Monday, October 4, 2010

Introducing Propers to the Parish

My parish, at which I am the Director of Music, is about a year and a half into the project of introducing the sung processional propers of the Mass. The entrance and communion antiphon texts are routinely sung at virtually every liturgy at this point, but they have been slowly introduced in gradual and clever ways, and we certainly have much room to grow.

We began essentially with two options: either Fr. Columba Kelly's antiphons, or the antiphon text sung to one of Fr. Weber's psalm tones. In case the singers weren't able to grasp quickly enough the Kelly antiphon, we had a pointed text ready to fall back on with a psalm tone. I also reinforced the learning of the Weber tones by using them with the Responsorial Psalm and the Gospel Verse each week.

I learned very quickly that the Kelly introits were far too complicated for most of my singers, most of whom where very unfamiliar with the chanted style. We did try a few of the simpler introit settings, but they were rarely successful, and a few of them definitely bombed in liturgy! Needless to say, this was not a practice that encouraged us on in our journey, so we quickly defaulted to the psalm tone setting, even though this approach is so simple that it hardly seemed effective (the antiphon text was sung once, after a hymn).

After several months our parish adult choir began to get pretty comfortable with singing the Kelly communion chants, and I began pointing psalm verses for a cantor to sing in between repetitions of the antiphon. Because these are mostly syllabic, and short, they offered a great likelihood of success, although I sensed that many of the singers became frustrated that we would spend 20 minutes of rehearsal time polishing a chant that we might not see again possibly for another 3 years! At this point, though, most of our singers are familiar enough with the chanted style to sing the Kelly communions without too much difficulty, with success, and with joy.

After a year and a half of singing these proper texts week in and week out with a typical parish choir and cantors (even the "contemporary ensemble" sings them!) I would like to report that the Communion has taken hold very nicely, and has been integrated into the fabric of parish life with great success. We have smooth and clear waters ahead of us for the singing of more elaborate settings.

I cannot say that the introit has been equally successful. A part of this is its placement on the tail end of a hymn, and its lack of psalm verses. The not-too-distant goal is to sing the hymn and then sing a full introit that covers the liturgical action (procession), but even this is quite a journey for a parish that was singing 'Gather Us In' two years ago. Time will tell.

But just recently we made a major breakthrough in our singing of the introit. We've begun to sing the "Simple Propers" introits that have been posted on the Chant Café over the past weeks, and they have been the biggest blessing to my parish choir and cantors.

Here's a quick vignette that illustrates the point:

Two weeks ago the Adult Choir, just back from summer vacation, and with about 15 new singers on board, sang this antiphon, which is from the "Simple Propers" project:

For those of you who can't read this score very well, simply notice the heavy use of "reciting tones", i.e. repetitions of the same pitch over and over again in a phrase, but also notice interesting shapes at the beginnings and ends of the phrases. The overall shape of the antiphon is very "Gregorian" in that it has contour, rise and fall, and is deeply rooted in the conventions of Gregorian "mode 4".

Coincidentally, that same week we sang the Kelly Communion, which looks like this:

Notice that although this antiphon does not use "reciting notes", the melody has generally the same melodic shape as the introit above. It only took me a second to realize that I had actually based the "melodic formula" used in the introit on this very antiphon several weeks before! (btw, I'm the editor of the "Simple Propers" project) If you are able to sing through these two examples you will see that they they have integrity individually, but they use many of the same elements of the "Gregorian compositional language", which Fr. Columba Kelly, my chant mentor, understands so intimately and employs so well.

Well, just this morning, the same choir sang this antiphon at the entrance:

Note that this is the same "mode 4" melodic formula used in the first example, as set to a different text. Even if you don't read chant notation very well, you can see the similarities. Notice the contours and ends of each phrase–the intonations and terminations are applied systematically to the text, taking into account the accent patterns in the English text.

When we sang this at choir rehearsal on Wednesday night, all were overjoyed, because they already knew the introit, although they had never sung it before! All sang it almost instantly, with confidence and assurance, and we spent a few minutes on it and moved on. When sung in liturgy the antiphon setting sounded even better than it did two weeks ago, because there was a greater lived familiarity. The cantors who sang it at the Saturday evening vigil Mass were even more spectacular. They were able to add expressive nuance to the text that just made it sail to the heavens, it was breathtaking. I'm sure that the next time we use this formula, even with yet another text, the results will be even better.

The point in this illustration is simple: I have found that, among the many complex factors involved, perhaps the single most important factor in introducing propers to the parish is singing them with success–it is consistently singing them well, in whatever musical setting they might employ. This accomplishes many goals: It encourages, not discourages singers–the last thing I want to do, I have found, is to bite off more than we can chew, spend enormous amounts of time in preparation, and then botch the introit in liturgy. This is depressing for everyone, most notably the singers who work so hard to make it a success. Singing successfully also helps with the formation of the parishioners. If the choir is struggling to sing the introit week after week, singing wrong notes, dragging at an unbearable tempo, false or late starts, and the list goes on, the parishioners are going to be confused and they are going to form or reinforce a negative association with the propers and with chant, which is the last thing that I want to happen, and this is not the kind of activity we want to have happening at the very beginning of Mass! Singing the propers with success builds momentum. It opens the way for the propers to become a part of the fabric of the parish's liturgical life, not a botched experiment during Advent a few years ago. Successful singing of simple propers paves the way for a joyful exploration of the treasures of the Church's tradition down the road. Singing with success makes everyone happy, including the pastor!

If we can sing the propers successfully from the get-go, it seems that the possibilities will be great. If we don't begin with success, but try to get by week to week, singing music that is too much for our singers, habitually singing poorly, hoping that things will improve at some point down the road, I fear that we could be doing much more damage than we are doing good, setting ourselves up for more failure, not more success.

At least this has been my experience after a year and a half of working to bring the propers back into ordinary parish life.

What has been your experience? I would love to hear your stories in the comment box. We can surely all learn from each other's experiences, and also help inform those who would also like to implement the singing of propers in their own parishes.
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