False Choices in Catholic Music

Recent experience has brought to light, in my own mind, some false choices that many of us in the Catholic music world carry around. As we make our way toward a musical framework of the Roman Rite that is more in keeping with what the Council Fathers of Vatican might have imagined, we need to think about some of these issues. Clearing away false choices is a crucial step toward realizing that there are solemn options out there that stand somewhere between the schlock that we’ve lived with for far too long and the all-Gregorian Mass that we all know is the ideal native to the Mass in all its forms.

As regards the entrance, offertory, and communion, the usual choice is a hymn of some sort, perhaps one thematically tied to the season. The other option that I and many others have promoted is the ideal, that is the Gregorian antiphon: introit, offertory, and communion chant. The problem here is that there is a world apart between them. One is metric with a beat, and the other is free rhythm. One rhymes, and one does not. One is in modern notes, the other in neumes. One is in English, and the other is in Latin.

Many people have a very difficult time going from one to the other. The distance is great indeed.
The switch is a big undertaking from a pastoral angle. People worry about the response from the people in the pews. Even good pastors who “get” the music issue can be squeamish. Hardly any schola is prepared to work up three large-scale chants every week unless they are ready to rehearse several hours during a week. Young scholas are not competent enough to handle this. The ideal can be so remote that it is never even tried.

So what is the fallback position? To do a hymn. But this can be very disappointing once you understand the role of propers, which are part of the structure of Mass, both in the textual and musical content. Once we understand that, the world of chant can appear almost like an unreachable Valhalla. It is something we might long for and dream of but we are unwilling to die in combat to get there.

Why is it that we carry around this idea that we must choose one or the other? It must be a leftover from preconcilar times, when high Mass meant the Liber Usualis and low Mass meant pulling material from the St. Gregory hymnal, since it was believe that it is not permitted to sing the propers for low Mass. Hymns were the suitable replacement.

I do wonder if many of us still believe this as a holdover from the old days. In any case, there are not too many examples of other options out there. Between 1969 or so and very recently, parishes nearly universally sang hymns; the few that did not (and there are famous and heroic cases!) were using full Gregorian propers. Models of anything in between were non-existent.

Plenty of folks extant, many of whom are associated with Catholic publishing houses, want Catholics to believe that we must make a choice now and forever between 1) sprightly, jazzy, go-get-’em, pop songs, or 2) dusty, dreary, dreadful music of the inquisition. If that is the choice, there is no question of the results. I hope that the image of chant is beginning to change with great exposure. But what we still lack is the trigger to make the switch from music that does not really belong at Mass to music is that is native to the Mass.

Today, there are in fact many options for the English propers. Most recently, Adam Barlett has been posting Simple English Propers that are highly successful for parish use. They can be sung pretty much on the spot or with a quick rehearsal before Mass. They sound thoroughly Catholic, and thoroughly accessible. You can add as many Psalms to them as necessary. They adapt to different singing styles and really do well in bringing out the text of the proper of the Mass. They are far preferred to singing a hymn with a text from from an outside source. Or they can be used in conjunction with a hymn. Pastors should be pointing their musicians to them. They are a fantastic bridge from one world to the next.

In addition, there are many settings of propers now available mostly online, some composed in the 1960s but others being worked on right now, by, for example, Frs. Samuel Weber and Columba Kelly. There are alternative traditions that are well developed in the form of the Anglican Use Gradual. Others are in preparation. These strikes me as the most viable method forward. And what’s great about all of them is not only their inherent textual integrity but their relationship to the chant. They all point the way forward toward the Gregorian ideal.

The objection to all schola-sung propers is immediately raised: what about the people and their expectation of singing at the entrance, offertory, and communion? I’ve come to realize that the belief that either the people sing or the schola sings might in fact be another example of a false choice.

We should know by now that by Protestant standards the singing of the Catholic people, even under the best of conditions (one of the four hymns that Catholics tend to sing; can you name them?), the singing is still comparatively tepid. It is nearly always the case that the cantor or schola is driving forward the production of music, while the people’s voices, among those who choose to sing, are a shadow of a reflection of the primary voice of the cantor or schola.

Now, when I say things like this, I always receive communications from people who tell me of some congregation somewhere that has hugely loud and robust singing, crowds of people in the pews who are giving it their all at full volume. I’m not in a position to dispute this but I’ve been to regular parishes in most parts of the country, and I’ve never once been taken aback at the incredible singing (except at the extraordinary form recessional when the choice is Salve Regina).

Most of the time, the congregation is divided between those who refuse to pick up a hymnal, those who pick up a hymnal and vaguely mouth the words, and those who make slight attempts to produce something resembling a melody. In every case I’ve ever been part of as a person in the pew, my own singing can pretty much dominate an entire congregation, eliciting looks of shock and awe in every direction, as if people are thinking: “what the heck is with this guy? Doesn’t he know that Catholics don’t do that?”

In any case, my point is that these propers I am speaking about are all structured to highlight the text, using melodies that are largely formulaic and repeated. Those who want to join in the singing have every possibility of doing so, as robustly or more so than they would be singing the hymns in the first place. For those who would rather just speak the words as the cantor sings, that is possible, because not as fine a line divides speaking from singing when it comes to this kind of music.

In the Catholic ideal, to sing the entrance, offertory, and communion chants is the job of the schola and not the people, while the people are later called upon to sing the ordinary chants of the Mass that are repeated every week. This reflects the great wisdom of liturgical tradition and the division of labor: it makes sense that non-specialists would sing what is familiar but not be called upon to sing what is unfamiliar. In this way, these English antiphons begin to socialize the congregation into a greater degree of liturgical comportment during these periods of the Mass, so that they can watch the processions or prepare for communion or otherwise be mercifully left alone.

23 Replies to “False Choices in Catholic Music”

  1. Not quite right, Jeffrey, at least according to the GIRM and the Ordo Missae.

    "I’ve come to realize that the belief that either the people sing or the schola sings might in fact be another example of a false choice."

    The first choice given in the GIRM is a dialogue. I know you keep ignoring my liturgical input on this. But the same paragraph that affirms your first-place endorsement of singing the propers also advocates you ensure the people sing part of all of the entrance chant as a first, second, or third choice of the Roman Rite. Now, that doesn't take anything away from plainsong; it just sets the tone for it in context of serving the liturgy.

  2. What makes it so difficult to sing the Propers at an OF Mass is that this Mass does have some unfriendliness to them on the parish level. The Propers as found in the Graduale Romanum are meant for a schola and cantors, not in keeping with the pastoral nature of active participation as commonly interpreted.
    With the loss of the prayers at the foot of the altar it was no longer possible to have a processional vernacular hymn followed by the Introit as the priest entered the sanctuary. The only place for the Introit was as the entrance song but which the people could not actively participate in if sung from the Gregorian books.
    Bugnini's Consilium was very proud that now the Responsorial psalm would in practice replace the Gradual because with it the people had an opportunity to actively sing.
    The Alleluia became a Gospel acclamation for everyone to sing rather than a as time for reflection while the choir sang to fill the air with beautiful sound and mask distracting noises.
    The Offertory text is not in the Missal, so there was never any need felt to sing it.
    The Communion antiphon now being placed before communion became recited by the priest because the faithful were busy preparing for communion, and by then there were few choirs to sing it in any case.
    Hymns generally replaced the Propers because of the catchphrase "active participation", which entailed that the people had to sing all the songs, which meant these had to be on the level they were familiar with, usually on the lowest common denominator making for the most banal music. Active participation became more important than the sacred.
    There is no question that new even good music could have been composed for vernacular Propers, but I do not see many music publishers making money on this when the text is the same for all the publishers, so the financially successful one would have to be the one with the best music.
    Changing 45 years of this ingrained practice is not easy, and I thank you for trying so hard to put into practice what the Council had wanted.

  3. "Hymns generally replaced the Propers because of the catchphrase "active participation", which entailed that the people had to sing all the songs, which meant these had to be on the level they were familiar with, usually on the lowest common denominator making for the most banal music."

    I don't think so. It's been stated many times here the ancestor of the four-hymn sandwich is the pre-conciliar Low Mass. Additionally, no liturgist I know advocates the people sing everything. Listen to the recordings of the much-maligned SLJ's. They composed antiphons to go with psalm verses, too. Nearly always, verses are presented by solo singers or small scholae. People found this music more appealing than plainsong on many levels, and more, most parishes find that people "intruded" on the solo parts.

  4. Sorry Todd, I cannot agree with you here.
    Most pre-conciliar low Masses did not have music, and the ones that did usually had an organist accompanying a singer, usually female (the men sang the Gregorian at High Masses) who sang such pieces as Ave Maria and Panis Angelicus on Sundays. Perhaps the Cathedrals or very large churches did sing hymns at Low Mass, but not the regular local parishes. Whatever music there was was soon replaced after the Council by whatever the pastor thought was active participation, including folk groups, followed by rock style bands at worse, or a cantor prompting the faithful to sing newly composed "Catholic" hymns at best for the main Sunday Mass, and strongly encouraged to do so by the local Bishop.

  5. My oldest memory, 1969, my parish was singing 4 hymns. There were no published propers then, just antiphons in the missalette. Ken Canedo may have covered some of this in his book and podcast series, but it's been months since I listened to the web versions of these.

    By the 80's, organists I knew were promoting hymnody–like the Prots. My sense is that the theologically-trained contemporary composers–
    Foley, Hurd, Schutte, were all more aware of the tradition of propers and psalms than conservatory-trained musicians.

  6. Todd, with regard to GIRM 87, I have pointed this out before … but the listing that you refer to is presented in a very different manner from the listing of the options for musical choice. The former is in a simple sentence separated by commas, while the latter is deliberately numbered. I strong argument can be made that the listing you refer to was not done so in a way to indicate preference. Regardless, we can never come to an agreement on "what was intended" by examining the text alone. This sort of legalism will only lead to the same breakdown that happens when Protestants interpret Scripture. Instead, we need to read the document in the context of the continuous musical tradition of the Church.

    Regarding singing and active participation, this was a point that I made recently (http://causafinitaest.blogspot.com/2010/10/active-participation-and-singing.html). A strong argument can be made that when people are made to feel like singing=active participation they are actually less engaged in the liturgical actions. Much as the melody in sacred music is always at the service of the words, so too must the song taken as a whole be at the service of the liturgical action. When a hymn is sung, the primacy is given to the act of singing … to the music … instead of to the liturgical action taking place. Plain chant, especially when it is regulated to a choir, allows the congregation to observe, understand, and invest themselves in the liturgical action … and the music perfects it (much as grace perfects, rather than destroys, nature).

    I particularly enjoyed Jeffrey's comment about how the English Propers can "socialize" congregations into an authentic view of liturgical music. They are a rung higher on the musical ladder, up from the hymns but not at the ideal … the Gregorian Propers. This ideal is sometimes lost in these conversations. While we can nitpick all day about GIRM 87 and the intent behind the instruction, let us not forget the relentless insistence by Holy Mother Church that the Gregorian Propers should hold pride of place. Once that maxim is accepted, simple rationality forces us to see that the English propers are closer to the ideal that hymnody. I have given an example of the "Adam Bartlett" musical ladder here(http://causafinitaest.blogspot.com/2010/09/climbing-musical-ladder-just-what-are.html). It is with this kind of mindset that we must begin thinking. This is the future of sacred music in our beloved Church, and let me be the first to say … blessed be God.

  7. You know, I just thought of something.

    Imagine you've got the choir singing the antiphon. What happens next?

    You sing the psalm verses. Which are usually being sung to the same exact psalm tones all the time. Which the people could easily learn and chant along with, if they had the psalm verses all in their books.

    So why not have the psalm verses in people's hymnbooks? (Which we usually do, albeit in song form or as a responsorial hymn in the readings.) You could just tell people to turn to page X in their books and sing the verses (which don't have music along with them anyway, most of the time, because the composers thought the people would sing only the responsorial refrains).

    Then the choir sings the antiphon, leads the people in the verses, sings the antiphon again, we're done. Even the people who don't like to look up the verses would know the ending doxology verse. Easy-peasey.

    Or of course, you could brute-force a nice antiphon text into a responsorial psalm refrain tune. Just don't tell the composer. 🙂

  8. "(A) strong argument can be made that the listing you refer to was not done so in a way to indicate preference."

    An argument, perhaps, but not a strong one. It is the practice in Latin rhetoric and in Roman documents to list choices in preferential order first to last. It's the same basis for the argument that lists the propers as the first choice among many.

    "A strong argument can be made that when people are made to feel like singing=active participation they are actually less engaged in the liturgical actions."

    It depends. First, no serious liturgist advocates for the people singing everything all the time. When Jeffrey and others continue to harp on a position no reputable liturgist will endorse, it weakens rather than strengthens their argument. Jeffrey does best when he communicates his enthusiasm for the musicality of the propers. He falls flat on his face when he tries to be a liturgist or a social historian.

    Second, the Roman Rite provides for choir-only music at the entrance as a fourth choice. If people are already singing something, it doesn't make much sense to drop a few rungs on one ladder in order to go up a few on another. GIRM 48 also lists those who sing the entrance chant as a priority over what is sung. Jeffrey refuses to engage the Roman Rite on this point, again, weakening his stance. And I'm not the only one who calls him on this.

    Three, if we're talking about an entrance procession, why would people watch most of the time? In most parishes it takes place in the same way most weekends. In contrast, the liturgical songs, hymns, and even the propers change from week to week. Why wouldn't people engage more frequently the sung texts of the liturgy than they would a movement of servers, lector, deacon, and priest that remains mostly the same? I don't but the argument here, especially as it moves counter to the prescription in the rite and rubrics. And besides, the pewfolk aren't dummies. They can engage liturgy on two or more levels at once.

    Fourth, it is a myth that the Gregorian propers have pride of place. Gregorian chant, as a genre holds pride of place overall, all other things being equal. Roman liturgical practice has long admitted other forms, either of genre or text. And that's where we sit today. The propers were only retained for communities that insisted on retaining traditional form after the council. They've never been revised to adjust to the three-year ordinary time cycle. The music wasn't published for more than a decade after the council.

    Personally, I'm content to incorporate the antiphons where I can do it well, especially during Advent and Lent, when there is often something "different" about my parish's entrance procession. And where the antiphons make connections with both the Scriptures and the liturgy.

    But otherwise I'm satisfied with songs and the occasional metrical hymn. My sense is that the future will open up considerably from what we're doing now. The real effort, imo, is to work at an improved repertoire in terms of musical artistry and a better connection with the Lectionary. Until MR4 develops a Lectionary-harmonized cycle of propers and presidential prayers, I think we're stuck with a second- or third-fiddle solution on this. Frankly, I think a good music director can often do better than the propers.

  9. Todd:

    I have one question for you.

    Being that you align yourself, and presumably your music program, so well with your interpretation of GIRM 48 (the singing of something of your choosing in alternation between the choir and the people–This is your understanding of the "first preference" of the GIRM, as you have stated).

    What music does your parish community utilize at the Communion?

    Given your steadfast obedience to GIRM 48, you must be equally diligent in your application of the same principles to GIRM 87.

    If you apply these same principles as rigorously to GIRM 87 as you do to GIRM 48 I have to assume that you sing the Gregorian Communion chant or a musical setting of the antiphons of the Roman Missal with the choir alone, most, if not all of the time. The preference is clear: what is sung (preference to Graduale Romanum) trumps how it is sung in the case of the Communion chant (according to your own understanding of how "Roman documents work"), and the what in question are the propers, undeniably.

    I am left to presume that you sing the Gregorian proper from the Graduale Romanum, with the people not taking part most of the time, as this is the ideal according to your hermeneutic.

    Am I right? Do you honor the clear preference of the communion chant as given in GIRM 87 as diligently as you honor the "clear preference" of GIRM 48?

    87. In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Communion chant: (1) the antiphon from the Roman Missal or the Psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual; (3) a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song chosen in accordance with no. 86 above. This is sung either by the choir alone or by the choir or cantor with the people.

  10. Adam, you actually asked four variations on one question. But I have no problem addressing them.

    My choices are repertoire-governed. Since the revision in Communion ministry procedures with Redemptionis Sacramentum, I find the people can and do sing much of the Communion music. So I program congregational music exclusively, in keeping with the Roman portion of this section, no, 86.

    Sometimes we do sing option 87.1, if the psalm setting is in our hymnal. More usually, we sing option 87.3, usually a psalm, and rarely a metrical hymn. I dislike using a metrical hymn at Communion and prefer giving a refrain, at minimum, to the congregation.

    If I were to utilize a choir-only option, I would make sure the assembly sang a post-Communion thanksgiving song and then have the instrumentalists play at the end of Mass.

    As I blogged six years ago, GIRM 86 indicates the first choice is the "outward" expression by the "communicants." That is the Roman portion of these directives on Communion music. Better guidance than what the USCCB provides, imo. But I do understand that ten years ago bishops recognized that it can be difficult to get the assembly to sing at Communion. I think that is less true today if musicians follow the rubrics and begin the song during the priest's reception of Communion.

  11. So if the "Roman portion" of the GIRM's instruction on the Communion chant is contained in section 86, is the "Roman portion" regarding the entrance in GIRM 47? This is not consistent with what you've said before.

    If the "Roman portion" of these sections, in your mind, trumps the prescriptive elements that follow, should we be led to believe that the 1. opening of the celebration, the 2. fostering of the unity of those who have been gathered, the 3. introduction of thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, the 4. accompanying of the procession, should override what is said about what is to be sung in GIRM 48? 47 says nothing about congregational singing. To the contrary, it could be easily interpreted to demand silent activity on the part of the faithful as the entrance chant is sung.

    Of course, this is out of line with your previous statements.

    I despise this sort of legalism, by the way, and only am holding you to the principles that you have set up for yourself. It is clear to me that you have contradicted yourself within your own set of principles.

    Every reputable liturgist that I know of, though, would not resort to such legalism, but would view the legislation contained in the General Instruction in light of sound tradition which makes very clear the meaning of these prescriptions. This helps us avoid the trappings of the fads of a single generation.

  12. Concerning the pre-conciliar Low Mass, I grew up in a small farming-town parish in the forties and fifties, where the consistent practice was the four-hymn sandwich, old-fashioned pious Catholic hymns from the St. Gregory and St. Basil hymnals, sung by a choir of ladies to the accompaniment of a harmonium. I did not experience Gregorian chant until I was an adult, at which point I said "This is what I have been waiting for."

  13. Adam, not quite.

    I stated my criticism of the American addition on Communion songs, because it seems to counter what is said in GIRM 86. 47 and 48 are better harmonized, as it were, than 86 and 87.

    From my reading, 47 and 86 are both largely descriptive. But 86 is more prescriptive in leaning toward the congregation singing the Communion song.

    Not sure what you're getting at here. Are you suggesting that if a Church document seems to actually contains a discrepancy, then "all bets are off" as it were when it comes to following church legislation?

  14. "The propers were only retained for communities that insisted on retaining traditional form after the council." – Todd

    I am unclear how this squares with the primacy in listing that the Propers enjoy in the GIRM. What is your defense that the reason for retaining the Propers is to satisfy the "traditionalists"?

    I also think Adam's point about the priority that "what is sung" (Gregorian Propers) enjoys over "how it is sung" needs addresses. His assertion supports my own, that the manner in which the "what is sung" options are listed in the GIRM is much stronger than the options for "how it is sung". I haven't heard Todd respond to this yet. It seems to me that those who would fight to emphasize the Propers would respond to the options for how they are to be sung and the option for congregational participation with , "Great – if the congregation can learn it, by all means let them sing!" Todd seems to be saying, though please correct me if I am wrong, that both of the "top priorities" in the GIRM cannot be simultaneously held, so he is going to emphasize the listing on how things are to be sung over the listing of what is sung … at which point we return to Adam's comment.

  15. Perhaps the Church in America had a different general custom for the 4 hymn sandwich during a Low Mass, making the issue a regional practice. The Low Masses at least in many French Canadian and Irish churches in Montreal just before the Council did not have this 4 hymn sandwich. However, even the smallest churches would have High Masses on Sundays, towards which most of the musical effort of the parish was directed. Nevertheless, after the Council, the 4 hymn vernacular sandwich became ubiquitous.

  16. My octogenarian parents will attest to the prevalance of the 4 hymn sandwich at Low Mass in Connecticut and NY in the preconciliar period.

    Anyway, I have two thoughts about the tussle here over What The Documents Say:

    1. People who are not lawyers might play them on TV but should not do so in parish liturgical ministry. Heck, even people who are lawyers should avoid that.

    2. I think there are unresolved tensions with the governing documents that cannot be neatly resolved on a uniform basis by appeal to higher principle. And, here's my startling surmise: that this is somewhat deliberate. Everyone assumes that Rome's implementation of the liturgical reform would have a uniform hermeneutic of implementation in all liturgies. And I believe that assumption is flawed. After all the years of immersing myself in the documents and praxis, I've come increasingly to embrace the assumption that the unresolved tensions in the documents are the work of the Spirit, allowing us to test over time and across space different approaches to what might be called best practices.

    3. I think that the implementation of the goals in the documents need to be evaluated not on a liturgy-by-liturgy basis but over time for a given worshiping congregation (by which I would mean, in typical First World praxis where there are multiple parochial Masses that tend to attract a stable core of attendees, for each gathered worshipping group from week to week). To employ a metaphor: More like a movie than a photo.

    4. That said, people relied a lot on hammering at parts of the norms need to be better prepared to deal with dealing with norms that are in tension with the norms they hammer away at. Perhaps this might cause them to be less tempted to play lawyer. Many of my interventions on authority interpretation issues are in service of this realization….

  17. Jake, my observation with GIRM 48 is that it addresses who sings first, before what is sung. Even so, I think the first priority of who (people and choir) aligns well with what (propers). Either the people sing a simple refrain and the choir takes the verses, or the people chant the verses to a tone and the choir does the antiphon maybe/probably in Latin.

    I agree with Liam's points, especially that the ambiguity in the documents is deliberate. The real goal is not a "correct" liturgy, but a fruitful one. And I mean fruitful in the sense of the spiritual life of the particular faith community.

    My parish utilizes the proper antiphons and psalms during times of the liturgical year when these Scriptures enhance the Liturgy of the Word. I'm not convinced that a repertoire-of-the-week model of psalms and antiphons is *always* going to be an improvement over songs and hymns.

  18. Dear Friends,

    I am just confused reading all of this. I am a young man in charge of a parish music program and I just am looking for a clear directive of what we should sing at Mass. Are the proper preferred? If so, how and what setting? Or are hymns ok? Please help.



  19. yes, but some insist just the opposite, that hymns are preferred to the propers, because that's what they want.

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