important other factors on that might be the quality of the singers and the acoustics of the space.

This event, which I think I read was open-air (ick!), I don't know that I would have high expectations of in any genre.

I would agree with you on many sample recordings. And many studio efforts, too.

Jeffrey Tucker said...

So true about open air. My own schola attempted chant and polyphony outside for a grounds dedication and it did not work. The English syllabic Psalms were fine though.

Liam said...


I would think plainsong tones and Anglican chant would work OK in the open air. Simpler Gregorian melodies and Russian/Orthodox chant idioms should also work. And, as noted earler, metrical hymnody.

And, as you may suspect, I am trying very, very hard not even to imagine the effects of a PA system in all of this.

Mark Praigg said...

"O How Amiable" by Vaughan Williams was designed for outdoor use with choir and band (!). I have sung it this way at a college graduation.

Adam Bartlett said...

"Handel's Messiah... has become the world's most notorious musical cliche"

Haha, I just realized, walking down the hall, that the Hallelujah Chorus is played by our parish office phone system on the top of every hour up front by the secretary!!! I had forgotten about this... so annoying!

Liam said...


That's a lot better than as the soundtrack for the annual holiday ad campaign for the Massachusetts Lottery...cuz it's not the holidays unless you are proving the wisdom of the bumper stick that the Lottery is a tax on people who failed math.

Warren said...

I was thinking, for the outdoor events why not just have everyone drive up in their cars, get them to tune in to one frequency on their car radios and broadcast a live feed, a la drive-in theatre? No need for a choir - the DJ can just spin whatever CDs. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I agree that "Handel's Messiah... has become the world's most notorious musical cliche" BUT

Handel was the music director for George I, who hired Handel while he was still working in Rome. Anthems he wrote for George II's coronation are still used at coronations.

With a German Pope coming to England, it seems appropriate to use the work of a German composer who had written for cardinals and clergy of Rome before he became the English court's musician.

K. Töpfer (aka Martial Artist) said...

Certainly, there is music by Handel that would suit. But, given the recognition in Anglicanorum coetibus of the "Anglican patrimony" which Benedict believes will enrich the Church, why not Byrd and/or Tallis—undeniably a part of that patrimony, undeniably beautiful, and undeniably appropriate liturgically?

Pax et bonum,
Keith Töpfer

nazausgraben said...

WoW! Many thanks for the link to the Peter, Paul and Mary clip. It was wonderful to see and hear it!! It was an excerpt from a Christmas concert performed MANY years ago in Carnegie Hall. The chorus was the New York Choral Society (conducted by Robert DeCormier...PP&M's arranger and friend for many years) and the orchestra was a pickup ensemble consisting of members of the NY Philharmonic, the Met Opera Orchestra and others freelancing in NYC. I remember this concert well....I was a Baritone in the choir! Many thanks for the memories!! - Dr. Andy Bellenkes

mjballou said...

I've given up worrying about papal programs. Occasionally I'm pleasantly surprised; generally I'm underwhelmed.

What the Pope says is far more important than anything the home team trots out.